erik lundegaard

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.

Giant (1956)
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.

Ragtime (1981)
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

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Posted at 01:33 PM on Fri. Nov 21, 2008 in category Movies  


Mister B wrote:

Yep, we really could've used at Tuesday trivia, Erik. The movie question I just remembered was:

Who was the nine-time Oscar-nominated narrator of "How The West Was Won"?

Between me, Dawn and Tommy, we were feeling a lot like Eve: stuck without the right answer, apparently, because that's how God intended us to be.
Comment posted on Fri. Nov 21, 2008 at 09:07 PM

ted s. wrote:

how about Forrest Gump?
Comment posted on Mon. Nov 24, 2008 at 02:32 PM

Kathy P. wrote:

I have the same comment as Ted S. What about Forrest Gump doesn't meet the criteria?
Comment posted on Mon. Nov 24, 2008 at 02:46 PM

Erik wrote:

It's 142 minutes. So less than the 150 minutes I set up as one of the definitions of "epic."

Your definitions may differ. But "Forrest Gump" feels like a movie to me, not an epic.
Comment posted on Mon. Nov 24, 2008 at 02:59 PM

jdit wrote:

Death of a Saleman, A River Runs Through It, Legends Of The Fall. All good all-American movies.
Comment posted on Mon. Nov 24, 2008 at 03:59 PM

didier morvan wrote:

I'm sorry maybe it wasn't great, but what about "The Patriot", Mel Gison's opus?
Comment posted on Mon. Nov 24, 2008 at 04:43 PM

Erik wrote:

"Death of a Salesman" is 115 minutes and the rest of it feels less than epic, too. (It's hardly romantic or nostalgic.)

Same for jdit's other suggestions. None are 150 minutes. I could've sworn "Legends" was longer but I guess it only seemed longer.

But "The Patriot"? Yes, that fits the parameters. But as you said it wasn't great, and I wasn't about to watch it again. (The reason I watched the abysmal "Pearl Harbor" is because I hadn't seen it yet. That's why it's listed.)
Comment posted on Mon. Nov 24, 2008 at 04:54 PM

clayton mcdonald wrote:

"There Will Be Blood"?
Comment posted on Mon. Nov 24, 2008 at 06:07 PM

Erik wrote:

Good question. Turned out to be worthy of a post:
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 09:04 AM

JJ wrote:

"Cold Mountain" ? Granted, many of the principal actors are not Americans, but they are portraying Americans and it seems to fit all of your other parameters.
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 09:45 AM

JJ wrote:

OK, 2 principal actors are not American. (in "Cold Mountain" But, it's still an American epic, right?
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 09:52 AM

JJ wrote:

BTW: I completely disagree with your inclusion of "Malcolm X" as an "American epic." If you wanted to go that route, you may as well have included "Ray" or "Ali." All great films that seem to fit your parameters, but all biopics about iconic Americans...not films I'd refer to as "American epics" in the sweeping sense. Films like "Avalon" (too short, but worth mentioning), "The Color Purple" and "The Godfather" at least involve whole families. BTW: Sorry you don't like "The Color Purple." I think it would have been a good fit.
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 10:07 AM

JJ wrote:

My final 2 cents : I also liked "Wyatt Earp" and think it would have been a great addition to your list.
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 10:10 AM

Peter W. wrote:


What about the two Once Upon a Time Movies? Both Once upon a Time in Aemrica and Once Upon a Time in the West? Both were great epics, and good movies, though each is overshawdowed by the others you have on the lis, Dances with Wolves and Godfather.
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 10:16 AM

Erik wrote:

"Cold Mountain" is definitely an epic within the parameters I set. I'm surprised I missed it.

Doubt it would be top 5 but you never know. I only saw the movie once, within a week of its release, while on holiday in Florida, and in the middle of watching I began to feel the symptoms of what would turn out to be the worst case of stomach flu I've ever experienced. So my feelings about the film are inevitably tied up with that. Apologies to everyone involved in its making.

Glad someone else likes "Wyatt Earp."
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 10:18 AM

Erik wrote:

Yes, the "Once Upon a Time" movies are epics. Again, I'm not as big a fan as some. Should I have re-watched them to doublecheck? Was I too wary of putting too many westerns and/or gangster films on the list?

