Masters of Great Epics

How Coppola, Scott, Johnson and Cameron Dominate Today's Narratives

Francis Ford Coppola: The Godfather of cinema.
Francis Ford Coppola: The Godfather of cinema.

Masters of Great Epics

Whoever has not seen the movie Avatar on the largest cinema screens – either because he was young in 2009 when it came out for its first showings, or perhaps because he had not yet come to life, and for those who only watched it on CDs— now has the opportunity to fulfil the desire and watch it complete and restored, as if it had just come out of the post-production labs.

Twentieth Century Fox will re-release the film on more than 2,000 screens in the United States and Canada on September 23rd. The reason for this is not simply a retrospective, nor is it because the company's store is devoid of new films, necessitating a return to its old ones to fill the void. Rather, the film will play a significant role in preparing for the second instalment of Avatar, which is scheduled for public screenings in more than 3,000 North American theatres on December 16th.

The goal here is straightforward: to prepare viewers to recall the events of the first film so that they can simply follow and complete the same story (with new events) without having to search for old references. Thus, the first part serves as a model for the second part, driving more success while achieving great commercial success on its own, adding to its revenues of over 3 billion and 847 million dollars.


Before the premiere of Avatar, Amazon Prime Video will release episodes of a television production of another blockbuster film that was created specifically for private home screens. The first episode will air on September 1st, followed by the remaining episodes weekly.

The TV series is a remake of another huge movie series, The Lord of the Rings, and the similarities between Avatar and Lord of the Rings are that both belong to the cinema of large fantasy productions that adhere to an epic sweep in terms of stories, characters, and statements. We can picture the "Iliad" and "Gilgamesh" written on Sumerian paper and walls. The difference is that cinema transmits the great stories of the world to large screens using appropriate technical elements, and it portrays all events that are larger than reality, utilizing the entire imagination of its writers.

In fact, that's what the cinema has been doing since it decided to move away from easy, short films toward the big epic films. L'inferno ("Hell" about Dante") by Giovanni Pastroni (1914) featured Branchesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe d'Ligioro Cabiria. It was the first among his kin – silent and colorless, but full of a striving to embody the conditions of the cinematic epic.

David Wark Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, 1915 followed in this setting before Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 The Ten Commandments. Cecil B. DeMille directed The King of Kings in 1927, the same year that Frenchman Abel Gance finished work on Napoleon. Then there are the historical and science-fiction masterpieces created by David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Anthony Mann, and others.

Many of them first appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, when the film industry decided that the best way to compete with the younger brother called "television" was to enlarge the size of the stories and dress them in epic garb of every kind and category. 

From Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai to David Lean's Doctor Zhivago, and from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey to Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the cinema has enjoyed dozens of these massive productions that joined the previously mentioned ones. 


This great director turned his epic concept into four films, three of which are the Godfather trilogy while the fourth is the massive war film Apocalypse Now.

To begin with, The Godfather (1972) was not your typical gangster film. It was and continues to be the pinnacle of organized gang films. It has an artistic repertoire that never gets tired of repeating itself. At the same time, the story is so comprehensive that the film is still the most important thing ever recorded on tape about the great clash between Sicilian family concepts and the great American dream. Between two mindsets, one sees America as the world's best country and declares his love for it, while the other uses it to engage in violent and lawless practices brought with him from Sicily.  This is presented in a well-thought-out exposition with every technical detail imaginable, from the size of the shot to the movement of the camera, from the lighting to every word that is said, and from the content of the scene to everything that creates its desired atmosphere.

Coppola transitions from an unforgettable first chapter in which Don Corleone listens to Bonasera, who comes to him asking him to avenge two aggressors in his daughter's honor to telling the story of Don Corleone (Marlon Brando), who has three sons, Michael (Al Pacino), Sonny (James Caan), and Fredo (John Cazale).

The first are the most silent, the second are the most emotional, and the third are the most cowardly, as events will show later. Corleone tries to avoid being forced to trade in drugs by the organization and refuses to reveal the names of politicians and senior officials with whom he has vested interests. An assassination attempt propels Pacino through a series of transformations from the quiet guy to the guy everyone (both inside and outside the family) fears. According to many critics, the second chapter was the best. In any case, it was no less epic treatment than the previous one, and the third part is also epic, despite being less important in terms of content than the previous two.

Apocalypse Now (1979) was the most difficult challenge: A film about what America did in the Vietnam War and what the Vietnam War did to America. Among all the films about the Vietnam War produced by American cinema, Apocalypse Now is the best in terms of writing, directing, acting, and production elements, despite the fact that the problems that preceded filming and those that occurred during filming could have eliminated the work or jeopardized its ambitions.

