Whatever Happened to the American Epic?
I’m writing a piece for MSNBC about American epic movies — to coincide with the release of the Aussie epic “Australia” — and I’ve included the films not in my top 5 below.
Some parameters. I define “American” as about Americans and set in America; I define “epic” as long (150 minutes of screen time, 5-10 years of onscreen time), grand, nostalgic, and with a hard-to-define “sweeping” element.
Of the films eliminated from competition, most simply weren’t long enough: “Duel in the Sun,” “East of Eden,” “Bound for Glory,” “Days of Heaven,” “Superman,” “Glory,” “Goodfellas” and “Far and Away” are all under 150 minutes of screen time. “Nashville” involves only a few days of onscreen time and is only a minimalist kind of grand and isn’t set in the past. “America, America” is mostly set in Greece.
Some I just forgot about until it was too late — “Once Upon a Time in America,” “The Aviator,” “Wyatt Earp” — but of these only “Earp” (the Costner version) had a chance of making my top 5. I like that film. I know. I’m one of the few.
The films below, which fit all of the above parameters, didn’t make my top 5 for other, usually aesthetic reasons. From the discards you can may be able to guess my top 5. I just know I’m ready to watch some short movies again.
Sorry, but James Dean is all wrong for (dopey name) Jett Rink. Or maybe I’m just no longer interested in this kind of method acting: all its mumbles and pauses. Say your line! Move the story along! Whatever Jett is feeling, I don’t feel it. When he’s young and sober in the beginning, he doesn’t seem much different from when he’s old and drunk in the end. Meanwhile, Rock Hudson feels too Midwestern to play (dopey name) Bick Benedict. John Wayne, one of the actors originally mentioned for the role, would’ve worked, but then you would’ve had less of a love story. I can’t imagine a moon-eyed John Wayne on the train trip back home, for example, but I can imagine Wayne as Bick and Robert Mitchum (another early choice) as Jett. Wow. Talk about giants.
You really have three stories in this one movie. The first, and, to me, the most intriguing, is the fish-out-of-water story. Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) marries for love and is transplanted from the rolling greenery of Maryland to the flat, empty dust of Texas, where, trying not to wilt, she clashes with Bick’s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), for some measure of control of the ranch. This part ends, more or less, with the death of Luz. The still shot of the ranch, where the riderless horse slowly limps into frame, is exquisite.
The second part of the movie wanders in the wilderness. Leslie works with the Mexicans, against her husband’s wishes, while their son, Jordy, projects interests (doctoring) against his father’s wishes. Mostly we’re just waiting for Leslie and Bick to break up or stay together (they stay together), and for Jett to strike oil or die trying (he strikes oil).
The third part, after the intermission, concerns the Benedicts’ increasing irrelevance in the Lone Star state. They still own half a million acres but they’re made to feel small by jet-setting oil barons like Jett. A confrontation is inevitable — particularly given Jett’s interest in Leslie, which he sublimates into an interest in Leslie’s daughter — but the confrontation, when it comes, fizzles. Instead we get more sublimation. Bick fights, not Jett, but Sarge at Sarge’s Diner, where, despite the Benedict name, Bick’s Mexican daughter-in-law and half-Mexican grandchild are barely allowed to stay but other Mexicans are forced to leave. Bick loses. This battle feels right. In the beginning, Bick cautioned his wife against even talking with Mexicans, but, by the end, he defends his new bi-racial family against bigots like Sarge and Jett, even though, or because, he’s full of the same bigotry himself. Back at the ranch, he admits his grandson looks like “a little wetback.” Shocking to hear today, but that’s part of why it feels right. And maybe this is how things change. What we don’t want to become ours, becomes ours, and we’re forced to defend it. Amazingly, the diner confrontation prefigured Greensboro and Nashville by 4 to 5 years.
But the editing. What’s with the long, unnecessary pauses — particularly in the bed-time conversations between Bick and Leslie? The editor is William Hornbeck, one of the most acclaimed ever (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Place in the Sun”), and whose style was eclectic and served the needs of the story and director. So...was it George Stevens? Who knows? All I know is that from the beginning the movie seemed to be trying to say something meaningful about where we came from, the myths we tell ourselves, the east-west battles we fought and are still fighting:
Leslie: We really stole Texas, didn’t we? From the Mexicans.
Bick: You’re catching me a bit early to start joking, Miss Leslie.
Leslie: But I’m not joking, Mr. Jordan.
Bick: I’ve never heard anything as ignorant as some eastern people!
A great American story is here. It just gets lost in the vastness of Texas and epic filmmaking.
