After taking another look at Seven Samurai last night, I got to wondering what it is that we all look for in an epic. I’m not interested in determining which epics films are objectively the greatest. “Epic” is such a broad category, and could really encompass a wide variety of movies, so thinking in terms of “best” or “greatest” would seem counter-productive.
What struck me about Seven Samurai, as opposed to many standard epics, is that it doesn’t have a sense of grandeur or large scope. It’s a very intimate film, but achieves epic qualities by focusing on a wide array of characters and scenarios within a larger scenario. There are no vast panoramas, no sweeping backdrop to the story, and it doesn’t directly involve significant historical events.
A technical definition for “epic” would stipulate that the work be longer. Seven Samurai is a long film, but it never feels like it is. Does something need to be long to be considered epic? Could “epic” be applied to the scope of the narrative alone?
I’d love to know what your favorite epics are, but more importantly I’d like to know why. What makes a good epic for you?
Recently I watched a few of the David Lean epics and I noticed that they had alternately bad pacing and rhythm.
I tend to long for mans struggle with hIs inner chiLd and well….breasts and surprisingly they 4 what ever reason they rarely meet excEpt in the case of my fav epic film Caligula,ah the wonders of the cinema ;)
Bobby – I haven’t seen any of the Lean epics in a long time (and I’ve never seen Doctor Zhivago), but I might have to go back and try them sometime this summer just to refresh my memory. My wife hasn’t seen any of them, so it can be an opportunity to introduce her. My memory of them, though, is that they are large in scope and full of “important” events and themes.
I think the greatest epics are the most intimate, no?
Seven Samurai, The Human Condition Trilogy, A Brighter Summer Day, Satantango, Tie Xi Qu…
Those would probably be my five favourite “long” films… I’m not certain any of them follow a traditional definition of an “epic,” but all of them feature very small, intimate examinations of, truth be told, meaningless people.
Seven Samurai in particular specifically eschews narrative tropes. The plot in that film is set up in the first five minutes and never, not once, does it expand beyond it.Problem:Bandits will raid our town
The reason it’s a great film isn’t in narrative, but, rather in what that narrative is focused upon. I’ve always felt the greatest “narrative” films tell the story of no-name people that only occasionally experience something out of the ordinary, which is the definition of Seven Samurai.
I forgot to mention also Showgirls and could one consider Salo “Epic” ?
Wu – I like your observation about the plot of Seven Samurai. Once the problem/solution of the film is set up, the rest is just about watching that problem/solution unfold. The results are inevitable, but the journey is what makes it so great.
I’d also agree that The Human Condition is intimate in nature, which is part of what makes it a powerful film.
because its a 3 hour long movie and it feels like it’s already finished in 90 minutes
Next on my list for Lean is “Doctor Zhivago”. After that I might start digging into his smaller early films.
Bobby – Of his early films, I’d highly recommend Brief Encounter.
I think @Wu summed the appeal up nicely.
Would each of the Godfather films be considered an epic or only the series as a whole?
Post – I think it can go either way with The Godfather films. The first can definitely stand on its own and has qualities that I would consider epic (it’s also a very intimate film, centered on family dynamics). It’s epic in terms of character transformation at least.
I very much agree with you, in most conventional ways Seven Samurai does not feel like an epic, despite the fact that it was. You really hit the nail on the head, it feels quaint to me almost; morally epic more than adventure oriented epic. Very personal for each character, they each have their own quarrels, each fighting for their own reasons some even claiming to fight just because they can. At the same time, they are being ultimately selfless, even if they claim to be fighting for the hell of it. I believe that is where it becomes epic in classical senses, they are each putting their lifes on the line for the greater good. Morally epic seems fitting.
As far as the classically epic, the Lord of the Rings are some of my very favorites. Adventure at its finest, crafted excellently.
Another favorite of mine is The Last Emperor; epic in scale and grandeur and covering the entirety of an Emperors life. His highs and lows reflect the highs and lows of an entire empire, that does it for me. Ebert actually sums it up rather nicely:
“an epic that uses the life of one man as a mirror that reflects China’s passage from feudalism through revolution to its current state of relatively peaceful transition."
Jardun – I bought the LotR trilogy on BD at Target on Black Friday and I’m still waiting to get that entire day where I sit down and blow almost 11 hours on seeing it again. Last time I saw them was in the theatre. That trilogy is the epitome of BIG.
Come on, people!
