By David Raether, veteran TV writer and essayist
Let’s define the “epic” film genre. This, of course, is my personal definition because I’m writing this blog post. For me, an epic is a picture that takes on a big topic in a big way. It’s not a quiet depiction of intimate life struggles. It’s war, adventure, passion on a grand scale. Epic stories are immense retellings of enormous stories, and they are meant to stir your soul. Here are my five favorites.
D.W. Griffith is one of the greatest filmmakers in history, and this silent epic is considered a masterpiece of the silent era. Don’t be put off by it being a three and a half hour-long silent film. This truly is a colossal work of movie-making chutzpah, covering four different interwoven epic tales: a contemporary crime and redemption story, the passion of the Christ, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 16th century France, and the fall of Babylonia to the Persians in 539 BCE. Literally, a cast of thousands. And the Babylonia set is astonishing. You can walk through a reproduction of it in Hollywood at the Hollywood and Highland intersection, although now it forms the basis for, fittingly, a shopping mall. It’s an unforgettable film. It’s also a pretty unforgettable shopping mall, frankly.
One of John Ford’s finest films, and it isn’t even one of his famous Westerns. This magnificent film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel isn’t generally considered an epic, but it is for me. What more are you looking for in an epic picture? It has immense landscapes, tragedy, a journey, and redemption in the end. At its heart is Henry Fonda’s brilliant performance as Tom Joad, particularly his “I’ll be there” speech near the end of the film. There’s never a dry eye in my house during that speech. Adapting novels to the screen is notoriously difficult, and Ford was once asked how he was able to craft such a great picture out of Steinbeck’s novel. His answer: “I never read the book.”
The definitive epic film. Hollywood movie-making of the highest order, this sweeping drama on the life of British adventurer T.E. Lawrence never loses its grandeur or grip, even on the small screen. (Although someday, if you have the chance, see it in a movie theater on a screen that can encompass the 70mm frame.) The attack on the city of Aqaba is particularly noteworthy for its bravura. Despite the immense scale of the picture, the most unforgettable thing about the entire movie for me? Peter O’Toole’s magnetic blue eyes. Go ahead, get swept up in this movie—and Peter O’Toole’s eyes—all over again.
Russia makes a perfect setting for epic films. I could have chosen Sergei Eisenstein’s silent epic The Battleship Potemkin (1925), or David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago (1965). But I’m going with Warren Beatty’s Reds. While the film centers on American journalist John Reed, much of the picture is set in Russia and depicts Reed’s increasing disenchantment with the Revolution he had once cheered on. Reds is sweeping in ambitions, and not only deals with revolution, war, and the changing tides of history, but also with intimate topics such as love, sex, marriage, and fidelity. The film also features the Best Performance of a Polish Novelist in a Supporting Role: Jerzy Kosinski is fantastic as Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
Director Michael Mann turned James Fenimore Cooper’s awful novel about the mostly-forgotten French and Indian War into an action-packed and emotionally-affecting thrill ride. Madeleine Stowe turns in a steely, feminist performance as Cora Munro, while the film is sophisticated enough to show the cultural and political tensions you don’t expect to see in a portrayal of Native Americans in a Hollywood blockbuster. The film stars four Native American actors in lead roles: Russell Means (Chingachgook), Wes Studi (Magua), Eric Schweig (Uncas) and Dennis Banks (Ongewasgone). Plus, there’s a sleek 30-something version of Daniel Day-Lewis running through forested glades in a skimpy buckskin outfit, firing two muskets at once. Be still my beating heart! The score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman is a musical masterwork as well.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times is awaiting publication.