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The Lost Art of the Epic Movie

In this time of self-isolation and quarantine, many people have been hunkering down and binge-watching old TV series from the 1970’s and 1980’s or they have been enjoying The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs (2019) on Shudder and marathons on Syfy. As much as I love The X-Files (1993) and Twin Peaks (1990, 2017), I went a different route. I decided to revisit the lost Hollywood art form of the epic movie. Typically, a film that is generous in scope and over the traditional 90-minute running time, this style began with Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabira which was a 1914 silent production about the Punic Wars that clocked in at three hours in length. Of course, cinephiles will readily cite D.W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation (1915) as being one of the very first sweeping stories to play out on the silver screen.

Obviously, it was a different age back then. Films were a new medium and well, experimental. It was like books were coming alive right before everyone’s eyes. There were so many ways of telling a story through actors and cinematography. Then in 1927, The Jazz Singer was released starring Al Jolson and audiences could now hear dialogue. Alan Crosland’s production ushered in the age of modern cinema. Now everything had come full circle and a new era in entertainment was about to begin. Because there was no distracting social media back in the day, people’s attention spans were longer. So, it wasn’t unusual to have a running time of 2 hours for regular films. Then along came Gone with the Wind in 1939. Clocking in at 3 hours and 58 minutes, this monumental opus directed by Victor Fleming became the pride of the Academy Awards and set the precedent for romances that even echoes throughout a movie like James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). The saga of Scarlett O’Hara and roguish privateer, Rhett Butler set amidst the background of the Civil War charmed audiences everywhere and ended up winning 11 Oscars.

The Godfather Part II is like reading a novel that you can’t put down. You lose track of time. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are at the apex of their craft. You can’t take your eyes off of them.

While I am not a fan of Fleming’s masterpiece, I can acknowledge its beauty and scope for the time period. William Wyler’s 1946 post war drama, The Best Years of Our Lives, is more my speed. This was the first film (sorry, The Deer Hunter (1978) and Coming Home (1978)) to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans. It tells the story of three men from very different walks of life that have one thing in common. They all served in World War II. Upon returning to their homes, each find that they are having a hard time adjusting to being a civilian. The stand out actor in this poignant story is Harold Russell. He actually served our country training paratroopers at Camp MacKall in North Carolina when tragedy struck. During an exercise, some TNT exploded in his hands. He had to be fitted with hooks. After that unfortunate accident, Russell made an Army training film entitled, Diary of a Sergeant (1945). William Wyler happened to see the short and cast him in the role of Homer Parish (who also was disabled). Harold went on to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his moving portrayal.

The 1950’s happen to be my favorite decade for sweeping productions. David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) had me falling in love with the director’s ability to transport moviegoers into whatever story and landscape he chose. This man adored film. His eye for sumptuous details was truly impressive and he also had a way with actors who were at their best when he was behind the camera. Sir Alec Guinness and William Holden were truly riveting in this adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel.

“You broke my heart, Fredo.” John Cazale and Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II (1974).

Another classic from this era is George Stevens’ cinematic version of Edna Ferber’s Giant (1956). I read the book and it is grand and pure pioneer in spirit. It is a love story with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor playing their parts to perfection as rugged rancher Bick Benedict falls for genteel socialite, Leslie Lynnton. They meet and are smitten with one another after Benedict travels to Leslie’s house in Maryland to look at a prized horse to be a stud. Soon thereafter, the pair are en route to the Benedict’s massive spread in Texas. There are many wonderful performances in this film, including a very young Dennis Hopper who stars as Hudson and Taylor’s son. However, the one that is always mentioned is James Dean as Jett Rink. Dean is the rough-around-the-edges hired hand who helps care for the massive Benedict property. He pines for Leslie from afar, thus creating a love triangle dynamic. Stevens’ brilliant work spans generations and manages to address class struggles, racism, and capitalism. It is a feast for the eyes. Hudson and Taylor are at the height of their acting prowess and are beautiful to behold on screen. What makes this a memorable effort is the story. You feel as if you know the land and the people of Texas. The state comes alive and you are immersed in the culture and the sheer experience of every character.

Then in 1962, David Lean strikes a chord with Lawrence of Arabia. The sheer breadth of this production is amazing. Yes, it is long but what an adventure. Based on T.E. Lawrence’s tome, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, it is a breathtaking account of the author’s stint as a liaison officer with rebel forces during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks. The word that springs to mind when thinking about this particular epic film is romantic. The lush cinematography is iconic and memorable. Perhaps the scene that will give any cinephile goosebumps is when Lawrence blows a match out and we are immediately swept away to the desert awash in the deep burnt orange sky of early morning.

Elizabeth Taylor from George Stevens’ Giant (1956).

Another wonderful moment is when Lawrence is being hailed as a hero among the various Arabic tribes and he climbs atop a train, backlit by the sun, resplendent in flowing white robes and walks along the roof while the crowd chants his name. However, underlying all that beauty lurked deeper themes such as betrayal and a defined prejudice of the western world against the Arabs. It was also awash in subtext of Lawrence’s homosexuality, which was briefly touched upon in a disconcerting scene between Peter O’Toole as Lawrence and Jose Ferrer as Turkish Bey.

