I love “big” movies…the bigger, the better.
Gimme a sprawling epic movie, filmed in Panavision and Technicolor, mix in an all-star cast, containing hundreds, or even thousands of extras riding around on horses, or tanks, or camels, or jet fighters, and you will quickly find me ensconced in a state of bliss for hours. And, if that big budget blockbuster just happens to be a depiction of real people and actual events – especially when they deal with military themes – then you will find me in cinematic heaven!
epic (ep’ ik) n. 1. a long narrative poem in a dignified style about the deeds of a traditional or historical hero or heroes… 2. A prose narrative, play, film, etc. regarded as having the qualities of an epic…
With a view toward the above definition of an epic (courtesy Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus, electronic version), I now offer to you, dear reader, in descending order, my personal “Top 10” list of the greatest epic movies of all time.
10. Reds (1981) Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton; Directed by Warren Beatty
Reds recounts the lives of two Americans who become deeply involved in the 1917 Russian Revolution. John Reed is a brilliant reporter and an American Communist who not only witnesses the events of the Bolshevik revolution in late 1917, but takes an active role in them. Brilliant performances are turned in by Warren Beatty as Reed, Diane Keaton as Reed’s wife, Louise Bryant, (who was herself an ardent Communist), and Jack Nicholson as the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Reds is a fascinating and chillingly realistic look at one of the twentieth century’s most turbulent and frightening times.
(An interesting historical note: John Reed was considered a hero to the Bolshevik revolution. He is the only American to have been buried with honors in the Kremlin during the Communist era of the Soviet Union. Reed authored a memoir of the Bolshevik revolution (a brilliant piece of Communist propaganda) entitled Ten Days That Shook the World.)
9. Apollo 13 (1995) Tom Hanks, Kathleen Quinlan, Ed Harris; Directed by Ron Howard
I’m not sure this technically qualifies as an epic, but the story is so compelling and the protagonists so heroic, I couldn’t resist placing it on my list. This is, of course, the tale of the ill-fated flight to the moon of the Apollo 13 spacecraft. By April 1970, when Apollo 13 was set to take James Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert to the moon, space flight had become so routine that American television networks didn’t even cover the mission. All that changed, however, when an explosion tore through the spacecraft, crippling it and threatening to maroon three men in space for eternity. Apollo 13 is a gripping, suspenseful story of three astronauts’ struggle to survive, and the Herculean efforts of Mission Control to bring them back alive.
8. Sergeant York (1941) Gary Cooper, June Lockhart; Directed by Howard Hawks
Gary Cooper gives an Academy Award-winning performance (Best Actor, 1941) as Sergeant Alvin C. York, a Tennessee hell-raiser-turned-pacifist Christian-turned-war hero. York’s journey toward immortality (he won the Medal of Honor for his actions in France) began with a drunken brawl in a Kentucky tavern, and ended when he single-handedly captured 132 German soldiers on the fields of Flanders during World War I. Sergeant York is much more than just a “gung-ho” war film; it explores with great sensitivity and relevance (even by today’s standards) the eternal human conflict between personal beliefs and public responsibilities.
7. The Killing Fields (1984) Sam Waterston, Dr. Haing S. Ngor; Directed by Roland Joffé
Hands down, this is one of the most harrowing films I’ve ever seen…and also one of the most inspiring. It depicts the relationship between New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (played by Sam Waterston) and his Cambodian interpreter Dith Pran (Portrayed by the late Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance). The story is set in Cambodia during the mid 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, overran the country and began one of the worst programs of systematic genocide in history. (It is estimated that over 3 million of Cambodia’s 7 million people were executed by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.) Pran saves Schanberg and several other Western reporters from execution by the Communists, but is forced to stay behind in Cambodia when his journalistic colleagues are evacuated. How Pran survives his ordeal in the Cambodian “Killing Fields,” and makes his escape, is an inspiring testament to the strength of the human will and the bonds of friendship.
6. The Mission (1986) Jeremy Irons, Robert Di Niro; Directed by Roland Joffé
Here’s the “sleeper” film on my list. The Mission chronicles the plight of South American Indians living on the border between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil in the 1750s, and the efforts of Jesuit missionaries to protect the Indians from enslavement by the Spanish and Portuguese. Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, the idealistic leader of the Jesuits. Robert DeNiro plays Rodrigo Mendoza, a Spanish slave trader who renounces his profession and becomes a Jesuit himself. The late Ray McAnally is excellent as the worldly-wise Bishop Altamirano, whose decisions would ultimately decide the fate of the Indians for centuries to come. The acting is sometimes a bit wooden, but the cinematography is breathtaking and the haunting musical score is heart-rending. The Mission won the Grand Prize (Palme d’Or) at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.
5. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif; Directed by David Lean
One of the most honored films of all time (7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, 1962), Lawrence of Arabia is a cinematic biography of T.E. Lawrence, the high strung, reclusive hero of the Arabian desert during World War I. Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, in their first major film roles, shine as T.E. Lawrence and Sherif Ali, respectively. This is another film with breathtakingly spectacular battle scenes and stunning cinematography.
4. Glory (1989) Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington; Directed by Edward Zwick
The first of two Civil War films on my list. Glory traces the founding and short-lived career of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first “all-black” regiment (by law, all officers had to be white) in the Union army. In this film, Matthew Broderick moves away from fluffy, comedic roles (i.e., Ferris Bueller,) and successfully proves himself a serious and mature actor in his role as the regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Denzel Washington’s marvelous portrayal as the embittered, cynical runaway slave Trip earned him an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. Excellent performances are also turned in by Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Cary Elwes.
3. Gettysburg (1993) Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen; Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell
This four-hour long epic (and second Civil War movie on my list) seeks to portray with complete historical accuracy the Battle of Gettysburg, fought from July 1 – 3, 1863, in eastern Pennsylvania. It succeeds marvelously at achieving its goal. Stunning battle scenes abound, and there are superb and moving performances by an all-star cast, including Jeff Daniels (Colonel Joshua Chamberlain), Tom Berenger (General James Longstreet), Martin Sheen (General Robert E. Lee), Sam Eliot (General John Buford), and the late Richard Jordan (General Lewis Armistead.)
2. The Longest Day (1962) John Wayne, Robert Mitchum; Directed by Ken Annakin
The Longest Day was producer/director Darryl F. Zanuck’s effort to save the Twentieth Century-Fox studio from the financial ravages of the over-budget movie Cleopatra, which was being filmed at the same time. The Longest Day set a standard of excellence in war films that is unsurpassed even now, five decades after its theatrical release. This is the story of D-Day, June 6, 1944. Based on Cornelius Ryan’s book of the same name, the film chronicles with complete objectivity and historical accuracy the frustrations, triumphs, and failures of both the Allied and German sides on this day, which marked the turning point of World War II in Europe. There are outstanding performances all around by a star-studded international cast, headed by John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, (a young) Sean Connery, Robert Ryan, and Eddie Albert. Filmed in black-and-white, it has a documentary flavor and a wonderfully authentic feel that made it one of the most popular and successful war films of all time.
1. Patton (1970) George C. Scott, Karl Malden; Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
My all-time favorite epic film. This biopic depicts the life, successes, and failures of one of America’s most gifted and bizarre military leaders ever: General George S. Patton. Passionate and profane, the consummate warrior whose greatest battles raged within the confines of his own mind and psyche, Patton rose to the heights of professional success…and, through his own hubris, tumbled to the depths of disgrace and despair. George C. Scott practically assumes Patton’s persona in one of the most memorable performances ever committed to film. Karl Malden nearly equals Scott with his performance as General Omar Bradley. This film captures better than any other I’ve ever seen, the beauty, horror, heroism, and ultimate folly of war. For me, Patton is the apotheosis of the epic movie!
Some “Honorable Mentions” that rank among my all-time favorite epic movies, but couldn’t quite crack the “Top 10 Epic Movies of All Time:”Braveheart; Dances with Wolves; Gladiator (2000); Gone With the Wind; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; Saving Private Ryan; Spartacus; Titanic (1997); Tora! Tora! Tora!
There you have it: my epic movie “Hall of Fame!” Blockbusters all; award winners all; movies with a message. Above all, they are supremely entertaining, and deserve to be viewed…over and over again!
Other Movie Reviews by Mike Powers:O Brother, Where Art Thou? ; Apollo 13 ; The 5 Best Movies I’ve Ever Detested ; M*A*S*H ; Gandhi ; Young Frankenstein ; The Apostle ; Amadeus ; Top 10 Movies of All Time – a “Movie Hall of Fame” ; Fiddler on the Roof ; Glory