1) Intolerance (1916) (Dir. D.W. Griffith)
D.W. Griffith is perhaps best associated with his 1915 picture The Birth of the Nation (which also happens to be the first motion picture ever made), but Intolerance, made a year later, is one of the most insanely ambitious projects ever put on to the big screen. At a weary 3 and half hours long, it consists of four distinct stories which take place over a period of 2,500 years (Babylonian, Biblical, Renaissance & Modern), and blends them all together in a frenzy. Take that, Cloud Atlas.
Griffith oversaw the construction of monumental sets, commissioned the making of lavishly-designed costumes, and hired 3,000 extras, all in an attempt to explore themes of intolerance through the ages with the sense of importance he felt it deserved. Adjusted for inflation, Intolerance cost around $46 million to make. Upon release, it was a massive flop: today, it’s rightly considered a classic of the silence era and essential viewing for film historians.
2) Battleship Potemkin (1925) (Dir. Sergei Eisenstein)
The sheer scale of Battleship Potemkin rivals that of any film boasting to be an “epic” – it’s an absolutely huge picture, the kind of movie that blockbuster giants like Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer might dream of remaking some day. And Potemkin, the biggest propaganda movie of all-time, has a budget you can see right up there on the screen in every single one of its many, many shots (here’s where we got “montage” from, after all).
Composed of five chronological “chapters” (the most famous of which is known as “The Odessa Steps”), Potemkin is unrelenting in its ambitious force: the crowds are huge, the staged sequences are colossal, and the span is nothing short of breathtaking. But as a picture of ideas as well as one of spectacle, Battleship Potemkin manages to be ambitious in not just one way, but two.