Larger Than Life: Individuals Caught In The Sweep Of History

Six films, ranging from Mary Queen of Scots to Darkest Hour, redefine epic filmmaking

Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots—in select theaters on December 7—brings to the screen the era-defining life of its title character (Saoirse Ronan). Moving from a young widow to a national leader, the Scottish monarch fights her court, her family, and even Queen Elizabeth of England (Margot Robbie) to give her country a future and its freedom. Set in Scotland's magnificent glens and grand castles, Mary Queen of Scots presents an epic tale of ambition, politics, and love that changed the course of history.

To celebrate Mary Queen of Scots' arrival—which is having its world premiere as the closing night film of the AFI FEST—we’re looking back at five other epic films that restage momentous events in striking new ways. What makes them epic? For Roger Ebert, “epic refers not to the cost or the elaborate production, but to the size of the ideas and vision.” From The Eagle’s journey into ancient Britain to the fight for the democratic world in Darkest Hour, these films reimagine our shared past in surprisingly personal and poignant ways. 

The official trailer for Mary Queen of Scots

Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman won an Academy Award® for Best Actor for his riveting portrayal of Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. In 1940, with Nazi Germany perched in France ready to attack England, Churchill is given the impossible task of uniting his country to fight a seemingly invincible enemy. While much of the action takes place in the halls of Parliament and in the underground corridors of the War Room, the scope of the film is global and monumental. “The decisions it depicts may have determined the fate of the world,” exclaims

Get Darkest Hour now on iTunes or at Amazon.

Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) faces the fate of Europe in Darkest Hour's official trailer. 

Victoria & Abdul

Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul brings to light a nearly lost story of friendship between the most powerful woman on earth, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench), and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a lowly clerk from Agra. As the monarch brings the Muslim man from India into her sphere of influence, naming him her Munshi (or teacher), her court rebels in a gesture that tests the limits of imperial power. As a traditional epic, the film tells its story in luxuriously grand strokes. “From the Taj Mahal to the sumptuous court at Windsor Castle, every scene is gorgeous to look at, every shot magnificently detailed and richly framed,” notes The Observer. But its story of friendship is simple and universal: two very different people who find an unmistakable bond and connection. 

Get Victoria & Abdul now on iTunes or at Amazon.

Judi Dench leads a nation in the official trailer for Victoria & Abdul


To tell the story of how women fought for the right to vote in Britain, Suffragette director Sarah Gavron shows us the period through the eyes of “a composite character based on three women.” To get the details right, Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan pored over historical documents to make their fictional characters perfectly realistic. In 1912, the film's protagonist, a 24-year-old laundry worker named Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), finds her life turned upside down when she joins the suffrage movement. Beaten and jailed, she loses her job and her husband refuses to allow her to see her son—but still she persists. Through Watts' struggle, we see up close and personal this remarkable historical moment of resistance and the real international figures, like Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), who made it happen. “The first women’s movement of the 20th century finally gets the big-screen treatment it deserves,” writes The Wrap.

Get Suffragette now on iTunes or at Amazon

Women rise up to take control in the official Suffragette trailer. 

The Eagle

Adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff’s beloved adventure book, Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle follows Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), a young Roman centurion who journeys into the unknown world of ancient Britain with a Celtic slave he’s saved in order to redeem his father’s honor. Macdonald was influenced by classic epic films with “that feeling of the magic of the country, the way the landscape infiltrates the psychology of the characters.” Shot against the stunning landscapes of Scotland and Hungary, the film imagines ancient Britain as a strange and fantastic world. “This robust epic is filled with action, male bonding, and a terrifying sense of wilderness,” exclaims The Chicago Reader.

Get The Eagle now on iTunes or at Amazon.

Channing Tatum explores the mysterious world of ancient Britain in the official trailer for The Eagle.


Before directing Darkest Hour, Joe Wright covered the same historical period from a different perspective in Atonement, his adaption of Ian McEwan’s celebrated novel. Moving from 1930s England to the battlefield of Dunkirk during World War II to contemporary times, the story chronicles the devastating effect a lie told by thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) has on the lives of her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) and her working-class beau, Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). Nominated for seven Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, Atonement sets its intimate drama of hopes and dreams against the grand sweep of 20th century history. Nowhere does Wright do this more powerfully or poignantly than with his epic 5 ½-minute tracking shot of the beaches of Dunkirk that, according to Indiewire, “is so meticulously choreographed and blocked that it’s able to capture in just five minutes the scope and sensation of being one of the soldiers.”

Get Atonement now on iTunes or at Amazon.

James McAvoy brings Dunkirk into perspective in Atonement.

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