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Epic Movies of the 1980s: Aiming for the Extraordinary

The word ‘Epic’ has recently been devalued and just used to mean something that is striking or enjoyable, but the correct meaning of the word indicated narratives in the ‘Epic’ mould – those which surpass the ordinary in scale and reach heroic proportions – this applies to films too. I’m taking a look at some of the truly Epic movies from the early 1980s that showed extraordinary ambition in their story and spectacle.

In classical literature, epics focused on deeds or journeys of heroes upon which the fate of many people depended. Epic movies typically feature vast panoramas with hundreds of extras and are likely to be sagas that span decades and deal with historic, mythological, biblical or political topics. Here are some from the 1980s that you may have overlooked:

Epic Movies of the 1980s: Aiming for the Extraordinary

Heaven’s Gate (1980), directed by Michael Cimino.

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Over the thirty-odd years since it was released, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate – initially reviled as an expensive disaster famous for ruining a studio – has slowly been reappraised by critics, with many declaring it a misunderstood cinematic tour-de-force.

Harvard graduate James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) is the sheriff of Jackson County, Wyoming, when a battle erupts between the area’s poverty-stricken immigrants and its wealthy cattle farmers. The politically connected ranch owners fight the immigrants with the help of Nathan Champion (Christopher Walken), a mercenary competing with Averill for the love of local madam, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert). As the struggle escalates, Averill and Champion begin to question their decisions.

Over time, plenty of films have initially been dismissed by critics, audiences and awards, only to later find their way into the canon. Some of these films have qualities that were missed the first time around but gradually reveal themselves, while others can be filed under “interesting failure” and are worthy of a second look.

Heaven’s Gate can be found on Blu-ray and DVD in restored and extended form, thanks to Criterion. It was another sign of the rehabilitation of Michael Cimino’s epic Western that famously brought down its studio, virtually ended the director’s career, and that in cinematic circles became synonymous with disaster.

Epic Movies of the 1980s: Aiming for the Extraordinary

Excalibur (1981), directed by John Boorman.

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Excalibur is a visually extravagant and ambitious retelling of the legend of King Arthur. It provides a mystical and violent version of the Dark Ages and the evil and heroic figures that we imagine might have populated those times.

The magical sword of Excalibur starts off in the hands of British lord Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) then later, finds its way to his bastard son, Arthur (Nigel Terry), the knave destined to become king.

Aided by the sorcerer Merlin (Nicol Williamson), Arthur appropriates Excalibur and fulfils his fate by bringing together the Knights of the Round Table at Camelot and unifying the country. However, Arthur as monarch, is a beset by the problems of any man and must face further tests in love, sorrow, heartbreak, the pursuit of the Holy Grail and his nation’s survival.

As a panorama of sword and sorcery, Excalibur is beautiful to view, and as a showcase for Nicol Williamson’s Merlin, it is also sometimes a lot of fun; Williamson plays the magician as a medieval wit, always armed with a wry observation. His relationship with Morgana (a sexy, young Helen Mirren) is actually the most interesting one of the film.

The director John Boorman, stages his Arthurian movie as a triumph of production design, costumes and special effects.

Epic Movies of the 1980s: Aiming for the Extraordinary

Kagemusha (1981), directed by Akira Kurosawa.

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Akira Kurosawa is renowned for making epic movies – Kagemusha (one of the most expensive Japanese movies ever made) is set in feudal times and presents the tale of a petty thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is recruited to impersonate Shingen, an ageing warlord, (also played by Nakadai).

When Shingen is mortally wounded in battle, the Takeda clan secretly replaces him with the double. Thus begins a period of three years during which Kagemusha is treated by everyone, even Shingen’s son and concubine, as if he were the real Shingen. Only his closest advisers know the truth.

It is important that both friends and enemies believe Shingen is alive; his appearance maintains both the loyalty of his clan and the caution of his enemies. If he is unmasked, he becomes useless. However, he is not Lord Shingen, and so every scene is undercut with irony.

Kurosawa seems to be saying that some monumental human endeavours depend entirely on people sharing the same fantasies or beliefs. He seems to be suggesting that it is actually unimportant whether or not the beliefs are based on reality – all that matters is that men accept them, but if a belief is shattered or undermined, the result is confusion, destruction, and death.

His film contains epic battle scenes of astonishing colour, beauty and scope and intimate scenes in the throne room, the bedroom, the castles, and battlefield camps. The great battle scenes glorify the ancient Samurai system – armies of thousands hurl themselves towards death for the sake of pride and loyalty. However, the intimate scenes subtly undermine that apparent impulse; as the whole structure is dependent on Kagemusha, Shingen’s double, maintaining his counterfeit as he is constantly tested and threatened with exposure.

Epic Movies of the 1980s: Aiming for the Extraordinary

Reds (1981), directed by Warren Beatty.

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Based on the true story of American journalist John Reed played by Warren Beatty (who also directs). Reed journeys to Russia to document the Bolshevik Revolution and returns a radical. His fervour for left-wing politics leads him to an affair with the married Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), who will become a feminist activist. Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, who might initially seem unlikely as casting choices, succeed in growing into solid, plausible characters.

