There are films that stay in one’s memory long after the credits have rolled past, films that touch a familiar chord in the heart, and impress viewers with the on-screen portrayal of the human condition.
These are the films that one remembers viewing for the first time, and will become those that are watched again and again because they are what we think of as epic in nature. These films perhaps even play an important role in shaping our responses to life.
For many 2007’s Atonement (starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy) is one of these treasured films. Set in England the film begins just before World War II, with images of beauty and wealth, displays of class differences and social mores, examples of human goodness and frailty of character, all about to undergo changes as the country is thrown into the confusion of war.
Like our own lives, the personal stories of the characters in Atonement are altered by something as simple as a human error. This mistake sets in motion events that will cause as much disruption in these people’s lives as the wider ranging horrors of war will devour the country.
With Atonement as the destination, let’s take a journey through a portion of film history, revisiting some of the grand epic love stories that have thrilled audiences. Of course the word epic has different meanings to people and what one person might feel is the all time best movie ever made, another will think is pretty good, but not nearly as good as his or her own selection for best of all time.
We will have to agree to disagree on some titles, or on the list as a whole, but here for better or worse are a few of the films that have had an impact on viewing audiences.
Mention epic movies and a majority of people will respond with the title Gone With the Wind. For many it is THE epic of all time, as it covers love and hate, courage and cowardice, betrayal and survival during the turbulent years of the American Civil War. Almost everyone I asked could remember the first time they ever saw Gone With the Wind, as well as their age, the circumstances surrounding the first viewing and more importantly their response to the film, which was almost always positive.
Why such appeal?
One of my friends says “we all have more of Scarlett in our souls than we like to admit.” We can identify with her stubbornness and less than honest dealings to get what she wants, all the while wishing to be as good and courageous as Melanie. We often fall in love with the wrong person, making ourselves blind to the interest of another who truly cares about us. Scarlett’s greatest appeal is that she never gives up on the belief that “tomorrow is another day,” in which to push on towards her goal.
Growing up near the end of the 20th Century, we had the opportunity to see numerous movies on television. The morning movie, the early show, the nine o’clock movie and the late show gave us many versions of human experiences. Some of the most touching were inspired by the stories of those who had fought in the two world wars.
The first time I saw Mrs. Miniver with Greer Garson, I cried so hard I made myself sick. And the same was true for Miracle In the Rain with Robert Young and Jane Wyman, and even the musical South Pacific was not without its tragic moments. When the young lieutenant died, my cousins and I sobbed uncontrollably for lost love, even at our young ages realizing the grim price that duty and honor sometimes require. There were other older films that were so romantic, and so sad.
I remember one snow day in the elementary school years getting up before dawn and watching a movie, Peter Ibbitson starring Gary Cooper. In this story childhood playmates are separated, and meet again years later. They don’t immediately recognize each other, and the woman has made a marriage of convenience to a rich old man. Once they do realize they are the long parted friends, they nobly resist the temptation of acting on their emerging love, but that does not stop the jealous old man from ambushing Gary Cooper. Gary fights back in self defense, and the old guy is killed.
Gary Cooper, who is paralyzed in the fight, goes to jail, but he and his love soon discover that because of their innocence they are allowed to live a life together every night in their dreams. I’ve seen that movie only once, a grainy copy on a small television, but it made such an impression on me, I can remember it vividly.
In the turbulent days of the late 1960’s a film that gained epic status was Dr. Zhivago. It may have been because we knew so little about Russia and feared it so much that audiences initially took such an interest in the film.
Once seen however, the word spread about the pathos and beauty of the lives of these characters. They were human like the rest of us, feeling passion and pain, joys and abject sorrow, and bearing it all with a nobility of spirit that we admired.
Dr. Zhivago was an amazing blend of cinematography and story that left audiences breathless and sobbing.
Another late1960’s epic was Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. For the first time characters of the correct age were portraying the star crossed lovers, and modern audiences, especially young ones, could really appreciate and identify with the trials and tribulations of the romance.
It was an instant hit, and I imagine there were many between the ages of 13 and 100 who bought the piano music and the sound track. The “Love Theme” was certainly a standard at weddings for almost a decade after the film was released, as a testament to its lasting romantic appeal.
The mid and late 1970’s gave us some interesting films, perhaps epics of a sort in their own right.
First on the scene was Love Story which had girls alternately sobbing and crocheting cloche hats over a story of great, tender and lost love. Unlike other epic love stories, this one was current rather than a portrayal of times past, and it struck a chord with the youth of the day.
Then of course there were new epics, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind which revved up our love of the movies, taking it to new heights. These signaled the beginning of a fascination with outer space and aliens. No longer were these Saturday afternoon B-class features, but they were now the big box office draw type films, and we were in love.
Please forgive me if I leave out your favorite film, but it seems to me that until Titanic came into theaters, we had not had an epic film for quite some time. This story of love and tragedy, indomitable courage and the amazing fragility of life caught the imagination of audiences.
We hoped against hope that rescue was at hand for the story’s principle characters as well as all those souls in steerage. Again it was the nobility of character prompting Jack to sacrifice everything so that his beloved could survive that touched our hearts and souls. He was true in life and in death, and his beloved carried on his dreams. This was something that left audiences sobbing and breathless, that love such as that could go on even after death.
And so we come to Atonement. I’ve chosen the above epics because each one of them has points in common with this new film. Like Gone With The Wind, Atonement portrays a hero and heroine who go against the standard rules of the game, who love against the odds and in spite of all obstacles. We can identify with their humanity, cheering the good and recognizing where they made mistakes.
But we are really more like Briony, making judgments, prejudiced in our viewpoint, wanting our way, all the while wishing to really be Cici.
Like Dr. Zhivago, Atonement beautifully portrays another time and place with great attention to detail. We can leave behind the year 2008 and be in pre-war England, without jarring anachronisms. We see how lives are affected by not only the larger events of the war, but also by the smaller trials of prejudice, miscommunication and injustice. Like the war dramas of old, Atonement gives us a sense of personal sacrifice and duty, and it isn’t always noble or beautiful.
Robbie and Cici’s love story is as tragically romantic as that in Peter Ibbitson. They are innocent lovers forced to pay a price that is too heavy. This love story with it’s troubled path may also be a paradigm for England’s entering World War II. It seemed no one wanted this course, but people were forced into it by miscommunication, betrayal and fear that led to misunderstanding, prejudice and finally conflict. Once it was understood that mistakes had been made, it was too late to turn back.
In terms of similarity to Love Story and Romeo and Juliet, Atonement will have you sobbing over the strength of love, lost loves and lost opportunities for young people. As for the science fiction Star Wars and Close Encounters, Atonement like these epics show many faces of relationships, and the need to reach out and seek complete understanding before making judgments that will drastically alter lives.
To further qualify Atonement for epic movie status, it has been recognized by many critics and organizations for its excellence. It won the BAFTA Best Film Award for 2007, was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won for Best Music Score. It also won two Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture-Drama.
With Atonement coming out on DVD on March 18th, if you have not seen it, now is your chance. If you have seen it, now you can add it to your collection of epics. There are some very nice features included on the DVD, bonus scenes, a featurette “Bringing the Past to Life: The Making of Atonement,” which shows how much detail and care went into re-creating historically accurate environments for filming.
Another featurette “From Novel to Screen: Adapting a Classic” describes the work involved making a novel into a movie, featuring director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice.) There is also a commentary on the feature with Joe Wright which adds insights and anecdotes to the production.
Get the box of tissues, and give yourself over to the luxury of becoming engrossed in the beauty and the tragedy of this modern film that so successfully recreates the past.