Weekend Roundtable: Best & Worst Epic Movies

Hugely complicated, elaborate and above all expensive, Hollywood loves to make epic movies with lavish production values and a proverbial (sometimes literal) cast of thousands. As Ridley Scott brings ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ to screen, this week’s Roundtable will look at some of the best and worst epics of the past.

Shannon Nutt

Best: I don’t think there’s any beating 1959’s ‘Ben-Hur‘ when it comes to scope and spectacle. Of course, it also helps that the film is a very good story, with the legendary Charlton Heston playing the lead role as a Jewish prince who’s sent into slavery by the Romans, only to return seeking revenge year later (and to participate in the greatest chariot race ever put on film… not that there have been a lot of those!). Many forget that ‘Ben-Hur’ is actually a remake of an earlier movie made in 1925. Yep, that’s right… one of the greatest (and most-awarded) movies ever is a reboot!

Worst: Things don’t get any soggier than Kevin Costner’s 1995 ‘Waterworld‘, a movie that actually wound up turning a profit thanks to its foreign box office take, but one that holds the dubious distinction of being the only theatrical film I’ve ever walked out on (barring sickness or another emergency). For those about to protest, yes I did watch it again on video to see if it got any better – and no, it didn’t. The movie is big and loud, with laughably bad dialogue, over-the-top acting, and is all in all just a colossal bore. I realize it’s been redeemed a little over the years and gained somewhat of a cult following, but I have no intention of watching ‘Waterworld’ a third time just to see if my opinion may have changed. It will always be a reminder of one of my least-enjoyable experiences watching a film.

Luke Hickman

Best: I loved how the ‘Lord of the Rings‘ trilogy brought back the grand scale epic film. While Peter Jackson composed scenes involving countless extras in full costume, he also created high quality CGI to show the grand battle sequences from a distance. The result was amazing. However, it also spurred a slew of groan-worthy epic movies to follow.

Worst: The worst was ‘Troy‘. Actors and filmmakers that I usually enjoy couldn’t make a positive dent in the suckiness that ensued. Terrible FX. Ineffective battle sequences. Two-dimensional characters. I don’t have a positive thing to say about it.

M. Enois Duarte

Best: Although not as long as some of your typical epics, I would say that Michael Mann’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans‘ is one of the very best historical epics ever made. With stunning, lush cinematography and emotionally inspiring music, the adaptation is also one of those rare miracles that surpasses the book, even improving upon its plot. It’s a fantastic film in its own right, and ranks as one of my favorites within its genre.

Worst: My pick for worst will have to go to M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Last Airbender‘. A big chunk of my disapproval comes from the casting of the main protagonists with entirely Caucasian actors, while the villains are played by Asians. I’ve never even watched the original cartoon (where both heroes and villains are all Asian), yet that little tidbit made question what the hell the filmmakers were thinking. The story and plot are also terrible, failing at every turn to engage viewers while bombarding them with pretty CGI visuals to distract from the god-awful acting. Overall, it’s just bad, bad, bad.

Brian Hoss

Best: I might have a slippery definition of “epic” in mind, but Sergio Leone’s ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly‘ is a mesmerizing film that introduces an idea of being part of (some version of) the American Civil War on a large scale. Though the movie is packed with intimate scenes, forays by Union and Confederate troops bring into view a whole war with casualties, brutality and insanity to spare. The infamous bridge scene effectively ends that aspect of the movie, yet I’m not sure I could ever ask for a better epic.

Worst: With Martin Scorsese, Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio headlining, how could ‘Gangs of New York‘ be anything short of a masterpiece? Turns out, it’s all too easy. Cinema is packed with love letters to New York City, but I found ‘Gangs of New York’ to be a mess from beginning to end. In spite of the lavish production and a whole heap of historical license, the film is very unfocused. By the time the outrageous naval bombardment occurred, it was clear that the movie best be forgotten.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

Best: When I first saw the trailer for ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’, I was fascinated by its imagery of the parting of the Red Sea. I don’t mean that in quite the way you might expect, though. It doesn’t matter how much silicon horsepower or digital artistry are behind what’s certain to be the centerpiece of Ridley Scott’s take on the story of Moses. What little I glimpsed had no hope of capturing my imagination anywhere near as deeply as Cecil B. DeMille and company had with ‘The Ten Commandments‘, regardless of how visual effects have advanced in the nearly six decades separating these films.

