For some filmmakers, the impulse to create an epic can be irresistible.

This epic impulse goes all the way back to the dawn of the cinema – to such silent epics as “Intolerance” and “The Birth of a Nation” from D.W. Griffith and “Napoleon” from Abel Gance.

The compulsion lives on today in such filmmakers as Peter Jackson, whose “Lord of the Rings” trilogy includes the recently opened “The Return of the King,” and Edward Zwick, with “The Last Samurai.”

Filmmakers like these – people with visionary tendencies – are overwhelmed by the urge to splash profound themes across a broad canvas. In fact, a director may have to be a little crazy even to try.

If an epic doesn’t work, it can seem like less than nothing – a costly folly. If it does work, however, it might just win the Oscar for best picture.

That’s what happened with such epics as “Gladiator,” “Braveheart,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Ben-Hur,” the first two “Godfather” films and “Gone With the Wind,” among others.

The first “Lord of the Rings” film, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” didn’t win the top Oscar. But it qualifies as a triumph anyway – a critical and commercial hit that prompted Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum to call it “a great picture, a triumphant picture, a joyfully conceived work of cinema.”

“Fellowship” features an impressively heroic sweep plus an equally potent intimacy. And that first film has a great theme that comes straight from the J.R.R. Tolkien books:

It’s about the nearness of evil – an evil so close that it dwells within us.

But the very success of that first film may have sabotaged the rest of the series. Although all three were shot together, the wild success of “Fellowship” may have emboldened director Jackson to edit the ones that followed to emphasize their grandeur and technical ambitiousness.

Because of that shift in emphasis, the second film, “The Two Towers,” isn’t nearly as effective as the first. Still, it has a lot going for it and, all things considered, it was one of last year’s more entertaining offerings.

“The Return of the King,” however, is a genuine disappointment. Although it does have its moments, as well as the advantage of Tolkien’s great theme, it simply tries too hard. In the grip of the epic impulse, Jackson is too intent on displaying the film’s special effects and elephantine production values – not to mention the elephantlike creatures that attack our heroes.

Even the intimate passages, which mostly come near the beginning and end, often feel drawn out and overly sentimental – that is, self-consciously epic.

“The Last Samurai” also suffers from gigantism and an excess of gas, which prompted Caryn James of The New York Times to label it “a bloated vehicle for Tom Cruise.”

Cruise plays an American army captain of the 1870s who travels to Japan to train the army there and ends up embracing the samurai ethos.

If “The Return of the King” is a disappointment, “The Last Samurai” is often an embarrassment. Even the dialogue seems to strain toward an epic ideal that is always beyond its reach. “Honor,” a narrator tells us, “seems to have become a forgotten word.” And what about the word “cliche”?

In all three “Lord of the Rings” films, the action scenes are always coherent and often exciting. In “The Last Samurai,” they’re a visual rats’ nest: Zwick seems to think that for an action scene to be epic-worthy, it just needs to be big and bloody.

When you read “The Lord of the Rings” and its prologue, “The Hobbit,” you realize that Tolkien knew the most important thing about epics:

Sometimes more is less.

Tolkien understood that no matter how long the story, how big the battles or how vast the themes, it’s the little things that matter.

Middle-earth, the setting of his adventures, is a name that, whatever its origins, suggests a modest scale. And then there are those hobbits, the diminutive folk around whom his stories are woven.

“You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you,” the great wizard Gandalf tells Bilbo the hobbit as prologue is ending, “but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

In “The Return of the King” and “The Last Samurai,” Jackson and Zwick are betrayed by the epic impulse. They seem to have forgotten that, after all, we are all quite little fellows.



(c) 2003, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/. On America Online, use keyword: OSO.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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AP-NY-12-26-03 0602EST



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