The ancient world has long been lucrative business at the box office, ever since the original Fred Niblo-directed version of Ben-Hur burst onto the big screen in 1925, in a flurry of shameless promotional activity (the films strapline was: The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!) and famously brutal chariot crashes (some cast and crew were seriously hurt in the pictures spectacular climactic smash a genuine on-set accident that was ruthlessly left in the final cut). At a cost of $4 million by modest estimates, itremains the most expensive silent movie ever made, one that proved a $9 million box office hit (equal to about $100 million today), if a disaster for its backers MGM, who never recouped their investment in the picture.
The fact was clear: Hollywood depictions of the gore, glamour and epic drama of the ancient world were appropriately almighty undertakings that could yield immense riches for those movie-makers who took on the challenge and won. On the flipside, historical mega-productions could potentially ruin those whose pictures for one reason or another didnt measure up to expectations.
According to statistics posted on the box office data and analysis website The Numbers, from Ben-Hur in 1925 up to the most recent ancient world movie to date 2009 Chinese epic Red Cliff 40 major features set in the time frame 6499 BC to 800 AD have between them earned a staggering worldwide box office gross of $4,183,517,418 ($1,898,261,490 in the US alone), on a combined budget of $1,653,650,000 roughly enough to build the Great Pyramid of Giza, at modern costs, five and a half times over. Thats an average gross earning of $134,952,175 per film, at an average cost of $51,676,563. It hardly requires stating that those are some big numbers.
So which commanded the largest slice of the box office? 1960 epic Spartacus surely? Its a classic, but it comes only a mere 15th place in the rankings, with a $60 million gross on a then-massive $12 million budget. Gladiator maybe? Ridley Scotts bloody blockbuster from 2000 is up there with the biggies at almost $458 million gross on a budget of $103 million, yet it still only makes it into third spot. The Life of Brian perhaps? Okay, never a contender, but the Monty Python teams 1979 absurdist Biblical satire did fare impressively, earning $36 million worldwide at the cost of a mere $4 million.
The most lucrative ancient world movie ever made beating its nearest opponent Troy by a cool $115 million is actually Mel Gibsons New Testament tale of the final days of Jesus, The Passion of the Christ, which took a staggering $611,899,420 and change at the box office in 2004, on a budget of just $25 million. Thats more than a 2400% return, despite quite incredibly the film being non-English language (its mainly in Aramaic) and it receiving an R-rating in the States for its various extremely violent and gory moments.
Its tempting to conclude that big JC clearly sells, but a quick look at the losers on the list suggests that that’s not always the case. The Last Temptation of Christ earned Martin Scorsese an Academy Award nomination for Best Director in 1988, but the film only just broke even, earning $8.4 on a $7 million investment. The Greatest Story Ever Told was nominated for five Oscars in 1965, yet ended up scuppering the making of other biblical epics for years to come after achieving only a $15.5 million return on a $20 million investment.
1964 swords and sandals mega-production The Fall of The Roman Empire lined up stars galore, from Sophia Loren to Stephen Boyd and Alec Guinness, yet the film didnt even come close to recouping its $20 million budget, taking only a meagre $4.75 million in the US (bankrupting producer Samuel Bronston). Thats small fries compared to the biggest ancient-world-movie-disaster of them all, however: Oliver Stone’s 2004 turkey Alexander, which took a pitiful $34 million gross in the USafter wracking up a $155 million bill for production costs (that’s an eye-watering loss of $121 million!). It still ranks as the biggest American box office bomb of all time, even if it did manage to recoup its losses with international sales of $132 million. You have to wonder whether Warner Bros considered throwing Stone to the lions.
Financial figures by The Numbers.