As American politics become more complicated and the rift between reality and Reed’s ideals grows larger, Louise Bryant takes up with a cynical playwright (Jack Nicholson) and Reed returns to Russia, where his health declines.

The original John Reed was a young man from Portland who knew a good story when he saw one. When he found himself in the midst of the Bolshevik revolution, he wrote a book called Ten Days That Shook the World and made himself a famous journalist.

If we look more deeply we might find that Reed was also a radical young intellectual who was in the midst of the turbulence in the years after World War I, when Greenwich Village was in creative ferment and American society seemed to be in the midst of change.

It is that personal John Reed that Warren Beatty’s film Reds takes as its subject; Beatty plays Reed but does not glorify him, allowing absurdity and boyishness to coexist with Reed’s self-imposed political mission.

Epic Movies of the 1980s: Aiming for the Extraordinary

Clash of the Titans (1981), directed by Desmond Davis.

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Clash of the Titans is part of a Hollywood tradition of special-effects fantasies – a grand adventure, filled with heroes, beautiful heroines, fearsome monsters and duels to the death.

The story concerns Perseus (Harry Hamlin) who is locked into a coffin with his mother and cast into the sea, after she has angered the gods. But Zeus (Laurence Olivier) takes pity and allows the coffin to wash ashore on a deserted island, where Perseus grows to manhood and learns of his mission in life.

The mission is to return to Joppa and rescue Andromeda (Judi Bowker) from a fate worse than death: marriage to the hideously ugly Calibos (Neil McCarthy), who was promised her hand in marriage before he was turned into a monster by the wrath of the gods.

Calibos lives in a swamp and dispatches a gigantic, scrawny bird every night to fetch the soul of the sleeping Andromeda in a gilded cage. If Perseus is to marry Andromeda, he must defeat Calibos in combat and also answer a riddle posed by Cassiopeia, Andromeda’s mother. Those who answer the riddle incorrectly are condemned to die.

There are, of course, other tests. To follow the bird back to Calibos, the resourceful Perseus must capture and tame Pegasus, the last of the great winged horses. He must also enter the lair of Medusa, who turns men to stone with one glance, and behead her so that he can use her eyes to petrify the gargantuan monster Kraken, who is unchained from his cage on the ocean floor so that he can lay waste to Joppa and Andromeda.

Clash of the Titans might seem to be rather fantastical and frivolous, but the movie respects its material and concentrates on telling us the epic story.

Epic Movies of the 1980s: Aiming for the Extraordinary

Fitzcarraldo (1982), directed by Werner Herzog.

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Fitzcarraldo is one of those outrageously ambitious epic films rather like Apocalypse Now or 2001 where we are both aware of the film, and of the making of the film.

Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo opens on a note of madness (which it manages to sustain) – out of the dark heart of the Amazon jungle appears a boat, its motor is dead and a shock-haired Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski) is furiously rowing at the prow, while his mistress (Claudia Cardinale) watches anxiously behind.

Fitzcarraldo the foreigner (who got his name because the locals could not pronounce ‘Fitzgerald’) is obsessed with building an opera house in his Peruvian town and decides that to make his dream a reality, he needs to make a lot of money in the rubber trade. In order to become a successful rubber baron, Fitzcarraldo hatches an elaborate plan that calls for a particularly impressive feat – bringing a massive boat over a mountain with the help of a band of natives.

Watching Fitzcarraldo raving in the jungle in his white suit and floppy panama hat, supervising as the Indians operate a block-and-tackle system to drag the boat out of the mud, regailing the jungle with old Caruso recordings – we’re struck by the fact that this is actually happening – that this huge boat is inching its way onto land.

Herzog could have used special effects for his scenes of the 360-ton boat being hauled up a muddy 40-degree slope in the jungle, but he believed that the audience would be able to tell the difference and he wanted authenticity.

The story of the making of the movie Fitzcarraldo is fascinating in itself and is told in Burden of Dreams (1982), a documentary by Les Blank and Maureen Gosling, who spent time in the jungle with Herzog, his mutinous crew and his eccentric star.

After you watch the movie Fitzcarraldo and its accompanying documentary, it becomes clear that everyone associated with the film was scarred by the experience, but it proves to be a crazy ride for any viewer.

Epic Movies of the 1980s: Aiming for the Extraordinary

Gandhi (1982), directed by Richard Attenborough.

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This is the sort of epic film that spans decades, uses a cast of thousands, and yet follows a single human story from beginning to end. Gandhi the movie is no more overwhelmed by the scope of its production than was Gandhi the man overwhelmed by the power of the British Empire.

This acclaimed biographical drama presents the life of Mohandas Gandhi (Ben Kingsley), the Indian leader who stood against British rule over his country. Dedicated to the concept of nonviolent resistance, Gandhi is initially dismissed by English officials, including the influential Lord Irwin (John Gielgud) but eventually he and his cause become internationally renowned, and his dedication to passive protest moves India towards independence.

The movie was a labour of love by Sir Richard Attenborough, who struggled for years to get financing for his huge but “non-commercial” project. Various actors were considered for the title role, but the actor who was finally chosen, Ben Kingsley, makes the role so completely his own that there is a genuine feeling that the spirit of Gandhi is on the screen.

