September 2003

What Makes a Film an Epic

Lately, Hollywood is throwing around the word epic. Lots of movies are coming out, or are in the works, with the word attached. Thank Heaven there are people out there working to sell movies, so that we who love to make them can have better tools and bigger audiences. But the fact is, although Hollywood often fools itself, audiences seldom do. The people in the seats, those folks who like Big Macs and professional wrestling and faith healers — they are the ones who decide if a movie is an epic.


Director Randall Wallace on the set of his film We Were Soldiers

Epic has nothing to do with the size of the cast, the budget or any other physical aspects of the production. Epic scale is a measure of the scope of a character's inner journey. Look, for example, at Sydney Pollack's classic, Jeremiah Johnson, one of my all-time favorites. The film has very few characters and almost no sets, having been shot in the Rocky Mountains (though setting itself can be a powerful presence and contribute mightily to epic atmosphere). The film's running time is short and even its score is simple, characterized by a single male voice and a guitar. But what an epic Jeremiah Johnson is: a sailor leaves the sea to become a mountain man. He encounters love and loss, the extremes of fear and courage; he wants no responsibility and yet accepts it, with massive personal consequences; he comes to respect his enemies; he comes to know himself. If that ain't an epic, what is?

There is no doubt that epics rise from a magical mix of talents; a director is blessed to have gifted collaborators — writers, cinematographers, editors — and the talent to recognize and listen to them. In Jeremiah Johnson's case, writers John Milius, Edward Anhalt and David Rayfiel, cinematographer Duke Callaghan and editor Thomas Stanford.

And to listen to the audience — even before you speak to them. Respect for the audience is a characteristic of great directors. The ability to make a film is built upon the sense that there is something inside us that is shared by the people out there who will see our work. And part of the journey of making a film is to encounter those who do not yet see what you see.

To lead, we have to get others to believe. And to get others to believe, we must believe ourselves.

Faith, the affirmation of life even when it's beyond our understanding, is both the seed and the harvest of an epic. Part of the majesty of making an epic movie is the way it forces you as a filmmaker to confront and justify your own core beliefs, precisely because the magical qualities that make a film epic are, almost by definition, inexpressible. And it is the expression of a timeless truth that an audience reads below the surface of your film that makes an audience recognize it as an epic.

To qualify as epic, a story must have the universality of myth, the enchantment of saga. So an epic is more than a cracking good tale; it tells us something we'll always remember; it makes us walk out of a theater and whisper into our own hearts, "I'm changed."

But if epic is myth, how did we get that troublesome term historical epic? Isn't the phrase itself an oxymoron? Historians enjoy bashing Hollywood. And they like to do it in print, since they like seeing their own names in the paper, as much as we do. Journalists want to write about History vs. Hollywood, and they have no trouble finding a historian willing to jeer, "Inaccuracies! Discrepancies! Horrors!" If some of these folks had their way, they'd put a sign in front of every movie theater to announce, WARNING: THIS ESTABLISHMENT SHOWS MOVIES! IT DOES NOT PRESENT ACADEMIC LECTURES.

At least we hope it doesn't.

This is not to say that directors should ignore historical fact; what we do in making films related to past events is to try and portray the resonance of a certain set of facts.

I can tell you that a strict adherence to historical accuracy will not inoculate your work against criticism. My most recent film, We Were Soldiers, was the project of a vast array of people, working as a passionate family. Cast, crew, and literally thousands of other people, whose lives were directly affected by the story we were telling, were committed to both accuracy and truth. There were days on the set when survivors of the battle we depicted stood behind the cameras and watched the re-creation of moments when they had held dying friends in their arms. In one scene of our film, a dying soldier whispers to a friend, "Tell my wife I love her." More than one critic assailed me for melodrama. The fact is, those were the exact words that soldier had said. (To be fair, of course, reality is no excuse; I chose to depict the moment in that way, and I take responsibility for the result. I can say that if I had to do it all over again, I'd make the same choice in exactly the same way.)

"To qualify as epic, a story must have the universality of myth, the enchantment of saga. So an epic is more than a cracking good tale..."

You who will some day make your own epic, and you who are currently making and planning films like Master and Commander, The Alamo, Troy and Alexander the Great will have to address a thousand questions a day, questions with many faces but the same essence: what is true here? Is it the detail, the surface, the incidentals that historians can identify? Or is there something deeper here that I'm trying to get at?

David Lean faced the problem, in another of my favorites, Doctor Zhivago. Some fashion experts and other critics sniffed (if you can imagine such a thing) that the hairstyles of his actresses did not belong to the period he was supposed to be portraying; Lean believed the more important truth was that the character was profoundly attractive, so he chose a style he felt was beautiful to his immediate audience. He also battled his brilliant (and loyal) costume designer, Phyllis Dalton, who was horrified since he wanted to clothe Geraldine Chaplin in a pink outfit for her arrival on a train; the designer thought it a ridiculous choice, since the trip would have covered the pink in soot from the locomotive. Lean wanted her in pink, and he was right.

I had a similar issue with the color pink on my first film. The story contained a pig chase, and on the day we were shooting some of my French crew took some delight in informing me that pigs, in the 1600s, were not pink but were mostly black. I told them I grew up on a pig farm, and if I didn't know that, then the audience wouldn't either, and since the pink ones were cuter than the black ones, damn if I wasn't gonna have the pink one.

So there you go: Lean had Geraldine Chaplin's coat and I had a pig, but we both fought for something pink, so I claim a connection.

Will the current crop of movies qualify as epics? The audience will tell us, but you also have to judge for yourself. I encourage you to go see a film like The Man Who Would Be King, and then go make your own film, without worrying about whether it's an epic.

Movies excite and inspire. What history teachers don't like to mention is that students in their classes often draw their interest in history because their spirits were stirred somewhere, sometime, by a movie that told them the only true events occur within the human heart.

Randall Wallace is the director/writer of The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) and We Were Soldiers (2002). He is also the screenwriter of Pearl Harbor (2001) and received an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay for Braveheart (1995).



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