“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”
Dances with Wolves was a huge film in its time, although it’s not flawless. The drama at times borders on melodrama, and the length of the film can cause it to drag in some places. But despite its flaws, this is a film that just works, and it was a major milestone in the Western genre. It was also a major milestone in portrayals of Native Americans in film—a group that has historically had little voice on screen. The Sioux tribe made director and star Kevin Costner an honorary member for his respectful depiction of their culture. I myself am a member of the Tlingit tribe, so this movie is very dear to me as well. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay, so it caused quite a stir in the film industry as well—which is especially impressive considering the hurdles it had to jump over to be made in the first place. Even with its flaws, this is an epic Western masterpiece that should be watched by everyone.
“Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”
Revenge stories can be gratifying to watch, but director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) frequently makes them even more so. Taking a page from his 2009 historical revenge tale, Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino turns his eyes to a dark time in American history: slavery in the American South. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio, this story pulls no punches in its portrayal of how brutal and dehumanizing slavery was, and its portrayal of an escaped slave taking righteous revenge on vicious slavers fits well with the stylized violence and witty dialogue Tarantino is known for. The raw brutality, though necessary to tell this story of slavery, can be hard to watch, but the pay-off at the end is completely worth it.
“This is very cruel, Oskar. You’re giving them hope. You shouldn’t do that. That’s cruel!”
Schindler’s List is, without a doubt, one of the most important films of all time. If you don’t know, it’s probably the best and one of the most accurate films about the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany (and Nazi-occupied Poland) in World War II, and it’s based on real people and events. It’s one I had always known about, but had never seen—partly because I was intimidated by it. The Holocaust is not an easy thing to watch, and I was worried it would be, well, a bit too much. I’m happy to report that, while there were some awful things portrayed, it remains very accessible and I actually loved this powerful film. Director Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jurassic Park) had a tremendous amount of respect for the subject and was careful to make a film that stays true to history, no matter how dark, and honors the survivors, some of whom make an appearance in the final scene. There are some heartbreaking scenes, but this is a truly great film that doesn’t just rely on the historical significance of its subject matter.
“Sextus, you ask how to fight an idea. Well, I’ll tell you how: with another idea!”
It’s hard to tell from today’s cinema landscape, but big Bible epics used to be huge, and the best is undoubtedly Ben-Hur (the 1959 version, not the terrible 2016 remake). Directed by William Wyler (Roman Holiday, The Best Years of our Lives) and starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, and Stephen Boyd, this is a film that seems simple on the surface but has some big ideas operating behind the scenes. This is a true Bible epic made by a Jewish man intending to present ideas that appealed to people of all faiths. Though slow at times, this film has some of the best action sequences of its time, with one sequence in particular being very impressive even today. While not perfect, this holds up as a great classic epic film with some depth to back up the tension and action, and I’m glad I got a chance to watch it.
“Actually, Werner, we’re all tickled to hear you say that. Quite frankly, watchin’ Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin’ to the movies. Donny!”
There are a lot of revenge films out there, but I can’t think of any that try to take revenge retroactively for a historical act of genocide—except for, of course, Inglourious Basterds. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) and starring Brad Pitt and Cristoph Waltz, this film is basically a revenge fantasy enacted by the Jews against Nazi Germany in World War II, and it even goes as far as to change some pretty major historical events for the sake of the story. Given that and the fact that it’s a Tarantino film (typically bloody and brutal) I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it—but I did. Quite a bit. The revenge is sweet, and the film is a perfect concoction of suspense, action, humor, and wit. While intelligently written, this isn’t really a thinking film—but it’s extremely entertaining, and there are some very memorable characters and scenes. I was initially hesitant to consider this film for my list, but after watching it, I can honestly say that I loved it and it absolutely deserves to be here.
“Undisciplined… unpunctual… untidy. Knowledge of music… knowledge of literature… knowledge of… knowledge of… You’re an interesting man, there’s no doubt about it.”
Lawrence of Arabia is widely heralded as one of the greatest epic films of all time, and it certainly is that, but it goes a level deeper with its exploration of heroism. Directed by David Lean (Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai) and starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, and Anthony Quinn, this World War I epic captures a unique little corner of history and makes an interesting comment on what heroism really means. This film really embodies what epics are all about, especially considering that this film was released in 1962 and uses all practical effects. It’s stood up well over the years, and this film could hold its own against just about any other epic film out there.
“You’re getting older, and you’ll see that life isn’t like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. And you’ll learn that—even if it hurts.”
Pan’s Labyrinth is really in a class of its own. Directed by Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water, Pacific Rim) and starring Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gill, and Sergi Lopez, this is a curious mix of fairy tale and brutal war film, and it’s more imaginative than just about any other movie on this list. The movie comes to us from Spain, and it’s set during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). We see most of the film through the eyes of the young girl Ofelia, who isn’t completely aware of what’s going on with the war and instead finds herself thrust into a fairy tale world of fauns, fairies, and monsters, traveling back and forth between the worlds and seeing things unfold in both. There’s a deeper story, of course: Ofelia’s adventures in the fantasy world she discovers serve as an allegory for what’s going on with the war, and there are strong parallels between the two worlds in the film. This film is brilliant, beautiful, magical, and at times quite creepy, and there’s really nothing else like it.
“If I said I was madly in love with you, you’d know I was lying.”
Gone with the Wind is a film that almost needs no introduction. Directed by Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz), who took over after George Cukor (My Fair Lady, The Philadelphia Story) was let go, this four-hour epic is widely heralded as one of the best films of all time, and, when adjusted by inflation, it’s the highest-grossing film of all time by a very wide margin—over seven billion dollars in 2018’s money. But I’ll be honest: I didn’t really understand much about it until I watched it today. I’d heard it was a romance, but that’s only partly true; it’s also about the disintegration of the old South and its culture in the aftermath of the American Civil War. And it’s told from the perspective of the Confederacy, showing an interesting, if somewhat misleading, perspective. The idea of a four-hour romance movie initially didn’t interest me, but this film is every bit as epic as it is romantic—which is to say a lot. The scope is grand, the characters are deep, and the conflict is much bigger than one relationship. I’m a little late coming to the party of reviewing this film, but I think this still holds up pretty well today. It really is that good.
“When you kill a king, you don’t stab him in the dark. You kill him where the entire court can watch him die.”
New York City in the mid-19th century was a dark and dangerous place. You wouldn’t know that today from reading Transcendentalist essays, Little Women, or Edgar Allen Poe, all works of that time. We have these romanticized notions of what America was like for the waves of immigrants coming to the new world to seek fortune and a new life, but for most, it was a violent hell. No movie portrays this little corner of American history better than Gangs of New York. Directed by the extremely talented Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Day-Lewis, this is a portrait of the volatile culture, the primitive politics, and the shocking violence of this time and place. It’s bloody and raw and almost oppressive in its adversity—but it’s also enthralling and very entertaining.
“I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate; it’s the sand of the coliseum. He’ll bring them death—and they will love him for it.”
With a few notable exceptions, epic films set in ancient Rome were hard to come by, and good ones even more so. This is surprising—the setting is perfect for an epic film with amazing fight sequences, political intrigue, rich story and lore, and strong characters. In the year 2000, before Lord of the Rings reignited our passion for epics, Gladiator filled that gap with an amazing film. Directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) and starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, and Connie Nielsen, this is a film that brings the expansive and powerful Roman Empire to life like never before. I won’t say it’s a perfect film—it has its flaws. It’s stuck in a weird spot between a political drama and an action movie, and there are a few scenes that place dramatic flair above realism. But Gladiator is just so entertaining that it more than makes up for its flaws.