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Monday, 7 February 2011

Red Cliff - 2008/2009 and a List of Historical Epics


I won't be writing a proper review for this film just a few thoughts on it as it completely blew me away!

Easily one of the best Historical Epics I've ever seen, 4 hours and a half in length, John Woo's masterpiece and the most expensive Asian funded film to date, 80 million dollars worth of budget and yet it grossed more than 120 million dollars worth in Asia alone, a commercial and critical success that outranks all those similar to it and marks the high point of John Woo's career, in my opinion:

What a film!!
I had absolutely no idea how great this was before watching it.
I am not a fan of recent Asian Cinema, I like Boon Jong Ho's work, Battle Royale and that's pretty much it, I prefer the classic films of Kurosawa, Ozu, even those of Bruce Lee and other Hong Kong films of the time as well as John Woo's films like Hard Boiled and Killer.
But after watching this film I must admit that I am most impressed, John Woo manages to incorporate all his trademarks from Action films (Doves, stand off's, slow motion...) into a Historical Epic that is full of talented actors, is extremely well written and has one of the most elaborate and splendid set designs/art designs/costume designs of recent memory.
It felt like a mix of "Ran", "Hardboiled" and the better parts of the below average film "Warlords". It seemed to me that Woo used all his experience in Hong Kong and in Hollywood and all the creativity he cold muster and put it all into this film, I seriously doubt he will ever produce something so fantastic as this again in his career, but then again he doesn't need to, this film alone marks him as a talented director and an excellent story teller.
For that is where many of these Historical Epics go wrong, they get lost in details, facts and dates and soon the enjoyment is gone. Red Cliff however tells it's tale in a fluid, comprehensive and straightforward fashion that is most admirable.
Yet when making a Historical Epic one is not free to tamper with History and add events, kill characters off.... just for dramatic purpose, one much find the fine line in between an entertaining and engaging storyline and a historically accurate portrayal of the events. Films such as Braveheart failed to find that fine line and are now known as gross falsifications of history, but of course it is entertaining.

Overall, John Woo has managed to create a film that is entertaining, informative, breath taking and exciting. I never would of thought he would direct such a stunning film yet he proved me wrong.
Highly recommended to pretty much everyone, don't be put of by the length, you'll barely notice the time pass while to watch this film!

Now I will attempt to put together a list of my favourite Historical Epics, such a genre is hard to define, so I must point out that I am leaving out Fantasy and SciFi films (LOTR and 2001...) as well as BioPics (Gandhi, Amadeus), Crime Epics (Godfather, Once Upon A Time In America...) and War Epics(Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day....).
I'll rank them by quality and please bear in mind that it isn't one of my favourite sub genres so I really haven't seen many films:
(Red Cliff would be very near the top!)

Barry Lyndon - 1975
I suppose this choice is debatable, but Barry Lyndon is Historical and it is on an Epic scale, so I think it can rightfully be included...
I had to put it at the top for it is one of my top 5 favourite films of all time and my favourite Kubrick film.

Aguirre The Wrath Of God - 1972
 Another debatable choice, this film isn't on such an Epic scale but it does feel like a part of some unseen thing that is on a much larger scale (the conquest of America) and it's idea's are certainly grand!

Napoleon - 1927
 The oldest Historical Epic on my list (I still haven't seen Birth Of A Nation and Intolerance, for shame...), this one could be labelled a Bio Pic and rightfully so, but it's battles were on an extraordinary scale for it's time and the number of extra's used in remarkable.

The Battle Of Algiers - 1966
 Fantastic film that I only saw recently for the first time, could be labelled a War film but I think it sums up a whole period of time very well, not just the conflict.

Andrei Rublev - 1966
Again, this could be called a Bio Pic but I though it provided more insight into the period and the people of Russia than into Andrei Rublev as a character. And the extended raid sequence is worthy of this list alone...

Laurence Of Arabia - 1962
An obvious choice and a fantastic film.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley - 2006

A relatively unknown film about the various conflicts in Ireland during the period of it's fight for independence.

Master and Commander - 2003
A wonderful, if fictitious, film that was completely overlooked due to it's release date which coincided with the release of The Return Of The King. Great film though and a most interesting look at Naval warfare during the Napoleonic Wars.
 The Last Of The Mohicans - 1992
Daniel Day Lewis elevates this film far and makes it memorable, the rousing score and the swooping camera work really make this into an undeniable Epic. The romance side of the story is it's only weak aspect.

Dances With Wolves - 1990
The controversial winner of 1990 Best Picture is not as good as Goodfellas one of the films it was up against, but is still a remarkable film, it deserves much credit for being the first non English language film to be widely seen by Americans. It also provides an interesting look at Native American's, the film's story is rather limited in it's scale but the wonderful landscapes make this film feel like an Epic.

The Mission - 1986
I have only distant memories of this film, but from what I can remember it definitely deserves to be called Historical Epic, I do remember the finale though, it was very well done.

