Is the Hollywood Epic Dead?

With Ben-Hur crashing out of the gate, are Hollywood epics, biblical or otherwise, becoming extinct? Well...

Guys, we need to talk about Hollywood epics. Whether it’s day or night, biblical or secular, this classic Hollywood genre might be having a bit of a problem. In case you haven’t heard—and judging by the box office receipts that’s a fair bet—the Ben-Hur remake opened this weekend to anemic reviews and catastrophic apathy, only grossing $11.2 million when it debuted in sixth.

I think it’s safe to say this one is in no danger of repeating the 11 Oscars earned by its 1959 forebearer.

This is the kind of apocalyptic number that will likely ruin careers, alter assumed industry wisdom, and cause a whole lot of navel-gazing in Tinseltown. Ben-Hur, like Ghostbusters earlier this year, is a remake of a beloved classic… but one that most audiences under the age of 35 have probably never seen. It couldn’t possibly have the level of animosity reserved for Sony’s spectral reboot. It also enjoyed the rubber stamp of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, the husband and wife executive producing team that evangelicals supposedly love.

After all, the faithful tuned into their hideous History Channel miniseries, The Bible, and then turned up in relatively large numbers at theaters when the same material was repackaged into a creatively DOA cash grab called Son of God. Additionally, Ben-Hur is more mainstream than either since it was embracing the aesthetics of what only 15 years ago was box office and Oscar gold, as seen with pictures like Gladiator (2000) and Braveheart (1995).

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To paraphrase plenty of Paramount executives this weekend: how the hell did this happen?! And has the Hollywood epic, which goes back to the very beginning of the American movie industry, at last had the final nail hammered into its palm?

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The Downfall of the Biblical Epic

First, it is important to distinguish the two aspects of this genre, which Ben-Hur in 2016 tried unsuccessfully to bridge: there is a difference in standards and expectations between biblical epics and simply old-fashioned, gaudy spectacles.

Several years ago, I wrote a piece about “The Resurrection of the Biblical Epic.” It is safe to say that the genre, or really subgenre, has been put back in the cave with little hope of seeing the boulder move anytime soon. Yet, it still feels like a missed opportunity that Hollywood was never able to convince moviegoers of their belief.

The original biblical epic was probably D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1917), a semi mea culpa, at least in terms of publicity, by the legendary filmmaker for making 1915’s historically important but morally repugnant Birth of a Nation. Perplexed that he was accused of being a racist for making a movie that glorified the KKK as a force of good in the world, Griffith made Intolerance as a triptych of narratives about the dangers of prejudice, including the horrors suffered by Jesus Christ at the hands of uncaring Romans.

Afterward, biblical epics of various levels of piety became vast. Cecil B. DeMille, the son of a Southern Episcopal playwright and local church lay reader, loved two things: the Bible and half-naked women. Thus he often combined the two in his lustful biblical epics of the ‘20s and ‘30s, including most memorably 1934’s The Sign of the Cross, which featured implied homosexuality, bestiality, and all sorts of nefariousness that hastened the rise of censorship in Hollywood. Meanwhile, there were filmmakers like Michael Curtiz, who would go on to make The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942), for whom the style was a foot in the door with projects like Noah’s Ark (1928), which is now mostly remembered for causing a studio flood that drowned three extras—and almost took a not-yet-famous John Wayne with them!

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All of this is crucial for today, because Hollywood essentially tried to repeat itself almost a century later when The Passion of the Christ became an unexpected worldwide phenomenon. Filmed in Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew, Mel Gibson’s modestly budgeted passion play about the last days of Christ was a stunning success in 2004. At a cost of only $30 million, it made $612 million in return. All of Hollywood wanted in on tapping into the evangelical market that went literally by the busload to see Jesus get tortured for two hours like it was an unofficial Saw sequel. Gibson, before being banished from Hollywood, was still a popular movie star who had met with church leaders individually to explain his film, and they by turn took their entire congregations to the very hard-R film.

Still, the epic was starting to become a riskier proposition in the mid-2000s (as we’ll get to in a moment), so studios remained a bit shy until they saw evangelicals were turning up for aforementioned Burnett and Downey projects.

