Yesterday I watched the movie Troy for the first time, and while it could have done with some more editing (I feel asleep several times during the first hour and apparently didn’t miss anything important), I thought it generally had solid storytelling and performances, and it was nice to look at. Yes, I’m talking about Brad Pitt in his prime, but I’m also talking about the lush colors and fabrics of the costumes and the beautiful art direction (not sure how much of that was on-location filming vs. sets vs. CG, but the effect was great). During the movie, my friend and I got into a conversation about what constitutes an “epic” film. I’m sure there’s an official definition somewhere, but our attempt to reach a consensus is more interesting to me right now. (Of course, Troy is an epic because it’s based on an ancient Greek epic. That’s obvious, but not that helpful to the present discussion.)
My friend cited Cecil B. DeMille’s statement that an epic must have “a cast of thousands.” But is that to be taken literally–thousands of Hebrews crossing the Red Sea, thousands of Uruk-Hai marching on Helm’s Deep? Or can we take it to mean that the story just has to have a lot of characters? At one point in the conversation, I suggested that The Godfather movies–individually or as a trilogy–could be modern American epics, and I used the large cast of important characters as evidence (along with another possible factor that I proposed–an epic should be really long). I later backed down and said that The Godfather is probably a “family saga” instead, but what the precise difference is, I’m not sure. Other suggestions that came up during the conversation: an epic has battle scenes (I think that’s often, but not always, true); an epic has a complicated plot with multiple threads (but that would mean Charles Dickens’ novels are epics, which doesn’t seem right). We didn’t mention this yesterday, but a classical scholar would probably say that an epic has a hero you can root for, someone who is both strong and (usually) morally good. Well, that disqualifies The Godfather.
Our conclusion was, essentially, that we know an epic when we see one. My friend prefers older epics like Ben Hur and a bunch of other movies with Charlton Heston in them. I, on the other hand, look to the 1990s as my decade for epics. This was the decade that gave us Braveheart, Titanic, Legends of the Fall, Dances with Wolves, and The Last of the Mohicans. All of these movies are long, lavish, sincere (with very little irony), and straightforward in their storytelling. Three of them (the first three I listed) have scores by James Horner–the king of the epic soundtrack (which is why it bugs me that so many people know John Williams’s name but not James Horner’s)–and most of them have some sort of “love theme” played during the credits and sung by a popular vocalist. Although Troy came out in 2004, it participates in that tradition, though it’s notably a bit more cynical than those earlier examples. It has a Horner score, and Josh Groban sings the song during the credits. Troy, I think, was one of the last of a dying breed of movies (dying until the next time the genre experiences a resurgence).
So those are all the thoughts currently in my head about epic movie-making. If you haven’t seen the movies mentioned in this post, check them out, and if there are other titles you think of when you think of “epic,” let me know.