Although Christmas is the preferred time to sit down and watch a three-hour epic about swords and sandals, you can enjoy any of these historical epics at any time.

Provided, of course, you've got a few hours to spare. Here's ten of the best historical epics ever made...



There's nothing to say that historical epics have to enormous budgets or even big-name casts. Aguirre: The Wrath of God is a German film about Spanish conquistadors made by an arthouse director for a little under half a million. Telling the story of an ill-fated journey by Spanish mercenaries to find the lost city of gold, El Dorado, Aguirre: The Wrath of God is almost like Apocalypse Now if it had swords and armour. In fact, Francis Ford Coppolla liberally borrowed from this film when making his Vietnam War epic. The production of Aguirre: The Wrath of God is perhaps even more famous than the film itself. The star, Klaus Kinski, was a couple of steps back from a raving lunatic and apparently shot an extra's finger off when he made a noise during a scene. Makes Christian Bale's wild rant during Terminator: Salvation sound like a kitten mewing. Speaking of Christian Bale...



There may be a reason why Empire of the Sun is overlooked in Steven Spielberg's back catalogue. It's wedged rather unfortunately between two of his best films – namely The Colour Purple and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Christian Bale plays a precocious and slightly annoying young English boy who is separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai during World War II. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by JG Ballard, Empire of the Sun gives a child's eye view of World War II and the conditions that civilians lived in during it. Bale's performance at such a young age really shows he had talent all that time ago.



Like all good historical epics, the film has set to be against a backdrop in history but focus it on one story. Doctor Zhivago is about a young idealistic doctor, who secretly longs to be a poet, who falls in love with a beautiful young woman, although he himself is married to another. All well and good until the 1913 Revolution happens and Russia is thrown into chaos. The two are split up by the events and reunite years later during the height of Soviet oppression, but things have inevitably changed like the world around them. If it sounds like a soap opera, you're not far wrong. A lot of critics disliked the mawkishness, the overtly romantic plot and the running time. Still, as of 2016 and adjusted for inflation, Doctor Zhivago is the 8th-highest grossing film ever made.



Russell Crowe really knows how to throw a sword around and bark orders at underlings in a truly convincing manner. He's done it in Gladiator, Robin Hood, here in this film and he did it in Noah as well. Playing a swashbuckling sea captain during the Napoleonic Wars, Crowe looks like he was born with a ponytail and a sense of colonialism. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, who also did other seafaring adventure flick Das Boot, Master & Commander: Far Side Of The World has some of the best battle sequences we've ever seen. Check this out...



Trivia time! The Life of Brian originally came about when Eric Idle was asked by a journalist at the premiere of their first film, Monty Python & The Holy Grail, what their next film would be. Idle laughed and replied, “Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory”. Out of that off-hand witty remark came Life of Brian. A film so good, Norway banned it. And so did we. Yes, the Irish Film Censorship Board banned The Life of Brian for EIGHT years, only allowing it to be shown in 1987. Why was it banned in Ireland, you ask? Blasphemy. The film takes massive swings at religious themes and is basically ripping the piss out of biblical epics like The Ten Commandments. Trust us - it's still funny.


5. THE MISSION (1986)

Did you go to a secondary school in Ireland during the late '90s / early '00s? There's a good chance you were shown this. We certainly were. We had to sit through this in Double Religion once. But that's the thing about being 15 - you don't realise what you're watching is actually good until you sit down years later and re-evaluate it. The Mission is the the story of a Jesuit's experiences in South America during a period of colonisation by Portugal and Spain. Robert DeNiro is a merciless slaver who, after killing his brother in a duel, is forced to work with a Jesuit missionary, played by Jeremy Irons. Pretty soon, the colonial powers intrude on the jungle where DeNiro and Irons are working as outside powers seek to enslave the natives they're working with. The Mission is all about the visuals and the audio - the beautiful scenery of the Iguazu Falls, the soundtrack, the use of colour, everything. You might have slept through it in school, but it's worth giving it another shot.


4. BRAVEHEART (1993)

Filmed at Trim Castle and on the Curragh Plains in Kildare, Braveheart is a film that is beloved by Irish audiences because it's particularly violent and we can recognise certain places in it. Telling a vastly Hollywoodised version of William Wallace's rebellion, Mel Gibson led a cast of relative unknowns to Oscar glory and box office success. The huge battle sequences – which involved a large portion of the Irish Reserve Defence Forces – are some of the best we've seen and was made before CGI was available. The sweeping tale of romance, rebellion and betrayal still holds up to repeated viewings.



It's got Daniel Day-Lewis, so that immediately tells you it's worth your time. Secondly, it's directed by Michael Mann. This is the director who did Heat, Collateral, The Insider and Manhunter. Set in US colonial times, Day-Lewis is Nathaniel Hawkeye, a white man who has lived with Native Americans and is treated as one of their own by the elders. This flies in the face of the English and French colonists who are at war with the Natives and trying to take land from them. Day-Lewis gave one of his best performances and, as always, devoted himself fully to the role. He reportedly learned how to build a canoe, hunt like a Mohican and even lived out in the wilderness for a period of time during the production.


2. ZULU (1964)

We've harped on before about Zulu, but it's worth it. Have you seen Lord of the Rings? Gladiator? They all copied Zulu. In fact, Ridley Scott mentioned that in the opening scene of Gladiator, he actually copied the war-chant of the Zulu warriors for the German barbarians. Starring Michael Caine in one of his first roles, he plays a naturally-gifted, if a little pompous British officer stationed in Rorke's Drift, a backwater outpost that's about to surrounded and attacked by 4,000 Zulu warriors. Only sixty men remain at Rorke's Drift, all of whom agree to stay and defend the outpost. The final battle, which shows the sheer scale of the extras used, is one of the most memorable battle sequences ever made. Peter Jackson copied it nearly frame-for-frame in The Two Towers. Have a look:


1. BEN-HUR (1959)

For a brief period in Hollywood history, there was a raft of historical epics. Every film had massive sets, huge amounts of cast, was often set in a foreign land and probably starred Charlton Heston. It all began with Ben-Hur. A Jewish prince who's wrongly charged with murdering a Roman politician, Ben-Hur is forced into slavery but saves the life of a general during a battle. Soon after, he is adopted into the Roman way of life and becomes a champion charioteer. All while this is happening, his family have been cast out of their livelihoods and are now lepers. Ben-Hur is the ultimate story of vengeance, redemption and chariot-racing. The chariot race itself is better than most car chases today. No, really. Just watch this:




Lawrence Of Arabia

From Here To Eternity

Barry Lyndon

Dances With Wolves