Only then did Hollywood essentially try to recreate the hype for biblical epics from the early 20th century and their resurgence in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Like now, many of these films were made by secular filmmakers, even if they were adapting New Testament stories, and many more were produced by people whose only denomination was the money. Few of them were truly biblically accurate, and only DeMille would insist upon such a pretense for his ponderous camp classic, The Ten Commandments (1956). Otherwise, we wound up with movies like Salome (1953), which turns one of the New Testament’s villains into a misunderstood heroine who danced the Seven Veils to save John the Baptist’s life. Because come on, who can hate Rita Hayworth?

Similarly, the 2010s have seen three different takes on the biblical epic each come short. The first is Noah (2014), a movie that used the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis more like guidelines than actual gospel. Darren Aronofsky combined the story of the flood with that of Abraham, included fallen angels from ancient Hebrew (and non-canonical) texts, and generally implied evolution and the Big Bang Theory are part of Genesis. Needless to say, doctrinaire Christians were not a-might bit pleased, even if the film starred “Gladiator” and added young pretty things like Emma Watson to a boys-club story (also out of old Hollywood’s playbook).

Next came Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) from the director of Gladiator and starring Batman. It also was made by a filmmaker of modern skepticism who visualized the plagues as natural disasters; the parting the Red Sea, which was so grandiose in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, is now a tsunami here. Similarly, Christian Bale’s Moses talked to a God who looked an awful lot like a small child. In other words, it wasn’t going to appeal to those who valued the Book of Exodus as scripture (much less those who know ancient Egyptians did not look like Joel Edgerton).

Thus Ben-Hur attempted to succeed where Exodus and Noah failed by bridging the gap between faith-based viewers and general moviegoers. Here, is a biblical epic that is meant to be devout with Burnett and Downey onboard while also secular with its magnificent CGI effects in the chariot race. It is supposed to appeal to a wider audience since the Christians that turned up for Passion of the Christ should be satisfied while, like the epics of the past, this one would appeal to a broader demographic. Like how William Wyler’s Ben-Hur was welcomed in ’59, this would be the best of both worlds.

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The problem is the market has changed in the last 10 years since Passion came out, and epics are now a tough sell all-around, and those who do not view their entertainment through a religious prism were never going to enjoy a sermon. In essence, the 2016 Ben-Hur alienated a larger audience for a smaller one that is still skeptical about blockbuster action feigning holiness.

The Hollywood Epic in Limbo

In contrast, upon its release, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur was considered one of the greatest movie spectacles ever conceived. While the 1880 novel, with the subtitle “A Tale of the Christ,” was adapted previously to marvelous effect in 1925, Wyler’s newer take stunned with the life-size replica of a chariot circus rebuilt in Italy, and for all its staggering and oversized stunts. Wyler often quipped that it took a Jew to finally make a good movie about Christ.

But the joke is not entirely inaccurate. Ben-Hur is often just as much considered a straight-ahead epic about revenge and chariot races as it is considered a denominational peer to Charlton Heston’s other biblical vehicle, The Ten Commandments. In his commentary track on the Ben-Hur trailer, John Landis rather saliently surmised, “It’s not stupid, which is really hard to do… it’s not as camp as DeMille’s Ten Commandments, and I think that’s because Wyler was more intellectual.” However, it is also because the film didn’t treat itself like the word of God, even though Jesus Christ is featured occasionally in it. Ben-Hur could just as easily be seen as a contemporary to Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) or Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961)—movies that didn’t make you feel like you were in a lurid Sunday School.

The classic epic, which also goes back to Griffith, has much more successfully returned in the 21st century. Also like Passion of the Christ, this broader style, be it “swords and sandals” or simply medieval, owes something of its resurgence to Mel Gibson. With 1995’s Braveheart, Gibson loosely reimagined the legend of William Wallace and the fight for Scottish independence as a grand and gory classic. But as lush as James Horner’s score was for that movie, Gibson was working with limited means by revisiting a style that had gone dormant in the ‘70s. However, he did pave the way for the extravagant Gladiator in 2000, which is still one of Ridley Scott’s greatest achievements.

Essentially a remake of the monumentally-sized (and terminally leaden) The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Gladiator is much more manageable in its focus than most epics; it’s the deceptively simple tale of a Roman general becoming an athletic star in the arena, which gives him the opportunity to kill the spiteful Commodus in revenge. Also unlike Roman Empire, Gladiator is a masterpiece that modernized the classic form by using CGI instead of matte paintings and added something the old Hollywood epics could not: gore. Suddenly, the sword and sandals epics were allowed to be as graphic and sensual as their Italian and Spanish knockoffs from the mid-century, and for American audiences, the advances in CG-technology as showcased in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy meant that old school spectacles could be reinvented with new, bloody visceral action.

