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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spectacles Devouring The Past: Four Epics by Anthony Mann and Ridley Scott


There's no more succinct way to begin here than saying this: El Cid kicks ass. The sword duels, the battles, peerless composition after composition, and the impact of the performances – it was wholly satisfying. I wasn't expecting it to be. I thought it would be a bloated, trudging, ham-fisted war machine of a glossy epic, wearing its cost and stars (Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren) on its sleeve instead of offering anything vibrant or transfixing. But I was wrong – at least as far as I'm concerned. I asked my mother about El Cid, sparking her reply of enthusiasm for a movie she loved as a teenager. I lent my Netflix copy to her, and she tried watching it. 50 years later, she found it an absolute bore.

I would like to examine the whole corpus of Epics and their genre, under certain guidelines: for example, for this discussion, we would only consider films that were period set, over 150 minutes in length, featured hundreds of extras, and had at least one scene of mass slaughter (as the Waco Kid says in Blazing Saddles, "I must have killed more people than Cecil B. DeMille.") But that's a very, shall we say, "epic" task for me at this instant. I would need to freshen up. I only just saw El Cid for the first time, and its follow-up, The Fall of the Roman Empire. I would then like to just make this a short capsule of a larger study, focused on those two movies produced by Samuel Bronston and directed by Anthony Mann in 1961 and 1964 respectively, and two more contemporary and well known works that are deeply indebted to them, Gladiator (2000) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005), both directed by Ridley Scott.
Scott is credited for bringing the Epic back to form, thanks to Gladiator, which is kind of a mind-boggling fluke. He was already technically a senior citizen by the time he took the job, and only had one other movie that would fit into my feeble Epic Paradigm, 1992's ill-fated 1492: Conquest of Paradise, about Christopher Columbus (Gerard Depardieu). He had worked in period before (his debut The Duelists), had done some ravishing work in creating science fiction / fantasy worlds (Alien, Blade Runner, Legend), and was respected as one of the most talented visual stylists in the medium. His other works were contemporary and varied in quality or general success: the solid thriller Someone to Watch Over Me (1987); a bland Michael Douglas American-cop-in-Japan vehicle, Black Rain (1989); the terrific feminist road movie Thelma and Louise (1991); White Squall (1996); and another feminist star vehicle, Demi Moore's G.I. Jane (1998). Gladiator was a for-hire assignment offered to Scott by the newly established Dreamworks studio, with a monstrous scale and budget offered to him (over $100 million), despite his never making a movie that had exceeded $50 million in domestic grosses – along with a handful of pictures that were expensive money-sucking flops (Blade Runner, Legend, 1492, White Squall).
But Gladiator succeeded. If you read into the pop cultural climate of the time, you would hear about audiences being starved for an entertaining and thrilling movie about history and our civilization. The phrase "sword and sandal" was repeated ad infinitum, with critics and writers remarking how the genre of Spartacus had died just less than forty years before thanks to Cleopatra in 1963. Gladiator fed into that hunger, with a respected actor (of back-to-back masterpieces L.A. Confidential and The Insider) who commanded enough authority here that audiences watched in awe as a movie star, Russell Crowe, was created before their eyes. The movie, for lack of better words, "kicked ass," much as its protagonist, Maximus, succeeded in doing again and again. The movie won our hearts.
However, winning the heart can cloud the mind. I've watched Gladiator several times since its release, and I admit that it's not great. It's lucky. It has a few key, sustained rousing moments that are nicely spaced out between the plodding developments, aided by how the first and final 15 minutes are particularly strong. Mind you, not strong in the sense of great literary drama so much as the strength and catharsis some kids (or grown-ups, let's admit it) have when watching a WWE professional wrestling storyline get its closure. The energy Gladiator was able to channel and release in the early summer of 2000 was well-timed, especially given how it struck its chord early in the movie season: Spring is typically a weak time of year, and the period prestige of Gladiator helped differentiate it from other summer sequels and escapist fantasies. That B-12 shot motivated studios to green-light other scenarios of a lost genre. The technology was also perfect for the time. CGI could create those masses of armies and fleets, which before were necessitated with spare-no-expense woodwork, studio space, location shoots, and of course, extras.
During the release everyone brought up Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick's gladiatorial 196-minute spectacle with Kirk Douglas (also the film's producer) as the rabble rousing slave-turned-revolutionary. But I don't think Scott had Spartacus on his mind so much as he did Anthony Mann's films, both El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. Though Cleopatra killed the Epic genre, The Fall of the Roman Empire was the death rattle that assured its demise, the title becoming ironic in how it related to the genre's fate – and Old Hollywood's. The European (Barbarian) invasion was coming, and with movies like Cleopatra, Mutiny on the Bounty, Roman Empire, and the coming Dr. Dolittle, the studios were very much like the bawdy, excessively garish and indulgent Roman emperors. Fellini (whose La Dolce Vita is its own kind of Roman Epic, and whose Satyricon would be the most bizarre spectacle of antiquity), Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard, Bertolucci, and company were fermenting a new spirit in young American filmmakers, coinciding with formal adventurousness undertaken by Penn and Kubrick. Even though the latter directed Spartacus and its success helped secure his independence, he seemed to immediately disown it. Its form and resonance contradict most everything about his later masterworks, carrying none of their richness or personality. It's the only Kubrick film (discounting the films he made prior to 1956's The Killing) that I personally do not love.
But Mann's films have much to offer. Though a studio director, Mann was one of the "smuggler" directors that foreign critics of the New Wave praised for imbuing his otherwise conventional genre work with psychological complexity and vivid craftsmanship. He's not unlike his namesake of the subsequent generation, Michael, who often makes genre films (Manhunter, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice) that are elevated by nuance, texture, and ambivalence concerning absolute good and evil. Anthony Mann began with B-crime films in the late 1940s, moving on to becoming the master of what is called "the psychological Western." Some are now seen as near-masterpieces, like The Furies, and his many collaborations with Jimmy Stewart, like Bend In the River, The Far Country, The Man From Laramie, and most especially Winchester '73, a movie that seems to be a direct ancestor to the later Mann's Heat in 1995. The frontier plots seemed basic, but Mann and his actors were tremendous at conveying the characters' entrapment by their own obsessions. A bad man could become a good man, who could once again become a bad man if the compulsion (usually caused by greed) was baited properly. Obsession is irresistible, enticing a rational individual to their own destruction. That the all-American Mr. Nice Guy, Stewart, so often played this character for Mann is a testament to the challenge the director repeatedly embraced.
Watching the Anthony Mann Westerns side by side by side, one can see how he must have wanted to move on to something bigger. They are circumscribed by the Western palette, and almost seem to be repetitions of the same song, wonderful as it is. John Ford, using a bigger canvas, had taken Mann's lead in 1955 with The Searchers, where John Wayne was given the psychological complexity of the Mann/Stewart archetype. It was a sign of radical shifts in the Western, and of Hollywood. At the turn of the decade, when the Western was dying, Mann finally got the opportunity to work in the Historical Epic genre with Samuel Bronston's El Cid production, which would finely suit the director's predilections. Bronston had moved the entire production to Spain, making it more or less a location shoot. Mann – again like his namesake – loved shooting on location despite the difficulties, because of the inimitable aura that a particular atmosphere has in affecting performances. In a sense, El Cid can be seen as a Western set in 12th century Spain. The archetypes are similar to the earlier Mann Westerns; the landscapes are equivalent; instead of Indians, there are Moors; the frontier is seething in a similar conflict, of principalities instead of disparate towns. Through it all is Mann's search, often futile, for moral clarity in a merciless, if beautiful, landscape.
El Cid was a quick rebound for Mann. It was he who was actually hired by Kirk Douglas to direct Spartacus long before Kubrick, and some of his footage remains in the final film. The opening moments of Spartacus, with Spartacus and other slaves chipping away while abusive Romans supervise, is Mann and it looks like Mann, as opposed to Kubrick. It opens, as I recall, with a tremendous crane shot featuring a highly startling depth of field, very unique for the Cinemascope pictures of the time which emphasized the horizontal breadth of the frame instead of the rich depth within (such as we see in, for example, Orson Welles, or Kubrick's own Paths of Glory). Mann was fired soon after, Kubrick was hired, and Spartacus became a huge success. Mann was depressed, but was seen by Bronston as an ideal candidate for his superproduction in Spain. He hired Mann and they created a film that exceeds Spartacus both dramatically and visually. In nearly all of its 182 minutes, El Cid carries the visual richness in that opening bit of Spartacus, itself which never seems to regain it. It also does not have the didactic simplicity that was woven into Dalton Trumbo's Spartacus screenplay (a script that Kubrick strongly disliked).
That's not to say that El Cid is The Conformist. It's still a Hollywood epic starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, with uncomplicated dialogue, loud blaring music, and follows a straightforward narrative outline. It relies on spectacle more than drama to grab viewers, and thus may be seen as an example of tired Hollywood decadence when new forms and styles were eager to take hold of the culture. The movie has been criticized for its stiffness, something that plagues so many other films in its genre, embodying the unwillingness Hollywood has with bringing urgency to antiquity. Viewed from this jaded post-Bonnie and Clyde light, one may see nothing of interest in Charlton Heston's Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, our old-fashioned blond-haired and blue-eyed Spaniard who seems to effortlessly bring great morale to fractured Spain while alien forces from North Africa prepare to invade (Heston as a Spaniard? Why not. He had just played a Mexican in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil; and what about Crowe in Gladiator?). It doesn't help that the first moments of the picture focus on those foreign hordes mobilizing. General Ben Yusuf is played by Herbert Lom in Moorish brown-face, his mouth covered, telling his Emirs to stop fiddling with science and poetry and focus on war declared in the glory of Allah. This feels like reactionary racist stuff ranking with the worst of Hollywood's depiction of similarly painted white actors as Comanche savages. A modern day viewer is appropriately disturbed and anticipates a brutal struggle where the cross-wielding Christian white man – played by right-wing icon Heston – smites these vainglorious infidels. What more, a precocious film reader can easily interpret resonances the production of El Cid would have in 1960s Spain, where the El Cid character is something of a stand-in for the fascist dictator, Franco (the Spanish censors had to approve the screenplay before Bronston's production could begin shooting). There's also the Cold War allegory, where the different principalities of Spain are said to represent bickering Western countries that must unite against the great evil from the East, the Communists/Moors. Both interpretations require some faith in interpretive fallacy and are necessarily imperfect, being that Bronston was an apolitical man, and the creative forces in the picture, director Mann and screenwriter Philip Yordan, were with Marxist sympathies.
The pervading theme of El Cid is one of forgiveness, at its most irrational and perplexing. It's about all-too-human pride and hubris, and how the mechanisms within in our honor codes are dissonant with the high principals of Christianity, themselves being obscured by war and intolerance. This is the sense that I didn't expect to see in El Cid, and which made it an oddly spirited epic. There was such thematic consistency that the spectacle of the production never threatens to overtake everything. The two most highly regarded epics previous to it, Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) and William Wyler's Ben-Hur (1959), are also filled with religious ideas, but I don't think they ever seek to challenge our Western expectations of heroism. In all three cases, Heston plays the protagonist, but his spiritual path in the first two cases is surrounded by blatantly antagonistic, clueless, or passive fools. The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur are superseded by their spectacular natures which blot out the sometimes troubling Judaic-Christian themes. Spartacus, which makes no mention of Christianity or Judaism, is the same way with screenwriter Trumbo's black-and-white Marxist notions: the imperial exploiters are plainly evil, as the proletariat slaves are good.
The meaningfulness of how forgiveness and real religion is handled by El Cid probably relates to how I first heard about the movie and finally was convinced to see it. Miramax Films restored El Cid in 1993 under the tag "Martin Scorsese Presents." I thought that Scorsese associating his name with the restoration may just have been some petty lip-service of the director, who has supported film restoration for decades and would not at all quibble about putting his name on a poster. But I learned that El Cid was in fact one of Scorsese's favorite motion pictures, and to actually watch it is to understand how he could have easily related to and fell in love with it as a young man (he would have been about 17 when it was released). Students of Scorsese must understand and contemplate his Catholicism, and how as a young man he took the dictates of his religion much more seriously than his fellow Little Italy inhabitants on the mean streets. Scorsese is fascinated by Christ's compassion, man's search for forgiveness, and how spiritual ideals conflict with the needs of the flesh. Christian society – or Christendom – is understood by the director as a contradictory phrase. An immersive study in the New Testament shows that Society and Christ are incompatible.
This is precisely what drives El Cid. It features kingdoms and political posturing or alliances within Christendom (and so anticipates the architecture of Kingdom of Heaven). Christendom raises its crosses high, even though the dictates of its policies have nothing to do with Jesus or compassion. When Don Rodrigo captures some Moorish Emirs at the beginning of his journey, the Spaniards cannot wait to hang them. But this is what distinguishes Rodrigo. He becomes immediately associated with Christ visually after aiding a priest and carrying a stone cross, but his compassion then extends to his alien captors as he grants them their lives even though it means that he will be tried for treason. This incident leads one of the Emirs to dub Rodrigo "El Cid," the Arabic term for "Lord." The mercy of Rodrigo, the Cid, is not restricted by race or religion, but extends to the whole world of beings, even one's enemies. It's this mercy that makes Rodrigo a true knight of Christ, in how he is not led by human civilization or laws, but by the higher dictates of God. Throughout the film people ask, "What kind of a man are you?" (Judas asks Jesus the same question in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ). To be a normal man in society and to be a servant of Christ are two very different things, often asking the impossible – and so, Rodrigo finds himself repeatedly thrust into dilemmas of loyalty.
Rodrigo's refusal to hang his captives, and then even release them, is contradictory to his own self-interest. He is on his way to marry the beautiful Dona Jimena (Sophia Loren), who even winces after discovering Rodrigo's "treasonous" act. Dona Jimena also happens to be the daughter of the kingdom's most respected warrior, Count Gormaz (Andrew Cruickshank). Motivated by Rodrigo's opponent for Dona's hand in marriage, Count Ordonez (Raf Vallone), Gormaz brings Rodrigo's "treasonous act" to the royal court of King Ferdinand (Ralph Truman), concluding with Gormaz slapping Rodrigo's father (Michael Hordern) across the face. The marriage is called off, and Rodrigo is compelled to defend his family's honor by demanding Gormaz's apology. The private duel between the two swordsmen verbalizes a relevant idea, when Gormaz, almost mechanically admits that it is not that he does not want to apologize; it's that he cannot. To humbly step away from his proud position as nobleman is simply not a component in his psychology; even if he was wrong, and he knew he was wrong, it would not make any logical sense in his own mind to ask forgiveness. The sword fight that follows, among the best of its kind, ends in Gormaz's death. He is discovered by Dona, who listens to his last plea for revenge. The lovers then become enemies, with Dona conspiring with Ordonez to have Rodrigo murdered.
The characters in El Cid, like other Mann films, are unpredictable in their allegiances, which are necessarily complex. King Ferdinand has two sons, Sancho (Gary Raymond) and Alphonso (John Fraser), who both alternate between our accustomed moviegoer sympathies. The princess, Dona Urraca (Genevieve Page), begins as Dona Jimena's competitor for Rodrigo's affections. Then when Dona Jimena becomes murderously antagonistic to Rodrigo, Urraca threatens to even morph into the film's heroine. Rodrigo seeks to regain favor in Ferdinand's court by representing the king in a joust and duel against the representative from a threatening principality (the second of the film's amazing and wincing one-on-one fights); Dona Jimena gives the enemy combatant her colors, while Dona Urraca allows Rodrigo to carry hers. As for the princes, Rodrigo first seems sympathetic to Alphonso, then to Sancho. By the film's second half, Dona Urraca meanwhile threatens to become Rodrigo's chief provincial enemy. The plasticity of character in El Cid, as in Anthony Mann's Westerns, amazes me when compared to both the other epics of the time, like The Ten Commandments, or the epics that I'll be looking at later, like Ridley Scott's Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven.
The dimension of its characters allows the film to get closer to us with this theme of forgiveness and the address of our all-too-human hubris. Though the brown-face "savages" of the film's introduction seems to color El Cid as a racist film, we come to see in Rodrigo's relationships with other Moor characters that there is mutual respect between religions and cultures. "How can people say that this is wrong?" he asks in the company of the Emir whose life he spared, "We have so much to learn from each other." The Christian mandates of the newly crowned Alphonso are shown to be just as intolerant and nonsensical – and un-Christian – as the opening speech of General Ben Yusuf. Rodrigo brings his Moorish peers to the court of the king, seeking to aid imperiled Spain. After Alphonso notes, "We have not forgiven nor forgotten," in reference to a blow inflicted to Alphonso's pride by Rodrigo during his coronation (making him swear on the Bible that he had nothing to do with Sancho's murder), he refuses the aid offered by Muslims. The king believes that this must be a purely Christian army against Ben Yusuf. The king's intolerance almost results in his downfall.
On Rodrigo's deathbed, however, even the king is granted the chance of redemption. The king humbles himself against his custom, which is the noblest goal in this courtly world of strict order and ritual. "Forgive me, my Cid," he pleads. Rodrigo replies, "It's not easy for a man to conquer himself." Rodrigo has fought self-interest throughout his entire spiritual and militaristic journey, even pledging allegiance to Alphonso after the king had exiled him, and then even refusing to wear the crown. The failure of Count Gormaz is juxtaposed against this redemption of King Alphonso, who is finally able to admit his faults as both a king and a man.
The design of El Cid is essential to its potency. I admit that the spectacle – in true epic fashion – still trumps the drama. And like other films in the genre, some criticize El Cid for a kind of stiffness. But I don't see it like that. The film is a ritual just as it is composed of scenes of rituals, a kind of opulent Catholic Mass being performed in a sumptuous motion picture cathedral. The perfectly symmetrical compositions, timed movements of both actors and the camera, beams of light from above, and finally the organ music on the soundtrack when the dead El Cid leads his army to victory against Ben Yusuf, all seem to imply that this picture is its own kind of religious experience. This certainly also appealed to a young and impressionable Martin Scorsese, just as it appeals to me. It's not stiff; it's a sequence of rites, a grand Eucharist communicating death, resurrection, and forgiveness. The movement of the picture is also entrancing. Mann does not really use a lot of normal medium shots here. I love how he alternates in his 70mm Cinemascope aspect ratio from extreme wide shots, so perfectly designed, blocked, and proportioned with enormous depth of field, and tight close-ups of the actors. We may also nowadays disdain the acting style of Heston as Rodrigo, but he has a natural gift of screen presence that is almost unmatched, either back then and certainly today. The dialogue he utters, in this as in most of his other pictures, is not necessarily sophisticated, but there is never a faulty line delivery. Every cadence, expression, movement, and breath is perfect. He is essentially the priest or bishop conducting this Epic Mass. El Cid is about faith and ideals, which we may also think of as hocus pocus, and even politically dangerous (I get uncomfortable when there is a dilemma between allegiance to God or allegiance to State). From another vantage, it's marvelous, and Terry Gilliam obviously had El Cid in mind for his own monument to imagination, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), in designing the baron and company's victorious assault on the Turks.
El Cid was one of the most successful films of the early 1960s, and inspired Mann and Bronston to collaborate once more for The Fall of the Roman Empire, the picture that would be the pair's undoing. The Fall of the Roman Empire was probably a little unfairly maligned during its initial release, and some may think of it as the era's "thinking man's Historical Epic." Viewers of Gladiator will recognize conspicuous fragments of the narrative. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) is ill and thinking about his successor. He has almost defeated the barbarian hordes from the north, but really wants to create meaningful dialogue with them, inaugurating a true period of peace. His son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), is too committed to sport, drink, and leisure to be a responsible emperor, and so he plans on unexpectedly naming one of his most successful generals, Livius (Stephen Boyd), as successor. To complicate matters, Livius is Commodus' best friend, and is also in love with Marcus' daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren). The plan would work, if not for greedy senators who know that their power is jeopardized with a General in charge. They conspire to poison Marcus, ensuring Commodus' succession. The fall of the title ensues, as Commodus seeks to maintain a constant state of war, exiles Livius, alienates Roman provinces, and dooms Lucilla to a loveless marriage to an Armenian (Omar Sharif).
Beginning with a beautiful vista of the Germanic wilderness, the flaws of Roman Empire soon emerge in the guise of Livius, or more in the actor playing him, Stephen Boyd, and the ensuing blabbering romantic exchange that he has with Lucilla. This is stiff (there's no Catholic subtext to save it for me), but I wonder if my reaction to it would be different had Bronston and Mann got their original choice, Heston, to play Livius. Heston, as I implied earlier, can make dumb dialogue pure with his voice alone. The problem for the actor was he would have to once again be playing opposite Sophia Loren, with whom he didn't get along on the set of El Cid (pay attention to how he barely looks at her during some of their most intimate scenes; this was Heston being a diva). He didn't want the part, particularly after learning that Loren would be making more money than he would, as Roman Empire would make her only the second woman to earn $1 million for a movie (the first was Elizabeth Taylor for Cleopatra). Stephen Boyd was seen as a good replacement for Heston being that he held his own against the bigger star in his Ben-Hur role in 1959.
But the first time Boyd opens his mouth we can spot how this was a grievous error for the filmmakers. Set alongside Guinness, Loren, Plummer, and James Mason (wonderful as Marcus' Grecian philosophical assistant, Timonides), Boyd is like cellophane. His blandness saps the film's center of any compelling weight, such as Heston was able to give El Cid, and as we will see, Russell Crowe would give Gladiator decades later. When he's on screen, the film withers under its own spectacle and begins to starve for the British actors to come back. Because of Boyd's inadequacy, the thrust of the love story is flimsy and soft. Had Heston been acting it, how different things might have been. After all, one could say that the love story of El Cid was equally sappy and hackneyed, but the performers' aura elevated it above doggerel.
Yet for Boyd's weakness, Plummer's Commodus is a superb creation, a larger-than-life indulgent sociopath who at times is almost sympathetic, but not quite. Years later, Gladiator would have done well had Plummer's Commodus been the villain instead of Joaquin Phoenix's weak and erratically neurotic characterization, who is never a match for Russell Crowe's Maximus. Also marvelous is Guinness's dying Marcus Aurelius, who has a scene of inner dialogue that Mann found impossible to musically score. The questions of doubt going through the Philosopher-Emperor's great mind are stirring and dramatically compelling, whereas Richard Harris' take on the character in Gladiator is comparably a ponderous and gravel-voiced ham.
The scene of Marcus' self-dialogue works well in driving home what was probably Mann's theme here and may have been the great theme of his whole oeuvre. His characters are always alternating in their "dilemmas" (the concept of the "dilemma" is directly addressed in The Fall of the Roman Empire). To be a fully developed human being, one must converse and engage in dialectical conversation of opposite views that are in conflict. Put simply, Anthony Mann distinguishes himself from other Hollywood directors of his era by acknowledging – and focusing – on how the world is not simple. Timonides embodies the nature of philosophical dialectics and interpretation. As Marcus points out, Timonides would makes a list of several different aspects of climate if a person simply asked him, "How is the weather?" Marcus wants to establish peace with the Germanic tribes through dialogue, not simply smash them with aggression, which necessarily only creates more animosity and more war. "If men do not talk to each other, they are no longer men," he says at one point. He points out the important values of civilization: thinking, reading, talking – talking being the most important aspect. The things that the Emperor wants protected above all else are the books, "For this is Rome," he says. We are also shown how talking is difficult, such as when Timonides is tortured by his Germanic captors and burned several times, fighting with his own basic impulses which would drive him to pettily insult and scream at them. But it is through talking and its difficult paths that empathy develops between enemies, and how the Other becomes a benevolent Self worthy of respect and identification.
The opposing view, which is not really a view so much as a lifestyle, is embodied by Commodus, who adheres to an Old World provincial ideology of war, alienation, and making one's enemies slaves. The glimmers of Mann's Western genre heritage are in The Fall of the Roman Empire just as they were in El Cid, the Indians here being the German Barbarians. Commodus does not want to "talk to them as men." They aren't worthy of such respect or capable of sentience. They are savages. Commodus disdains the "Rome of my father" where Men of Reason are esteemed and wisdom and compassion become ideals.
This makes The Fall of the Roman Empire a very interesting picture to look at, perhaps more nowadays than even during the time of its release. The whole picture could be seen as a political dialectic, as opposed to the easily identifiable revenge drama that we have in Gladiator. It's a picture about politics and philosophy, such as we will get in Kingdom of Heaven.
The question is what we do with our enemies. The war-eager senate, mostly in allegiance to Commodus, believes that the Germanic tribes should not be given Roman citizenship but rather must be taught a lesson. Timonides assumes the contrary position, stating, "One hundred times we have taught the barbarians a lesson." The result? They keep on fighting with even more fury and vengeance than before. Timonides makes the insight that the lesson isn't working, and thus the Empire must ask itself if the pupils are to blame – or rather the teachers. "The hatred that we leave behind us never dies." The opposite, and more popular (and much less examined) viewpoint is not at all dissimilar from what Right Wing hawks repeat again and again in modern-day political discourse: the thing that makes us great is "Our strength! Our might! 'Equality,' 'Freedom,' 'Peace.' Who is it that uses these words but Greeks and Jews and slaves? The Vandals wait for a moment of weakness!" In other words, to pull back our troops or seek peaceful solutions only energizes and emboldens the Terrorists, as Michelle Bachmann would say.
An older senator aligns with Timonides and points out that military prudence is not what kills nations. "How does an Empire die? Does it collapse in one terrible moment? No. But there comes a time when its people no longer believe in it. Then does an Empire begin to die….The law of life is grow or die." In other words, empires must liberalize and adapt to necessary changes. The Fall of the Roman Empire links itself to El Cid when a character asks, "We have changed the world. Can we not change ourselves?" Conquering our xenophobia and prejudices is as difficult as conquering our base compulsions. The dialectical world of Marcus Aurelius and Timonides is not different from the Christian ideals of Don Rodrigo, where one must become "more than a man" to overcome the perilous obstacles that politics and tribalism set.
The goals of Livius, Timonides, and the late Marcus Aurelius fail, which makes the final act of The Fall of the Roman Empire live up to its title. The barbarians have set up a peaceful new civilization as citizens of Rome, only to be slaughtered quickly by Commodus' forces. The military proves to be disloyal to great generals like Livius, soldiers being bought for gold, another Mannian theme smuggled in from the Westerns like Bend in the River. "There's your great Roman army," one general says, "bought for a handful of gold!" Greed and easy access to prosperity blot out any kind of noble ideals or dialectical thought. Here, the film says, Rome begins to die.
Commodus and Livius have a final gladiatorial duel, which ranks alongside the duels from El Cid or the final cat-and-mouse chase in Winchester '73. It's Boyd's high-point as performer in the film (after all, he doesn't have to utter a word), and once again also makes us wish that Ridley Scott had replaced his Gladiator Commodus for Plummer's. Livius is triumphant, but not before the dying Commodus tells him the gods are laughing and with his final breath calls for the prisoners – including Lucilla – to be burned alive. Though Livius saves Lucilla before it's too late (I suppose it would be blasphemy to burn Sophia Loren alive), all other captors die in the flames. The two survivors walk away as the Empire is haggled away between senators and generals, Will Durant's narration commenting, "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within."
That sentiment applies to Hollywood and where the industry found itself in the 1960s. Though The Fall of the Roman Empire is a noble effort when we compare it to the other, more successful and esteemed, big pictures of its day (Dr. Dolittle, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins), it was symptomatic of unsustainable excesses in a changing cinematic landscape that was decaying because of television and changing cultural attitudes. It failed at the box office, grossing a fraction of its cost. It is a requiem mass for the Old Studio System just as it is for Rome, and if we look at the mind-boggling logistics of its design and execution, we should find it precious and think on it not lightly. There were no CGI or greenscreen special effects in this era (though there were some highly entrancing matte paintings). The exteriors were location set-ups, and the sets were wood and nail constructions, the bodies filling the widescreen frame being real human beings requiring human direction from Mann and his assistants. The Historical Epic died with the New Hollywood's emergence. As we prepare to examine Ridley Scott's Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, which also afford many visual extravagances, we remember that they are constructed more by graphic designers rather than on-set flesh-and-blood filmmakers. Are these even part of the same paradigm? The era of Spielberg and Lucas birthed the technology that would be able to give us mass armies again, but as digital bits and not meat and nails. A larger study of the Epic genre would have me going into more detail on Scorsese's Gangs of New York, which has its own occasional allusions to Mann's epics (a shot of the ear-collecting Hellcat Maggie leaping on her prey during Gangs' opening battle, for example, is an image taken directly from one of the opening battles in The Fall of the Roman Empire). I should note that Scorsese's colleague, George Lucas, visited the Five Points set in Cinecitta Studios during the laborious production and asked why would Scorsese actually build this enormous set when CGI could build it for him in post-production? But Gangs of New York is conscious of its cinematic heritage, and realized it would probably be the death rattle of real-space wood-and-nail epic filmmaking. Scorsese may have deliberately cast Henry Thomas, Spielberg's Elliot from E.T., as the conniving and traitorous friend to the main character, as an inside commentary on the decay that would inevitably ensue from a graphic designer's cinema of technological and digital convenience. Maybe the proof is in how the images affect us.
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We find ourselves back to Gladiator, which contains that proof. Observe the moment when Maximus and his fellow gladiators, led by their owner (and former gladiator) Proximo (Oliver Reed), approach the Coliseum and look up in awe. "I didn't know men could build such things," one of them says, some digitally created birds flying through the frame. The Coliseum we're looking at is not real, of course, but created in post-production through computer generation, as much of the crowd watching the gladiatorial bouts within is. Gladiator was after all a production of Steven Spielberg's new production company, Dreamworks, and nearly works on the audience's emotions and senses the same way Spielberg's best work does. But for me, what we're seeing does not at all compare to what Samuel Bronston and Anthony Mann put together. Technological evolution is, in terms of the Epic, a devolution.
Gladiator still works, if barely. The first 15 minutes, covering Marcus Aurelius' Roman army defeating a final Germanic stronghold is wonderful, particularly the way Scott bathes the image in warm blues and manipulates frame rates throughout the battle, bringing a hard graphic intensity to the collision of metal, flesh, wood, and soil. We also see Russell Crowe become a movie star almost immediately with his first close-up. At this time, Crowe had been in only a handful of big studio films, the two most well regarded being Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential and Michael Mann's The Insider, the latter for which he earned many deserved awards (he aged twenty years and fifty pounds, in addition to perfectly conveying vulnerability clashing with enraged but silent intensity). His Oscar win for Gladiator was a make-up for the award he should have won for The Insider. It was on The Insider's set that Mann encouraged a reticent Crowe to take the role of Maximus, stating that Ridley Scott would shoot Crowe visually in a way that would be advantageous for his burgeoning career. Scott's eye, matched with the natural – I almost want to say Hestonian, though there is some degree of difference – gravitas of Crowe, immediately makes the character, and what more the personality of the actor playing the character, iconic.
After Maximus' victory, the flab of Gladiator begins to show itself off, in Marcus Aurelius and his offspring, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) and Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Like in The Fall of the Roman Empire, Marcus is dying and filled with self-doubt, dreaming of a peaceful Rome with a reliable and wise successor. Maximus is in the Livius role, and like in Anthony Mann's film, the reason why Marcus demands his general take the position is precisely because of the Maximus' reluctance to accept (I should note that the actual Marcus Aurelius apparently had no such reservations about his son, Commodus, who historically may have been worse than either of these fictional portrayals, and ruled for much longer). Unlike Mann's film, it is Commodus who does the assassination, smothering his father in an embrace that turns vengeful, an image that Scott's viewers may find very similar to how replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) kills his own creator (Joseph Turkel) in the now-classic Blade Runner. Maximus is arrested and sent off to his execution by Commodus' soldiers, his family in Spain also ordered to die.
The vendetta story of Gladiator, thanks so much to Crowe's performance, makes the next two hours compelling enough as long as his own saga is in the camera eye. He escapes his execution but is far too late to save his wife and child, both of whom were crucified on his farm. He is captured by a slave caravan, bought by Proximo, and trained to fight and die as a gladiator. His talent with weapons and organizing skills as a military general helps make him a sensation, and his new stardom as a gladiator gives him the opportunity to fight at the Roman Coliseum, where he may be able to get his revenge on Commodus.
But between the simple though appealing He-Man aspect of Gladiator are the lethargic bedroom scenes, filmed in cooler colors (a stark contrast from the beginning), between Lucilla and the increasingly deranged and paranoid Emperor Commodus. One of the film's chief structural virtues is eschewing much of a romantic storyline, establishing Lucilla and Maximus as former lovers who regard each other well enough, and leaving it at that. In its place are the incestuous desires of Commodus for Lucilla and his fear that her son, Lucius, will one day usurp him. In Phoenix's Commodus, the movie bogs down too much and longs for Christopher Plummer's variation of the character. I would like to say that Phoenix, a very good actor, is not awful here, but he is, or at least the role is awfully written. This is another chief flaw of Gladiator and of the Epic genre generally. These films begin as historical conceptualizations ("A story about Ancient Rome and gladiators!"), but then must fill in the spaces with melodrama, standard character development, and story arcs. Consequently, they often run through many hired writers and suffer from unevenness, the dramatic gaps inserted within the grand conceptualization often being hackneyed and weak. Gladiator has three credited screenwriters: David Franzoni, who came up with the original idea, and then two revising writers, the very talented John Logan (whose The Aviator is a masterpiece of economical biopic screenplay writing), and then William Nicholson (Shadowlands). And yet still there is very little within Gladiator that recommends itself being the work of highly skilled writers, certainly as regards to dialogue (and Logan and Nicholson are both acclaimed playwrights). Indeed, much of Gladiator's dialogue exchanges were written during the actual shoot, some moments ("Are you not entertained?! Are you not entertained?!") like they weren't written at all and simply handed to Russell Crowe as something to say at the last moment before the cameras rolled. It's then interesting for me to compare Gladiator's inadequacies as the work of three separate writers when compared to Scott's succeeding epic, Kingdom of Heaven, the work of one writer, William Monahan, which is markedly superior in terms of content.
The final half-hour of Gladiator is otherwise quite good. Maximus fails in staging a revolt with the other gladiators. As in The Fall of the Roman Empire, Commodus challenges him to a one-on-one gladiatorial duel to the death, though this time the Emperor plays dirty by gravely wounding the chained Maximus beforehand. Maximus still kills the Emperor by using his strength to maneuver Commodus' dagger to his own throat. His revenge achieved, Maximus collapses with the final plea to restore Marcus Aurelius' dreams for a Roman Republic in the service of the people. He drifts into death, reuniting with his wife and son. Lisa Gerrard's aria over Hans Zimmer's music helps move the audience, and the result is absolute fulfillment on our part.
This is a perverse revision of history, and maybe Scott and his writers are playful in acknowledging it. Earlier, Maximus' squad of gladiators was forced to re-enact the Battle of Carthage, with Maximus' team playing the conquered barbarians. Naturally, Maximus overcomes the odds and triumphs, leading an amused Commodus to note, "My history's a little hazy, but don't the barbarians lose the Battle of Carthage?" Whereas The Fall of the Roman Empire ends with the gradual decay of a civilization, Gladiator makes no qualms about ending its history lesson optimistically, where the People have overthrown a Tyrant, and the dreams of the great Marcus Aurelius will be fulfilled. Maybe this makes Gladiator a perfect movie for its own time, the year 2000, when George W. Bush was elected president and inaugurated weeks before Gladiator won the Best Picture Academy Award (something hardly deserved, fun as Gladiator can be). Gladiator like Bush was marvelous at pandering to the people, just as Commodus is with his celebratory gladiatorial festivals. Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) observes about Commodus, "I think he understands what Rome is. Rome is the mob. He'll give them death, and they will love him for it." Such a statement seems applicable to the popular president Bush would become about two years later, or for that matter, Gladiator itself as violent, historically "voyeuristic" entertainment. Maybe this is a much more historically resonant motion picture than we give it credit after all.
*
Gladiator is credited with opening the floodgates in the studio system of a period of new historical epics, though I'm not sure if we should credit it so much as perhaps Saving Private Ryan, which fed into the audience's sadism and desire for historical voyeurism. Much like Braveheart five years before, Gladiator and Saving Private Ryan both had much publicity regarding how they unflinchingly were showing violent history "as it was." In any case, the sins of Cleopatra and The Fall of the Roman Empire were washed away, and antiquity was born again: Troy, King Arthur, Alexander, and 300 were all soon put into production.
Ridley Scott was now King Midas. Despite never having an overwhelmingly successful film (during initial release anyway), following Gladiator he became a kind of household name filmmaker. He took Jonathan Demme's place, replacing subtlety with cackle-worthy camp in the moderately successful sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, and later that year did well with Black Hawk Down, adapted from Mark Bowden's chronicle of the United States military in 1993 Somalia, making arguably the best film about modern war until The Hurt Locker in 2009. In 2002, he became interested in a spec script detailing the first Barbary War in 1805, Tripoli, to be filmed on an enormous scale.
While working with the script's author, a former Time Out New York editor, writer, and scholar, William Monahan, the two found themselves discussing Tripoli less and medieval knights more, particularly pertaining to the Crusades. Tripoli was eventually dropped completely, Kingdom of Heaven becoming Ridley Scott's next film. And though Gladiator is the more famous and rewarded picture, it feels clear to me that Kingdom of Heaven is Scott's magnum opus, and for whatever flaws it bears, moment for moment and image after image, and also in terms of its ultimate resonant thrust, it is probably the highpoint of the nouvelle CGI-era historical spectacles of the time. It was largely ignored or dismissed at the time of its release, and for good reason. Scott truncated his theatrical release by 45 minutes, a grievous error that stole any texture from the story, and as such made its spectacle hollow.
This is a huge difference between the great road-show epics of the 1950s and 60s versus those of the contemporary era. El Cid, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, and The Ten Commandments were not leisurely entertainments to be quickly consumed. They were events, and took their time as such at a minimum of three hours, not including an overture and entre'act intermissions. It was a moviegoer's great privilege to see these 70mm Technicolor marvels, offering something that a square television set could never dream of giving. And because of that, these weren't blandly manufactured to ingest viewers and spit them out just as quickly before the next screening, profitable though many of them were. Economy of plot may be much more important nowadays. With Kingdom of Heaven, Scott found the studio breathing down his neck to erase any kind of subplot that would seem tangential. He acquiesced, but losing those tangents basically stole the spirit of his movie that would have made the film in any way memorable to a cinema audience. The reception and returns were both lukewarm.
One thing Scott's time has greatly helped him is the presence home video. For though his faultless eye would seem a bad bedfellow for puny televisions, the phenomenon of the "Director's Cut" helped make the flop Blade Runner into a revised canonical masterpiece, and has also aided Legend and to a very large extent, Kingdom of Heaven. Alien, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down were also given "Extended Cuts" on DVD, though Scott is adamant about how they do not represent his own "director's cut," claiming to be pleased with the theatrical versions as they were; two other Scott pictures, American Gangster and Robin Hood, both of which I found mediocre, have alternate DVD cuts that I have not seen, though I can only imagine they mark improvement. In Anthony Mann's time, it wasn't considered by the filmmakers that their work would be watched on television or be available for mass-market purchase; if there were "director's cuts" they were lost (like Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons). Consequently, the restored Kingdom of Heaven is an incomparable visual marvel even on a small screen, and feels much more dramatically compelling and intelligent than most other mainstream films. The same critical revisionism, in my opinion, holds true for Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004), a disastrous critical and commercial bomb on release. Stone recut and restructured the film twice for DVD, the second time elevating it to near greatness for me. The more successful epics of the last decade, including Gladiator, the dreadful Troy, and Zach Snyder's over-posturing 300, feel comparably like fast food.
*
Kingdom of Heaven has many of the same craftsmen (production designer Arthur Max; cinematographer John Mathieson) from Gladiator, in the same way that The Fall of the Roman Empire reunited a lot of people from El Cid, though it is a marked improvement in terms of evenness and its effective argument for CGI spectacle. It begins with the same warm blue colors, gradually moving cooler with the running time as the action moves out of the European forest and into the desert. If The Fall of the Roman Empire is Gladiator's key model, El Cid hovers over every frame of Kingdom of Heaven. There are two key differences, one for the better and one for the worse, between Scott's epics. Gladiator is a patchwork screenplay of hired hand writers, who were kept separate from on-set historical consultants that were there as a press junket necessity. Their contribution was inconsequential to the story or characters, being mainly applicable to costume and set decoration details. William Monahan for Kingdom of Heaven, however, apparently knew just as much – if not more – than the consultants that Fox wanted to hire. The screenplay is much more interested in the dynamics of political and religious discourse and conflict than the norms of melodrama, which dramatically works in its favor. It consequently feels like a much more "complete" work.
The other difference regards the leading player. For though the lines in Gladiator's screenplay were banal, Russell Crowe is the rare actor that could sell them. Kingdom of Heaven casts the effete Orlando Bloom as its center, a decision that could have turned out much more badly than the end result. Bloom is a stronger lead than he would seem to suggest, working far better than Stephen Boyd, for example, in The Fall of the Roman Empire; but he is still lacks the commanding presence of Russell Crowe or Charlton Heston, figures whose presence would seem to evenly match the spectacle and sell the necessary clunky bloat of a highly conceptual movie (read: the love story), good as Monahan's script is. It remains a chief flaw of Kingdom of Heaven, though Bloom, a graduate of Scott's Black Hawk Down, carries out his miscasting very nobly in holding his own against this digital-era marvel. He simply does not dominate. In his defense, though, who does?
Kingdom of Heaven is about brother religions, Christianity and Islam, at war despite being born from the same Abrahamic faith. Appropriately its first act centers on brothers who are anything but familial. Balian (Bloom) is a great artificer in rural France, whose wife is a recent suicide following the grief of a stillborn child. His brother (Michael Sheen) is a jealous monk, who has the wife decapitated and consigns her to hell, even stealing the crucifix off her neck before her burial. In a fit of rage, Balian kills his devious brother and understands that he must seek forgiveness, in addition to healing the grief that still haunts him since his wife's death. At the same time, a squad of Crusaders returns from the Holy Land, led by Sir Godfrey (Liam Neeson), who has become the Baron of Ibelin in Jerusalem. Without an heir, his own brother (Robert Pugh) plots Godfrey's murder. In both cases, wars are less about ideology than the acquisition of land and wealth, and the movie essentially will argue the same thing about the two religions. The Crusades were more about opportunity than they were about God.
Godfrey secretly does have an heir, however. Balian is his bastard son, conceived almost twenty-five years before. He seeks the forgiveness of his own child and then proposes that Balian join him in Jerusalem to begin a new life. An ambush set up by Godfrey's brother almost foils everything, nearly wiping out the whole "Wild Bunch" of Crusaders that came with Godfrey, an inversion of story expectations that Scott and Monahan state was meant to imply how fragile life was in the late 12th century. Godfrey too is wounded and dying from an arrow's infection; before he dies, he knights Balian and charges his son with overseeing Ibelin and working with King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) in maintaining a fragile peace held between Christians and the Muslims, who are commandeered by the venerable Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).
Kingdom of Heaven is a densely plotted film with a wide array of characters. A weakness, especially when we compare it to El Cid, involves the rather black and white disposition of the characters. The villains are black-hearted, and the heroes always striving for the light. But that this picture focuses on political machinations so much makes it – in its 195-minute cut anyway – fascinating. Balian becomes a favorite of Baldwin IV, an intelligent and philosophical king conscious of how rituals and posturing are akin to moves on a chess board. But ultimately, he explains, a man will ultimately be accountable to the decisions he makes privately and how they associate with his own spiritual disposition. Politics and Religion have a shaky relationship in Jerusalem; politics involve acquiring power, but ideology drives political individuals, like Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and the fanatically Christian Templar Knights to consolidate that power at the expense of an entire group (Muslims). When Religion becomes Political, it becomes dangerous. When it is private, it is meaningful. David Thewlis plays an interesting character known as the Hospitaller, who is half knight and half monk. He is the most religious character in the picture, having daily topics for his prayers: his relationship to the Divine is ecstatic. He states, "I put no stock in religion. I've seen too much violence in the name of God's will." He believes "holiness" and "Godliness" are things rooted in a man's private deliberations, having nothing to do with the political role-playing of religion.
Like The Fall of the Roman Empire, Kingdom of Heaven may be felt as something of a downer, because the Western powers and ideals lose out. The downslope begins with Baldwin IV's death. His child nephew, Baldwin V, is named king but also has leprosy, leading his mother, Sibylla (Eva Green), to euthanize him. Sibylla's husband, Guy, attains the throne, and with the help of his fanatically anti-Muslim warrior Raymond de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), wages war on the Muslims, in turn giving Saladin a political excuse to break his peace with Christian Jerusalem. Kingdom of Heaven's cycle of regression works with its silent exhortations. This is a movie about death and decay, an interesting subtext of the body's realities when set against the "body politic" or realpolitik, a theme that Monahan, a very Catholic writer, worked into his subsequent screenplays The Departed, Body of Lies, and Edge of Darkness. Where is the soul in the body? Where is the soul in our systems of politics and religion? Machinations are worked out by individuals who seem to have no bearing on their mortality, like Guy and Raymond. Conversely, Baldwin IV and Baldwin V both have leprosy, where the flesh decays grotesquely while one is alive. The political voice of reason in the court is Tiberius (Jeremy Irons), whose face is badly scarred. There is a grasp on the body's fragility in these individuals. Greedy human beings are otherwise like festering worms eating away without conscience, much like the ones we see in the apple of Balian's brother during the film's first moments. The filthy world of chaos, vermin, and disease has the alternate escapes of political ego and internalized conscience – a negation of self versus a realization of self through an acceptance of mortality. Baldwin IV's disease, we notice, intensely disturbs his sister Sibylla, a very beautiful woman whose riches and regality cannot save her, or her son, from decay. This is a pointed contrast to El Cid, where Sophia Loren never ages (the actress wouldn't allow it), and Rodrigo's dead body is sealed in armor and attached to his horse, leading his men out to a final battle. In Kingdom of Heaven, the transcendental promise of the resurrection does not relieve people, pagan or Christian, of the body's grotesque dismemberment and entropy. This taunts Sibylla, who looks at paintings of dancing skeletons, "As we are, so you shall become" being the words written beneath them.
The final siege of Jerusalem concludes with a tidy surrender by Balian to Salidan, where Balian asks Salidan, after endless carnage and explosions, "What is Jerusalem worth?" Saladin replies, "Nothing," as if the answer were obvious. He walks away, then suddenly turns around with a wink, "Everything!" Saladin too acknowledges the sharp difference between the private and public spheres of religious and political discourse; he had to go to war in order to make his own religious fundamentalists happy. But upon entering Jerusalem's walls, he respectfully picks up a fallen crucifix and asks his mullahs to leave him. He prays, alone, not as a statesman but as a man whose relationship with God is very private. The fault of the Crusades was the absurd notion of assigning "the kingdom of heaven" to a geographical location, which can only lead to political disputes concerning property and to deep tribal prejudices. The true kingdom, for Saladin, Balian, Godrey, Sibylla, the Hospitaller, and Baldwin IV, is in a man's private sphere in how he dialogically relates to his conscious self and how that in turn affects the world around him.
*
Kingdom of Heaven was probably the most important project for Ridley Scott, and with the sole exception of Blade Runner it's his most accomplished. True, it suffers from some of the "love handles" of the Epic genre, with a token romantic subplot, hammy dialogue and acting here and there, a barely-good-enough leading man, and an ending that is too happy for my taste. But thanks to Monahan's script it's also the best example of a Historical Epic that has overstepped the quandary of a conceptualization trapping a drama: it's a "consonant" movie, which is the very opposite of Gladiator. I should also add how that as a Digital Era spectacle, it may represent the most satisfying of efforts, for me far surpassing the imaginarium of James Cameron's Avatar.
Gladiator I criticized because its computer-generated spectacle was no match for the audience's eyes – it didn't fool us. The artifice felt more convenient than stunning. Kingdom of Heaven similarly uses the same visual effects to recreate the past, with a lot of digital plates on the set that were later digitally repainted and enhanced in post-production. Kingdom of Heaven is a graphic designer's motion picture, but almost every moment seems so meticulously designed and balanced throughout the entire 195-minute experience that its modern day spectacle in the oddest of ways reconciles our digital era with the Anthony Mann epics orchestrated in Meat-Space/Real-Time. Scott seems to put his whole soul into Kingdom of Heaven just as much as Mann and Bronston did with El Cid and Fall of the Roman Empire: it is a sublime sequence of ecstatic murals in a ceaselessly moving zoetrope cathedral. As Real Space becomes increasingly derided and degraded in the automated eye of artificial intelligence filmmaking, this future is irresistible logistically, and so it must be well executed aesthetically. David Fincher, Ridley Scott, and James Cameron are probably the emperors of this environment of digital, non-stop filmmaking, where the images can be altered many times following shooting, and the work can be edited any number of ways in a short amount of time.
Kingdom of Heaven shows how the screen can be a wonderful canvas for an artist's eye. Scott's eye recently replicated the visual mastery of Kingdom of Heaven with Robin Hood, a sequel of sorts. Once more, Scott created a phenomenal spectacle of fighting alongside an unrivaled handling of actors in spaces, though much like the truncated theatrical Kingdom of Heaven, the drama was sapped and felt incomplete. We were left with an ass-kicking that lacked any texture on its boots to leave an impression. In recent years, Zack Snyder's 300 stole the cinematic genre that Ridley Scott inherited from Anthony Mann and then rejuvenated, and mutated it into a banal video game suited for Mark Zuckerberg's Post-Human Generation. Scott is now fleeing from the past and going back to the future with his pseudo-Alien prequel, Prometheus, perhaps again to show how the future that we birth also grotesquely eats us in return.







2 comments:

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  2. Great in-depth analysis of the older epic films that I treasure deeply and current attempts to revive the genre. I grew up in that era when these films were events and contained more content than many current films. I always thought that roadshows tried to raise the bar for quality. No one was going to pay more money to see a mediocre production. Even "Cleopatra," once you cut away the Taylor-Burton scandal hype, is a fascinating look at a period of ancient history with great performances. Some of today's directors who also grew up in that era or have attempted that type of film making continue to try to bring back the roadshow. Without that type of presentation, all films are relegated to just disposable digital projections who must perform well on the first weekend.

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