Once Upon a Time in America
Does Children of Paradise count as an epic? That’s another great one.
A lot of loud orchestral music, a lot of sentimentality, a lot of power and heroism, something to inject patriotism into me so I can spread all kinds of nationalistic garbage all over the internet – this describes what I’m not looking in an epic.
Perhaps the the most epical film for me is “Ran”, the emotional impact is so strong that you don’t know what the fuck is going on after you finished watching it.
Can anyone think of a regular length film that they might consider epic? I’m trying to, but can’t seem to come up with any. Maybe The Searchers? It does deal with a long period of time. It has a vastness to it.
Ran is probably a good choice, though it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen it. A lot of Shakespear’s tragedies have an epic quailty to them.
There’s something to be said for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, too.
Barry Lyndon is another of my favorites, just because its like one long epic painting. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and There Will be Blood also feel like they would be examples of western dramatic epics… for that matter maybe even Paris, Texas. All nice contrasts from your classic adventure epic.
As for short epics, I’m drawing a complete blank.
Have to disagree with the idea that the theme of Seven Samurai is simply “defend the village”.
I’d say it’s a deconstruction of bushido and a new analysis of the warrior class. The recruiting of the team is an unusual process that was new to the samurai epic with this film, no?
The warrior class acting for a civil cause rather than under strict hierarchical orders.
Finally, the warrior class as a defender of a society from which it is alienated.
The Magnificent Seven, now there’s “defend the village”. Wouldn’t call it epic, though. Not long enough.
Nathan said, "Can anyone think of a regular length film that they might consider epic?_
For some strange reason the first film to come to my mind is Little Big Horse, and I haven’t seen that in ages.
Peppermint Candy is NOT a classical epic but because of its allegorical import feels vast – you get the scope of this one man’s life and a large swath of the history of modern South Korea with it. Also, Im Kwon-taek’s Sopyonje and Chunghyang.
That’s not what I said. At all.
I said the narrative was merely the need to defend the village. The film doesn’t live in the narrative as was the position of the OP, or at least how I took the question, “Could ‘epic’ be applied to the scope of the narrative alone?”
But even then the themes you posited about Seven Samurai don’t make it all that intriguing a film. And I actually can’t think of any epic length samurai films before Seven Samurai other than Mizoguchi’s Loyal 47 Ronin of the Genroku Era, but my knowledge of pre-war samurai cinema is nearly nonexistent.
Again, the intriguing part of the film, to me, is the depiction of failure in character action. The villagers, the samurai, even the bandits fail throughout the film. Even the success in the film is muted and downplayed. The most successful character in the film; Kambei, the man that immediately recognizes all the talent and assembles this team, convinces the villagers and samurai over and over not to give up; what does he constantly discuss? What does he constantly say is a constancy in his life?
That’s a theme I’d attach myself to because it’s one that reaches beyond the confines of ancient Japanese history into a tangible subject of every moment of history. We fail a lot more than we credit it. The ultimate theme of the film is that even a success masks a failure; hardship is a necessity of life for societal and individual growth (Is Katsushiro a man when he makes it with the village girl, or when he sees his personal hero killed?)…
Yeah, I don’t think Wu Yong’s perspective on Seven Samurai was reductive at all. He was only making a comment about the narrative elements. SS is epic because of how complex it is in terms of it’s characters and human relationships, not because it has a large scope. He was pointing out (correct me if I’m wrong, Wu) that SS is epic despite having a narrative that forgoes most of what we expect in epic narratives.
What I look for in an epic:
1. Very very good character development
2. The feeling of sadness at the end
3. A friendship or love story
4. The beginning has to feel like a very long time ago
5. Great lead performance
6. Large cast
Perhaps another Kubrick film you could put into the epic category besides Barry Lyndon would be 2001, even though it is not as long. A film that starts at the Dawn of Man than goes many thousands of years into the future and then goes way past Jupiter into the furthest reaches of space feels definitely epic to me. You might want to add Dr. Strangelove to that as well where we are dealing with the subject of nuclear war and it’s profound effect upon humanity and such things as the large sets such as the War Room. And speaking of the production designer of that film, Ken Adam, you could say that some of the James Bond films are quite epic with their enormous sets such as the volcano set in You Only Live Twice or Stromberg’s freighter ship in the Spy Who Loved Me.
To reply to Nathan, I would say Days of Heaven and The Hidden Fortress