I’m not blind to the film’s missteps. The dialogue too often creaks and groans, a number of its most ambitious effects shots have aged poorly, and more than a couple of performances veer dangerously towards camp. ‘Ben-Hur’ is the superior work in so many ways, but ‘The Ten Commandments’ will always be my sentimental favorite. It boasts a scale and scope that precious few films of any era can match. Every last facet of ‘The Ten Commandments’ is staggering in size: its lavish production design, one iconic visual after another, what very well may be a cast of thousands and, yes, even the larger than life acting. There’s a level of spectacle that’s wholly entrancing, and I often find myself taken by its sincerity. Its message is pure and simple, revolving around responsibility, loyalty, sacrifice, freedom and the power of good over evil. I’m convinced that everyone on both sides of the camera strongly believes every last word of it. That pure-hearted spirit and lack of cynicism can’t help but warm my heart. Charlton Heston brings Moses to life as a square-jawed hero, and his somewhat grounded approach helps anchor the more operatic performances around him.

I can (and have) written many thousands of words about ‘The Ten Commandments’, but the short version is that when I hear the word “epic,” it is and will forever remain the first film that springs to mind. Too often in these Roundtables, I’ll write about movies that have gotten short thrift on video or haven’t bowed in high definition at all. I’m pleased to say that this is not at all the case with ‘The Ten Commandments’, which Paramount lavished with an extraordinary six-disc collector’s edition a few years back, complete with one of the most surreally gorgeous restorations I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. I know it’s considered more of an Easter mainstay, but if you haven’t caught the ‘Ten Commandments’ on Blu-ray, I’d argue that now is as good a time as any.

Josh Zyber

Best: Honestly, I was so certain that someone before me would pick ‘Lawrence of Arabia‘ that I focused on a different movie instead. Apparently, everyone else assumed the same. Well, I can’t let David Lean’s amazing historical adventure go unacknowledged, but calling it an Honorable Mention seems so insufficient. So, we’ll just say that it’s simply a given for this topic. ‘Lawrence’ is a towering achievement of cinema.

Meanwhile, ‘Gone with the Wind‘ is no slouch either. Everything about the film exists on a scale almost beyond belief: the epic sweep of its story, the enormous expense and magnitude of its production, its staggering length, its extraordinary success, and its reputation as one of the greatest classics from Hollywood’s Golden Era. Could any movie possibly live up to the burden of such expectations? Amazingly, yes. The most impressive thing about the film is that, once you settle in, its four-hour length just flies by. At its heart, it’s simply the greatest soap opera ever made, with juicy characters, crackling dialogue, scandal and intrigue, love triangles, betrayal, revenge, loss, despair and triumph. All are told with searing emotions, dramatized by a fabulous cast and astounding production values. This is melodrama elevated to art.

Worst: Yeah, I’m the guy who thinks ‘Gladiator’ sucks a big smelly turdsicle. I’m aware that this is not a popular opinion. Can we still be friends anyway?

What are your picks for best and worst epic movies? Tell us in the Comments.


    • Pedram

      Not sure if you were joking or not, but I quite liked it as well. It had a pretty large and ambitious scale to be sure. I hope the 4th film will return to that scale and give the series a good conclusion.

  1. carg0

    Gladiator is hands-down the worst ‘recent’ epic movie to date. i mean, im glad for what it did for Crowe’s career but that movie was garbage. u couldn’t pay me to sit through it again, lol.

    • Chris B

      Even though Gibson is a nutball, I remember Braveheart blowing my mind when I saw it as a young teenager. FREEDOOOOOMMMM!!!!! *ahem* I’ve heard after the movie came out they actually erected a statue of William Wallace as a tribute somewhere in Scotland. I also hear it looks exactly like Mel Gibson. Lol

      I think Lawrence of Arabia is one of the most boring goddamn movies ever…and Gladiator is badass…to each their own. *shrugs*

      • The lookalike statue which was in the car park at the nearly 150 year old Wallace Monument not long after the movie was released. It was returned to the sculptor 5 years ago when a new visitors centre was being built. It was a marmite statue.

        I do like the Lean classic movies but I also thought that The Gang of New York wasn’t very good. I thought the worst thing in it was Daniel Day-Lewis, I thought he was doing the Joey smell-a-fart acting throughout!

  2. Timcharger

    The thing about Gladiator is that the lines have stuck with me:

    My name is Maximus… I will have vengeance in this life or the next!
    3 weeks from now I will be harvesting my crops… what we do in life, echoes in eternity!
    (saved myself some typing, but the complete lines are stuck in my head)

    I get why the film gets struck down, but the language and lines were great.

    And just thinking about the lines, I can hear the music of the film.
    The score was great, too.

    • timcharger

      Sorry to break this news to you. Despite the U.S. behavior of running a military empire (troops still in places due to WW2 70 years ago), Gladiator is about the Roman Empire.

      Josh is still American despite not pledging allegiance to Gladiator.

  3. Chris B

    I must say I’m surprised Josh, I thought for sure you’d launch into a passionate defense of Oliver Stone’s Alexander…

      • William Henley

        Well, it was an “epic failure”, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad movie. 😉 I did mention it below, I hated the movie the first several times I saw it, and it wasn’t until I read the book that I really like it. I mean, if you have a three hour long movie, and to be able to understand it, you have to first read either a 700 page book or watch the 4 and a half hour long miniseries that came out 18 years later, you have an issue.

        But I do love the movie now, but there is no question that it was a huge bomb. I mean, the movie made $30 million at the box office, but cost $40 million to make. That is the very definition of an epic failure

        • William Henley

          *15 years later – I fat-fingered in my typing. Children of Dune was 18 years later… Well, actually, more like 16 and 19. Whatever. close enough, right?

  4. I didn’t know there were so many Gladi-haters out there. I myself love it. It’s hard to pick a favorite among so many epic movies. I really enjoy Kingdom of Heaven extended version. Say what you will about Sir Ridley, but he has an amazing eye for these old fashioned sword clanging epics. He makes all that brutality look elegant.
    As far as bad epic movies, I’d have to say Alexander. It isn’t all bad, but it’s more bad than good. A for effort, D for execution. Angelina Jolie playing Colin Farrell’s mom was just stupid. Her accent was so generic. Some times it looked like a made for TV movie even though it had a hefty production budget. The fight choreography was clumsy and confusing. Farrell’s bleach blond mullet is just silly looking. Maybe the market was just too saturated with these bloody sword epics when it came out and it didnt bring anything new to the table.

  5. Ky;

    Not quite a motion picture epic but one heck of a mini-series epic was Jesus of Nazareth. My worst pick would have to be a 3-way tie tie between Heaven’s Gate, Pearl Harbor and Cameron’s Titanic.

  6. Chucky The Trousered Chimp

    My favorite epic is probably between Seven Samurai and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. On any given day I might choose one or I might choose the other, so I’m gonna call it a tie.

    Probably my least favorite epic is The Hobbit trilogy. Sure, there are some blatantly bad films I could choose, like Waterworld, The Postman, or any of the Transformers films, but there’s just something about Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema, and all those who have assembled this trilogy of films that irks me to no end. Maybe it’s the fact that it isn’t even about Bilbo Baggins. Maybe it’s the lack of grit that was prevalent in the original LOTR trilogy. Maybe it’s the excessive and pointless filler. Maybe it’s the sensory overload brought on by the constantly moving camera, the 48fps, and the nearly endless CGI. Maybe it’s the fact it was only made for the sake of money’s sake. Maybe it’s the pretentiousness.

    Although, while neither inherently good or bad, I like to think Lawrence Of Arabia, Spartacus, Gone With The Wind, and The English Patient are overrated beyond all hell. Conversely, Kingdom Of Heaven (Director’s Cut), TaeGukGi: The Brotherhood Of War, and City Of Life And Death are all pretty underrated when it comes to discussions about Epics.

  7. Kraig McGann

    I love 2001: A Space Odyssey and consider it quite epic. It changer forever how serious Science Fiction would be portrayed in every visual medium. I think Gladiator is an incredible film that has been highly influential. How about DANCES WITH WOLVES as the worst epic film? Nice score and cinematography, but everything else was crap. Its painfully overlong original Theatrical Release won the film the Oscar for Best Editing!!!

  8. Ken

    Best: “Lawrence.” No contest.
    Worst: Some truly terrible ones already mentioned, but I have to give a nod to the Elizabeth Taylor “Cleopatra.” And to think Angelina Jolie wanted her own version made.

  9. William Henley

    Okay, I got to throw it out, Interstellar is one of the best. It has everything working for it – end of the world, huge special effects, big budget, three hour long movie, it is just grand in so many ways.

    I also got to agree with Josh’s nomination for Gone With The Wind. This is the top of my list for greatest movie ever made. I adore it.

    I am also surprised no one has menitoned the Star Wars movies. Even with the prequels, you got to admit the scale of these movies are absolutley amazing

    The first Chronicles of Narnia movie.