Zulu - 1964
An English Classic, based on real events which great actors and many extra's. A very successful film that deserves to be on anyone list of best Historical Epics.

Spartacus - 1960
An obvious choice, the combination of Kirk Douglas and Stanlye Kubrick was a brilliant one, and although some of the scenes were made in pretty obvious set pieces, it still feels like a true Hollywood Epic. I'm not usually a fan of Hollywood Epic but this (and the next two entries on the list) are a notable exception.

Ben Hur - 1959
Another obvious choice, Ben Hur is a legendary film with a great performance by Charlton heston, they don't make films like this any more!
El Cid - 1961
An often overlooked Hollywood Epic, nowhere near as famous as the aforementioned two films, I think it's most entertaining though and actually better than it's source material. Another fine performance from Heston, thousands of extra's and the fact that it was filmed on location make this an unforgettable film.

BraveHeart - 1995
This is not a historically accurate film at all yet I include it on the list for it did try to portray Historical events and although it failed it is still very entertaining, if slightly too gory.

Apocalypto - 2006
Another Mel Gibson film, this one is considerably less well-known as Brave Heart yet is better in some ways. It's a very fun film, with a thrilling chase and different settings.

Waterloo - 1970
This film is notorious for failing to earn so badly that it affected Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon film which was eventually given up. That said, it really isn't a terrible film, it was just made at the wrong time, 1970 was right when the Hollywood New Wave was taking off and the Hollywood Epics of the 50's and 60's were a thing of the past. The most impressive aspect of this film is the scale, no CGI just thousands upon thousands of extras. The rest of the film is unimpressive, and underwhelming, but it's worth seeing anyway.

Centurion - 2010
The most recent entry on the list, 2010 was a most disappointing year in terms of action films, Predators, the A Team and especially the much hyped The Expendables were all terrible. I had practically given up hope until I saw Centurion, it is nothing particularly original, ground breaking or even intelligent but it is great fun. Some excellent locations were used and despite the film relatively small budget it works on a moderately large scale, especially a the beginning, afterwards it becomes more concentrated. It was an enjoyable throw back to some of the classic Historical Epics but wasn't too serious and remained great fun throughout.

Gladiator - 2000
Frankly the story and acting bored me in Gladiator and I found myself waiting impatiently for the next battle scene (something which Red Cliff succeeds in, I might add) but the battle scenes didn't disappoint even if they are relatively sparse throughout the film. So I don't like it as much as most and certainly don't think it was deserving of all the praise. But then again I think Ridley Scott is a terribly overrated director in general.

And Now for some of the ones I hated:

Troy - 2004

This was a real mess of a film, it's main problems were the fact that it could decide who to side with thus leaving the viewer uncertain and confused and the fact that most of the actors were terribly miscast. I don't think I need to say much more, terrible film but not half as bad as some of the ones that follow:

Alexander - 2004
I think this is generally acknowledged as being Oliver Stones Waterworld or Heaven's Gate (meaning overblown expensive mess of a film) which in a way is sad as Stone is such a talented and different director that has directed some wonderful films, but such is not the case here, the narrative is convoluted, the battle scenes incomprehensible brawls and the cast, well they are miscast. This is definitely Oliver Stone's darkest hour of his career, and I saw the directors cut which was supposed to be better!

 Kingdom Of Heaven - 2005
Of this film I have vague but horrible memories, I'll admit that I haven't seen the Directors Cut which is supposedly far better, but still seeing the theatrical cut gave me no desire to see this again especially in a longer form. Orlando Bloom just can't act and I really wonder why he was cast in a main role, he is bad enough in supporting roles (LOTR...), and overall it was just a melodramatic mess with disappointing battles and an over-reliance of CGI.

1492: Conquest Of Paradise - 1992

I actually saw this disastrous film in school, we rarely saw films and when we did they were terrible ones (and dubbed into French). Gerard Depardieu plays Christopher Columbus and is terribly miscast, Ridley Scott directs and it is one of the worst of his extensive career. There are so many flaws I couldn't possibly point them all out, I'll just say: it's very, very bad film, stay well away!

Robin Hood - 2010
 Another Ridley Scott film! This one was a heartless and humourless reinventing of the classic and much beloved tale of Robin Hood, it failed in practically every way. Not much else to sat really...

Warlords - 2007
This film is like a failed Red Cliff, it is very similar in many ways but it fails were Red Cliff succeeds, it's battle scenes are bland and overly gory, but they are very few, most of the film is occupied by an uninteresting power struggle and a drama between blood brothers. The narrative is so muddled that I failed to learn anything new or interesting about the tumultuous times China was experiencing and I wasn't entertained at all. It is actually a quite painful viewing experience that not even the charismatic (and seemingly invincible, well at least until that fight scene in The Expendables...) Jet Li.

Well that concludes my thoughts on some of my favourite Historical Epics and some of my least favourite. Now go and watch Red Cliff!

I'd appreciate any feedback, did you like this post? do you think I should make similar lists regularly? and requests perhaps?

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