Opinion - The Death of Epic Films and the Need for Their Resurrection
Updated: Mar 12, 2023
There was a time when going to the movies was an experience. People would get dressed up. Once there, there were Newsreels and cartoons and trailers. Movie houses were palatial, velvet ropes, ushers in uniforms. A night at the movies was akin to a night at the opera or a night at the symphony. It was in this heyday where we last saw the Epic Film. And like so many of the things above, it too is now gone. Sure, people’s attitudes toward movies have changed…heck, most opt for home video these days anyway…but the shift away from the movie houses of days long past to the multiplexes of today, one could certainly make the argument both for and against. But I can’t understand the shift away from Epics.
Yes, there’s the easy argument of ‘shorter run times mean more showings which means more cash’. But does it? If you adjust all time box office for inflation, I got news for you, 6 of the top 15 highest grossing films meet or exceed three hours long: Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, Titanic, The Ten Commandments, Doctor Zhivago and Ben-Hur. These films are widely regarded as classics. [Except for Titanic because…fuck Titanic. – Ed.] To be a bit more objective about it, Titanic is the only one of this lot that is fairly recent, having been released in 1997…the others are from a bygone era of Hollywood: 1939, 1956, 1959 and two from 1965. If we disregard box office for a moment and simply look at the combination of long running times and critical praise, we see films that any cinephile or anyone pretending to be one will recognize as classic films: Gods and Generals, Once Upon a Time in America, Lawrence of Arabia, Exodus (the 1960 film…not the Ridley Scott 2014 film), War and Peace, Malcolm X, all three Lord of the Rings films, The Godfather Part II, Schindler’s List, The Right Stuff, JFK, Gandhi, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Deer Hunter, Spartacus, Fiddler on the Roof and Dances with Wolves…just to name a few. [It’s worth mentioning that we’ve limited that list to American films or films produced for the American market. – Ed.] This is certainly not a rallying cry for everyone to get longer films…because if you look at the folks behind those films, you’re looking at some of Hollywood’s best and brightest: Coppola, Spielberg, Jackson, Attenborough, Kubrick and so on. The lesson here is that with the right filmmaker and the right story, there’s no harm in giving the film the time it needs to breathe, to make sense and make art, not the time to move the cattle through…paying their fare, getting their cheap thrill then pushing them out to make room for the next batch.
The reason that this is pertinent to today is, well, look at what’s popular these days: movies based on books, comic books and shared universes/franchises. With this type of material, a lot of the films in these genres need room to breathe in order to do the story they’re adapting justice. But just as we’re seeing a lot of films that have parts one and two, we’re also hearing audiences complaining that these films feel padded…that some scenes are inserted just to makes space to make two movies out of one story. Sure, you can point back to money, just like in the above paragraph…why sell a movie once when you can sell it twice, or, in the case of the recent Hobbit films, three times? Let’s keep running with the Hobbit example, I’ve seen the first film…but do I really want to invest at least 4 more hours (two more movies) into this story? As of this writing…no. I own parts two and three…but they remain unwatched. Why? Because, again, the biggest complaint I’ve heard about these films is that they feel horribly padded. And this is from fans of the material…which I am certainly not. Whereas if you were to approach me with a tightly paced adaptation of the book in a film that weighed in at about three and a half hours? Yeah, I’d check it out. Lately, this has also been used for the adaptation of the final book in a series, like say Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Twilight: Breaking Dawn…taking these and turning them into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2 and Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and Part 2. Look, if people made it this far into the film series, they’re fans and they’re going to turn out no matter what. Why not give them an EPIC conclusion? They’ll sit through it, I guarantee. And if it’s GOOD? They’ll be back for seconds and thirds.
Conversely, we’re also seeing the opposite end of the spectrum, where films written to be long, paced to be long and have done everything they can to show throughout production that they were embracing this lost tradition of epic storytelling get hacked to pieces in the editing room by producers or fearful studio execs…almost never incorporating the director into this process…leaving a violated, unintelligible mess of a film for audiences to sit through and further tear to shreds. Two perfect examples of this spring to my mind: David Lynch’s Dune and Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman. In the case of Dune, the rough-cut/workprint was four and a half hours long (it’s this length that started the ‘four and half hour Japanese laser-disc’ rumor)…and from that we have a three hour TV version that Lynch detested so much that he had his name removed from both the writing and directing credits and a two hour-ish version that is widely panned by both critics and many fans of the book. The rough-cut/workprint is really the only version of this film where Lynch retained creative control…the other two were cuts assembled by producer Raffaella De Laurentiis. Given the depth and scope of the original novel, this was a film that needed time and space to breathe…and Lynch, given his art-house aesthetic, was probably one of the few directors that could have pulled this off had he been allowed to gear this film toward the epic it should have been. I’ll go on more about this once I give Dune its own proper review. In the case of Batman V Superman, I remember hearing about these screenings for WB execs which would result in everyone in the room giving the film a standing ovation. Now, I loved the theatrical cut when it was released…but widespread reaction was far more divided and mixed. Upon seeing the Ultimate Edition, which is a three hour cut of the film…holy crap…THAT had to be the version Warner execs saw because once the story was given time and space to breathe…allowing for character moments and little touches here and there, many have agreed that this was an improvement on the film. Speaking from my experience with the two cuts, for as much as I loved the theatrical cut I found myself constantly asking “Why on earth did they cut THAT?” while watching the Ultimate Edition cut. [Except for the gratuitous Batfleck butt shot…totally get why that was cut…and really should have stayed on the cutting room floor. – Ed.] Now, the Ultimate Edition is the only version I’ll watch and the only version I’ll recommend to others.
The mentioning of the BvS Ultimate Edition brings up another key point: the home video market. So often, we see films released to homes in expanded editions…where in some cases, the do expand into the epic range. Varying cuts of Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy, all of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations and Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and Batman V Superman are all recent-ish examples. Here, the studios are at least a bit more willing to venture into the longer running times…but let’s go back to Batman V Superman again. The film, while pulling down some serious cash, certainly making a profit, ended up being a disappointment because it didn’t break the $1 billion mark that everyone had expected that it would. Why? The split fan reaction. Had Warners LED with what is now considered the Ultimate Edition, the version that execs had given that standing ovation, who’s to say what would have happened? Yes, less screenings…but a more coherent film and maybe, a more positive reaction from fans and critics and thus, more repeated viewings…maybe even enough to get the film to crack that sought-after $1 billion mark.
I don’t know if it’s the change in times, the movement away from the old “Studio System” that was the hallmark of Golden Age Hollywood or if it’s really true what they say about the shrinking American attention span. Heck, it may even be as Crazy Uncle Jodo says…that the studios these days are only interested in the money to be made and not the art. Regardless, the days of the epic film seem to be behind us…which is unfortunate, given that the appetite for films with subject matter that could truly benefit from this style of cinema continue to become more and more popular.