Epics are difficult. Even when Hollywood was cranking them out, for every Ben-Hur there were two David and Bathshebas.
Ask director Ridley Scott, who got it right with Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, but spectacularly wrong with Exodus: Gods and Kings and Robin Hood.
Wolfgang Petersen was the hottest of action directors coming off In the Line of Fire and Air Force One, and had mad respect from everyone for his classic war movie Das Boot. But his career never recovered from the campy Troy—and Poseidon sure didn’t help.
Peter Jackson managed what was considered the impossible with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But the fact that the extended cuts were actually better probably led to his wallowing in wretched excess ever since, through King Kong and the inexcusable length of The Hobbit.
Television once took over the genre with the big-scale miniseries, from Roots to Shogun to Lonesome Dove, but surprisingly, the advent of big-screen television, while making shows more cinematic in general, has not led to a return of the genuine epic.
Why did it become so hard for Hollywood to produce a good Western? A genre that was once as easy for the industry as falling off a horse now seems as difficult and awkward as getting a tooth pulled by the town barber.
Sure, somewhere in the ’60s and ’70s, Westerns fell out of favor and anti-Westerns became the rage, fueled by politics. But that was almost 50 years ago. And every time there is a good Western movie or miniseries, the question becomes, “Will [fill in the blank] bring back the Western?”
Part of the problem is the balance. Either the movie is too much of rootin’ tootin’ celebration of clichés (Silverado), or it is an Event (Lonesome Dove), or it has to make a statement (Dances with Wolves).
Well, I won’t predict that Godless, no matter how successful, will bring back the Western. But I will predict that fans and non-fans of the genre alike will enjoy it immensely if they give it a chance.
Godless stars Jeff Daniels as the best Bible-misquoting pseudo-preacher bad guy since Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Daniels leads a group of cult-like renegades who rob mining towns. He’s on a tear right now, searching for his adopted son Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell of Unbroken) who tired of the bloodshed and quit the gang, taking down a few of the outlaws and making off with their stolen payrolls.
Wounded, Roy takes shelter at a ranch run by Alice (Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey), a sharpshooting pariah who lives on a horse ranch with her half-Indian son outside Labelle, a town filled with hundreds of widows from a mining accident. Sooner or later, we know Roy and Frank are going to face off and the town filled with womenfolk is going to be in the way.
Godless is an Event Western. It’s probably too unique to start a new trend, and for the first episode and a half, I wasn’t sure what tone it would strike. Was it going to go all dark like Unforgiven, or go so over the top with stylized violence that it would lose all suspense? And no, it isn’t ultimately a feminist statement—or Godless, either. The story ultimately—and unexpectedly—hinges on a few good men stepping up to be fathers, genuine spiritual leaders, and yes, protectors.
Ultimately, Godless blazes its own path, thanks to surprisingly deep characters and ace screenwriter Scott Frank’s patience in telling their stories. Yes, it has all the Epic Western staples: wide vistas, a stirring score, and big, violent scenes, but at its heart, there is also a lot of universal truth about the human condition that makes us care about these characters and their plights, even while we don’t totally believe the situation.
When Godless is over, it feels like we have just watched Something Big.
I didn’t expect a series on the life of Queen Elizabeth II to be all that interesting, much less epic. Frankly, the soap opera of the British royals has always bored me. I never even caught a touch of Diana fever.
But this lavish historical series based on the life of Queen Elizabeth II manages something quite extraordinary. It is wide in scope, yet intimate with its characters. While most dramatic presentations of historic characters merely do their best to try to tell us who they were, The Crown actually makes us feel what it would be like to be the characters.
It’s also insanely expensive, with hundreds of millions poured into each season in production costs—and every penny of it shows on screen. Actually, “lavish” doesn’t begin to describe this series. It makes Downton Abbey look like the Masterpiece Theater sets from the 1970s.
The second season also makes Prince Phillip more than just a whiny complainer. And one scene that fully encapsulates what this series manages so effectively is the one in which Phillip, as a young teen, has to march through a German town behind the casket of his sister as the whole city comes out to pay tribute in a full-blown Nazi parade. It is a major production achievement, beautifully filmed, but also a moment of deep emotional horror for a sensitive youth.
I’m sure there must have been some storytelling liberties taken. I know the timing of the Billy Graham visit is off (but how unusual and cool is it that something like that would even be included?). And portraying people who are still alive (at least most of the main characters) without being either salacious or hagiographic is tough.
But to this Yank, it seems like the balance is right, and the perspective is defensible. I’ve gained a knowledge of both who these people are—and even why they matter.
The Last Kingdom
The BBC may have let its superb production of Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series go because of budgetary constraints, but Netflix sure wasn’t intimidated on that score.
In fact, in Season 2, Kingdom doubled down with an even bigger story and sweep, with a production that rivals anything on television. In fact, the first four-episode arc of the second season is very reminiscent of Ben Hur.
Best of all, The Last Kingdom introduces modern audiences to the criminally forgotten Alfred the Great, his century’s answer to Winston Churchill with a little C.S. Lewis thrown in—and one of the most consequential of all Britons.
I’ve reviewed the series overall here, but for the purposes of this column about epics, I’d say the only competition for the Gladiator title of best sword and sandal epic since Spartacus is this story of a Saxon prince who is raised by Vikings and is then forced to chose between the two warring worlds.