You ever just want to settle down for a lazy afternoon and get sucked into an engrossing, immersive film that'll distract you from the real world for several hours?
That's the perfect time for movie epics (or epic films). The epic movie genre is one of my favorites because you can completely resign yourself to hours of vast, sprawling, sweeping narratives.
But what exactly is an epic film?
In cinema, the term epic was first used to describe films that felt like ancient epic poems: lengthy stories involving a central heroic character caught up in legendary adventures. (For example, The Epic of Gilgamesh or Homer's The Iliad.)
Okay, but what makes an epic film different from any other movie with a central hero and a long runtime?
Well, there's no exact criteria that specifically defines the epic genre, but some key traits include massive visual spectacle, enormous scope (both in its premise and in its themes), large-scale production, and world-class filmmaking techniques.
However, as Roger Ebert mentioned in his article on Lawrence of Arabia (1962), an epic film doesn't necessarily need a huge budget or even a long runtime; the vision and ideas ultimately make it feel big.
"What you realize watching 'Lawrence of Arabia' is that the word 'epic' refers not to the cost or the elaborate production, but to the size of the ideas and vision."Roger Ebert on Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
As such, there's no single unifying trait that causes us to rank these epic films in any particular order. For us, we've ranked them based on how well they hold up today, how satisfying they are to watch, and how immersively epic they ultimately feel.
Here are my picks for the greatest movie epics of all time, which are perfect for when you want to truly get lost in an enormous film.
10. Gandhi (1982)
Directed by Richard Attenborough
Starring Ben Kingsley, John Gielgud, Rohini Hattangadi
Biography, Drama, History (3h 11m)
Starring Ben Kingsley in a role that would nab him an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Gandhi finds him playing the world-renowned Mahatma Gandhi as he completely disappears into the role.
The epic nature of this film is palpable from the very beginning, taking us across the world to various locations on Gandhi's journey.
Director Richard Attenborough brings Gandhi's time period—the latter half of the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s—to life in vivid detail, wrapping us up in the historic legend's story.
9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen
Adventure, Drama, Fantasy (3h 21m)
Each film in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is a world-class epic in its own right, but if we had to pick one to represent the full epic scope of its story, it'd have to be The Return of the King.
Not only is it the longest of the three films—with the Extended Edition clocking in at almost four hours long—but it deftly deals with the climax of themes like regret, trauma, and the memory of things passed.
The Return of the King is a milestone of cinema for many reasons: it's the greatest fantasy film of all time, it's the best entry in one of cinema's best trilogies, and it's one of the best epic movies ever made.
8. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Directed by David Lean
Starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin
Drama, Romance, War (3h 17m)
This might be the first time director David Lean shows up on this list, but it won't be the last. Widely considered one of the most important figures in British cinema, the man knew how to make a gripping epic.
His classic film Doctor Zhivago follows the tale of Yuri Zhivago during the Russian revolution. It's an enormous—and iconic—tale of love and war, life and death.
Starring Omar Sharif and based on Boris Pasternak's fantastic novel, Doctor Zhivago is an epic film that every fan of the genre should see.
7. Braveheart (1995)
Directed by Mel Gibson
Starring Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan
Biography, Drama, History (2h 58m)
Mel Gibson directed and starred in Braveheart, the epic war film about William Wallace's revolution against the English.
Featuring breathtaking cinematography on battlefields and all kinds of immense fight sequences to fill those very fields, Braveheart is as epic as it gets in movies about the medieval times.
The Academy seemed to agree, having awarded Braveheart with the Oscar for Best Picture. It's a shining example of the kind of incredible experience a Hollywood epic can deliver.
6. Ben-Hur (1959)
Directed by William Wyler
Starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd
Adventure, Drama (3h 32m)
An epic among epics, Ben-Hur is historically credited as the film that saved cinema from utter collapse back in the 1950s.
Home television had grown into the preferred form of entertainment during the decade, making viewers reluctant to visit theaters. And just when it seemed like the end, Ben-Hur forced everyone back.
