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Few directors working today have ties to the historical epic and period drama genres quite like Ridley Scott does. The sorts of large-scale, often action-packed movies that he often makes were popular way back in the 1950s and 1960s, with big epics set long in the past like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, and also Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments all being huge upon release (and still generally holding up well now). But the genre is, ironically enough, seen as a bit old-fashioned now, with Scott being one of the few filmmakers keeping it alive to some extent.
After all, he has a Napoleon movie slated for release in 2023, and Gladiator 2 is set to be his next project, with both likely to have plenty of spectacle and action. He’s made seven other feature films that fall into the category of being set hundreds – or thousands – of years ago, and/or being based on/inspired by real events. Not all the following movies are necessarily equal when it comes to historical accuracy, but they all feel like historical epics, which is the main thing. Other Ridley Scott movies involving real-life stories of a more recent nature (like House of Gucci or All the Money in the World) don’t quite fall into the same category, so what follows is a ranking of his far-back historical epic movies, shown below from worst to best.
7 ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ (2014)
The one good thing that can be said about Exodus: Gods and Kings is that it makes the job of selecting a worst Ridley Scott epic very easy. It’s clearly his weakest effort as a filmmaker when tackling something on this sort of scale, being another cinematic depiction of the Bible’s Book of Exodus, with a focus on the rivalry between Moses and Ramses II, the way the former led the Hebrews out of enslavement, and all the plagues that affected Egypt around the same time.
Brief bursts of action and effects-heavy sequences can sometimes look impressive here, which is pretty much a given when your movie cost $140 million to make. Otherwise, the movie’s quite a slog to get through, with actors who look either out of place and/or like they really don’t want to be there. Everything feels half-hearted at best, and watching something that goes for 2.5 hours without much passion behind it makes for a boring time. Stick to The 10 Commandments or 1998’s The Prince of Egypt instead, for superior takes on the same source material.
6 ‘Robin Hood’ (2010)
Just like it’s possible to endlessly think about why yet another Book of Exodus movie was made in 2014 without finding an answer, so too can one be driven to madness when trying to rationalize the existence of another Robin Hood movie, made in 2010. It moves a little better than Exodus: Gods and Kings, and probably benefits in the entertainment department by having more frequent action, but it’s an otherwise quite forgettable and not exactly necessary take on the classic Robin Hood legend.
There’s a little intrigue created by merging the expected Robin Hood characters with some real-life figures, giving this take on the story a slightly more grounded feel (even if it’s obviously not entirely historically accurate). It has elements inspired by history, and the battle sequences are done with some enthusiasm and weight behind them, but it overall ends up feeling overlong at nearly 2.5 hours, sagging in many parts when it comes to pacing and not utilizing its great cast as well as it could.
5 ‘The Duellists’ (1977)
The Duellists is the point in a Ridley Scott epics ranking where things start getting good. While this one is comparatively shorter and less expansive in scope than his other historical dramas, it still packs a pretty solid punch, and is all the more impressive when one considers that this was his feature film debut, setting the standard that he’d try to exceed in later films belonging to the same broad genre.
It’s the rare Ridley Scott movie that comes in at under two hours, focusing on a personal story revolving around two men, and their years-long conflict against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Said conflict leads to plenty of sword fights in the movie, with these sequences being well-executed, and the less action-focused stuff still remaining compelling, largely thanks to committed lead performances from Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine. It’s straight to the point and engaging, and quite remarkable for a directorial debut.
4 ‘1492: Conquest of Paradise’ (1992)
Though it’s not without some problems, 1492: Conquest of Paradise is the most underrated of all the epics Ridley Scott’s made, and an under-appreciated entry in general within his filmography. It was released to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the voyage undertaken by Christopher Columbus, during which he located what he called the New World, which was the land that later came to be known as the Americas.
It doesn’t delve into some of the more uncomfortable aspects of Columbus’ life, with such oversights understandably being a barrier to appreciating the film for some. It’s a somewhat mythologized take on a story from half a millennium ago, with a divisive approach to the narrative being contrasted with spectacular visuals, engaging action/adventure sequences, and an all-time great Vangelis score. It’s a thrilling yet troubling epic, but can be at least commended for the artistry present within the non-narrative aspects of the film.
3 ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ (2005)
Containing some of the best action of any Ridley Scott movie, Kingdom of Heaven is also an exciting and engaging story set during The Crusades… even if you have to watch the director’s cut to get the most out of it. The film was heavily edited for its theatrical release, maintaining the action and spectacle while sacrificing coherency when it came to the story, which means that the director’s cut – approximately 50 minutes longer – is much better overall.
The events depicted likely happened, but much of the more intricate stuff is heavily fictionalized, which is a little easier to forgive when the events depicted happened way back in the 1100s. Kingdom of Heaven benefits from having some massive battle sequences, and a solidly told story that makes those at war easier to care about, overall leading to a very well-made epic that certainly deserves more love.
2 ‘The Last Duel’ (2021)
Featuring a great cast that includes Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck, while also being complemented by a thought-provoking and unique structure, The Last Duel is one of the greatest films within Scott’s body of work. It’s about the last time trial by combat was ever used in France (way back in the year 1386), focusing on the circumstances that led to the duel and showing them from three differing perspectives.
It’s a confronting movie, because even though it tells viewers which point of view is the right one, it nevertheless shows how people who do terrible things rationalize their behavior, both to themselves and others around them. The alarming event at The Last Duel’s center also has relevance to the still-recent #MeToo movement, and the conversations it started within the film industry and beyond. That’s all to say that The Last Duel is a difficult film, and a long one, but it’s bold, well-acted, leaves an impact, and also delivers when it comes to production design and action sequences, as you’d expect from a Ridley Scott epic.
1 ‘Gladiator’ (2000)
Winning Best Picture in 2000 – and justifiably so, considering it was one of the year’s best – Gladiator continues to hold up to this day as Ridley Scott’s best epic. It’s set during the times of the Roman Empire, and follows the personal revenge-related quest a former soldier goes on after he’s betrayed, finds his family’s been murdered, and is subsequently sold into being a gladiatorial slave.
Narratively, it’s similar to Ben-Hur and Spartacus, of course, but it uses then cutting-edge technology to deliver a familiar and accessible story in a visually dazzling way that still looks great more than two decades later. It’s exciting, moves well, feels emotional, and is filled with great action, bolstered by fantastic performances too, especially from a heroic Russell Crowe and a deliciously villainous Joaquin Phoenix.
NEXT: Movies Like ‘Gladiator’ For More Epic Entertainment