Aside from questionable casting and probable cheesiness, this week’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time looks to be what Don LaFontaine (AKA “trailer voice guy”) would have deemed “an epic of epic proportions.” Thus, in this week’s Listicle William Bibbiani and I (Julia Rhodes!) bring you some of our favorite Epic Movies of Epic Epicness. (No, epicness is not a word—but it should be.)
A few things to remember about The Weekly Listicle: our informed, obviously awesome choices are not in numerical order, nor are they listed best to worst. William’s and Julia’s picks come straight to you from our overworked blogger brains, from our fingertips to your eyes, but we aren’t offering a ranking system here. For instance, for this Weekly Listicle, I’m headed back to my childhood for epic inspiration, while William’s got the classics covered. We’re not ranking them—in no way is Forrest Gump a better movie than Gone with the Wind or Metropolis (really…no way).
As always, feel free to mention your own favorites in the comment and call us out on glaring omissions!
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (dir. Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003)
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy isn’t a single film, of course, but it sure is epic. Based on the three novels by linguist J.R.R. Tolkien (who is of course also responsible for one of my favorite childhood animated epics, The Hobbit—which Guillermo del Toro is remaking). Lord of the Rings, a twelve-hour descent into the alternate universe of Middle Earth, can’t be categorized as anything else but “epic awesomeness.” Because of my early adoration of Jackson and my affinity for geekery, I have waited in (sometimes two-hour) lines for midnight screenings of each movie.
While each film is visually spectacular, as “epic” genre movies often are, the neat thing about Lord of the Rings is that beneath all that craziness with the One Ring, the end of the world, Sauron, and Sarumon, there are individual story arcs that lend believability to the characters a lot of epics don’t possess. The relationship between Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee has become a pop cultural joke because it seems no one could fathom bromance before Superbad and I Love You, Man—but that doesn’t make it any less poignant. Gollum’s transformation from Sméagol to, well, Gollum, is horrific but utterly engrossing. The love triangle between Aragorn, Arwen, and Eowyn is fascinating, even if you know the outcome. The best of the epics intersperse visual effects and battle-to-the-death plots with personal stories that help the audience insert themselves into the cinematic universe.
Now let’s talk about the confluence of brilliant visual effects, incredible makeup artistry, and fantastic music that combine to make these movies. Now that I’m writing about them, I can’t get the main theme out of my head, which speaks to Howard Shore’s ability to grind a melody into your brain. I’m not sure there has been better use of CGI in a film since. Yes, Avatar is pretty (but it’s still awful). Lord of the Rings is nearly unparalleled, though, for beauty and realism in epic film. Who knows where the future of film is headed, so I could be eating my words in the next few years—but something tells me Lord of the Rings will stay right up there with the best of visual effects in film history.
Full Metal Jacket (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1981)
Even Stanley Kubrick’s more expansive films don’t exactly fit into the “epic” category. Barry Lyndon and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which perhaps best fit the bill, feel like smaller films due to Kubrick’s intense focus on singular characters and plotlines. Full Metal Jacket, one of the most voracious anti-war films ever made, features sweeping shots of the countryside (actually England, though the second half of the movie is set in Vietnam), a large ensemble cast, and a plot that spans years—all of which peg it as an epic.
For a college class on propaganda film I spent a weekend watching Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Jacob’s Ladder repeatedly to compose a lengthy research paper on anti-Vietnam War movies. I came out of the experience twitchy and shell-shocked in the clinical sense (I don’t recommend shutting yourself in a dark room with those three movies), but with an “A” paper. Full Metal Jacket’s opening half takes place at Parris Island recruit training, and established R. Lee Ermey as the drill sergeant caricature he has become. Vincent D’Onofrio plays poor, downtrodden Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence, who won’t succumb to the rigors of training and is eventually ground to nothing in the gears of war. After a jarring jump from Pyle’s suicide at Parris Island, the second half of the film chronicles the Lusthog Squad’s travails as they search for a sniper in the jungle and desiccated cities of war-torn Vietnam.
Full Metal Jacket is a disturbing viewing experience, fraught with the dark underside of patriotism, the banality of evil, and as Private Joker says, “the duality of man.” Based on Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short-Timers, the movie is about the government’s manipulation of people’s weaknesses and darkest desires. If you want a film that’ll make you think about war, masculinity, and the ease with which violence comes to most of us, Full Metal Jacket’s just the ticket.
