The generic and industrial traditions of the epic film date back to the 1890s, when several Passion plays (plays representing the life of Christ) were filmed and exhibited in unusually lengthy, multi-reel formats. In the period between 1905 and 1914, a number of relatively large-scale, high-cost historical, biblical, and ancient-world films—among them La vie du Christ (1906), The Fall of Troy (1910), La siège de Calais (1911), Quo Vadis? (1913), and Cabiria (1914)—were made in Italy, France, and elsewhere in Europe and helped to establish the multi-reel feature. Multi-reel films of a similar kind were produced in the United States as well. But at a time when production, distribution, and exhibition in the United States were geared to the rapid turnover of programs of single-reel films, films like this were often distributed on a "road show" basis. Road show films were shown at movie theaters as well as alternative local settings such as town halls for as long as they were financially viable.
Many of these films drew on nineteenth-century traditions of historical and religious representation, particularly paintings and engravings, toga plays, Passion plays, pageants, and popular novels such The Last Days of Pompeii and Ben-Hur and their subsequent theatrical adaptations. They also drew on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century preoccupations with Imperial Rome and early Christianity, and on an association between religious and historical representation and nationhood and empire. These traditions and preoccupations were particularly prominent among the middle and upper classes, to whom many of the earliest multi-reel films and features were directed and to whom the aura of respectability associated with religious and historical topics and the legitimate theater was important. Augmented by films such as The Coming of Columbus (1912) and The Birth of a Nation (1915), which dealt with aspects of US history, productions like this helped found a tradition of large-scale, high-cost spectacles, "superspecial" productions that would be road shown not just in legitimate theaters but in the large-scale picture palaces that were being built in increasing numbers in major cities. Ticket prices were high. The films were shown, usually twice a day, at fixed times and with at least one intermission. They were usually accompanied by an orchestra playing a specially commissioned score. Only after a lengthy run in venues like this, a practice essential to the recouping of costs and the making of profits, would superspecials be shown in more ordinary cinemas at regular prices.
The production of road shown superspecials reached a peak in the United States in the 1920s with films like Orphans of the Storm (1922), Robin Hood (1922), The Covered Wagon (1923), The Ten Commandments (1923), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Big Parade (1925), The Iron Horse (1924), Ben-Hur (1925), Wings (1927), The King of Kings (1927), and Noah's Ark (1928). Although these films are diverse in setting and type ( Robin Hood is a swashbuckler, The Thief of Bagdad an exotic costume adventure film, The Ten Commandments a biblical epic, The Iron Horse a western, and Wings a World War I film), there are aesthetic, structural, and thematic links among them. Like the epics and spectacles of the 1910s, they exhibit what Vivian Sobchack has called "historical eventfulness" (p. 32)—that is to say, they mark themselves and the events they depict as historically significant. In addition, nearly all these films narrate stories that interweave the destinies of individual characters with the destinies of nations, empires, dynasties, religions, political regimes, and ethnic groups. While some focus on powerful characters (generals, pharaohs, princes, and leaders), many focus on more ordinary characters who either become caught up in events over which they have little control (as in The Big Parade , Wings , and Orphans of the Storm ) or are unsung agents of significant historical or epochal change (as in The Iron Horse ). Robin Hood and The Thief of Bagdad are variants in which, as vehicles for star and producer Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939), the power of the central character to effect change is, however fancifully, bound up with his physical prowess.
Following the precedent established by Intolerance (1916), the contemporary relevance of the events depicted in The Ten Commandments , The King of Kings , and Noah's Ark is underscored by including story lines and scenes from the present as well as the past. However, it is the story lines and scenes from the past that provide the most obvious occasions for spectacle. Difficult to define, spectacle is clearly not restricted to epics and to spectacle films as such; however, films of this kind played an important role in exploring, organizing, and legitimizing cinema's spectacular appeal and potential, in maintaining the involvement of contemporary audiences in much longer films than they had initially been used to, in mediating between competing contemporary demands for realism and spectacle, narrative and display. This was evident not just in their expansive battle scenes, crowd scenes, and settings, their expensive costumes and sets, or their use of new technologies. Epic films were regularly used to showcase new special effects, new camera techniques, and new color processes such as two-color Technicolor. It was evident, too, in their capacity to encompass incidental details, intimate scenes, and individualized story lines and to make sequences of spectacle such as the exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments clearly serve dramatic and narrative ends.