And for good reason! Ben-Hur was an astounding creation, a landmark of cinema with an epic production that far exceeded anything before. This gladiator epic went on to inspire countless imitators, but none have ever managed to take away its crown.
In fact, Ben-Hur was so epic that its production budget made it the most expensive film ever made up until that point, costing $15 million (which would be $160 million in today's dollars).
Starring Charlton Heston in the titular role, Ben-Hur is a three-and-a-half-hours epic film that's still regarded as a masterpiece.
5. Spartacus (1960)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick and Anthony Mann
Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov
Adventure, Biography, Drama (3h 17m)
Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, and Peter Ustinov, under the direction of the masterful Stanley Kubrick, Spartacus remains one of the very few epic films that managed to trump even Ben-Hur.
After staging a slave revolt, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) decides to rally his men and stage a full-blown revolution against the Roman Empire. Thus ensues one of the greatest historical epics in cinema history.
Though there were all sorts of complications on set, you can't see any of that on screen. Spartacus is the legendary adventure of one slave, delivering over three hours of pure cinematic gold.
4. The Thin Red Line (1998)
Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte
Drama, History, War (2h 50m)
Directed by Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line represented the director's return to filmmaking after a two-decade hiatus.
And this return of his wasn't a small production. Even for Malick, The Thin Red Line was a huge production of epic scope. He came back to make something big, and he certainly succeeded.
Starring the likes of George Clooney, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, John Travolta, Sean Penn, John Cusack, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, and Nick Nolte, The Thin Red Line also happens to feature one of the most epic casts in film history.
At almost three hours long, The Thin Red Line is an expansive war film—adapted from the 1962 novel—with deeply thoughtful themes, making it a contemplative watch that demands your whole attention.
3. Gone With the Wind (1939)
Directed by Victor Fleming
Starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell
Drama, Romance, War (3h 58m)
Gone With the Wind may not be the first film that comes to mind when you think "epic movie," but that doesn't discount the epicness of its tale. In fact, it's one of the greatest epics in literature and cinema.
Set during the Civil War in the American South, this iconic story centers on the turbulent love affair between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, played by two of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood history: Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, respectively.
Directed by Victor Fleming, Gone With the Wind is a truly haunting film that everyone should watch at least once. It's also the highest-grossing movie of all time (adjusted for inflation), so it's truly epic in every sense of the word.
2. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Directed by David Lean
Starring Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn
Adventure, Biography, Drama (3h 38m)
Directed by David Lean and starring Peter O'Toole, Lawrence of Arabia is often regarded as the best work of both men's filmographies.
The story follows the life and trials of Lieutenant T. E. Lawrence of the British Army, who becomes a cult-like figure in his attempt to unify the Arab tribes to fight back against the Turks during the First World War.
Camels, swords, and sweeping desert landscapes are all included in this massive epic that clocks in at over three-and-a-half hours. If you watch it on Netflix—only available in some regions—it even features an intermission. That's when you know it's truly long!
1. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Directed by Sergio Leone
Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern
Crime, Drama (3h 49m)
While Lawrence of Arabia certainly was a top contender for the number one movie epic, ultimately I knew that the crown could only ever be given to Once Upon a Time in America.
Directed by Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in America is, without question, his all-time best film. (And yes, I even contend that it beats out his entire The Man With No Name film trilogy!)
Taking place in the streets of New York, Once Upon a Time in America may not have the vast landscapes or sweeping battlefields of other epic movies. And yet, Leone manages to make the winding streets feel as though they were an entire universe through the eyes of a child.
Why do I consider Once Upon a Time in America to be the best epic film? Mainly for Leone's approach to themes and other epic concepts: time, memory, love, death, friendship. It's all here.
In a little under four hours, Leone forges an entire world and showcases an entire life lived, from boyhood to old age. Starring Robert De Niro and James Woods, it also features a talented cast.
When you consider the entire package, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America remains unrivaled, which is why it tops our list of the greatest movie epics of all time.