How the West Was Won (1962)
It’s certainly epic. It was made during an era of epics, when the film industry was trying to distinguish itself from its bastard cousin, TV, by making everything big and long. This thing is so big it required three directors to finish and contains almost every genre Hollywood created: the western, the musical, the war picture. Its all-star cast includes Gregory Peck and John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, even if the movie itself focuses more on the less-interesting Debbie Reynolds and George Peppard.
It begins during a time when there was land for the getting but you had to get there. A family of Quakers, led by Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden), head west down the Ohio river and run into the usual problems: first, river pirates, whom they escape with the help of mountain man Linus Rawlings (Jimmy Stewart), and then rapids and waterfalls. These kill Zebulon and his wife but their deaths leave their daughter (Carroll Baker), named, of course, Eve, determined to set up shop exactly there. “This is far as they got,” she says. “Seems to me this is where the Lord wanted them to be.” Amen. She also stills the restless spirit in the mountain man, who joins her, but younger sister Lil (Debbie Reynolds) continues on to St. Louis, where she’s part of a musical hall act, and then on further west with the wagon trains, which are attacked by Indians. En route to San Francisco, her heart is broke by gambler Gregory Peck.
Meanwhile back at the farm, the U.S. Civil War is starting and Eve’s son, Zeb (Peppard), is hot to follow in his father’s footsteps and go. He does. But youthful enthusiasm is quickly extinguished in the Battle of Shiloh, and he’s in the act of going AWOL with a Reb (Russ Tamblyn) when they happen upon Generals Grant and Sherman (Harry Morgan and John Wayne). The Reb tries to kill Grant but Zeb stops him. Then the war is over, mother and father are dead, and Zeb heads further west with the railroads, who are breaking treaties with the Indians. Eventually he becomes a marshal. We get an old-fashioned railroad robbery stopped by Zeb, who has become the law in what was once lawless. The final shot is what all that struggle was for: the modern L.A. freeways.
What a mess.
In 1962 we were beginning to seriously question our various Manifest Destiny myths, but the film, while admitting to some broken treaties, mostly goes hokey. And it never even raises the most basic questions of all. Why our restless spirits? Why this need to go? Eve, unknowingly, says it best: “Half the people that come west don’t make much sense, I reckon.” This is the movie for them.
Read the novel by E.L. Doctorow. Its epigraph is from Scott Joplin — “Don’t play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast” — but you can’t help but read that novel fast. It moves.
The movie, which can’t collapse years into a sentence, or represent desperation and yearning as succinctly, loses a lot. It loses the better part of Tateh’s story, which, in the novel, is so sad and desperate that when he finally sells that silhouette cartoon book in Philadelphia, it become a moment of pure joy — as opposed to the ho-hum moment in the movie. Mostly it loses that great interchange between historical and fictional people that made the novel so unique. No J.P. Morgan here — except for his N.Y. mansion. No Henry Ford — except for his Model “T.” No Emma Goldman. No Kaiser. No Houdini.
Does “Coalhouse” Walker dominate the novel? I think he does, but not much. He dominates the movie but should’ve dominated it more. Howard E. Rollins is so handsome, has such life, and what happens to him is so awful that is sears into the middle of the movie, obliterating all else. His revenge is awful, too, particularly as viewed through a post-9/11 prism. (It also makes one wonder why there weren’t more Coalhouse Walkers in the days before MLK. No caves to hide in, probably. No neighboring country to hide in, probably.) And check out the members of his gang. You’ll see both a young Samuel L. Jackson and Frankie Faison (“The Wire”).
The “Coalhouse” centerpiece works. The rest gives us an OK glimpse into life from the turn of the last century, and all of the forces at work that would make the century, for good and ill, what it was. But read the novel.
The Color Purple (1985)
Most epics are nostalgic, such as “Gone with the Wind,” which was nostalgic about, of all things, slavery. Steven Spielberg understands he’s making an epic with “The Color Purple,” based upon the best-selling epistolary novel by Alice Walker, and so the film has a sweeping, nostalgic tone. Yet what is the film nostalgic about? We get sweeping shots of this beautiful farm...right before Mister tries to sexually molest Celie’s sister. Ah, the good old days.
