Cin­ema greats of epic pro­por­tions

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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television -

WHAT makes an epic? It used to be any film that ran for more than three hours and starred Charlton He­ston. Ben-Hur qual­i­fied, though to­day’s epics are like­lier to star Eric Bana or Sam Wor­thing­ton. Critic Roger Ebert once de­fined an epic as a big-bud­get B-pic­ture — a bit tough on Peter Weir’s Mas­ter and Com­man­der: The Far Side of the World (Satur­day, 8.30pm, Show­time Ac­tion), which stars Rus­sell Crowe and runs for a mere two hours and 19 min­utes. Syd­ney­based writer John Collee worked with Weir on the screen­play — an adap­ta­tion of two of Pa­trick O’Brian’s sea­far­ing nov­els — and the re­sult was one of those rare films that give epics a good name.

Crowe rel­ishes his role as ‘‘ Lucky’’ Jack Aubrey, cap­tain of HMS Sur­prise, as it stalks a French war­ship through per­ilous seas and ex­otic lo­ca­tions on a mis­sion of re­venge. Weir’s tri­umph was to give us an en­gulf­ing sense of what life was like in an­other world. Watch­ing Mas­ter and Com­man­der, we in­habit an en­closed and pre­cisely imag­ined cos­mos of sea and foam, tim­ber, sky and can­vas, with great storms and bat­tles rous­ingly staged by Weir and pro­duc­tion de­signer Wil­liam San­dell, aided by Rus­sell Boyd’s magnificent cam­era work. Let’s hope it works on the small screen.

His­tor­i­cal per­cep­tions have changed in the half-cen­tury since the re­lease of Ex­o­dus (Tues­day, 8.30pm, Fox Clas­sics), based on Leon Uris’s novel about Is­rael’s strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence. The film was a hit in 1960, when pro-Is­rael sym­pa­thies were stronger in West­ern coun­tries and anti-Bri­tish sen­ti­ment was run­ning high in the Mid­dle East. It wouldn’t sur­prise me if Syd­ney’s Mar­rickville Coun­cil were to slap a ban on Ex­o­dus to­day. Paul New­man is Ben Canaan, lead­ing the fight by mod­er­ate Jews for the lib­er­a­tion and par­ti­tion of Pales­tine. The story gets stir­ring treat­ment from di­rec­tor Otto Preminger, with great set-piece se­quences, in­clud­ing the bomb­ing of the King David Ho­tel. New­man’s af­fair with an army nurse (Eva Marie Saint) doesn’t help much and, even with Preminger’s best ef­forts to trim Uris’s story, the film ran for 31/ hours.

Two years later the Bri­tish gave us Lawrence of Ara­bia (Sun­day, 2.45pm, Show­time Drama), which came in at three hours and 40 min­utes and is rated by many the best epic of all. David Lean’s film is a splen­did bi­og­ra­phy of the enig­matic T. E. Lawrence, the ec­cen­tric English­man who united Arab tribes in their battle against the Ot­toman Turks dur­ing World War I. Peter O’Toole gives a bril­liant por­trayal of the eru­dite, Ox­ford-ed­u­cated Bri­tish of­fi­cer. Some may ar­gue now that Lawrence’s suc­cess in sav­ing the Arabs from Bri­tish colo­nial rule would strengthen their ap­petite for anti-West­ern mil­i­tancy in decades to come, but idle his­tor­i­cal spec­u­la­tion should never spoil a great story. Even with a TV­sized pic­ture the im­ages are mar­vel­lous, in­clud­ing the ap­pear­ance of Omar Sharif, ma­te­ri­al­is­ing from a tiny dot on the hori­zon. Alec Guin­ness, Jack Hawkins and other wor­thies make up a first-rate cast. The film won a swag of Os­cars, in­clud­ing best pic­ture.

The great epics be­long in the real world, but there are plenty of great epic fan­tasies ( Star Wars not least among them). The Imag­i­nar­ium of Doc­tor Par­nas­sus (Sun­day, 3.35pm, Show­time Pre­miere) was Heath Ledger’s last film. He died half­way through shoot­ing and his scenes were com­pleted, with mixed suc­cess, by Johnny Depp,

Satur­day, 8.30pm, Show­time Ac­tion

Sun­day, 2.45pm, Show­time Drama

Tues­day, 8.30pm, Fox Clas­sics

Satur­day, 8.30pm, TCM Jude Law and Colin Far­rell. Christo­pher Plum­mer is Dr Par­nas­sus, whose trav­el­ling cir­cus in­cludes a coach that en­ables cus­tomers to visit imag­i­nary worlds. Fan­tasy se­quences save the day in Terry Gil­liam’s direc­tion of a flimsy story.

A rous­ing story, MGM star power and an awe­some re­cre­ation of the great San Fran­cisco earth­quake made San Fran­cisco (Satur­day, 8.30pm, TCM) one of the first Hol­ly­wood block­busters.

Clark Gable was at the height of his pop­u­lar­ity as Blackie Nor­ton, man­ager of a San Fran­cisco beer-gar­den who hires Mary Blake (Jeanette Mac­Don­ald) to sing for his cus­tomers. Not even an earth­quake can si­lence her in the cli­mac­tic scenes. It’s a bit corny, but noth­ing in the mod­ern reper­toire of dig­i­tal ef­fects tech­nol­ogy has sur­passed the 20-minute fire and earth­quake se­quence.

Mean­while, keep in mind the slo­gan used to pro­mote an­other Gil­liam film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail: ‘‘ It makes Ben-Hur look like an epic.’’

Rus­sell Crowe at the helm of Mas­ter and Com­man­der: The Far Side of the World

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