Epic Proportions

If there's an image that defines this holiday movie season--a period that has nothing to do with Christmas, and everything to do with Oscars--it's the grave, grandiose spectacle of troops rushing into battle. From the left, flanks of Union soldiers charge across a muddy Virginia battlefield toward a horrible confrontation with their Confederate foes ("Cold Mountain"). From the right, sword-wielding 19th-century samurai speed on their mounts across green Japanese knolls into the cannon fire of the emperor's Army ("The Last Samurai"). From bottom to top, seen from a flying God's-eye view, a numberless mass of human warriors streaks across the plains of Gondor as the even larger forces of Sauron's army descend for the slaughter ("The Return of the King").

These panoramas are thrilling, terrifying and expensive. It's been a long time since Hollywood has painted so many pictures on so grand a scale. For decades the historical epic was thought to be an extinct species, left for dead back in the '60s when costly debacles like "Cleopatra" toppled entire studios, then buried again in 1980 by "Heaven's Gate." Hollywood liked to say the audience had lost its taste for the genre, but that wasn't it. They were just too damn costly to make. Filmmakers who wanted 10,000 extras and ancient coliseums had to wait for technology to catch up with their imaginations. It did--with computer-generated images. Suddenly you could get as many genies as you wanted out of one desktop bottle, and they were affordable. "Braveheart" and "Gladiator" opened the floodgates. Now we're on the high seas in "Master & Commander," and just over the horizon Brad Pitt and Colin Farrell are buckling on their Greek armor for "Troy" and "Alexander the Great."

What the makers of these three martially minded holiday epics couldn't have foreseen was that their images of war and destruction would be fraught with a daily-headline resonance. This is particularly true of Anthony Minghella's stunning, stately adaptation of Charles Frazier's Civil War odyssey "Cold Mountain," the one film that addresses the psychological impact of war. With vivid precision it shows what war can do to a person, a community, a country. It's the story of Inman (Jude Law), a disillusioned, wounded Confederate soldier who rises from his hospital bed determined to walk home--no matter how long it takes--to North Carolina and Ada (Nicole Kidman), the woman he loves yet hardly knows.

Minghella grounds the high romanticism of the love story in the bloody muck of hand-to-hand combat. He opens his movie with the Battle of the Crater, a nightmarish encounter in Petersburg, Va., that left thousands dead. It's not in the book, but it brilliantly evokes the inferno Inman is determined to escape. Minghella intercuts the battle with the bucolic town of Cold Mountain three years earlier, when the taciturn Inman first met Ada Monroe, a sheltered Southern belle. The sparks between Law and Kidman are palpable, the contrast between her pastel gentility and the brutality of Petersburg as stark as a steel blade.

"Cold Mountain" is a movie of episodes, and Minghella pulls off dazzling set pieces: he knows how to infuse violence with emotion, so it never seems gratuitous. If "Cold Mountain" runs the risk of self-importance, the arrival of Renee Zellweger as the spunky, dirt-encrusted drifter Ruby solves that problem. A gal who knows her way around a farm, she moves in with the hapless Ada--left to her own devices after her father's death--and teaches her how to survive. Ada, in turn, teaches Ruby there are more things in life than ripping the heads off roosters. Zellweger can push the "Annie Get Your Gun" swagger too hard, but she mixes it up with sharp stabs of honest emotion. It's a daring, delicious performance.

Kidman deftly captures both Ada's diffidence and her determination, though I wish she didn't always look fresh out of the beauty parlor. In any case, it's Law's understated, mesmerizing performance that carries the film and gives it its soul, much as he carries his life-sustaining vision of Ada in his hopeful heart. As he did in "The English Patient," Minghella artfully weds movie-movie romanticism with a dark historical vision. The man knows how to cast a spell.

The movie-movieness of Edward Zwick's "The Last Samurai" is of a different order: everything in it seems filtered through other films--Hollywood's as well as Akira Kurosawa's. Tom Cruise plays a drunken, guilt-ridden Civil War vet who finds redemption in Bushido, the ancient warrior code of the samurai. Cruise has been hired to go to Japan to train the emperor's Army in the uses of Western arms to help stave off a samurai rebellion. But after he's taken prisoner by the samurai and nursed back to health in their idyllic mountain village, he changes sides, awed by the purity and nobility of their traditional ways. Substitute Native Americans for samurai, and I've just described "Dances With Wolves."

Zwick's admiration for ancient Japanese culture is heartfelt--and woolly-headed. For the drama to work, he has to turn everyone who supports the Westernization of Japan into a sneering villain. Surely the issues were a tad more complex than good guys vs. bad guys. And what is it with Zwick's zeal for noble sacrifice? Here, as in "Glory," he asks us to be exalted by the spectacle of soldiers who suicidally march to an honorable death. I couldn't help thinking, suicide bombers think they're heroes, too.

I'd be inclined to cut Zwick more slack if the movie didn't take itself so seriously, and if Cruise's transformation into a valiant warrior had some nuance. There's no denying, however, the craftsmanship that has gone into this sumptuous epic. As an action director, Zwick keeps getting better--the choreography of the fighting scenes is rousing. There are pleasures to be had in the handsome, heroic "The Last Samurai." But they're all on the surface.

The pleasures of "The Return of the King" are too numerous to recount in brief. Now that the trilogy is complete, we can take the full measure of Peter Jackson's extraordinary accomplishment. "The Lord of the Rings" stands as a model of epic storytelling. The final installment runs well over three hours, but Jackson's modulations of tone, space, scale and intensity are so expertly gauged you never feel pummeled or bored. Just gripped from start to finish.

"The Return of the King" interweaves two strands, one vast, one intimate. In the former, all the kingdoms of Middle-earth unite in an attempt to stave off Sauron's armies of darkness, and to restore Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) to the throne. This is the cast-of-thousands part, full of swirling camera work, can-you-top-this stunts and magnificent besieged cities. In the latter is the increasingly tortured, weary figure of Frodo (Elijah Wood) as he enters the terrifying realm of Mordor, where he must return the ring to the fire. On his hobbit's back rests the fate of mankind. We've known that from the beginning. In the third and final film, we feel it.

The second installment was better than the first, and this one is best of all. It has spectacular action scenes and imaginary creatures, and it's by far the most moving chapter. The performances have deepened. These characters don't pop back up like cartoon figures, unscraped by experience. They've been altered by their quest, and the hurt gives flavor to the glory. If there's a flaw in this jewel it's a generous one: Jackson gives us too many endings. Understandably, he wants to be faithful to Tolkien. Or maybe, like us, he just couldn't tear himself away.