Stories that are larger than life, historical moments forever immortalized, and some of the greatest accomplishments in the history of motion pictures — these are some of the characteristics of the great epics crafted by some of the most renowned filmmakers. The jaw-dropping feats that resulted were at times acclaimed, panned, or misunderstood.
As years go by, some have been forgotten or reassessed, their importance shifting through generations, but the power of their ambition proves to transcend time. From massive films set in biblical times to the near future, all these films have a lot to say about what makes humanity tick (with a lot to look at, too). Here’s a compendium of the 20 greatest dramatic epics of all time.
Updated Feb. 10. 2024: This collection of the greatest cinematic epics of all time has been updated with additional content and brand-new features, including streaming information.
25 Ben-Hur (1959)
- Release Date
- November 18, 1959
- William Wyler
- Charlton Heston , Jack Hawkins , Haya Harareet , Stephen Boyd , Hugh Griffith , Martha Scott
This religious epic set in the times of Christ finds Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish aristocrat. After being betrayed by his Roman friend, Ben-Hur is subsequently enslaved and his family imprisoned. But, after proving his mettle during a daring escape, a subsequent career in the chariot races may grant Ben-Hur an opportunity for redemption and reconciliation.
Ben-Hur Featured Incredible Chariot Scenes
Remembered for its iconic imagery, legendary performances, and landmark chariot races, Ben-Hur was the biggest film in the world at its time. Its monstrous budget of $15 million dollars (almost ten times that amount when adjusted for inflation) was unprecedented for the time, and its high number of extras and accompanying costumes required an entire costuming team to ensure their quality. This effort paid off, as it would win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Lead Actor, and seven other Oscars at the Academy Awards. As of writing, director William Wyler still holds the record for most Best Director nominations at a total of 12. Watch the trailer for Ben-Hur on YouTube
Buy or Rent Ben-Hur on Prime Video
24 Gangs of New York (2002)
Martin Scorsese has made a name for himself with his masterful portrayal of stories of humanity through his decades-long career, and Gangs of New York is no different. This historical epic drama is set in New York circa 1863 in the Five Points slum, where an Irish man, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), tries to hunt down his father’s killer, William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Unfortunately, growing tensions between religious sects may complicate Vallon’s plans.
A Gritty Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio Film
Decorated with gritty performances by Day-Lewis and DiCaprio, the movie manages to enthrall the audiences into looking at an admittedly dark chapter of America’s history through Scorsese’s artistic lense. Scorsese saw praise for his dedication to historical accuracy — even if the film’s violence was a bit exaggerated — and its monumental recreation of mid-nineteenth century New York, with several full-scale sets and careful casting adding to the authenticity. Though it was snubbed at the Oscars, it swept the nominations, with Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction being two notable highlights. Watch the trailer for Gangs of New York on YouTube
23 Until the End of the World (1991)
Epics have had a repetitive issue in post-production and release: length. Studios have taken auteurs to situations where their vision finds itself compromised by commercial arrangements. Unfortunately, many have been re-edited and drastically cut by studios, but eventually (and thankfully), some of these films are ultimately released as director’s cuts in all their lengthy glory.
This is the case with Until the End of the World, Wim Wenders’ best road movie, a sci-fi epic that at one point had a 20-hour cut. Set in 1999, Until the End of the World sees William Hurt and Solveig Dommartin playing the roles of Sam Farber and Claire Tourneur. The two meet in a chance encounter that puts them on the run with a device that can record dreams in their possession.
Until the End of the World Had a 20-Hour Cut
Until the End of the World is such a grandiose story, several cuts of the film exist with incredibly varied lengths, ranging from 158 minutes to 287 minutes total. The initial cut of the film even topped out at around 20 hours, though this version has yet to see a public release.
