Welcome, one and all, to the DVD Vault. This week features a closer look at some of DVD’s forays into the larger-than-life. From virtually the dawn of motion picture history there has been a drive to create something grander than reality and capture it on celluloid. The first true epic might just be Fritz Lang’s 1924 ‘Die Nibelungen,’ so huge at five hours long that it had to be split into two separate films. And epics are still being cranked out, right up to 2003’s ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,’ winner of an amazing 11 Academy Awards.
Luckily for us, the unparalleled look into the filmmaking process that DVD allows us is perfectly tailored to epic filmmaking, and the selections below are more than just pinnacles of the epic as an art form; they represent the finest of what DVD has to offer.
‘Gone With The Wind’
Classic. Simply Classic. If you haven’t seen ‘Gone With The Wind,’ then you’re doing yourself a major disservice. Then again, since it remains the top box office draw of all time in adjusted dollars (‘Titanic’ pales in comparison) you have probably seen it, or at least heard of it.
Enough has been said about this movie by people more qualified than I, so I’ll simply state for the record that so long as you still have the capacity to be entertained, you will be entertained by this movie. While not quite perfect, it is both a milestone in cinema history and a time capsule of the late 1930s. See it post haste.
As for the DVD itself, the recent four-disc set is a love letter to fans of this movie and of Old Hollywood. The movie hasn’t looked this good in years and the sound quality is excellent, even though your speakers won’t get too much of a workout. Supplements abound, most notably the wonderful commentary track by historian Ronald Behlmer. Very informative, this is the sort of track that really demands (and rewards) attention. Other extras include a two-hour making-of documentary and some nifty vintage newsreel footage. Decide for yourself whether this set warrants a $30 purchase or a rental, but either way you should definitely check this set out.
Another well-loved classic, ‘Ben Hur’ was the only film to win 11 Academy Awards before ‘Return of the King,’ and it certainly shows. Even with 45 years of filmmaking advances under the bridge, this film is truly epic in scope, rife with staggering imagery (8,000 extras, the story goes) featuring one of the most famous scenes of all time: the chariot race.
Charlton Heston gives a great performance as the titular character, a prince sent into slavery who soon regains his freedom and sets out for revenge. It is worth noting that Ben Hur is a Jewish prince living in the first century A.D., and that it is the tension between him and his Roman friend Messala that puts him into slavery in the first place. This material is brilliantly executed, with a distinctly Jewish story juxtaposed against that of Jesus of Nazareth and the Roman empire of that period without any of the three parties involved getting any sort of short shrift. Consider yourself warned that this is Old Hollywood at its finest, with all of the stiff acting and deliberate pacing that it entails. Even so, the highs are so stellar that the lows, if you find any, are soon forgotten.
Though the DVD itself comes in the dreaded snapper case (boo!), it shouldn’t be overlooked and is a great addition to anyone’s collection at about $15. Like ‘Gone With The Wind,’ the picture and sound are great for an older movie, the documentary is priceless and Heston’s commentary, though brief, is packed with great tidbits about the film. I, for one, also liked the way that the original overture and intermission were left intact, though that might leave some people a bit cold. Still, this is definitely one to add to the collection.
The movie that made epic filmmaking OK again, Mel Gibson’s sprawling opus is one of the more unlikely achievements in Hollywood history. Consider the ingredients: a major star but still unproven director in Gibson, whose previous effort was the virtual chamber piece ‘The Man Without a Face,’ a cast made up mostly of unfamiliar British faces, a script for an aggressively average TV writer and so on. Paramount took a pretty heavy gamble on ‘Braveheart,’ and the bet paid off.
The first thing that this movie had in its favor was its gorgeous setting; the vistas alone qualify this as an epic. From the most rural Scottish villages to the castles of England, from the heart of the forest to the mountaintops, this movie has it all. But on top of that, every last detail is meticulously planned out, a fact that is readily apparent in the major battle scenes where even the gallop of horses was choreographed. Yes, history was changed in the name of creating a more compelling movie, but none of the sacrifices (save for moving the Battle of Sterling Bridge onto a massive field) seem arbitrary.
‘Braveheart’ is something of a relic from the early days of DVD, so the image and sound are a bit weak compared to more recent releases. Some might argue that the bits of grain and dust make for a more film-like presentation. I say that this is a movie in need of a remastering job. Even so, Gibson’s commentary track is superb
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