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Ben-Hur (1959)

The big enchilada. When Hollywood producers, directors and investors talk about making the big movie - the one that not only earns the adoration of audiences, the praise of critics, the lifetime pass of the word "classic," the solid-gold sheen of The Oscar AND a truly awe-inspiring pile of cash, you can sum what they're talking about in one (hyphenated) word: BEN-HUR. Based on an 1880 novel that had been filmed at least 4 times before, it won eleven Oscars - and held that record for almost 40 years until it was equaled by Titanic (and later Return of The King.) Its set piece scene, an epic chariot race, remains one of the best action-sequences ever filmed.

The story is a king-sized reworking of The Count of Monte Cristo. Charlton Heston has the title role, a Judean noble betrayed (and then some!) by a childhood friend turned social-climbing Roman villain. Stripped of all he knows and loves and banished to the far corners of the world, Ben-Hur makes a years-long journey in his quest for revenge - along the way attaining fortune, glory and an even greater set of threats and obstacles to test his mettle.

As you've gleaned, it's mostly Roman in the sense that The Empire's globalizing reach facilitates the story and Ben's journey, but all the touchstones are there from the pageantry to The Games to the ever-present Biblical goings-on at the margins. Throughout his travels, Ben repeatedly finds himself in "chance" encounters with a certain enigmatic Nazarene holy man - whom he ultimately finds crucified back in Judea. Depending on who you ask, the mystical finale either makes or breaks the whole production.

Spartacus (1960)

Kirk Douglas was not pleased when director William Wyler chose Charlton Heston for the lead in the above-mentioned Ben-Hur over him, so he decided to make his own Roman action epic. Douglas, one of the most powerful stars in the industry at the time, used his influence over the production in numerous ways, at least two of which would change the course of movie history. Firstly, he insisted that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo be credited under his real name rather than a pseudonym - and in doing so struck one of the first major blows that would ultimately bring that shameful practice to an end.

Secondly, he was instrumental in the hiring of Stanley Kubrick - then an untested auteur who'd directed Douglas in Paths of Glory but had never helmed a Hollywood mega-production - to direct. It wasn't necessarily a perfect fit - you can see the tug of war between Kubrick's emerging modern sensibilities and the more traditional swords 'n' sandals picture the studio thought they were getting - but it gave the world a then-revolutionary new epic and earned Kubrick the accolades and clout he'd need for later projects like 2001.

Douglas stars as the title character, a gladiator/slave who becomes the leader of a slave uprising. Students of the genre (and history) will find little surprising in the actual plot - it's the characters, the action and Kubrick's unique vision that are the stars here. At times, it seems as though "ancient war" movies of today have spawned from mere pieces of Spartacus - a modern viewer, coming to it for the first time, might observe that it begins and ends like Gladiator with Braveheart in the middle.

Cleopatra (1963)

Ya can't win `em all.

Intentionally or not, Spartacus poised the Hollywood Epic for a reinvigorated reinvention, and then three years later, Cleopatra nearly killed the genre for good. To this day, the film (which isn't all that bad, really) is still one of the icons of how not to manage a production.

The film was a star vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor, who plays the title role in a (very) loose retelling of Cleopatra's political and romantic entanglements with Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony. The reviews were devastatingly bad, the obscenely expensive sets and costumes made studio accountants go pale, and although it was the highest-grossing film of the year, it still lost enough money to all-but bankrupt 20th Century Fox. It's widely believed that the studio would've been completely obliterated by the film's losses, had The Sound of Music not been an earth-shattering blockbuster two years later.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

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