Willow (dir. Ron Howard, 1988)
Post-Opie Taylor, pre-Da Vinci Code Ron Howard made a fantasy epic called Willow. George Lucas wrote the story upon which Willow is based, and the tale has a distinctly Lucas feel. Lucas’s baby Industrial Light & Magic created the special effects, which at the time were a huge accomplishment. Filmed in England and New Zealand, the majestic shots of beautiful rolling hills and mountains, gorgeous forests, and snow-capped villages make it an epic of epicness.
Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis), a Daikini (a dwarf race whose homeliness and tiny size seems inspired by the Hobbits), finds a human baby in the river near his village. Because he found the thing, he’s tasked with spiriting it away from the sorceress Bavmorda, who senses the child’s power and wishes to destroy her. On the journey Willow meets criminal Madmartigan (Val Kilmer); an elderly sorceress named Raziel; a pair of Brownies, an even tinier race who provide comic relief; and fights trolls and a two-headed dragon.
The movie obviously derived some plot points from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels, and released to so-so critical response. But children everywhere (myself included) found it thrilling, funny, and even scary—the trolls and dragon seem ridiculous now, but for a five-year-old they’re a little on the terrifying side. The movie gained a cult following as part of every ‘80s kid’s repertoire, and the ridiculousness of its plot, acting, and effects make it just as awesome now as it was back in the day.
The Neverending Story (dir. Wolfgang Peterson, 1984)
The Neverending Story is one of my favorite fantasy epics. Bastian, a bookish lad who’s constantly bullied, locks himself in the school attic to read an enormous novel called (what else?) The Neverending Story, which is about Atreyu, a boy who sets out on an epic journey to save an alternate world called Fantasia. No one reads books anymore, the movie laments, and The Nothing is slowly swallowing Fantasia bit by bit. Only once Bastian retreats into the novel does he realize only he has the power to save Fantasia.
The Childlike Empress, Atreyu and his horse Artax, the luck dragon Falkor, the massive tortoise Morla, the narcoleptic bat, the giant snail, and the infinitely terrifying wolf G’mork made indelible impressions on me as a child—Noah Hathaway, who played Atreyu, was my first crush. I nursed fantasies of my own white dog-dragon chasing enemies into dumpsters. I’m probably not the only one who daydreamed about these things.
It seems a little backwards to have a movie bemoaning the fact that no one reads anymore, but since the movie is based on a German novel of the same name, I’ll give it a pass. (How meta…a movie based on a book called The Neverending Story that’s about a kid reading the same book. Whoa.) The Neverending Story’s charm lies in the way it treats kids. The heroes here are children: smart, brave warriors who refuse to let go of their dreams. I’d like to think there’s still a bit of that in all of us, and The Neverending Story brings it out in me.
As an aside, I seem to be firmly entrenched in the 1980s with my choices, but after some research, I don’t think it’s accidental. The ‘80s were big on fantasy, with each studio dealing its hand in effects, makeup, and budget. In that decadent era of drugs, abundance, and Reaganomics, movies tended toward the outrageous. There are epics in the 1990s, but I don’t favor any of them particularly.
Forrest Gump (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1994)
Forrest Gump airs on AMC at least once a week, and if I catch it, I’ll usually leave it on. It’s not that I love the movie (The Shawshank Redemption deserved the Oscar that year), but it’s sort of comforting. It’s an expansive epic, spanning forty years and all of America as well as Vietnam and China. Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) stumbles through the biggest events in America’s history, and his charming ignorance lends a new perspective to our country’s past.
Forrest, a mentally challenged boy from Alabama, manages to find himself fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, captaining a shrimp boat, owning a Fortune 500 company, meeting multiple presidents and John Lennon, and competing in an international ping pong championship in China, all without the slightest hint of arrogance. Winston Groom’s novel is written from Forrest’s perspective, and written phonetically, so that the narration is simple and the spelling often confusing. Zemeckis’s film is also from Forrest’s perspective, but because you see others’ reactions to his innocence, you realize the true importance of what he’s doing, the kindnesses he displays.