Kubrick excelled at the epic movie with his brilliant gladiator picture and first foray into the genre, Spartacus. Methodical and a perfectionist, his vision was one that still influences filmmakers today.

Francis Ford Coppola led the charge in the 1970’s with his Godfather sagas. The Godfather Part II (1974) was a compelling story contrasting the life of a father and son and their rises to power. We follow Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) from Sicily to New York. Parallel to his chronicle is his son Michael who is now head of the family and dealing with problems of his own. From competing Mafia groups to a Vegas senator who vows to make Corleone’s quest for a gaming license exceedingly difficult to a potential assassination plot, we become immersed in the lives of these characters. The Godfather Part II is like reading a novel that you can’t put down. You lose track of time. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are at the apex of their craft. You can’t take your eyes off of them.

During this era, Stanley Kubrick gave us the period piece, Barry Lyndon (1975). This tale of an Irish playboy (Ryan O’Neal) who wished to climb the social ladder was full of adventure and romance garnering several Academy Award nominations. Kubrick excelled at the epic movie with his brilliant gladiator picture and first foray into the genre, Spartacus (1960). Methodical and a perfectionist, his vision was one that still influences filmmakers today. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Michael Cimino’s heart wrenching opus, The Deer Hunter (1978) about the Vietnam War and its aftermath featuring a brilliant performance from a young Christopher Walken.

Before he became an action star, Liam Neeson delivered a powerful performance as the titular character in Schindler’s List (1993).

The epic film continued its successful trajectory in the 1980’s. Reds (1981), Warren Beatty’s ode to American Communist Jack Reed is a brilliant love story reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Lawrence of Arabia. The actor/director knows how to tell a story and does it in a unique way interweaving interviews with real life associates of Reed and his wife, Louise Bryant with the biopic. Beatty brings back the Cecil B. DeMille “cast of thousands” with performances from Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Edward Hermann, Maureen Stapleton, George Plimpton, Gene Hackman, and the list goes on and on. This decade also had another historical contender with Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). Ben Kingsley was introduced to U.S. audiences in the title role of the Hindu lawyer turned political activist.

Believe it or not, this cinematic art form was found peppered throughout the 1990’s as well with Oliver Stone’s version of the Kennedy assassination as seen through the eyes of attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in the star-studded JFK (1991). I don’t care what the critics and the general population thinks of this film, I love it. Yes, it is frowned upon as being a conspiracy theorist’s dream, but it is a work filled with passion and for that very reason, it is one of my favorite epic movies. Dances with Wolves (1990) is another Costner venture based on Michael Blake’s novel about a Civil War Lieutenant who is assigned to an isolated outpost where he learns the ways of the Lakota Sioux; eventually befriending them and marrying a white woman who was raised by the nation as one of their own.

Schindler’s List (1993) for me is the film where Stephen Spielberg realized his full potential as a director. The result is a deeply moving production that hits home about the Holocaust and Oskar Schindler, a man who tried to rescue what Jewish workers he could from death. The film adaptation of the battle of Gettysburg (1993) has a special place in my heart. I grew up not far from the Civil War hallowed grounds in York, Pennsylvania and I would visit and walk the Battlefield with my parents nearly every summer. Ronald F. Maxwell does a masterful job of breathing life into soldiers whose names are known only in history books. The recreation of the battles and the conditions are spot on. You feel as if you are right in the thick of events.

In our current times, the closest thing that passes for an epic movie would be the superhero sagas. The Avengers, The X-Men, and perhaps the Star Wars films. While this is a natural evolution of this cinematic art form, I would be kidding myself if I said I didn’t miss the bygone days where there was more character development, storytelling, and less explosions and special FX. Now, I am not dismissing these efforts like Martin Scorsese did because it is hard work helming these films with green screens and all of the other ancillary activities that are critical to making these beloved productions come together. I guess I am just nostalgic for the glamour of those event pictures from the past. However, I can revisit them whenever I want thanks to streaming services and my personal collection where those select moments in time are captured forever.

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About Susan Leighton

Susan Leighton has written for many entertainment sites including 1428 Elm, VHS Revival, Cult Faction, The Queen of Style, TV Series Hub, Heroic Hollywood, That's My E and Crash Palace. She is known for her interviews with genre icons, Bruce Campbell, Joe Lansdale, Joe Bob Briggs, Dee Wallace, Michael Ironside, Jeffrey Combs, Josh Becker, Danny Hicks, Brent Jennings and Alice Krige. As well as prominent paranormal experts, Christopher Garetano, Chuck Zuckowski, Paul Bradford, Daryl Marston and Kristen Luman. She has also hosted two podcasts, Nerdrotic & Pop Culture Minefield. Her short stories are featured on the Get Scared Podcast on all platforms. Currently, she is writing a paranormal TV series and a feature film script with the hope of eventually obtaining "hyphenate" status, lol. Look for her collection of essays to be included in Lee Gambin's upcoming compilation on great sitcoms of the70's and 80's, "Tonight, on a Very Special Episode."

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