There was a moment in Hollywood in 2001, soon after Ridley Scott's Gladiator took home several hundred million dollars and a best picture Oscar, when the sweeping, stirring, blood-and-Technicolor historical epic seemed poised for a long-overdue renaissance. In the digital age, conjuring up castles and cavalry charges no longer required a cast of thousands or sets the size of Egypt: Technology alone could offer moviegoers a glimpse of ancient Greece or medieval Europe, the battle of Gaugamela or the siege of Petersburg. Directors, stars, and studios scrambled to commission their own period pieces—to do for Arthurian England, feudal Japan, or even the topless towers of Ilium what Scott and Russell Crowe had done for Rome.
Five years later, the DVD release of another Scott film, Kingdom of Heaven—in a pathetically lavish four-disc "director's cut" box set—rings down the curtain on the historical-movie moment. The rush to produce big-budget visions of the past—which gave us The Patriot, Gangs of New York, Troy, The Last Samurai, Master and Commander, Cold Mountain, King Arthur, Alexander, and finally Kingdom of Heaven—appears to be petering out, a victim of middling box-office and worse reviews. For the foreseeable future, Hollywood's encounters with history are likely to be occasional and idiosyncratic, such as Terence Malick's The New World or Sofia Coppola's forthcoming Marie Antoinette. The studios had the technology, it turned out, but lacked the vision thing.To understand what went wrong, it's worth enduring the three-hour-and-10-minute cut of Scott's Crusades epic.
Douthat goes on to hammer Kingdom of Heaven (which I failed to make it through, BTW) and works up to what he sees as one of the two big reasons these movies are failing:
But based on the evidence of the last few years, the rank of current actors who can convincingly portray a premodern hero starts and ends with Russell Crowe.
But like Cruise studying Bushido, or Farrell wandering in the Hindu Kush, Bloom never looks like anything but what he is—a handsome, unreflective 21st-century guy dropped down in a medieval setting, with none of the hardened masculinity or the defiant otherness that would make you believe that he belongs to a different time.
Having worked up a head of steam he barrels on to the second point:
The past's otherness—in dress and mood, belief and attitude—hasn't just created casting problems for epic-makers; it's ruined plots as well. Gladiator, like Braveheart before it, succeeded by keeping its story simple: a wronged man with a dead wife and a tyrant to overthrow. But subsequent epics wandered from that formula, allowing pixelated carnage or politically correct revisionism to overwhelm the human drama, and lost their way in the thickets of the past.
Both fine points, and I agree mostly with Mr. Douthat. Russell Crowe is not the end all of fine period heros. Clive Owen was the shining bright spot in King Arthur. Karl Urban - Lord of the Rings' Eomer, Viggo Mortensen, Jim Caveisel, Christian Bale, Daniel Day Lewis, and Liam Neeson have all turned in great performances as epic and period heros with as much, if not more, charisma that Crowe.
I love epics, especially sword and sandals, but an epic requires more than just a pretty face it requires big themes and the definative good vs. bad guys. The problem Douthat notes of pc revisionism can be attributed to the inability of the movie makers to take an unambiguous stand. Comic book movies are all the rage right now because we have good guys and bad guys. The successful ones clearly delineate who to cheer for: Spiderman-good, Green Goblin-bad. Even when the villian has a sympathetic side, Doc Ock or Magneto, we still understand that they are bad.
As much as Douthat despairs that the epic has died he contradicts himself in the last paragraph by pointing to the remaining successful epic maker:
It's encouraging, then, that the only quasi-epic due out this year is Mel Gibson's Mayan-language Apocalypto, about the collapse of a Mesoamerican civilization some time before Columbus. With The Passion of the Christ, Gibson proved that he could woo audiences, if not the critics, with a hallucinatory, blood-drenched trip into ancient Palestine, without big-name stars or even English-language dialogue to mitigate the strangeness of his vision. He may not draw similar crowds for Apocalypto (there's no Christianity this time, or culture-war controversy), but at the moment Gibson is the historical epic's last best hope. He seems to understand that the movies can be a time machine, but only if you treat the past like the foreign country it is.
Gibson is not afraid to take chances -real chances- with his movies. He clearly delineates the villians, heros, and gawking masses. He takes chances with lesser known actors rather than the box office names and Teen Beat heartthrob du jour.