As far as epics go, Forrest Gump fits the category because of the length of time it spans and because its budget and cast leave it nowhere else. It’s a comedy-drama, but one for the ages, one that tells the story, not really of Forrest Gump, but of mid-century America.
Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927)
I hadn’t considered Metropolis for this Weekly Listicle until I saw it again just this afternoon at a screening of the newest restoration, which incorporates a whopping 25 minutes of footage into one of the biggest science fiction spectacles there is. The content remains largely the same, although some of the new images – like the world’s most poorly conceived elevator system – are destined to stick with me. But despite the added length the pacing of Metropolis feels tighter, and more epic than ever.
Fritz Lang directed this masterpiece about a futuristic society divided into two distinct classes: those who keep the machines running and those who tell the other guys to keep the machines running. (It’s a pretty sweet deal for the latter group.) The leader of the civilization has plans to quell a possible insurrection of the working class using a sophisticated robot, while his son has fallen in love with the rebel’s spiritual leader and seeks a more harmonious solution to the potentially apocalyptic uprising. Not just any apocalypse either, but an actual Biblical apocalypse. Watching Metropolis today throws into sharp relief many of the complaints lobbed against such recent science fiction tales as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Lost,” which often ran into complaints for getting faith in their audience’s science fiction, or getting science fiction in their faith. The two elements combine beautifully in Lang’s film, which uses the “Tower of Babel” fable to illustrate that scientific accomplishments represent the achievements of mankind, while sending us spiraling away from spiritual and philosophical enlightenment.
But of course, Metropolis isn’t just thematically epic, it’s also epically epic. Enormous casts of rioting workers, drowning children and raucous revelers fill sets of such diabolically dystopian design that it still boggles the mind today to imagine someone actually realizing the incredible images of Metropolis in the 1920s. The many iconic images have influenced countless films, comic books, regular books and more over the decades that it’s a little hard to imagine how much they all stemmed from the epic vision of this one film… until you see it for yourself. Then it’s easy. Metropolis remains the first, and possibly greatest, science fiction epic.
Gone with the Wind (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939)
I’m not sure when exactly people started to turn on Gone with the Wind. I suspect it may have had something to do with the “politically correct” fixation of the mid-1990s, since there’s certainly a fair amount of questionable content from a sociological perspective. Yes, Butterfly McQueen apparently “didn’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies.” But it’s a film from the late 1930’s about a family of white southern slave owners before, during and after the American Civil War. What, exactly, does anyone expect?
Despite some occasional unpleasantness and an obscene running time of 238 minutes, Gone with the Wind remains one of the most watchable movies ever committed to celluloid. I myself made the mistake of throwing in a Blu-Ray copy of the film in the late evening and suddenly found myself awake and alert in the wee hours, unable to pry my eyes off of the screen. Gone with the Wind, depending on how you count, remains one of if not the highest grossing film ever made and an enormous aspect of that success is the epic epicness director Victor Fleming captured on screen (with a little uncredited help from George Cukor and Sam Wood of course). There isn’t a single frame of the film that couldn’t be considered painterly, and the lush Technicolor palette will blow your mind when viewed on the big screen or on a proper home theater. From the raging fires to the scores of wounded, all the horrors of war are filmed with an impeccable eye for composition and grandness of scale.
But more than visually, the tale of Gone with the Wind remains one of the great epic romances, as two larger-than-life figures brimming with passion, pride and power circle each other over many years and enormous obstacles. Like Elizabeth Bennet and Mister Darcy, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are clearly destined for a great love affair, but their overbearing personalities are trapped in a perpetual power struggle that threatens to keep them apart. As played by Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, their romance is as fiery as those gorgeous orange plumes that threaten their lives in one of the most thrilling epic action sequences there ever was, and probably ever will be. Forgive the flaws, the innocence, and the occasional cultural backwardness and you’ll find Gone with the Wind remains an incredibly powerful cinematic experience to this very day.
Zulu (dir. Cy Endfield, 1964)
Like many of the great adventure stories, Zulu tells the tale of heroic white people triumphing over foreigners in a distant land. It’s a little sad that so many of the great epic adventure stories have such uncomfortable subtext. I chose Zulu over such similarly “iffy” fare as George Stevens’ rollicking Gunga Din and Compton Bennett and Andrew Martin’s excellent King Solomon’s Mines since they cover so much of the same thematic territory. I also chose Zulu because it’s one of my very favorite films, incorporating such classic elements as underdogs overcoming impossible odds, roaring action sequences and of course, a young Michael Caine (in his first prominent film role).