The film is a bona fide spectacle, as its two leads venture across every corner of the globe with elaborate dream sequences to boot. Even the film’s soundtrack was a laborious effort, with numerous tracks composed by popular artists solely for the film on top of a score composed by Graeme Revell. The most recent cut, gloriously re-released through the Criterion Collection, has given new audiences the chance to properly experience an almost five-hour movie about change and love. Watch the trailer for Until the End of the World on YouTube
22 Heaven’s Gate (1980)
After director Michael Cimino’s success with The Deer Hunter, his next project, Heaven’s Gate, was set out to be even bigger. This epic Western film sees Kris Kristofferson donning the role of Averill, a Wyoming sheriff, who is caught in the middle of a tense conflict. When the residents of Johnson County — comprised of financially poor immigrants and affluent cattle barons — become embroiled in a battle of wits and bullets, both Averill and a local mercenary, Champion (Christopher Walken), begin to question their motivations and ultimate desires. The film is also notable for featuring the first-ever on-screen feature-length appearance of Willem Dafoe, in addition to the second role performed by Mickey Rourke.
Heaven’s Gate Had an Incredibly High Budget
However, numerous setbacks, cost overruns, retakes, Cimino’s allegedly dictatorial direction, and imposed reduction of the final cut set prejudice for the critics. The movie’s high budget infamously became a huge talking point, ballooning to a monolithic $44 million dollars.
Backlash and low admissions took the film out of theaters, and is said to have marked the demise of director-driven films for the next decade. However, in recent years, a new director’s cut and critical reassessments have given new light to a misunderstood Americana masterpiece about prejudice, cruelty, and the fast fading of the past. Watch the trailer for Heaven’s Gate on YouTube
Stream Heaven’s Gate on Prime Video
21 1917 (2019)
- Release Date
- December 25, 2019
- Sam Mendes
War epics are as much a commonality in Hollywood as they are an essentiality. What better way to look back on some of humanity’s most haunting chapters than through a captivating tale that hooks people into paying attention to those stories, right? However, such commonality also makes it harder for a lot of these movies to have a lasting effect on people’s memories.
Then there are those movies that end up capturing people’s attention from the get-go due to their unprecedented charisma in portraying possibly the same stories with a fresh perspective. Such is the case for Sam Mendes’ 1917. This World War I epic dwells on the lives of two soldiers, Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), out on a mission to deliver a confidential message before an attack ravages their post.
1917 Utilizes Two Continuous Shots
The cinematography of 1917 is arguably what makes this war epic stand out against its contemporaries. Utiilzing editing trickery and careful camera work from cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film is given the illusion of taking place in two near-feature-length continuous shots, with the audience experiencing the energy and madness of war much the same way as our two protagonists are. The film’s climax is an incredible example of this idea, with hundreds of extras acting out alongside MacKay as explosions and gunfire ring out during an incredible chase sequence.
The movie is as thrilling as it is terrorizing, and powerful performances by George Mckay and Dean-Charles Chapman make for a riveting experience reminiscent of poems by the war poets of the First World War era, just like the premise the movie is based on. The original score provided by Thomas Newman would win a nomination for Best Original Score at the Academy Awards, in addition to the film as a whole securing nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects. Watch the trailer for 1917 on YouTube
20 Reds (1981)
Warren Beatty’s second directorial effort shoots for the stars and delivers. Reds is the story of an American journalist turned politician, John Reed (Beatty). His coverage and commitment to the Russian Revolution, political activism in America, and complicated relationship with Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) are interwoven alongside witness interviews with important figures of the 20th century. As such, it’s an epic historical drama, and a surprisingly underrated one.
Warren Beatty Was Nominated for Best Director and Best Actor
The sprawling storyline is backed by an outstanding crew (Stephen Sondheim and Vittorio Storaro are behind the music and cinematography, respectively), not to mention a stellar cast with supporting performances from Gene Hackman, Maureen Stapleton, and some Jack Nicholson at the height of his fame. Reds is ultimately most memorable for the powerhouse performances from Keaton and Beatty, with both playing people passionate about each other and about what they believe is the future. The film would win Best Director at the Academy Awards, while garnering nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.
