Cinema greats of epic proportions
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