10 Best Historical Epics To Watch (Including The Last Duel) – Screen Rant

Ridley Scott’s new movie The Last Duel brings to mind many of the other, very good, epic movies that have been released in Hollywood history.
The historical epic has long been one of the most high-profile and profitable movie genres in Hollywood, and they have often been used to show off new technologies such as widescreen and color. With its sweeping scope, its evocative score, and its beautiful cinematography, the epic sweeps audiences up and allows them to experience pivotal moments in history.
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Given how popular they are, there have been many epics made, but only a few of them, including Ridley Scott’s recent movie The Last Duel, can truly claim to be the best that the genre has to offer.
Ridley Scott has established himself as a very talented director, with blockbuster movies in a wide variety of genres, from science fiction to historical epics. His newest movie, The Last Duel, is a gritty piece of historical filmmaking, focusing on an accusation of rape and the subsequent duel between a knight and his best friend.
Like other epics, the movie depicts a key moment in history, as the duel in question is the last one that was actually sanctioned by the law in France.
There are few directors in the history of Hollywood as associated with the historical epic as Cecil B. DeMille, and few of his movies are as perennially popular as The Ten Commandments.
With Charlton Heston as Moses, this movie is the model for the historical epic, and the scene in which Moses parts the Red Sea remains awe-inspiring, even though special effects have developed substantially since it was released. And, like many other epics (including The Last Duel), a key part of its story is the conflict between Moses and Rameses over the love of the princess Nefretiri.
The 1950s was a golden age for the historical epic, and many of the movies produced in that era are regarded as classics in the genre. This includes Ben-Hur, which is currently tied with The Return of the King and Titanic for the most Oscar wins.
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It focuses on the title character, as he endures slavery and torment at the hands of the Romans before witnessing the Resurrection. Charlton Heston, who became synonymous with the epic genre, stars as Judah Ben-Hur.
Though the epic struggled to gain success in the 1960s, there were a few movies of that period that became enormous hits, including Lawrence of Arabia.
It is one of those movies that has some spectacular cinematography, and Peter O’Toole brings a peculiar sort of intensity to his portrayal of T.E. Lawrence, a man who was driven by his own vision, even as he struggles with his own deep-rooted psychological demons and his ambivalence about his own identity as a British subject.
Like other Ridley Scott epics, Kingdom of Heaven is a gritty, sometimes brutal drama set during a period of profound conflict, in this case during the Crusades. Orlando Bloom is Balian of Ibelin, who plays a key role in the defense of the city of Jerusalem as it faces an onslaught by the Sultan Saladin.
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Though it emphasizes action, the movie also asks the sort of questions that the historical epic frequently does, in this case on the nature of religious conflict, which makes it very much a product of its time.
Though many historical epics are set in very early periods, Dances with Wolves is set in post-Civil War America and focuses on Kevin Costner’s John J. Dunbar as he grapples with the ugly reality of his fellow white people’s engagement with the Native Americans of the Great Plains.
It’s an elegiac movie, evoking the sadness associated with a way of life that is slowly fading away. Though some might think it’s overrated, it’s still a strong example of the historical epic.
Some movies have become almost synonymous with the description “epic,” and Braveheart is one of those as it’s often considered one of the best biographical films. In particular, Braveheart focuses on the struggle of William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson) as he tries to fend off the efforts of the English to conquer his native Scotland.
It’s a dark and often brutally violent movie, in keeping with the time period that it portrays. While it isn’t the most historically accurate of historical epics, it still manages to immerse the audience in a pivotal period of Scottish history.
Ridley Scott accomplished something of a miracle with his 2000 movie Gladiator, which ignited the public interest in movies set in ancient Rome, and it remains one of the best gladiator movies. The story of Russell Crowe’s Maximus, who becomes a gladiator and eventually challenges the emperor himself, became a phenomenon, and it remains one of the most iconic epic movies in the history of the genre.
It has everything one might want out of an epic, with a rousing story, scenes of brutal violence, and a message that one person’s bravery can change the course of history.
In the wake of Gladiator’s success, many other movies set in antiquity hit movie screens, including Troy, which is a retelling of the Trojan War, one of the most significant armed conflicts in western literature.
Though it largely removes the gods from the story, there’s still quite a lot to enjoy about this historical epic, including strong performances from Brad Pitt and Eric Bana as Achilles and Hector, two epic heroes whose destinies ultimate collide, in very brutal and tragic fashion, on the field of battle outside the walls of Troy.
James Cameron is another of those directors who has established a high profile in Hollywood, and Titanic is a good example of why. As the title suggests, it focuses on the sinking of one of the world’s most famous ships, but it frames it all through the love story between Jack and Rose.
It became an Oscar powerhouse and is currently tied for the most number of wins for a movie. With its exacting reproduction of the title ship and its hauntingly tragic story, it deserves its place as one of the most famous and best of historical epics.
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Thomas J. West III earned a PhD in film and screen studies from Syracuse University in 2018. His writing on film, TV, and popular culture has appeared in Screenology, FanFare, Primetimer, Cinemania, and in a number of scholarly journals and edited collections. He co-hosts the Queens of the B’s podcast with Mark Muster and writes a regular newsletter, Omnivorous, on Substack.