Coppola presents a tale that departs from the core of the novel with careful choices to reflect the chaos that accompanied the Vietnam War on every level, based on Joseph Conrad's “Heart of Darkness” (which takes place primarily in the Congo) and a screenplay by hard-duty man John Milius. The military leadership requests that Captain Willard (Shane) carry out an assassination mission for Colonel Kurtz (Brando), who has rebelled against the leadership by carving out a portion of the country on the Cambodian border.

Willard leads a team of incompetents (Sam Bottoms, Frederick Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, and Albert Hall) who set out in a speedboat (named Erbos after the son of the Greek goddess of darkness) to travel from one event to the next.

On that river road, the film depicts the craziness of life in the incubator of war: fighting, American bombing, the Viet Cong, casualties, dances, and so on. In one of them, a military commander (Robert Duvall) stands in front of his unit, which is sheltered from Viet Cong bombing, and says, following an American napalm raid, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." Willard arrives at the location where Colonel Kurtz carved out his mandate and witnesses the heartbreaking scene of a man who has lost his sanity and lived on violence until it has become a part of him. Willard eventually assassinates Kurtz, perhaps to replace him because he can't save anyone, starting with himself.

Coppola does not miss the heart of what he wants from every shot, from the look in the eye to individual action to the indiscriminate killing of a boat of Vietnamese civilians to the largest scenes of killing and fighting. If there is a trigger, it is in the director's fervent mind, and he knows his destination and goals from a film that is as powerful as its content and as profoundly influencing as cinema should be.

Coppola's film is more than just a message; it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see how the elements of the artwork constantly converge and diversify on an epic scale and succeed.


Director Scott is a fan of history films and sword and spear battles, which Hollywood used to provide in the 1940s and 1950s. The director has made six epic films in this genre, as well as others such as detective thrillers and science fiction: The Duelists (also based on one of Joseph Conrad's works), 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator, and then the Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, and Beyond Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Was Scott drawn to history or historical filmmaking? If there is a definitive answer, it is that his interest in history stems from his interest in cinema, which allows him to re-work those blockbuster films for which Hollywood has been famous since the time of Cecil B. DeMille. For him and others, it is the reason for the birth of cinema.

Thus, Scott belongs to the David Lean film genre (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago). Like him, he focuses on two aspects of the narrative: an honorable perspective on history and the relevant details. While James Cameron goes beyond the fictional material most of the time and Coppola drew on the literature of the novel, Scott turned to history and extracted from it.


In turn, Peter Jackson's beginnings were far from epic cinema. This is shown in a number of moderately successful low-budget films, including Bad Taste (1987), Dead Alive (1992), and Heavenly Creatures (1994). The latter received positive reviews, but nothing in the film or what was written about it prepared for the huge step that Peter Jackson took when he finished filming the first part of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novel with the same title.

With its vast imagination, the film was amazing. The near-distant world that filled every nook and cranny of the image, people, nature (shot in New Zealand), and the novel concept of competing for a ring that can fulfil all desires. This conflict is continued in the two sequels, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in 2002 and The Return of the Kings in 2003.

Following this success, he directed a remake of King Kong (2005) and a detective film, The Lovely Bones (2009), before rolling up his sleeves and returning to Tolkien's world in a new trilogy titled The Hobbit (between 2012 and 2014). The latter suffered from a hasty writing and completion, but, like the rest of Jackson's works based on Tolkien's novels, it combined greatness and overwhelming imagination with entertainment, well-executed and unforgettable visuals.


James Cameron began with low-budget films that were similar to other similar works of their kind. He began in 1981 with the horror film Piranha II: The Spawning and progressed to The Terminator in 1984.

Returning to this science-fiction film, we can see the desire to create a story that differs from the multitude of films of the same genre in its narration. He wrote the script himself and gave the title role to Arnold Schwarzenegger, then turned it into two films, Aliens in 1986 and The Abyss in 1989, before returning to a second part in 1991, thanks to the success of The Terminator.

He finished True Lies with Schwarzenegger in 1994, three years before his first true epic film, Titanic (1997). The majority of those who saw this film enjoyed it on multiple levels. It was a massive production that told a story that actually happened in 1912, with human and tragic situations affecting ordinary people. It addressed two influential sides: A love story about a young man and a girl, during which the first devoted himself to saving the life of the one he loves, and the second, how the social and class divide between luxury passengers and steerage resulted in more casualties than second- and third-class passengers. These factors, along with depicting cases of panic and drowning, and then embodying the full catastrophic meaning, ensured that the film received the massive audience it deserved.

Following its initial screenings, the film was commercially re-released in 3D, which made these technical elements have a greater impact on the viewer. Everything is hazy, united, close, and crystallized, as if it were a new film. Following this film, Cameron directed two works about the sea and his works are Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep (in 2003 and 2005, respectively), before setting out to make Avatar between 2007 and 2009, which, according to what we mentioned in a previous issue, is the first among four parts.

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