Hugely complicated, elaborate and above all expensive, Hollywood loves to make epic movies with lavish production values and a proverbial (sometimes literal) cast of thousands. As Ridley Scott brings ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ to screen, this week’s Roundtable will look at some of the best and worst epics of the past.
Best: I don’t think there’s any beating 1959’s ‘Ben-Hur‘ when it comes to scope and spectacle. Of course, it also helps that the film is a very good story, with the legendary Charlton Heston playing the lead role as a Jewish prince who’s sent into slavery by the Romans, only to return seeking revenge year later (and to participate in the greatest chariot race ever put on film… not that there have been a lot of those!). Many forget that ‘Ben-Hur’ is actually a remake of an earlier movie made in 1925. Yep, that’s right… one of the greatest (and most-awarded) movies ever is a reboot!
Worst: Things don’t get any soggier than Kevin Costner’s 1995 ‘Waterworld‘, a movie that actually wound up turning a profit thanks to its foreign box office take, but one that holds the dubious distinction of being the only theatrical film I’ve ever walked out on (barring sickness or another emergency). For those about to protest, yes I did watch it again on video to see if it got any better – and no, it didn’t. The movie is big and loud, with laughably bad dialogue, over-the-top acting, and is all in all just a colossal bore. I realize it’s been redeemed a little over the years and gained somewhat of a cult following, but I have no intention of watching ‘Waterworld’ a third time just to see if my opinion may have changed. It will always be a reminder of one of my least-enjoyable experiences watching a film.
Best: I loved how the ‘Lord of the Rings‘ trilogy brought back the grand scale epic film. While Peter Jackson composed scenes involving countless extras in full costume, he also created high quality CGI to show the grand battle sequences from a distance. The result was amazing. However, it also spurred a slew of groan-worthy epic movies to follow.
Worst: The worst was ‘Troy‘. Actors and filmmakers that I usually enjoy couldn’t make a positive dent in the suckiness that ensued. Terrible FX. Ineffective battle sequences. Two-dimensional characters. I don’t have a positive thing to say about it.
M. Enois Duarte
Best: Although not as long as some of your typical epics, I would say that Michael Mann’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans‘ is one of the very best historical epics ever made. With stunning, lush cinematography and emotionally inspiring music, the adaptation is also one of those rare miracles that surpasses the book, even improving upon its plot. It’s a fantastic film in its own right, and ranks as one of my favorites within its genre.
Worst: My pick for worst will have to go to M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Last Airbender‘. A big chunk of my disapproval comes from the casting of the main protagonists with entirely Caucasian actors, while the villains are played by Asians. I’ve never even watched the original cartoon (where both heroes and villains are all Asian), yet that little tidbit made question what the hell the filmmakers were thinking. The story and plot are also terrible, failing at every turn to engage viewers while bombarding them with pretty CGI visuals to distract from the god-awful acting. Overall, it’s just bad, bad, bad.
Best: I might have a slippery definition of “epic” in mind, but Sergio Leone’s ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly‘ is a mesmerizing film that introduces an idea of being part of (some version of) the American Civil War on a large scale. Though the movie is packed with intimate scenes, forays by Union and Confederate troops bring into view a whole war with casualties, brutality and insanity to spare. The infamous bridge scene effectively ends that aspect of the movie, yet I’m not sure I could ever ask for a better epic.
Worst: With Martin Scorsese, Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio headlining, how could ‘Gangs of New York‘ be anything short of a masterpiece? Turns out, it’s all too easy. Cinema is packed with love letters to New York City, but I found ‘Gangs of New York’ to be a mess from beginning to end. In spite of the lavish production and a whole heap of historical license, the film is very unfocused. By the time the outrageous naval bombardment occurred, it was clear that the movie best be forgotten.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
Best: When I first saw the trailer for ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’, I was fascinated by its imagery of the parting of the Red Sea. I don’t mean that in quite the way you might expect, though. It doesn’t matter how much silicon horsepower or digital artistry are behind what’s certain to be the centerpiece of Ridley Scott’s take on the story of Moses. What little I glimpsed had no hope of capturing my imagination anywhere near as deeply as Cecil B. DeMille and company had with ‘The Ten Commandments‘, regardless of how visual effects have advanced in the nearly six decades separating these films.
I’m not blind to the film’s missteps. The dialogue too often creaks and groans, a number of its most ambitious effects shots have aged poorly, and more than a couple of performances veer dangerously towards camp. ‘Ben-Hur’ is the superior work in so many ways, but ‘The Ten Commandments’ will always be my sentimental favorite. It boasts a scale and scope that precious few films of any era can match. Every last facet of ‘The Ten Commandments’ is staggering in size: its lavish production design, one iconic visual after another, what very well may be a cast of thousands and, yes, even the larger than life acting. There’s a level of spectacle that’s wholly entrancing, and I often find myself taken by its sincerity. Its message is pure and simple, revolving around responsibility, loyalty, sacrifice, freedom and the power of good over evil. I’m convinced that everyone on both sides of the camera strongly believes every last word of it. That pure-hearted spirit and lack of cynicism can’t help but warm my heart. Charlton Heston brings Moses to life as a square-jawed hero, and his somewhat grounded approach helps anchor the more operatic performances around him.
I can (and have) written many thousands of words about ‘The Ten Commandments’, but the short version is that when I hear the word “epic,” it is and will forever remain the first film that springs to mind. Too often in these Roundtables, I’ll write about movies that have gotten short thrift on video or haven’t bowed in high definition at all. I’m pleased to say that this is not at all the case with ‘The Ten Commandments’, which Paramount lavished with an extraordinary six-disc collector’s edition a few years back, complete with one of the most surreally gorgeous restorations I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. I know it’s considered more of an Easter mainstay, but if you haven’t caught the ‘Ten Commandments’ on Blu-ray, I’d argue that now is as good a time as any.
Best: Honestly, I was so certain that someone before me would pick ‘Lawrence of Arabia‘ that I focused on a different movie instead. Apparently, everyone else assumed the same. Well, I can’t let David Lean’s amazing historical adventure go unacknowledged, but calling it an Honorable Mention seems so insufficient. So, we’ll just say that it’s simply a given for this topic. ‘Lawrence’ is a towering achievement of cinema.
Meanwhile, ‘Gone with the Wind‘ is no slouch either. Everything about the film exists on a scale almost beyond belief: the epic sweep of its story, the enormous expense and magnitude of its production, its staggering length, its extraordinary success, and its reputation as one of the greatest classics from Hollywood’s Golden Era. Could any movie possibly live up to the burden of such expectations? Amazingly, yes. The most impressive thing about the film is that, once you settle in, its four-hour length just flies by. At its heart, it’s simply the greatest soap opera ever made, with juicy characters, crackling dialogue, scandal and intrigue, love triangles, betrayal, revenge, loss, despair and triumph. All are told with searing emotions, dramatized by a fabulous cast and astounding production values. This is melodrama elevated to art.
Worst: Yeah, I’m the guy who thinks ‘Gladiator’ sucks a big smelly turdsicle. I’m aware that this is not a popular opinion. Can we still be friends anyway?
What are your picks for best and worst epic movies? Tell us in the Comments.