Our epic desire

King is a Times staff writer.

Filmmaker Baz Luhrmann calls them “banquets of cinema,” visual and narrative feasts that offer audiences drama, romance, comedy and that sweeping feeling of being transported to another world.

In other words: an epic.

Creating an epic is not for the faint of heart or those with limited ambition, which is why the audacious Luhrmann -- who reconceived the movie musical with “Moulin Rouge!” and the Shakespearean tragedy with “Romeo + Juliet” -- deliberately aimed his latest film, “Australia,” to be on a, well, epic scale.

“Australia” deliberately hearkens back to the kind of filmmakers and films (think David Lean and “Lawrence of Arabia” or John Ford and “The Searchers”) that gave cinema its bigger-than-life scale. The kind of epics that few directors or studios even try for anymore.


Luhrmann argues that fear has been the genre’s worst enemy.

“Fear of the money, fear of the scale,” Luhrmann said recently. “It’s not easy to sell. It’s easy to market a film about one genre. But it’s not easy to market in this modern age -- a film that will make you laugh, make you cry, make you swoon. This belonged to a time where cinema was grand and very brave and very, very absolute.”

It’s not difficult to see certain film’s influences on Luhrmann. The cattle drive in “Australia,” which opened Wednesday, and stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in a tale set Down Under between 1939 and 1941, recalls Howard Hawks’ landmark western “Red River” as well as the classic Australian film “The Overlander.” The massive Outback cattle ranch Kidman’s character inherits was inspired by George Stevens’ Texas tale “Giant.” Even the film’s tumultuous love story between Kidman and Jackman has its roots in the heated, often rocky romance between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind.”

Luhrmann believes passionately that audiences still crave the epic.

“The way the world is at the moment and the feeling of great fear and trepidation, there is a function for cinema to allow people to pull into a world and really feel direct, hard-core emotions,” Luhrmann said.

When it comes to film epics, especially ones rooted in history and adventure, the acknowledged master is Lean. Contemporary filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Ed Zwick and Luhrmann cite the influence of the late British director of such classic epics as “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” on their own films.

Film historian Joseph McBride remembers a conversation he once had with “Lawrence” star Peter O’Toole about what made Lean’s epics so memorable. O’Toole told him “that the secret of David Lean’s success with epics is that they were almost intimate personal stories where it was about a small group of people that you deeply cared about and got to know well.

“But they stood for something larger. They were part of a large event. That is what makes an epic -- it focuses on certain people, but they represent all of society or a big part of society.”

A long tradition

Epics, of course, have been around as long as there has been storytelling -- “Gilgamesh” and Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” for example. Cinema has embraced the epic genre dating to the Italian 1912 version of “Quo Vadis?” D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Civil War tale, “The Birth of a Nation,” was the first real American cinematic epic.

Epics are generally historical, often revolving around wars or other tumultuous epochs. “The movement of time is very important to the story -- the idea that time works on people and events and places,” said Zwick.

Oscar has loved epics over the decades, giving best picture honors to such classics as “Gone With the Wind,” “Ben-Hur,” the first two “Godfather” films, “Out of Africa,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Schindler’s List,” “Braveheart,” “The English Patient,” “Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

But more recently those far-reaching tales of romance, splendor and landscape have found it difficult to get a footing in a cinematic landscape obsessed with attracting teenage audiences. Some critics feel that some contemporary directors who attempt epics replace true emotions with computer-generated effects.

McBride recalls reading an article by critic Roger Ebert on the genre upon the release of Michael Bay’s woeful attempt at the old-fashioned epic with 2001’s “Pearl Harbor.”

“He [Ebert] said the word ‘epic’ has become synonymous with big budgets, but what you realize watching ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is that the word ‘epic’ refers not to the cost or the elaborate production but to the size of the ideas. Warner Herzog’s ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ didn’t cost as much as the catering in ‘Pearl Harbor.’ But it is an epic and ‘Pearl Harbor’ is not.”

Zwick believes there are several factors as to why Hollywood has been shying away from traditional epics, including an “unwillingness to be embarrassed about certain kind of themes.”

But the thing that is in most disrepair is drama, says Zwick.

“I think essentially studios have abdicated drama and let that become the problems of the indie film or the small film.” says Zwick. “Why do people go to the movies? I think they used to go to travel some distance in their emotions, to experience something they had never seen, to be taken away, and that has been replaced by going to have a visceral thrill-ride experience.”

Zwick had to use independent financing to make his latest film, the World War II epic drama “Defiance,” opening Dec. 31. “What’s so unusual about ‘Australia’ this year is that a studio [20th Century Fox] has indeed been willing to do that.”

Despite the plethora of special-effects movies, film historian Leonard Maltin agrees that audiences still want to be swept away on a tide of emotions.

“The enormous success of ‘Titanic’ proves that audiences’ tastes for epics have not vanished,” he said. “Even in this hip, postmodern era, I don’t think audiences have changed that much. I think filmmakers are more cynical than audiences.”