Death of glory

Epic films of great men doing great deeds triumphed in 1950s America and made a comeback in the past

When he was only 22, in around 334BC, Alexander of Macedon (otherwise known as Alexander the Great) began his conquest of the known world. By the age of 25, he had defeated the Persian empire and taken Babylon; at 29, he invaded India. By the time he was 32, he had decided he had become divine. "Since Alexander wishes to be a god, let him be a god," said a decree issued by Sparta. But then the god died and his empire fell apart.

Despite this Icarus-like end, the tag line of Oliver Stone's new biographical film Alexander is bravely upbeat: "Fortune favours the bold". Perhaps so, for a while. The collapse of Alexander's empire proved that fortune is fickle - almost as fickle as movie audiences, who drive studio executives wild with frustration as they struggle to find the formula that will appeal to the cinema-goers of their day. As the screenwriter William Goldman observed about the movie business: "Nobody knows anything."

For this reason, any hint of a sustained trend is seized on and exploited to the full, and one of the most exploited trends of the past decade has been the epic. From Mel Gibson's Braveheart in 1995 to Wolfgang Petersen's Troy last year, studios have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into films that re-create (and often rewrite) historical events and depict great men doing great deeds. The studios have, by and large, been rewarded for it.

Stone's Alexander, however, has taken a bashing from critics since it opened in the US in November. Despite a star-studded cast including Angelina Jolie, Colin Farrell, Val Kilmer and Anthony Hopkins, the $155m film made little more than $13m over Thanksgiving weekend, putting it sixth behind films such as Christmas With the Kranks and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. This mediocre performance will make studio executives hesitate before giving the green light to the next swords-and- sandals pitch. But if the American epic is in decline, it is not just Alexander that is to blame.

The last great era of epic cinema was the 1950s and 1960s. Faced with increasing competition from television, movie studios needed something to entice families out of their living rooms and back into the theatres. First they tried colour film, but that was soon replicated by television. Their next innovation was more successful: widescreen CinemaScope. Introduced with Henry Koster's 1953 Roman epic The Robe, this impressed audiences and cast a shadow over television's little square box. Epics with massed armies and chariot races took full advantage of this technology.

Yet economic and technological developments only partly explain the success of the epic. Consumer demand for films such as Ben Hur, El Cid and Cleopatra was rooted in a particular national culture at a particular time. In the 1950s and early 1960s, America was supremely confident. Europe and Japan were only gradually recovering from the destruction of the Second World War and, in its stand-off with the Soviet Union, the US felt endowed with a historic responsibility. Epic films, with their grand theatrics and heroics, reflected and reinforced this mood. Whether done by Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar, great deeds mattered in these films just as they mattered to contemporary Americans, who were exhorted by President Kennedy in his inaugural address to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty".

So economics, technology and politics combined to elevate the epic, but they also brought about its decline. The break-up of the studio system undermined the economics of big-budget films, while Watergate and Vietnam proved that leaders could not always be trusted to do the right thing for their country. This was no time for a cinema of great men doing great deeds.

Instead, at least two new kinds of film emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s. First there were experimental films that found meaning and pathos in the lives of the ungreat: drifters (Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider), hoods (Bonnie and Clyde) and students (The Graduate). Later came a cinema of escapist blockbusters, sparked by the successes of The Exorcist, Star Wars and Jaws. The epic, meanwhile, went underground, embracing the world of the Mafia (Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather), anti-heroic war (Coppola's Apocalypse Now) and narcotics (Brian de Palma's Scarface). The anti-epic has in fact proved more resilient than its celebratory counterpart, particularly through the work of Martin Scorsese, who kept it strong into the 1990s with Goodfellas, and into the 21st century with the violent and unromantic Gangs of New York.

The latter film is a near-perfect example of the anti-epic. The deeds in Gangs of New York do not shape history; they are washed away by it. Bill the Butcher's reign of personal intimidation slips away not because of Amsterdam Vallon's heroic opposition, but because of the unstoppable rise of less violent (but equally corrupt) bureaucratic democracy. As Scorsese's final overlapping montage of New York's ever-heightening skyline implies, the past is buried, unremembered and unremarked, by the future.

The recent resurgence of epic films began in the mid-1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, America became an unchallenged superpower and felt more confident than ever. New stars, kinetic cinematography and stunning special effects enhanced the genre, and audiences once again developed an appetite for grand visions of great men doing great deeds. Even though Gladiator acknowledged the deep corruption of the later Roman empire, it managed to justify the hero's death (in man-to-man combat with the emperor himself) by having the emperor's sister and a group of senators declare over his cooling body that the republic would be brought back. Stone's Alexander is equally idealistic, portraying its hero not as a brutal conqueror, but as a starry-eyed unifier of civilisations.

Compared with such films, Petersen's Troy seems positively cynical. Its mammoth war of conquest is triggered by Paris's patently stupid decision to abscond with Helen, prosecuted by King Agamemnon for the most transparently false of reasons, and fought by heroes who are both astonishingly brave and depressingly narrow-minded. Only Hector seems to have any real wisdom, and he is slain by Achilles and dragged around the city for good measure. In this sense, Troy is in fact an anti-epic: a Gangs of the Aegean. On the whole, however, recent epics have been upbeat and idealistic - take, for example, Michael Bay's blatantly patriotic Pearl Harbor and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, which was at heart a stirring tale of "the good war".

Not all successful epics have been about 20th-century America. Audiences also loved the stoicism of Peter Weir's Master and Commander, which depicted a Nelson-era British warship in its lone struggle against a bigger (and pointedly French) privateer. As the pro-war columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post last year: "We are at war, and this is a film not just about the conduct of war, but about virtue in war. Its depiction of the more ancient notions of duty, honour, patriotism and devotion is reminiscent of what we glimpsed during live coverage of the dash to Baghdad back in April, but is now slipping from memory." Krauthammer particularly liked the setting's lack of ambiguity. "[Combat] on the high seas - ships under unified command meeting in duellistic engagement in open waters - represents a distilled essence of warfare that, in the hands of a morally serious man like Weir, is deeply clarifying."

Clarifying? Misleading more like. As the bloody counter-insurgency in Iraq is proving, there is little clarity or certainty in war off the big screen. This points to the hidden curse of epics, and why their appeal does not last. Their captivating bravado, their tales of duty and responsibility, of great deeds done for great purposes, of ends that justify the costs, can fool audiences only for so long. Now that Americans no longer see Iraq as an unambiguously "good war", and are resigning themselves to a long and thankless engagement there, it is perhaps not surprising that they have found it hard to swallow Stone's latest film. Alexander's empire-building, and its eventual fate, are rather too close for comfort.

Alexander (15) is in cinemas now

Ian Garrick Mason is based in Toronto. He also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe