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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 3/12/21

Good morning,

Following up on last week’s selection of sequels that were as good or better than the originals, now I am pondering what it takes for a movie to be an epic. It’s tough to define what it means to be epic. In movie form, the Godfather movies would seem to fit that bill (actually, either individually or collectively). In book form, much of Dickens would seem to fit (like Nicholas Nickleby), much of Mark Helprin’s work (like Winter’s Tale). Many a picaresque novel is epic.

To me, the designation of “epic” connotes (a) a story that is not a single thread, but a book or movie that encompasses multiple themes, (b) an immersive experience, evocative of an era and circumstance, (c) is meaty in depth of thought and/or emotion over a prolonged term, and (d) involves multiple characters that are richly drawn with internal interests and conflicts. With this in mind, several nominations for the category of “epic”:

The Godfather. No elaboration required. Epic in scope, character development, time, dialog. Brilliant in all respects—all three of them.

Nashville. I’m starting with a not-so-obvious one. This is the Robert Altmann film set around the country and gospel music worlds of Nashville at the time of the nation’s bicentennial. It follows the trajectories of multiple characters in a multi-layered, interconnected social commentary on the 70s. Star-studded cast that includes Ned Beatty, Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine (with the song “I’m Easy”), Karen Black, Henry Gibson, and other “new talents” like Jeff Goldblum and Scott Glenn.

Silverado. An expansive story of several characters who meet and share their adventures. This is, in my opinion, Lawrence Kasden’s best and it is a great favorite of mine. Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Scott Glenn and Kevin Costner are the key friends. Rosanna Arquette, John Cleese, Jeff Goldblum and Linda Hunt are in supporting, yet important, roles. So many tropes of the old west and the western movie. Hard to believe this was made 35 years ago. It is not as dark as the westerns below, though just as revisionist a take on the old west.

The Outlaw Josie Wales and Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood has been in so many great western and cop movies (the “man with no name” spaghetti westerns, the Dirty Harry movies, High Plains Drifter, even the campy Paint Your Wagon). But to my mind, Josie Wales and Unforgiven are the most affecting and far reaching of his efforts, even including his well acclaimed more recent efforts (e.g., Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby). Josie Wales tells the story of a former Confederate soldier (who enlists solely because a Union soldier murders his wife and son), who sets out to live a life after the war, notwithstanding being labeled an outlaw and pursued by bounty hunters. The character is iconic and the story of a broken man living in a broken country is extraordinary. Along the way, he embraces different characters who join him in his quest of redemption (including the under-appreciated actress, Sondra Locke, and the great Chief Dan George). It is in the Library of Congress Film Registry and was lauded by Howard Hawks, Orson Welles and Roger Ebert (now that’s a triple crown…).

Unforgiven won Best Picture and Best Director for a movie with a great ensemble cast that included Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris. It is a great revisionist western, with the old gunslinger, seeking to change his ways, again pulled into the violence and ambiguous morality and murky definitions of “right” and “wrong” in the old west. Classic in every sense of the word.

2001: A Space Odyssey. The time scale of this story certainly qualifies as epic, starting with cavemen and moving through the space age and travel to far-away planets. Issues of technology, artificial intelligence, the meaning of’s all packed in this extraordinary Stanley Kubrick film of the Arthur C. Clarke novel (which was written as the movie was being made, inspired by a Clarke short story). HAL 9000 is the artificial intelligence “bad guy” computer that is Keir Dulyea’s nemesis on the flight to Europa. Note that “HAL” is “IBM” moved one letter down the alphabet. Many of the issues we face today were imagined by Clarke in his novel. And how can anyone ever hear “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or “The Blue Danube” without thinking of the classic scenes in this movie? Both derided and heralded as one of the greatest films ever made. And if anyone can explain the ending to me, please give me a call…

Schindler’s List. Spielberg has brought us so many extraordinary films, including E.T., Jaws, the Indiana Jones movies and the like (and a remake of West Story I’m looking forward to later this year). But his singular contribution to the culture is having brought so many of the lessons of history to life in Lincoln, Amistad, Munich, The Post, Bridge of Spies and Saving Private Ryan. But none can top what I consider one of the greatest movies of all time. This is a rare portrait of the horrific inhumanity of the holocaust, presented through multiple stories of heroism and brutality. It is only through the human scale—the individual loss and sacrifice, that one can ever make sense of the millions of lives lost. Brilliant.

Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. I think of these films together as one piece. The story of the early days of the space program were expertly presented in the film version of Tom Wolfe’s definitive telling of those crazy days. And Ron Howard brought home how what began as a lesser-than-life third trip to land on the moon became a binding moment of riveting television and history, played out before those of us who can remember. The drama of each has you at the edge of your seat.

It’s a Wonderful Life. Epic in that it’s life and death and the struggle for the meaning of life. And lots of “what ifs.” What if we no longer existed? Is a simple life a life well lived? Can we be satisfied with achieving less than our dreams? So many themes presented in a telling of the history of a man in a small town with tiny events leading to both despair and hope. “Help me, Clarence, get me back…I want to live again…” “To my big brother; the richest man in town.”

Casablanca. Is there a dry eye in the house when La Marseillaise is played by the band at Rick’s? I don’t think so. Epic in the scope of the story—romance, intrigue, a view of the war from a small outpost that experiences its effects from a distance—and yet up close in a personal way.

Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Copolla appears on this list twice. This anti-war Vietnam film, drawing broadly on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is up there with Full Metal Jacket and Platoon as the definitive Vietnam war movies. The scope and messages of this film win “best of the genre” for me. By the way, Born on the Fourth of July and Good Morning Vietnam also rank high.

Gone with the Wind. Some may be offended. The southern plantation of Tara, with its enslavement of people who seem all-too-happy to be working on the plantation, is hardly the place to wax poetic about the “good old days.” It isn’t Birth of a Nation (for its horrific racism) but it isn’t totally out of the woods for making us feel sorry for the protagonists, who chose participation in the war not for revenge (a la Josie Wales) or necessity (a la the conscript with little choice), but by choice. its portrayal of a South that has been ravaged by a war of its own doing is unduly sensitive to them and blind to the wickedness of the way of life in the deep South. The film is brilliant in scope and Clark Gable sums up what the travails of Scarlett and Tara really mean in the greater scheme of history, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Citizen Kane. I began with Godfather and end with Kane, apt bookends for a short list of epic films. Orson Welles was only 25 when this film came out in 1941. Arguably the greatest movie ever and certainly epic in the portrayal of a life, an era and a business. For a great backstory on the writing of this movie, watch the current Mank, the making of the film seen from the perspective of the screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz.

Other suggestions of epic films are welcome, and will be circulated later.

Best, Glenn

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