Joe Gillis: – You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: – I *am* big. It’s the *pictures* that got small.
Whatever happened to… The genuinely epic film
During the winter break I watched Peter Weir’s ‘The Way Back’ (US 2010), afterwards I decided to check out critical reception for this, as I was completely unaware of it until my wife wandered in with the DVD. I wondered why this should have evaded me, given it was Weir’s first film for seven year and boasted a high profile principal cast and crew. The reviews I read suggested that this was certainly a worthy project for Weir, but also expressed disappointment that he failed to grasp the scope and scale of the story and compared his effort wth Lean’s movies of the 1960’s. Something more epic was required perhaps. He is certainly able enough in marshalling elements of a large scale (including Russell Crowe’s ego) one can see his mastery of these in Master and commander, but is this really epic? A Part from the grandeur of the its mostly nautical backdrops, O’Brien’s stories seem too preoccupied with the petty details of the characters ofJack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin to offer the scope for say a nautical Dr Zhivago (David Lean 1965 US/UK).
Peter Weir does shifts the emphasis of the O’Brien’s story from this intimacy to the Napoleonic sea war with some screen time given to the doctors enlightenment intellect and pre-Darwinist studies, and indeed the Galapagos sequences do have some sense of grandeur, but the film as a whole emerges merely as a napoleonic nautical action movie, nice try though Peter.
It may indeed be appropriate to question whether the epic is possible any longer. We live in a far more sceptical times. Post-modern critical approaches insist that significance is not fixed, but shifts according to one’s perspective, and dominant semiological and critical preoccupations today seem to be concened with the interpretation of surface qualities. In this critical context any film that marshalls its means to assert its own depth, moral weight and significance is more than likely to have its motives scrutinised, and today, be too easily be read as grandiose and pompous, or even ironic, rather than bringing a genuine sense of grandeur to a subject. Good examples of this are the Roland Emmerich’s absurdly overblown CGI fests, which had huge budgets, The day after tomorrow had prescience, but they were all too clearly defined by their genre – Independence day was described as a hundred million dollar B movie, and the others have a similar character – and offer little or no grandeur at all.
Our post-modern scepticism perhaps comes with good reason, as one of the most notable iterations of the form include the aggrandising propaganda movies made by Riefenstahl in the 1930’s (Triumph of the Will 1934, Olympia 1938 both Germany)
Perhaps I clarify my terms of reference, the characteristics of the epic in film, I guess I’m referring to are David Lean’s two great films of the 1960’s rather than the Hollywood biblical ‘epics’ of the 1950’s. Epic seems to be embedded in the DNA of Lean’s films, from the sweeping Super Panavision 70mm cinematography by Freddie Young composed to dwarf some characters in relation to others and to dwarf all in the desert settings, combined with the grandeur of Maurice Jarre’s score. Weir’s film lack these elements, this may be deliberate, TE Lawrence as portrayed was a genuinely larger than life, albeit with personal demons and ultimately feet of clay, his goal was to offer an ‘liberation’ to a whole ethnic group, an abstract notion at best. Weir seems to be interested in the grandeur of the humanity of characters in The way back, who start out as victims and through desperation seek individual redemption through their goal of personal liberation. This narrative vehicle is far more atuned to the exhibition of single perspective heroism offered in David Lean’s films.