Maybe the film should’ve been grittier, tighter, less epic. Maybe it should’ve started out in black-and-white and eventually, as Celie grew and came into her own, expanded its palette. Instead Spielberg went epic, and nostalgic, and celebrated a time when the protagonist had very little to celebrate. Celie’s babies are taken from her, her sister is taken from her, she’s married (but not married) to a man who despises her, forced to mother horrible children to whom she’s not mother, forced to lay beneath a man who “does his business” when she feels nothing. Mister keeps from her (yet, oddly, does not destroy or even open) the letters Nettie sends her from Africa. He’s a horrible man yet comic. He’s predatory one moment, clownish the next. The film resolves none of these dichotomies. It veers between pathos and slapstick.
The main storyline I remembered from my first viewing, years ago, involved Oprah Winfrey’s Sofia. There’s tragedy there: How a mighty spirit is beaten down. We have less patience for Celie. She’s a mostly mute, internal character, which is why she works in a novel but feels blank on screen.
The last half-hour drags. Mistakes are made. It was a mistake to bring in Mister’s father to help explain Mister. It was a mistake to resolve, or even bring up, Shug’s father issues. (In a world where fathers rape their step-daughters, who cares that one father ignores his willful, jazz-singing daughter?) It was a mistake to juxtapose the African knife-cutting ritual with “shaving” Mister. It was a mistake to spend so much time in Africa. It was a mistake to redeem Mister.
Mostly, it was a mistake to make “The Color Purple” an epic.
Pearl Harbor (2001)
I’ll give Michael Bay this. The biggest box office hits of all time — “Gone with the Wind,” “Titanic,” “The Sound of Music” — concern a woman choosing between two men against a backdrop of historic tragedy, and that’s what he tries to give us with “Pearl Harbor.” His movie made a few bucks, too: $449 million worldwide, to be exact, good enough for 84th place on the unadjusted list. And dropping.
But it’s an epic for yahoos. The two men, Rafe and Danny, Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett, are both countrified flyboys who don’t exist beyond these rather narrow parameters. Rafe is cocky, Danny quiet, but that’s the extent of their personality differences. Hell, it’s the extent of their personalities. They just want to fly. Let them. The woman who has to do the choosing is also without personality. They give her the name Evelyn Johnson. They make her a nurse and a lieutenant. In the beginning she’s oddly spunky, overdosing Ben Affleck’s backside, but even this trait disappears under the weight of sudden love. Does she even do any choosing? She falls for Rafe first but he dies in England. Then Danny appears and they make love amidst the silkiness of parachutes. Then Rafe turns up alive but by this time she’s pregnant by Danny. “And then all this happened,” she tells Rafe, by which she means the Japs bombing Pearl Harbor. Surely one of the dumbest lines in movie history. As Anthony Lane wrote back in 2001: “I guess we should thank Michael Bay for so bold a revisionist take on the Second World War: no longer the clash of virtuous freedom and a malevolent tyranny but a terrible bummer when a girl is trying to get her dates straight.”
Everything is romanticized, glossy, in slow-mo, even (or especially) the destruction at Pearl Harbor. The film glorifies it, loves it. I’d say these scenes are like the probing of a wound, but it’s not our wound, it’s someone else’s wound, someone whose pain we don’t feel. We feast upon their anguish and call it empathy.
So “Pearl Harbor” is beyond bad; it’s morally repugnant. It glorifies two things it doesn’t feel: love and death. It takes stick figures and puts them in stick situations and calls it history. It’s a movie that will live in infamy.
Gangs of New York (2002)
They should’ve lopped off the opening battle scene. Warriors out of “Mad Max” following the Priest (Liam Neeson) into battle against the nativist elements of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day Lewis)? They even had a catwoman. How dumb is that? It’s supposedly historically accurate but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t look ridiculous. And a movie in this position can’t afford to look ridiculous.
Imagine, instead, the movie opening with Amsterdam (Leo) getting off the boat. That way we’d be wondering who he is — as he wonders who he is. We’d wonder what his connection with Bill the Butcher is — as he agonizes over it. And once we know, once we realize that Bill the Butcher killed his father, we’d wonder why he doesn’t take his revenge — just as he begins to. We’d be with him instead of twelve steps ahead of him.
As it is, we’re set up for a revenge flick when this is more a voyage of self-discovery. Amsterdam isn’t initially geared for revenge; he’s geared for survival. Sixteen years on his own taught him that. It’s only the return to the Five Points that begins to spark his need for revenge — and his interest in Jenny (Cameron Diaz), and her relationship with Bill, sparks it more than any stories about his dead father.
I do like the end. The backstory (U.S. Civil War, draft riots) overwhelming the main story (the gangs fighting for their turf). The Irish gang emerges pumped up for their fight but to a different world: an elephant being chased through NYC. You think this story is about you? It isn't. You're about to be swept aside by history