At the moment I’m writing a book. It is called Designs on the Past: How Hollywood Created the Ancient World. It is all about movie-making in Hollywood and movie-watching in twentieth-century America (and Britain). All of the movies I explore in the body of the book are classified as ‘epics’ – a distinct and popular cinematic genre which played a central role in twentieth-century filmmaking and defined the ancient world for generations of spectators. Designs on the Past will provide a comprehensive study of how epic films were made during the period 1916-1965. The book examines issues of film-promotion, the casting of actors, set design, costume, hair and make-up design, music and sound, script, editing, and post-production marketing. The book keeps one vital point in mind: Hollywood film making was an industry and films were primarily made and sold as financial ventures. Sure, Hollywood movies could have integrity and artistic flair, but epic films, with their grandiose budgets, rarely took artistic risks; epics were the most conservative and conventional of the movies produced during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
I’m mad about old-time Hollywood. I collect pressbooks, original memorabilia, autographs of the stars, designs… All of these things are helping me put the book together. I love epic movies and I’m not ashamed to say that I am a product of overdosing on epics (like Ben Hur, Cleopatra and Quo Vadis) when I was a child. The more I watched epic movies, the more I became attuned to the ‘language’ of the genre – the conventions which traditionally combined to make the epics ‘Epic’. I became familiar with the works of the movie stars who performed in epics, the directors who created them, and the designers who visualised them – and as I did I came to realize the deep impact which epic films had on contemporary American filmmakers and cinema audiences.