However, few of the films that followed Gladiator were able to emulate its success despite audience hunger. The one clear hit is Troy, which is the most literal in redoing old Hollywood glitz. Like those older Hollywood epics, the dialogue isn’t anything noteworthy, and it told the Trojan War saga with a flagrant disregard for the actual mythology—this epic conflict lasts for all of three weeks and there are no gods cheering in the bleachers—but it has plenty of love for its own Hollywood mythmaking. Big sets, big stunts, and big numbers of extras, both real and digitized, overwhelm the screen. The movie, directed by German Wolfgang Petersen, also had the European sensibility often denied to classic Hollywood epics with plenty of shots of gore and copious amounts of glistening, naked movie star bodies.

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Troy made $500 million worldwide, but in 2004 that was already starting to seem less impressive when the PG-13 Spider-Man 2 relied on a much more recent mythology and grossed close to $800 million. In the following years, there has been no classical Hollywood epic that has even come close to that. Not Alexander ($167 million worldwide), not Disney’s Braveheart-ized King Arthur ($203 million worldwide), nor Ridley Scott’s own Gladiator-ified Robin Hood ($321 million worldwide), and certainly not this year’s Ben-Hur redo that will be lucky to cross $100 million worldwide on its $100 million budget.

The only success in the genre has been 300 (2007), which was also nearly a decade ago and was considered unique because it didn’t cost a mint to produce at $65 million. The funds were saved due to its all-CGI sets, lighting, and a largely video game aesthetic.

A contributing factor to this change is shifting audience tastes. With the advent of CGI now allowing major armies to battle in ways that studios could again afford for the first time since the 1960s, the idea of an ancient world war epic seemed fresh, and the lack of censorship allowed audiences to see Russell Crowe behead his opponents and Brad Pitt or Diana Kruger strip down to nothing. However, that R-rating limit in itself indicates this material remains primarily an adult fantasy, and audiences increasingly only want to pay for more adolescent, all-family spectacles. Why make an R-rated film where men barbarically slaughter each other and women are usually left to only watch from the sidelines and cry useless tears when all demographics can be represented in stories about superheroes flying?

Meanwhile, adults less want to pay for fantasies geared toward more mature problems (even if buried under hefty amounts of cheese) when they can get the kind that remind them of what it was like to be a child.

In other words, superheroes are a more accessible distraction for all audiences, and make a whole lot more money. Additionally, television has picked up the slack with series like Rome and Game of Thrones carrying on the torch of epic storytelling. Many initially compared the latter HBO juggernaut to Lord of the Rings, but it is closer to the humanist decadence of Scott’s Gladiator (Steven Spielberg called the epic an opera with gore instead of singing) and the adult-oriented eye candy of Troy (which David Benioff also wrote) than a world where Orcs and Elves fight wizards.

If audience tastes are pushing the epic form, with its long running times, need to focus on mature (read: over the age of 30) actors, and excessive violence, toward television, that leaves very little chance for epics, be they Robin Hood or Noah, to do for Russell Crowe what Gladiator did. And thus Hollywood’s desire to cross-pollinate the evangelical audience with the secular might be moot in 2016, thereby dooming antiquated favorites like Ben-Hur.

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… Then again, it should be pointed out that the last truly great epic was Gladiator. All of the other ones that have flopped, be they Alexander, King Arthur, or that wretched idea of a Ben-Hur remake? Horrible. The only exception has been Ridley Scott’s underrated gem, Kingdom of Heaven. The director’s cut of that film is a fantastic achievement that overcame a miscast lead actor by placing a stunning ensemble around him, along with an intricately scripted world of moral relativism and a Renaissance master’s eye for medieval pageantry.

Yet even there, the theatrical cut for Kingdom of Heaven was so cut down and edited to pieces—it removed over 45 minutes of character development and world-building—that it is little wonder the version in theaters was treated with the same broad brush by critics and moviegoers.

Maybe we haven’t had an epic hit in 12 years, because there hasn’t been a good one (at least theatrically) in nearly as long?

The biblical epic will probably not be rising again anytime soon after three strikes in two years (though small-budgeted faith-based movies will continue). But the Hollywood epic? It’s just waiting for its next Braveheart to reinvigorate the form again. And hey, Mel Gibson is once again directing movies…