Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale, Epics, Spectacles and Blockbusters

Article excerpt

Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale, Epics, Spectacles and Blockbusters. Detroit: Wayne State U.P., 2010. 363 pp. Paper.

The epic, blockbuster or spectacular film has been a staple component of Hollywood cinema ever since its earliest days. From Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), Gone with the Wind (1939), Spartacus (1959), Star Wars (1977), to Gladiator (2000), audiences have flocked in droves to witness elaborate set pieces, special effects and memorable stories. Critics have also been drawn to these films--not only successful examples, but spectacular flops such as The Conqueror (1956), with John Wayne as Genghis Khan, and Ishtar (1987), with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman leading a cast in an epic that sank without trace (recouping only $8m. of its $45m. budget).

Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale's book traces the development of ali three genres from the late nineteenth century to the present day. They are especially interested in how they were promoted. In the earliest days they were part of an overall variety program of live action and comedy, with their main selling-point being their subject-matter, or their technological innovations (some were shot in primitive color). It was only during the 1910s that these films became longer (acquiring the title of "feature films') and more lavish. Hall and Neale are especially interested in the ways in which spectaculars were "roadshowed"--in other words, toured round the country for weeks and months on end, playing at venues both large and small. By such means the producers transformed the spectacular into an occasion, rather like the visit of a touring theater company, which differentiated it from the run-of-the-mill fare normally on offer at movie houses.

By the 1930s roadshowing had become a risky business, especially for big-budget films that required considerable expenditure on marketing and publicity. Whenever the technique was used, however, for example, with Gone with the Wind, it paid off handsomely at the box-office. In the 1950s roadshowing reassumed much of its earlier significance, as the major studios marketed their respective wide-screen and stereo sound formats--Twentieth Century-Fox's Cinemascope being an example--that would hopefully tempt audiences away from the television screen and back into movie houses. …