If and when Arnold Schwarzenegger ever gets the $100 million epic Thel Crusades off the ground, he may find that Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Dennis Quaid, and Liam Neeson have already conquered the territory. In a burst of Cecil B. De Mille-style grandeur, Holywood has a half-dozen period epics headed into theaters over the next 18 months, including the Gibson-directed Braveheart; the Gere-Sean Connery pic, First Knight; Quaid's Dragonheart; and Neeson's Rob Roy. Not to mention Warner Bros.' planned remake of Errol Flynn's Captain Blood or four new versions of Joan of Arc. In fact, not since the days of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or the extravagant Cleopatra (1963) has Hollywood hired so many casts of thousands in search of box office bounty.
''It's a cycle thing. For the first time in a long time, audiences have shown their interest in big, sweeping movies,'' says First Knight producer Hunt Lowry, whose Last of the Mohicans (1993), along with Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), helped renew interest in epic adventures. It's also a guy thing. Along with the $40 to $45 million First Knight (due in theaters in early summer), which revisits the King Arthur legend through the eyes of Sir Lancelot (Julia Ormond plays his Guinevere), the trend is being pushed along by the number of actors who want to take center stage as dashing leading men. When Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace finished his script about 13th-century Scottish patriot William Wallace, he could think of only one person to play the hero: Mel Gibson. As it turned out, Gibson wanted not only to star but also to direct the $40 to $50 million film, due out Memorial Day weekend. ''I was always interested in the Dark Ages,'' says Gibson. ''There's just something primal about it.''
Not everyone's enthusiastic about being caught up in the medieval movement. ''It's like an ant colony with everyone rubbing up against each other,'' says director Rob Cohen (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story), who finished shooting his Dark Ages saga, Dragonheart, in Slovakia in November. The film stars Quaid as the last dragon slayer and Connery (again) as the voice of a fire-breathing dragon named Draco. Cohen separates his film from the pack because of its state-of-the-art computer graphics. Dragonheart (due in 1996, it's budget is estimated at $50 million), will spend the next year in the lab, where 107 computer images of the dragon will be added. If it works, it could do for dragons what Jurassic Parkdid for dinosaurs.
Director Michael Caton-Jones (This Boy's Life) is also careful to distinguish the 18th-century Rob Roy, due in July, from earlier period adventures. ''My film is basically a Western set in the Scottish highlands,'' says Scotsman Caton-Jones. His film, like Braveheart, is also based on a true story: that of Rob Roy (Neeson), the head of the feisty MacGregor clan, who wields his claymore against British oppression. While not as expensive as some of the others ($25 million), it will contain plenty of action and romance the latter courtesy of Mrs. MacGregor (Jessica Lange).
What's behind the shift to adventure, Neeson believes, is less a thirst for adventure than a quest for virtue. ''It's not a question of the time period being hot as much as it is a reflection of characters like Rob Roy,'' Neeson reasons. ''We live in such a disposable age. We have to go back to characters who stood by these incredible ethics and morals.'' But Gibson maintains that for him the urge is more basic: ''When I got Braveheart, it was like 'Whoa! This is a real story.' You can't sympathize with these Vikings, man. That's all there was to it. (And) I come from a long line of (Vikings), I'm sure. Somewhere in my distant past, I probably threw babies on spears.''