Epics, Spectacles and Blockbusters Review

 Author: Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale


Published by Wayne State University Press is Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale’s ‘Epics, Spectacles and Blockbusters’ which at first glance can be read as a history of Hollywood and its financial highs and lows. However, what the authors are trying to trace are what they call the Hollywood ‘roadshow’ picture; that is the films made by Hollywood that were the making and in some cases the breaking of the Hollywood machine and the studio system and those that were designed to saturate the market. It begins surprisingly with the early days of Hollywoodland and even the Nickelodeon days and traces that development up to what we can really describe as the first blockbusters, that of D.W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). For the next few years until the emergence of sound it was the films of Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille and his biblical epics that dominated the ‘roadshow’ picture market and the blockbuster film. Throughout the thirties the Hollywood star/studio system really took root but it wasn’t until 1939’s Gone With the Wind that we once again see another huge blockbuster from a film that dared to charge extra to get bums on seats, had an intermission (due to its four hour length) and because to its length was unable to show more than a couple of screenings a day. Yet it still broke box-office records and throughout the book this is what Hall and Neale attempt to chart: the gross cost of a blockbuster/major release, rentals and return and how this affected the system, the challenges it raises and how this determined the kind of movies being made. Needless to say the war had a dramatic effect on film production and the kind of films being made (it had to rely on a largely home audience), even if America came out of the war richer than it was when it went in.

Famously, television was to have another dramatic impact on cinema as it became a rival and made the studios paranoid. But the authors here are largely dismissive of this and are more than ready to meet the challenge with new developments such as Cinemascope VistaVision and the short lived 3-D processes. This is where the book gets really interesting. Up to this point it warrants little more than a skim read. This once again gave birth to a new set of spectacular biblical epics such as The Robe (1953), the first film to be shot in Cinemascope and even a resurgence of the likes of Cecil B. De Mille who remade his 1925 classic The Ten Commandments in 1956. But all of these were eclipsed by Ben-Hur in 1959. Yet by the sixties the biblical epic fell out of favour, racked up huge production costs and this began the decline of the old Hollywood as money was being pumped into such turkeys as The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and The Bible (1966). However, it took many years before Hollywood took heed of these warnings, particularly when the Hollywood studios began tapping into an international market of filming in Britain and the rest of Europe. By 1965 there were huge successes with the likes of The Sound of Music (1965) which became the biggest selling ‘roadshow’ movie to date. Yet Paramount and other studios ran away with themselves making many spectacular box-office flops between 1968-1970 with the likes of Hello Dolly (1968) which cost over $25 million to make, but returned just over $3 million at the box-office. What followed over the next few years is a history of Hollywood following this beginning with huge smashes with the likes of The Graduate (1967) which were not ‘roadshow’ pictures and the films of that ilk were covered by such writers as Peter Biskind who have covered this area in other books.

Clearly cinema became more adult orientated with films such as The Godfather films becoming the next huge success, closely followed by Last Tango in Paris (1972) and the like. The mid to late seventies then saw the wunderkind that was Steven Spielberg and George Lucas bringing the blockbuster back to Hollywood, teen pics through the eighties and now the inundation of the new 3-D process that have been released in the past few years aimed at the family blockbuster market to the point of saturation. What emerges from this is that these are trends determined by who the target audience be they families, teenagers or adults and the market industry’s response to those demands.

Hall and Neale’s book aims to be a new kind of cinema history, but is it really? It’s a book that grows into an interesting read and indulges us with lots of stats and figures and how these trends emerge, but a shorter more concise book would make it a more interesting read. However, it is fairly well illustrated and does remind me of the eight volume History of American Cinema series published by University of California Press. Unlike all epics, spectaculars or blockbusters it has a very dull front cover and little to invite receipts or a return.

Chris Hick

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