19 How the West Was Won (1962)
How the West Was Won
- Release Date
- October 1, 1962
- John Ford , Henry Hathaway , George Marshall , Richard Thorpe
- Carroll Baker , Lee J. Cobb , Henry Fonda , Carolyn Jones , Karl Malden , gregory peck
Some films really live up to their name, others are quite literally their name. How the West Was Won is a gigantic film detailing how the myth of the Old West came to be, seen through the eyes of a pioneer family. Released in 1962, the film sees an ensemble cast playing numerous family members at different stages in their life, with the family living through the onset of the American Civil War, the construction of competing railroads, and Westward Expansion as a whole. Just a handful of names attached to this film include James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Thelma Ritter, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, and Agnes Moorehead.
How the West Was Won Had Three Directors
This is a movie so big, it was directed by three of the best Western directors, with Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, and John Ford each directing a portion of this 164-minute epic. Featuring beautiful photography, extensive production design, and a cast so large it feels like it won’t even fit on the screen, this classic Western film likely influenced countless Western productions to come, whether it’s because of the impressive score by Alfred Newman, or its impressive visuals produced on a $14 million dollar budget. It would later win Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing at the Academy Awards. Watch the trailer for How the West Was Won on YouTube
Buy or Rent How the West Was Won on Prime Video
18 Dunkirk (2017)
When it comes to war epics, the list can not be completed without mentioning Christopher Nolan’s historical masterpiece, Dunkirk. Based on the World War II Dunkirk evacuation, the movie maximizes its rich cinematography and production value to give shape to Nolan’s fully realized vision of an intense crisis with numerous lives at stake. Based on the real-life Operation Dynamo, the film sees a group of separate Allied operatives each assisting in the miraculous rescue of Allied soldiers during the Battle of France. Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, and Harry Styles are a handful of names attached to the cast.
Dunkirk Utilized Period-Accurate Boats and Planes
Dunkirk takes war epics to a new level of accuracy by not only filming at the actual location of the evacuation, but by utilizing authentic pieces of military hardware for the film’s numerous action scenes. Everything from boats to aircraft were either meticulously modified to resemble their World War II counterparts or pulled directly from historical archives, with innovative filming techniques paired alongside a substantial lack of dialogue throughout. Hans Zimmer’s background score added to the multiple perspectives used to tell the story. Along with breathtaking performances from the ensemble cast, Dunkirk would be rightfully hailed as one of Christopher Nolan’s finest examples of artistry to date. Watch the trailer for Dunkirk on YouTube
Buy or Rent Dunkirk on Prime Video
20 Epic Dramas Like Oppenheimer to Watch Next
Oppenheimer has several unique ingredients that made it a hit among audiences. Luckily, there are a few other epic dramas that offer similar thrills.
17 The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)
If William Wyler molded the epic genre, David Lean polished it to perfection. The Bridge on the River Kwai sees William Holden and Alec Guinness as the respective leaders of American and British POWs in WWII being forced to build a bridge for the Japanese. As plans to blow it up emerge, one of them has developed pride in his creation, and will try to avoid its destruction.
The Bridge on the River Kwai Won Seven Academy Awards
Well-executed in all aspects, as well as being poetic and entertaining, the film has an enduring legacy as one that shines light on the lives of those at war rather than a good-evil dichotomy. Composer Malcom Arnold would win both an Oscar for Best Original Score in addition to a Grammy for his work here, with the surrounding film sweeping the Oscars as a whole: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and more would all be bestowed upon The Bridge on the River Kwai, and for good reason.
Though the film is firmly within the world of historical fiction, its grandiose aspirations and comparatively humble focus on individual plights make it one of the most influential and stunning cinematic epics of all time. Watch the trailer for The Bridge on the River Kwai on YouTube
16 Andrei Rublev (1966)
Director Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditation on faith and the role of the artist in the world, Andrei Rublev is about the life of a religious painter (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) as explored through episodes that mark his existence. This includes his drifting in a dangerous, undefined Russian territory and establishment as an artist, to the retreat from his practice and eventual return to faith and art. Solonitsyn would later go on to collaborate with Tarkovsky in films like Stalker, Mirror, and Solaris.
