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BBC FOUR: History of the Hollywood Epic

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

This coming Sunday (5th August) a documentary on the History of the Hollywood Epic will be televised on BBC Four at 22:20 GMT. TIMESHIFT: EPICS: A CAST OF THOUSANDS was produced by BBC Bristol and Directed by Clare Wilmshurst. The documentary includes many faces of Bristol Silents including Matthew Sweet, Sir Christopher Frayling and Ian Christie. More info about the BBC production, including clips, film posters and soundtracks can be found on the BBC Timeshift Website.

However, James Harrison who is one of the regular contributors at Bristol Silents (he also hosts the monthly Bristol Silents Club Screenings as well by the way) was also the Assistant Producer on the production and has taken time out to tell us his thoughts on the importance of the Hollywood Epic and one certain Epic found in the silent era.

‘In my mind, the word ‘Epic’ is used way to often these days when it comes to films. Pop into your local cinema and the word is plastered all over film posters. Whether the films in questions are either Dramas, Science Fiction films, Fantasy films or even the recent Comic Book Adaptions, the one word ‘Epic’ is everywhere.

Skip back fifty or sixty years and you would know what a REAL ‘EPIC’ was. Titles such as Quo Vardis (1951), The Robe (1953), Ben Hur (1959), El Cid (1961) and Cleopatra (1963) established the 1950s and 1960s as one of the major ages of the Hollywood Epic.

But skip back another fifty or sixty years after and you would find yourself in the first true age of the Hollywood Epic. Films like Intolerance (1916), The Ten Commandments (1923) and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) roared off the screen into the cinemas and showed the full power of what Hollywood could achieve; D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, Rex Ingram and Fred Niblo all became legends within the making of the early Hollywood Epics.

And to be honest, I put my hands up now, as the Assistant Producer of the documentary, the films of the 1910s and 1920s are my favourite compared to the other later epics. But of course, I would say that, I’m a silent film fanatic after all!

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1921) is far more energetic when it comes to the set pieces than the pieces found in later remake in 1959, especially the sea battle sequence! Even the earlier version of the chariot sequence (when played with Carl Davis’ score of course) is just incredible as well, especially when re-watching the sequence from the later 1959 film.

The production tried a balloon at first. And when tried, Cameraman Billy Bitzer was quickly taken down due to motion sickness from the balloon and soon afterwards the concept of the balloon was dropped. Griffith turned to future film director Allan Dwan (then a set engineer for Griffith) on his thoughts; Dwan suggested simply, ‘How about if we build a huge camera tower?’ The suggestion was taken up by Griffith and the production began to build an even bigger structure which would shadow the Babylon set. The tower would include an elevator and would be set on railway tracks that would then accomplish the now infamous shots of Babylon in the film.

Soon to be director Joesph Henabery (who not only worked behind the camera on Intolerance but also played Abraham Lincoln in Griffith’s last film, The Birth of a Nation) described how the shot worked to Kevin Brownlow:

‘The camera platform was mounted on top of this [constructed elevator] device. As it descended vertically, the tower moved forward on wheeled trucks which rode on railroad trucks. These trucks had cast-iron wheels, eighteen inches across; they were the kind of platform trucks used by railroad maintenance men. Four people rode on the camera platform: Griffith; Bitzer; Karl Brown; his assistant; and myself… Without any cut or break, it gradually descended to a medium shot which included just the principals… We rehearsed for about one and a half hours. Now we had to begin shooting to catch the light at the proper angle. The scene itself was made three or four times. As I recall it, each shot appeared to be okay. However, as retakes would have cost a fortune, the shot was repeated for protection with some minor changes in exposure. The camera platform was between a hundred and a hundred and fifteen feet; as I recall it, we were in a line horizontally with the elephant platforms, and the camera was slightly below them. At its widest point, the tower structure was forty feet’ (Taken from Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By… page 57)

This particular shot described and explained by Henabery is probably one of the most important shots in the history of the Hollywood Epics. It is the first major shot ever made by a Hollywood production to really bring home the impact of showmanship in filmmaking. Massive sets were built and massive camera devices were built to accommodate such sets.

However, in 2001 with the opening of the Highland Shopping Centre the main developer constructed a section of the shopping centre to have a three story courtyard which included Babylon’s gate and a number of elephant statues. A direct nod to Griffith’s monumental set for Intolerance; an incredible feet made by those early film pioneers who not only formed the legend of Hollywood but who also established the hallmarks of what a Hollywood Epic could and should be.’

James would like to thank Neil Brand, Kevin Brownlow, Andrew Collins, Ian Christie (Birkbeck College ), Maria Wyke (UCL), Sheldon Hall (Sheffield Hallam University), Ian Nathan (Empire Magazine), Production Designer Anthony D. G. Pratt, Elena Theodorakopoulos (University of Birmingham), Costume Designer Tom Rand, Tom Vincent (Aardman Animations) and Mark Fuller (Bristol Silents) for all their help and support when it came to the production of Epics: A Cast of Thousands.

Timeshift: Epics: A Cast of Thousands will be shown on BBC Four on Sunday 5th August at 22:20 GMT. If you missed it you can always catch up on it on the BBC’s iPlayer which you will be able to find after the screening on the BBC Website.

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