In general, with these types of lists, dissatisfaction is the norm: Not only for readers ("How could you have FORGOTTEN..." but for the writer. I grumbled even as I sent the piece in.
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 10:23 AM

Mogues wrote:

The problem with your list is how you limit it by running time. When I first read your mention of "American Epics", the first film that popped into my head was John Ford's "The Searchers". It's certainly sweeping and nostalgic, spans many years, has love and revenge as its central themes...but, more than that, in the history of cinema has there ever been a film shot against a grander setting than Monument Valley in widescreen VistaVision?And as far as running time goes, what does that have to do with anything? If you're conscious of a films running time, then the director/editor didn't do a very good job telling their tale, did they! I love the stuff you's clear you really love movies like I do. But, establish a seemingly random criteria (running time) that automatically eliminates a film like "The Searchers" from a list of the Greatest American Epics...well, the just cinematically criminal. I emphatically encourage you to reconsider your list and revise as appropriate.
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 12:54 PM

Erik wrote:

I appreciate your enthusiasm - even though I have my own problems with "The Searchers," not least the comic Scandinavians that Ford loves so much but should there be no time constraints on a definition of epic either in screen time or onscreen time? Could "The Ox-Bow Incident," a great movie, be an epic?

To me, an epic should be long in screen time and onscreen time and for both I chose arbitary limits. It's what you do in that situation. It may be wrong. Maybe 120 minutes should've been enough. Maybe 130. The 150-minute limit certainly eliminated a lot of great movies, and movies that "feel" like epics, like "The Searchers."At the same time, epic poetry is, by definite, lengthy. Shouldn't epic movies be the same?

Bottom line: At least you know my parameters. Most lists in most media today offer readers none. Beware of those.

And in the meantime, feel free to write your own list, with whatever parameters you choose. I'm as much interested in how people define "epic" as in what they consider the best "epics."
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 01:15 PM

Stewmeister wrote:

How you can leave out "The Searchers" is beyond me. The quintessential epic film by the quintessential American actor of the quintessential American genre, the Western. Mogues above sums it all up quite nicely.
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 02:22 PM

Wayne wrote:

I don't think it meets your criteria in terms of scope, but this movie certainly meets it in terms of grandeur.

The Big Country

Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. East meets West. Big country. Incredible, sweeping music.

I just wanted to mention it if readers haven't ever seen it. It is epic.
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 02:32 PM

chris wrote:

At 133 minutes, "Legends of the Fall" falls short of the 150 minute standard you set, but I can think of very few purely American films in modern times that feel more classically "epic".
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 02:35 PM

Erik wrote:

"The Big Country" is a good one. Wish I'd remembered to see it. Might've made the list.

"Legends" I've already discussed. It went for "epic" but missed "great."

Another that went for "epic" but missed "great," that no one's mentioned, and that I forgot to put on the list, is "Raintree County" (1957), with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, which I had to watch for a BELIEVER article last year. That was a long 188 minutes.
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 02:51 PM

Sudie wrote:

One quick thing about Cold Mountain...wasn't a good bit of it filmed in Europe? Would that still qualify as epic or since the story is all american, it's ok?
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 03:30 PM

Pedantic wrote:

I have to agree about Wyatt Earp. Very long, but beautifully shot, and Costner doing what he does best, which is saying little while doing much.

As an editorial aside, you the professional writer might want to re-think your use of the word ascetic in paragraph five at the top. To paraphrase a geat movie line: I do not think it means what you think it means.
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 04:16 PM

Erik wrote:

Good catch. Fixed. Thanks!
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 04:29 PM

SevenDeadlyFun wrote:

What about "Gettysburg" or "Gods and Generals"? Certainly long enough, an almost entirely American cast, directed by an American, about an epic American event...
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 10:31 PM

Tommy Marx wrote:

Hi Erik,

I can't say I'm interested in epics of any kind, American or not, but I found both your MSNBC article and your blog post very interesting.

I think TV did a much better job with epics. I personally think "Roots" and "Rich Man, Poor Man" are superior to "Godfather" or any of the other movies on your list, and while I wasn't a big fan of "War and Remembrance," it was certainly better than dreck like "Color Purple" (which, as you pointed out, only rises above forgettable melodrama when Oprah Winfrey is on the screen).

Glad I came across your article and your blog, though. I definitely look forward to reading more of your thoughts. Thanks!
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 10:31 PM

Jim Cramer wrote:

Where is Hawaii? Very well done with an underrated performance by Julie Andrews. Centennial was also well done, but only on a television scale.
Comment posted on Tue. Nov 25, 2008 at 10:38 PM

Erik wrote:

Comment posted on Wed. Nov 26, 2008 at 09:31 AM

RJ wrote:

Try The Searchers: the ideological opposite of Dances With Wolves (good choice, by the way, for #5), with John Wayne, on Texas and the Western Plains Wars after the Civil War. Like Tommy indicates with his point about TV's success with epic, Lonesome Dove may be the best epic of the last 20 years. You can't beat Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall.
Comment posted on Sun. Nov 30, 2008 at 12:49 PM

NJ wrote:

The opening of Gangs of New York is a short-film masterpiece in an otherwise muddled (sometimes great, sometimes mediocre) extravaganza. Ecstatic medieval futurism, science fiction projected into the past, scored with rousing and bizarre Peter Gabriel music - it's when GONY tries to be a more conventional period epic that it stumbles.
Comment posted on Sun. Nov 30, 2008 at 02:11 PM
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