Andrei Rublev Encompasses Russian History
A magnificent declaration of art’s role in life, Andrei Rublev is a breathtaking monument to faith and to those who stand in the face of oppression. Its prominent themes, specifically those relating to religion, prompted domestic censorship by the atheistic Soviet Union at the time of its release, though it would eventually be re-released in its unaltered form. It’s a film whose sprawling scope justifies its gargantuan runtime, painting a layered and nuanced depiction of medieval Russia that has yet to face any significant competition.
15 Barry Lyndon (1975)
It’s that conspiracy theory, it’s that groundbreaking camera work, that emotional distance in its characterization, but overall, it’s director Stanley Kubrick’s curious geniality at making the most of the role chance can play in the development of life. Barry Lyndon is his most underrated film and arguably his film that has aged best, with its technical details making it an incredible cinematic epic. Forged out of what could be salvaged from the remnants of Kubrick’s Napoleon Bonaparte film, Barry Lyndon sees Ryan O’Neal starring as the titular figure — a silver-tongued rogue who gradually climbs the socioeconomic ladder of 18th-century England.
Barry Lyndon Started Out as Kubrick’s Napoleon Film
This cinematic epic drew acclaim for its impressive cinematography, partly due to its utilization of long zooms, extended double shots, and its impressive interior shots filmed on-location throughout England. The film is beautifully slow-paced, yet in a way that never feels plodding. The brilliant direction of actors led by the cunning and unreadable performance of Ryan O’Neal ultimately solidifies the film’s greatness. The Academy Awards would subsequently bless Barry Lyndon with nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, in addition to Oscar wins for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. Watch the trailer for Barry Lyndon on YouTube
14 Munich (2005)
An underrated Steven Spielberg movie, Munich tells the story of a dramatized Operation Bayonet, led by the Israeli Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, as a response to the Munich massacre of 1972. Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana) is tasked with leading the mission in order to assassinate those who are potentially responsible. After severing his geopolitical ties under the direction of his handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), Kaufman and four volunteers carry out their operation, with its future consequences left unknown.
Munich Dramatizes Operation Bayonet
This political epic thriller comes out with surprisingly sharp teeth in lieu of Spielberg’s often milder approaches, done so in order to tell an unabashedly bold and intensely thought-provoking story around one of humanity’s most scarring memories. The movie is as crafty as it is uncompromising, made even more so with groundbreaking performances by the likes of Daniel Craig, Eric Bana, and Geoffrey Rush, among others. Munich would recieve nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Score at the Academy Awards, and though it would become one of Spielberg’s lowest-grossing films, its rave reviews and cultural impact would more than make up for it. Watch the trailer for Munich on YouTube
13 Doctor Zhivago (1965)
An ode to romance through the troubles of life, Doctor Zhivago chronicles the life of a physician (Omar Sharif) as his existence is changed irreversibly by the Russian Revolution. Set against the backdrop of the Great War and the ensuing revolution, this 1965 film drew contemporary criticism for its monstrous length of nearly 200 minutes, but would be reappraised as one of the highest-grossing classics of the 1960s.
Doctor Zhivago Journeys Through the Russian Revolution
While history is extremely relevant as the judge, jury, and executioner of the characters’ lives, these lives are precisely the focus of Doctor Zhivago: their shortcomings and virtues, their way of dealing with success and tragedy, and how the human spirit faces the inevitable void of uncertainty and change. Director David Lean balanced the precariousness of the revolution with an intense romance story, and while some critics found the balance between the two to be uneven, its incredible reception at the Academy Awards showcased its remarkable qualities. Like other films on this list, it swept the categories for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Art Direction. Watch the trailer for Doctor Zhivago on YouTube
12 Apocalypse Now (1979)
Flawed, complicated, and yet somehow absolutely perfect, Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and truly is a trip into such darkness. Director Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up to his early and mid-70s hits is a hallucinatory journey into the Vietnam War and the fractured minds it produced.
Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent to kill Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has gone rogue, fighting the Viet Cong with a guerrilla army that see him as a demigod. As the plot unfolds, it’s clear that there’s more to the mission than what Willard has been told.
Apocalypse Now Suffered Through Production Hell
Famously, this cinematic epic underwent an incredibly tumultuous bout of development hell. Originally being conceptualized in the late 1960s, production would officially begin in the 1970s, with inclement weather, Marlon Brando’s infamous appearance, budget concerns, and difficult filming conditions occurring throughout all stages of development. That said, the final result is a miraculous encapsulation of Apocalypse Now‘s setting.
Through Willard’s eyes and ambivalent motives to find Kurtz, Vietnam becomes closer to a psychological ward than a battlefield, a place where men are sent to die, and find the darkness of life within themselves. Watch the trailer for Apocalypse Now on YouTube
Buy or Rent Apolcalypse Now on Prime Video
11 Fanny And Alexander (1982)
The great director Ingmar Bergman found a tender way to present cruel and dark narratives in Fanny and Alexander. If his prior efforts were a dark trip into the human soul, he seems to let go of this in this film, which was meant to be his swan song; even though that darkness is still present, something has changed. Fanny and Alexander follows a pair of siblings, Alexander (Bertil Guve) and Fanny Ekdahl (Pernilla Allwin), as the sudden death of their father prompts a remarriage into another family. Unfortunately, their stepfather, Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö), may not have their best interests at heart.
Fanny and Alexander Was Long Enough to be a Miniseries
This sprawling historical epic would win Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and for good reason. As the siblings at the front of the film must face the unhappiness brought upon the family by their mother’s new marriage, hope still lingers — family is still around, love is there to be taken, and magic is present in a child’s heart. Ghosts, telepathy, religion, and imagination come to life in a 312-minute journey of cinematic bliss. It’s a film whose exploration of familial relationships is one that can be experienced in either a single theatrical experience, or a lengthy miniseries.
Ridley Scott’s 1977 War Epic Is a Must-Watch Before Seeing Napoleon
Ridley Scott’s first feature film is essential viewing before viewing his latest war epic, Napoleon.
10 Giant (1956)
- Release Date
- November 24, 1956
- George Stevens
George Stevens is at the top of his game in Giant, a 1950s Western movie which follows three generations of a wealthy Texas family as they go through decades of cultural changes, racial prejudice, and their own personal troubles. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who would later go on to provide the score for films like Rio Bravo, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Last Train from Gun Hill, would compose the sweeping soundtrack for Giant.
Giant Was James Dean’s Last Leading Role
As much as Giant is a portrait of Texas changing, it’s also one of the American family — how whatever preconceptions may exist about it, will eventually evolve. It’s a formidable study of race, power, and love, brought to life via electric performances from Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean in his last-ever role. You could even draw parallels between Giant and Gone with the Wind, as the two films address similar subjects with vastly different approaches. Watch the trailer for Giant on YouTube
9 Gone with the Wind (1939)
Gone With the Wind
- Release Date
- February 16, 1940
- Victor Fleming , George Cukor , Sam Wood
- Thomas Mitchell , Barbara O’Neil , Vivien Leigh , Evelyn Keyes , Ann Rutherford , George Reeves
Gone with the Wind is an iconic piece of cinema whose influence had a significant ripple effect throughout the decades after its release. An adaptation of the titular novel by Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind is a sweeping historical romance film set between the Civil War and Reconstruction era, focusing specifically on the intertangled romance between Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).