    Harry Potter and the Prisioner of Azkabahn. The world had already been created in the previous two movies, but the new director took this and turned it into a world that felt real. The scale of the movie is absolutely incredible.

    South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut – yeah, its animated, but come on – Satan and his minions attack earth. Cast of thousands (of animated characters). We go to heaven and hell. Fantastic soundtrack. Take a story you know and make it bigger and grander on every scale, and that is what this movie is.

    The Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

    The Hobbit movies – I love that they took one book and made it three movies. It gives the story a chance to breath and create its world.

    The Neverending Story – I don’t care for this movie myself, but man, talk about ambitious. This should be the go-to movie to see what an epic movie should look and feel like.

    Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader. These movies were just awful. I think the issue is that these books were rather short and had about an hour worth of movie material in them, so they tried to expand the story to fill the time slot. The result was a jumbled mess.

    Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – the result of what happens when you have to thow out 80% of the book to make a 750 page book fit into a three hour long movie

    Star Trek V: The Final Fronteir – If you can look past its flaws, you can see the genius of the actors and Shatner’s directing. The problem is that you have a rushed production on a shoestring budget, with a script that feels like it was hammered out in a week. This movie had great potential, and probably has one of the greatest scenes ever to grace Star Trek in it – the scene with McCoy and his father. If this movie had of been given a longer production schedule (writing, filming, post) and a higher budget, we might be saying that this was the greatest Trek movie ever, instead of the worst.

    I am going to get some slack for this but – Lawrence of Arabia. Now in terms of grandure, the movie excels. The cinematography is amazing. However, it is one of the most boring movies I have ever seen. I could barely get through it the first time, and, while I tried to give it a second chance years later, I couldn’t stand to get through it a second time

    Now, I actually really like this movie, but it has to be said – Dune. I hated this movie the first time I saw it, and the second, and the third. Then I saw the miniseries, and saw the movie again, and thought it was okay. Then I read the book, and ended up really liking the movie. The issue with this movie is that it is next to impossible to understand if you have not read the book. The introduction with the television version really helps, but it is still just very hard to follow. Creating a movie with the assumption that everyone has read the book is dangerous, and this is most likely why the movie is so poorly received. Everyone that I know who likes the movie has also read the book.

    Battlefield Earth – Do I really need to state the reasons? The book was incredible, the movie is like not even the same story.

    Twilight – I was dragged to the first one by goddaughter and to the second by my cousin. For the longest, I refused to see the third, fourth and fifth ones. I was finally talked into giving the books a chance, and actually really liked the books. I tried watching the movies again, and realize what the problem is. The books were told from the first-person view of Bella, who just has this really bleak outlook on life. She is practically emo. She is pretty secluded and doesn’t open up to anyone other than Edward and Jacob, so characters are pretty one dimensional, because she does not really tend to know them. The problem is, that translates really poorly to a movie. Pretty much, it makes a pretty good book (not great, but it was an enjoyable read), but it is horrible source material for a movie.

  10. SasstoMouth

    If it counts I think that Forrest Gump is one of the great epics out there. I also think that Braveheart is one of the best epic films. Personally I think it’s difficult to define what constitutes an “epic”.

    The worst epics, in my opinion, have been the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. I genuinely believe that these films will not stand the test of time, but that might just be wishful thinking from someone who is generally in the minority on these films.

  11. Elizabeth

    I’m going to take this time to espouse my love for James Cameron. The man creates epic, “Event” movies and he mostly delivers. I know probably 90% of the people on this site despise Titanic and 80% probably hate Avatar, but the man has delivered the highest grossing film twice. You can spin those numbers all you want (released during slow movie season, it’s because of the extra cost of 3D seats, blah blah), and you can argue all you want about the cliched plots and clunky dialog (neither of which I deny), but these are absolutely 2 of my most favorite movies ever. They are the only movies I ever felt compelled to go see repeated times; it was only maybe ten minutes into Avatar when I was thinking that I had to see it again.

    Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 1 and 2, True Lies, Titanic, and Avatar. There really isn’t a bad film in the bunch. And all pretty epic in scope. Grrr, they really need to release The Abyss and True Lies on Blu-Ray.

    • I saw ‘Titanic’ for the first time in 2010. I immediately liked it a lot. I have since bought it two times. Once on American LaserDisc, once on French LaserDisc (English audio, French subtitles! Quite unique! No dub!).

  12. cardpetree

    Are we listing movies that aren’t so called “Epics”. Can we get a definition for what exactly is considered an “Epic”?

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