1960s epic movies; The Blockbuster Era begins

In the 1960s there were a great bunch of movies that were big stories, and big deals with the public. They weren’t the first big movies, not by a long shot, but they were key pieces of a pivotal time as Western Culture flourished after the rebuilding from WWII. Both as a group, and individually, the making of these epic movies permanently changed the way Hollywood, and the world, made movies and did the entertainment business.

They were big on the screen, too, using new filming equipment and processes to fill wider screens than ever before, such as Todd-AO and Cinerama. To show these films, cinemas had to be built with wider screens having the curved surface that was needed. All of this meant that money was spent on new buildings, cameras, projectors and processes to give the audience the modernized experience they wanted. All of this pushed movie making forward, though sadly little of it remains to this day.

It started with “Ben Hur”, just as the ‘60s dawned. Here was drama, action and strength, from a history so distant that the story could just about be believed! Realism was taken to an extreme end at the zenith of the movie’s action, when one of the charioteers reportedly did meet his death (I think I’ve seen it!) during the race at the Circus Maximus! This film, like the rest of this group, had an outsized influence on both audience and the industry. Not only did they become legendary, but filmmakers – contemporary and for following generations – were deeply influenced by many cinematic aspects of these epics. They are still a big deal, influencing cinematic trends, history and the current crop of films which we’re watching today!

Along came “Cleopatra”, the queen of them all! This movie had it all: a famous real basis, beauty, love, war, treachery, drama, size, length, hyper-famous stars – Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, director – Joseph L. Mankiewitz – and studio, controversy, and ultimately – nearly a commercial failure! If only 20th Century Fox could have gotten a buck for every gossipy conversation started about the film’s rumor and scandal, they would have laughed it all off!

That’s not to say that epic predecessors like “Intolerance” and “Gone with the Wind” hadn’t had their stars or their risks. But an epic could spell ‘$ucce$$’ for a the producers, and also garner loads of Oscars in March. However, having gotten hit badly, 20th nearly tumbled, and early fell. This would happen again, with Columbia swinging for the fence on Ishtar in 1987, committing a gross error, with the ultimate result that Columbia was devalued to a bargain, and was first put on hold by it’s buyer, and then sold in the two years afterwards.

In keeping with the theme of Middle Eastern conflicts, but bringing the time-frame into the immediately preceding modern day, “Lawrence of Arabia” was also based in fact, and broadly dramatized by expert acting and film-making to properly relate the heroics of the day. One of the only epics with an intermission at most showings, its running time was much of a day. To say that one was left a bit washed-out at the end of this movie was not an exaggeration, but the grandeur wiped away any negative feelings, leaving viewers in awe of the events and in love with the hero.

Then came the sweep of the American nation, by now well settled into enjoying the afterglow of victory, and seeing commercial successes at home and abroad that gave people a new national pride. What better time to give a rosy treatment to the can-do spirit of the pioneers of the American West? In telling their story about “How the West was Won”, these famous creative people mixed horse-opera Westerns with gritty drama and captured the imagination of the nation, though not the world, for here was a successful American movie that nobody outside of the USA seems to have been interested in watching. That was unusual, as most of these epics played well to the international audience, which at the time largely meant Europe.

Speaking of that victory, the only 60s epic that was directly about that victory was “The Longest Day”, one of the key films that rescued 20th studios, and kept them alive to produce fabulous films in future decades. With a huge cast of stars, big budget, and an accurate history, this hard-bitten war film set the stage for future films about modern wars to include the mistakes and losses as they really happened. Without the agenda of prior war epics, such as “All’s Quiet on the Western Front”, this film followed the victors of that crucial battle from preparation through to their success. It was also a success for the studio, which had been teetering on the edge of failure until this following group of films restored solvency.

“Dr. Zhivago” was sweeping in both visual and emotional ways, leading us through the joys and anguish of love that was to die for in a world tilting towards violent change. The soundtrack was syrupy sweet and hauntingly pretty, and you had to be affected by it, even if you could see it all coming. This was love and hope written large across the screen, your eyes and ears, and your heart!

As the 1960s traversed a social development arc from the buttoned-down order of the 1950s to the turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s, a wacky note was struck in popular culture with the most important epic comedy of the era, “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”. While showcasing many of the older comedy stars for their last time, this three-hour madcap adventure actually made audiences sides hurt with continuous laughter from the insane verbal, sight-gag, vaudeville and situational comedy they presented. Truly a masterwork, it pulled out all the stops, orchestrating an unending procession of the best comedy from the best comedians in the business, and used cinematic technologies and special effects worthy of any serious epic film to add to the fun.

The epics of the 60s were mostly bunched towards the beginning of the decade, with “2001” being the bookend in 1968, and what a finisher it was! There had not been a science-fiction piece like this in the history of the world, and it was written, shot and scored like few films have dared to be, before or since. Dialog was kept to a minimum, and the film was as much of an ‘image poem’ as the signature musical piece, ‘Thus sprach Zarathustra’ was a tone poem. Here was a film which communicated principally through image and score, much like a silent from many decades previously would have done. When there was dialog, it had greater impact, accentuating the meaning, giving more force to the verbal exchanges – and computer voicing.

It took two of the greatest creative minds in the world four years to complete. Director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke happily stayed the course together, which was enough of a wonder, given that they were each at the height of their powers.

Kubrick’s innovations led to brilliantly clear imagery that was strongly etched into the public’s consciousness, showing us the meanings rather than telling us every notion of the piece. It was precisely that non-verbal ambiguity that gave the movie it’s appeal – it could mean what people wanted it to mean, leading people to think deeply and enduringly about it.

These movies were commercial successes, (except that Cleopatra suffered such heavy production budget overruns that even a big box office could not bring it into the black) and that is part of their legacy. Popularity with the public led the industry to follow their collective lead, and a trend developed wherein the blockbuster was sought-after as an indicator of strength and success in the increasingly competitive entertainment market.

More epic films, and the rise of the blockbuster series film franchises would follow in the decades to come. All of them would owe debts to the epics of the 1960s for breaking new technical and thematic ground while becoming embedded in the popular culture of the times, the DNA of the business, and the structure of the industry.

Filmography of 1960s epic films:

Ben Hur


Lawrence of Arabia

How the West was won

The Longest Day

Dr. Zhivago

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World


©David C.P. Leland, CultureFaces, All rights reserved.

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