Gone with the Wind Was the Highest Grossing Film of All Time
The enduring story of Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley Wilkes still resonates through time. The complicated relationship at the heart of this melodrama is filled with jealousy, selfishness, loss, and regret. Through it all, Gone with the Wind never pretends to show love in wartime as romantic but as a bond condemned to its context, inevitably defined by it.
Gone with the Wind certainly has not aged as well as many other films in this list, due to its lack of emphasis on large sociological aspects present in the story. Selznick’s production is uncritical of slavery and is highly defensive of Southern tradition. Still, its critical and commercial success is still important to know, with over 10 Academy Award wins (including Best Picture and Best Director) and record-breaking returns at the box office. When adjusted for inflation, Gone with the Wind is still the highest-grossing film ever made. Watch the trailer for Gone with the Wind on YouTube
8 War and Peace (1966–1967)
The year is 1956, and an American production adapting Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was released to worldwide acclaim. Nearly ten years later, the Soviet government had finally finished their cultural response, releasing their own adaptation of the legendary novel. This is no ordinary Cold War-era movie; this is a film that succeeds in being way better than the American version and also renders it into nonexistence. Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and split into four jaw-dropping feature-length parts, War and Peace adapts the famed 1869 novel by depicting the story of Natasha Rostova (Ludmila Savelyeva) and Pierre Bezukhov (Sergei Bondarchuk), a pair of Russian nobles whose romance is stitched into the sweeping War of 1812 brought on by Napoleon Bonaparte (Vladislav Strzhelchik).
War and Peace Is a Russian Epic
Sergey Bondarchuk’s film is a seven-hour-long mega-production that can be described by no other words than legendary and unrepeatable. It was famously one of, if not the single most expensive film production in the Soviet Union’s brief existence, becoming a smash hit both domestically and internationally in terms of overall revenue. The sheer size of the film itself even prompted logistical challenges in both its production and in the actual screening process. To this day, War and Peace stands as one of the most extraordinary achievements in not only cinema, but art history. It’s easily up there as one of the best Russian movies of all time.
7 A Brighter Summer Day (1991)
Edward Yang’s movieA Brighter Summer Day not only deserves a spot in any epics list, it deserves to be in its highest rankings. It’s a moving story that is both large and tender, grand and intimate, brutal and kind. It follows Xiao Si’r (Chang Chen), a boy whose socioeconomic background sets the stage for a gradual descent into delinquency and disillusionment. It focuses on societal, personal, and interpersonal worlds shifting, a life of change in one of its most tumultuous stages, the greatest depiction of a teenage wasteland, and the looming abyss of adulthood.
A Brighter Summer Day Melds Two Stories Into a Cohesive Whole
The life of a boy growing up in mid-20th century Taiwan is both a testament to Yang’s homeland’s complicated history and to all generations of young people trying to find their place in the world. In a film that spans nearly four hours, it impressively incorporates two wildly different perspectives, those of the youth and those of their worried parents, into a story that some would argue is the best Taiwanese movie from the 90s.
6 Seven Samurai (1954)
Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is a film whose cultural influence is unprecedented. It’s a film of such transcendental influence on the history of cinema and culture that, to this day, it can still be felt in most action and adventure films. Set in the late 1500s, Seven Samurai tells the story of a modest village whose annual crop harvest is continually under threat of theft by a group of virulent bandits. To combat this threat, the village enlists the aid of a group of samurai led by Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura).
Seven Samurai Is an Influential Juggernaut
Seven Samurai is peak epic filmmaking: a historical tale of heroes defending the weak from the vile, of people coming together to overcome their own difficulties, and finding strength in numbers. Of the many epics by Kurosawa, Seven Samurai stands as his finest hour, acting as one of the best samurai movies and a testament to the magical alchemy of all the elements that make up the seventh art. Several elements first made popular by this film, including the opening sequence unrelated to the greater plot or the gradual gathering of multiple characters, would be replicated consciously or subconsciously in hundreds of films to come. Watch the trailer for Seven Samurai on YouTube