Kingsley’s performance is powerful without being loud or histrionic; he is almost always observant, and soft-spoken on the screen, and yet his performance comes across with such vividness that we see the sheer moral force Gandhi must have been.

Apart from all its other qualities, what makes this movie special is that it was obviously made by people who believed in it.

Epic Movies of the 1980s: Aiming for the Extraordinary

Once Upon A Time In America (1984), directed by Sergio Leone.

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The movie spans five decades in the lives of four gangsters from New York City – childhood friends who become ruthless criminals, but who have a bond of loyalty to each other.

The film follows Noodles (Robert De Niro) from a tough kid in a Jewish slum in New York’s Lower East Side, through his rise to bootlegger and then Mafia boss – a journey marked by violence and betrayal. When he believes that he has broken a bond, he is haunted by guilt until late in his life, when he discovers that he was not the betrayer but the betrayed.

Leone’s original version tells this story in a complex series of flashbacks, memories and dreams. The film opens with two scenes of terrifying violence, moves to an opium den where the Robert De Niro character is seeking to escape the consequences of his action, and then establishes its tone with a scene of great power: A ceaselessly ringing telephone, forever in the conscience of a man who betrayed his friends.

The film moves back and forth in episodes, which eventually fit together into a whole. There are times when we don’t yet know exactly what is happening, but we remain confident in the film’s narrative.

The movie was chopped by ninety minutes for U.S. theatrical release and turned into an incomprehensible mess without timing, mood, or sense. The rest of the world saw the original film, but the whole version was not seen in American theatres, although thankfully, the complete version is available on DVD.

Epic Movies of the 1980s: Aiming for the Extraordinary

Ladyhawke (1985), directed by Richard Donner.

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In the 13th century we find the walled city of Aquila, ruled by a wicked bishop who lusts after a great beauty named Lady Isabeau d’Anjou (Michelle Pfeiffer). Isabeau however, loves, and is loved in return, by Etienne, (Rutger Hauer), the handsome captain of the bishop’s guards.

When the wicked Bishop of Aquila (John Wood) discovers the truth, he strikes a bargain with the devil, who obliges by placing a curse on the lovers – from that time forward, Isabeau would transform into a hawk by day and only resume her human form by night, whereas Etienne, who remains a man by day, would turn into a wolf at night.

Only at the exact moment of sunrise and sunset can they share a fleeting glimpse of their human shapes and feel the love they once shared.

Exiled in sorrow, Etienne, astride his black stallion, rides aimlessly about the countryside, talking to the sleek hawk perched on his forearm, for the tragic lovers are fated to be “always together, yet always apart.”

Upon breaking out of a dungeon, youthful thief Phillipe Gaston (Matthew Broderick) befriends Capt. Etienne and learns of his strange secret. Etienne then enlists Gaston in a dangerous plot to overthrow the Bishop and break his evil enchantment.

Ladyhawke looks marvellous – far more expensive than its actual cost. It was shot mostly in northern Italy by Vittorio Storaro, the Oscar-winning cameraman for Apocalypse Now, and Reds. Ladyhawke is full of magnificent landscapes and castles and is photographed in burnished tints and colours. Hauer and Pfeiffer give affecting performances, despite Broderick and the movie’s script coming across as incongruously contemporary.

Epic Movies of the 1980s: Aiming for the Extraordinary

Legend (1985), directed by Ridley Scott.

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Legend is an early British special-effects extravaganza by Ridley Scott. It takes place in a time long ago, when unicorns roamed the Earth and the powers of light and darkness were at war.

Earth is a sylvan place, filled with flowers, glades and grassy clearings – but also with dread swamps. The day may be filled with sunshine, but fearsome storms may come up suddenly and lash the land.

An evil prince named Darkness (Tim Curry) seeks to create eternal night by destroying the last of the unicorns. He lives in caverns far beneath the Earth, scheming to blot the sun out of the lives of all the planet’s creatures and to rule the gloom forever.

Into this setting come Jack and Lili. Jack (Tom Cruise) is a hero whose mission in life is to vanquish Darkness and allow the sun to prevail. Lili (Mia Sara) is the young woman he meets and falls in love with, but she is lured into the underworld and seduced into evil by an exotic priestess. Will Jack save Lili and defeat Darkness?

The world of Legend itself is actually gloomier than it sounds. To some degree, this is a fairy tale, and it needs a certain lightness of tone to work as such. Like many more recent sword and sorcery movies, it is so effective in rendering evil, and so good at depicting the bleak fates facing the heroes, that it’s more dark than light.

However, Legend as all of Ridley Scott’s movies, is an impressive visual and technical achievement. Scott is known to be a perfectionist who takes infinite pains to make things look apt and impressive.


An epic’s ambitious nature helps to set it apart from other types of film such as the period piece or adventure film. Epics add an extravagant setting and lavish costumes, accompanied by an expansive musical score with an ensemble cast, which makes them among the most expensive of films to produce. As the saying goes:

“The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little bit ‘extra’.”



Ren Zelen