The year is 1879 and a small outpost of 139 British soldiers, inhabiting a strategically pretty insignificant position with a crew of regular joes, get just a few hours notice that over 4,000 Zulu warriors are en route to kill them all. Neither of the commanding officers have much combat experience. In fact, the senior officer is only senior by a scant three months. What follows is the tale of an epic 12 hour battle in which some of history’s poorest underdogs are forced to out-think, and if all else fails, outlast, one of the most powerful fighting forces imaginable.
Yes, it’s based on a true story, and while the tactics are pretty accurate the characters have been reworked for dramatic effect. James Booth’s portrays Private Henry Hook as the rascally coward who finds courage in the nick of time, while in real life Hook was a model soldier, and apparently considered quite the stuffed shirt. But all the historical accuracy in the world won’t matter once the spears start to fly, and your favorite characters are picked off one by one in this fantastic and epic siege movie that made Michael Caine a star, and still makes audiences cheer.
The Last of the Mohicans (dir. Michael Mann, 1992)
Remember when I said that Zulu was one of my favorite films? Well, depending on the day of the week, Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans IS my favorite film. Mann may be better known for directing crime stories like Heat and Manhunter, but in his adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel he showed an uncharacteristically romantic side. His portrayal of lush countrysides and loving families show genuine affection for old-fashioned epic storytelling, making it all the more satisfying when the muskets start to go off and the tomahawks really fly.
Daniel Day-Lewis, in his most “movie star” role, plays Hawkeye, a white man raised by a loving family of Mohicans who struggle to remain neutral in the French-Indian war. They come to the rescue of Cora and Alice Munro (Madeleine Stowe and Jodhi May), daughters of a prominent British general, and are swept right up in an epic battle between the British, the French, and Magua, a Huron chief with a blood vendetta against Cora and Alice’s father. Wes Studi plays Magua and crafts one of the finest villains I’ve ever seen in any medium. At one point in the film he vows, “When the Grey Hair is dead, Magua will eat his heart. Before he dies, Magua will put his children under the knife, so the Grey Hair will know his seed has been wiped out forever.” And you believe it.
Mann took some very wise liberties with the source material. Magua’s motivations are much stronger in the film, Hawkeye gets the epic romance with Cora he really deserves, and the climax justly gives the last epic battle to the character who really deserves vengeance. This is a masterful adaptation full of incredibly epic battle sequences, genuine romance and a perfect cast. There aren’t many films I hold in such high esteem.
Red Cliff (dir. John Woo, 2008)
The most recent addition to my picks, John Woo’s latest film Red Cliff marked a true return to form. Remember back when John Woo had form? After dropping a few bombs like Windtalkers and Paycheck on us, Woo decided to take the grand Hollywood tradition back to China to craft an epic action tale based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms, an immensely popular story that has been adapted time and again into films and videogames. It’s not the Gun Fu he was famous for, but this tale of male bonding during one of the most epic battles ever documented feels like a perfect addition to his oeuvre.
General Cao Cao (Zhang Fenyi) has coerced the Emperor of China into waging war against two great military leaders who stand in the General’s way. Vastly outnumbered, Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen) join forces in a series of impossibly clever action sequences as they attempt to play their wits against General Cao Cao’s might. But the film really belongs to Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung (working with Woo for the first time in over a decade) as the two strategists who make their victory plausible. There’s a particularly impressive bit in which our heroes are running low on arrows, and the only ones to be found are in the enemy camp across the river. Their solution is brilliant, dangerous and funny as hell.
Along the way there are twists, turns, love triangles and it all ends in as action-packed a climax as you’re ever likely to find. Red Cliff has been released in two versions: a particularly epic two-part director’s cut and an “international cut” specifically designed for foreigners who probably wouldn’t watch a foreign language film anyway. Even the “international cut” is pretty good, apart from an insultingly overwrought opening voice-over introducing the characters, so however you see Red Cliff you will definitely be in for an epic treat of epic epicness.