Has the Historical Epic Lost Its Relevance?

The historical/biblical epic seems to be in something of a crisis.  Both Darren Aronovsky’s Noah and Ridley Scott’s Exodus:  Gods and Kings took something of a drumming at the U.S. box office, and the latter was viciously excoriated by the critics.  One cannot help but remember another significant ancient world epic, directed by a very well-known and well-regarded director, that similarly failed to make a box office impression and was also dismissed by many critics.  Oliver Stone’s Alexander, anyone?  It seems reasonable to ask, then:  what went wrong?  How did we go from the likes of Ben-Hur and Gladiator to the relative domestic disappointments of Troy, Alexander and, more recently, Noah and Exodus?  None of these films managed to secure a place in the pantheon of unqualified successes, relegated to pet auteur projects that will always play second (or third) fiddle to their unequivocally successful predecessors.

Of course, it’s hard to say with any certainty what causes particular genres to gain or lose popularity in the popular (and, by extension, critical) consciousness.  I would propose, however, that part of it at least has to do with the vision of history and of historical change that these types of films typically evoke that may be at least partially to blame.  It may well be that the types of historical vision/consciousness these films seek to inspire in their viewers cannot gain, or at any rate is not guaranteed, the cultural and collective psychological purchase it could in those periods when then the genre was at its height (the 1950s and very early 1960s and, in Gladiator’s case, the turn of the millennium).

While the historical/biblical epic is typically seen as a celebration of nationhood, masculinity, and imperialism, these films (and their TV descendants/counterparts), also contain within them a darker note, a strain of what film scholar Robert Burgoyne has termed a counternarrative.  This counternarrative, I would suggest, has a great deal of the melancholy about; a profound sense of loss haunts the epic form.  This is not mere nostalgia, for while this affect does share some of the sadness and longing associated with nostalgia, this type of loss, I argue, does have the possibility of engendering a specific type of historical understanding in particular types of spectators.  The present, these films assert, is built upon the bones and the flesh of those who occupied the past, and while we might pride ourselves on the advent of modernity, these films force us to ask:  at what cost?  What has been lost in the process of historical change?  Why is loss necessary in order for time and humanity to move forward?  This experiencing of history is, itself, a form of loss, as the spectator is forced to confront the encounter a multitude of losses:  of life, of subjectivity, of the self.

While this sense of loss could perhaps be sublimated or recuperated in an era that prided itself (and constantly convinced itself) on its prosperity, both economic and cultural, such may not be the case in those eras when such myths cannot gain that same kind of purchase.  Thus, it would make sense that a film like Gladiator, one of the most melancholy and despondent films I have ever seen, might succeed at the beginning of the new millennium, when the U.S. was still flush with the prosperity of the Clinton Years and what some have labeled the “Pax Americana.”  However, could a film like Troy, or Alexander, succeed, since both are likewise haunted by that same sense of loss and dissolution?

The same might be said of Noah and, to a lesser extent, Exodus.  Noah ends, of course, on something of a high note, but any viewer who has even been halfway paying attention cannot help but be haunted by the tremendous loss of life that has been incurred.  The movement from the ancient world of violent patriarchs–exemplified, quite chillingly, by both Noah and Tubal-cain–has been swept away, the hordes of men, women, and children drowned in the deluge (in fact, the sight of the frail remains of humanity clinging to an outcropping of rock is one of the film’s most striking and memorable images).  While the world that emerges may be better than the one that preceded it, is such betterment worth the loss of human life required to bring it into being?

Exodus, likewise, ends on a somewhat sombre note, as again any viewer with a glimmer of knowledge of Biblical history knows that the Jews, newly freed from their bondage in Egypt, are doomed to wander the wilds for 40 years.  The scene in which Ramseses stands amongst the ruins of his splendid army is one of the most visually and emotionally arresting in an otherwise fairly lackluster film, again suggesting that the new nation led by Moses has been born out of the deaths of thousands of men, as well as the terrible sundering of the pseudo-familial bond between Ramseses and Moses.

Can an America still reeling from a tremendously devastating recession and two (at least) unsatisfactorily concluded wars, not to mention deep rumbles of civil unrest (which are themselves the outward manifestations of deep fissures in American culture that have been glossed over for far too long) still gain the sense of reassurance it had from the earlier cycles, especially ones that so explicitly foreground loss?  It seems to me that they cannot, and that at least in part accounts both for the films’ tremendous unpopularity with critics (Exodus has so far taken quite a drubbing with the American film critics, averaging a critical score in the 20s), as well as their lackluster performance at the domestic box office (neither Noah nor Exodus have done particularly well, relying on their international distribution to break even).

Of course, the epic does flourish in some forms.  Son of God, an extension of the extremely popular History Channel  series The Bible, was a moderate success, largely because it eschewed big-budget spectacle and had a built-in audience from those appreciative of the original series.  The Red Tent, the television adaptation of Anita Diamant’s bestselling historical novel, received at least a somewhat warm reception from critics.  And, perhaps most famously of all, Game of Thrones, with its patina of historicity and its evocation of generic codes of the historical epic, has proven the the genre can flourish, both in terms of viewership and critical approbation.  So, perhaps the epic can survive, but only in the medium of television.  It remains to be seen whether its loss will be mourned or celebrated.

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