Historical Films


Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria was quickly followed in Italy by many films dealing with ancient Rome and Greece. In America, after The Birth of a Nation established the viability of longer, ambitious historical films, MGM in 1925 released Ben-Hur , directed by William Wyler (1902–1981), which became a commercial blockbuster. Cecil B. DeMille's (1881–1959) The Ten Commandments (1923) established Hollywood as the major producer of epic films in the 1920s.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, however, the epic form waned as audience tastes turned to contemporary subjects, exemplified in the sophisticated musicals and comedies of Hollywood and in the Italian "white telephone" comedy genre (films about the rich and idle). But the form returned full force in the early 1950s, with Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951), and The Robe (Henry Koster, 1953), and the first film to be shot in Cinema Scope. The epic, with its lavish sets and mass choreography of crowds and armies, lent itself to the widescreen format that was one of Hollywood's responses to the threat of television. For most critics Ben-Hur represents the high point of the style. King of Kings (Nicolas Ray, 1961), and El Cid (Anthony Mann, 1961), were also accomplished works, as was DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), which marked a return to the subject he had first treated in 1923.

The epic form in Hollywood reached its zenith in the early 1960s with three films: Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960), Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963), and The Fall of the Roman Empire (Mann, 1964). ( Spartacus , which gave screenwriter credit to Dalton Trumbo [1905–1976], a prominent leftist who had been blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, became known as "the film that broke the blacklist.") However, The Fall of the Roman Empire did poorly at the box office, and from 1964 until the mid-1990s the epic was decidedly out of fashion. With Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995) and Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000), the epic renewed itself in a way that heralded a return to cultural prominence. Gladiator , in particular, provides a fascinating example of the use of new visual technologies to narrate the past. Its elaborate use of computer-generated imagery recreates the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and an exceptional sense of realism in its gladiator contests. With varying degrees of critical and box-office success, twenty-first-century directors have made more films in the epic genre, including Troy (Wolfgang Petersen, 2004), Alexander (Stone, 2004), and The Passion of the Christ (Gibson, 2004).

b. New York, New York, 15 September 1946

One of the most accomplished filmmakers working in contemporary Hollywood, Oliver Stone is also one of the most controversial, creating vivid dramas of American history and politics that have provoked equal parts admiration and outrage. His film about the Kennedy assassination, JFK (1991), for example, created a searing controversy that led to denunciations by leading politicians, journalists, and historians. Ultimately, however, it resulted in legislation authorizing the Assassination Records Review Board, which assembled and made available millions of pages of documents on the assassination previously withheld from the public. In 1998 the Review Board specifically credited JFK with arousing public opinion to pressure Congress into passing the legislation. Arguably, no American work of art, with the possible exception of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), has had as direct or consequential an impact on American history as JFK .

Asserting his political orientation with his first major films, Stone's early works combine an explicitly political viewpoint with dramatic plotting and sympathetic characters. Salvador (1986) and Platoon (1986) are emotionally wrenching depictions of the conflicts in El Salvador and Vietnam. Following Platoon , which won Academy Awards ® for Best Picture and Best Director, Stone made two films dealing with domestic American life, Wall Street (1987) and Talk Radio (1988). Born on the Fourth of July (1989) took up the subject of Vietnam again and won for Stone his second Oscar ® for Best Director. A powerful film about the loss of national ideals and purpose, rendered through the experiences of a wide-eyed, all-American hero who comes home a disillusioned paraplegic, the film reads as a culminating statement against the war and its pointless sacrifice of a generation of young people. Stone completed his Vietnam trilogy with Heaven and Earth (1993), a beautiful and highly stylized portrait of a young Vietnamese woman and her experiences during the war and its aftermath.

With The Doors (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995), Stone extended his stylistic range, which had largely been tied to realist modes of representation, to include an array of subjective, dreamlike devices including disorienting, rapid-fire montage, superimpositions, and elaborate layering of the sound track. In these films, Stone creates an expressionistic portrait of American reality, dramatizing the frenzied, driven, and ultimately self-destructive aspects of American culture. His more recent films, including Any Given Sunday (1999) and Alexander (2004), represent a departure from the political focus of his major works, which stand among the most provocative and powerful in cinema history.


Salvador (1986), Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), Nixon (1995), World Trade Center (2006)


Kagen, Norman. The Cinema of Oliver Stone . London: Continuum, 2000.

Kunz, Don. The Films of Oliver Stone . Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1997.

Silet, Charles L.P., ed. Oliver Stone: Interviews . Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

Stone, Oliver, and Zachary Sklar. JFK: The Book of the Film . New York: Warner Bros., Inc. and Regency Enterprises V.O.F., 1992.

Toplin, Robert Brent, ed. Oliver Stone's USA . Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Robert Burgoyne

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