The big picture

From my childhood, I’ve loved BIG movies – the sort of movies that were made for the biggest screens of real cinemas, and which simply don’t work on your cell-phone or an in-flight monitor.    

Typically, the BIG movies focused on a handful of major characters, set against the background of enormous, historical events.

The first BIG movie I remember was The Ten Commandments, which my sister and I watched from the back seat of the family station wagon.  (I’m pretty sure it was at the Bellwood Drive-In, at Jeff Davis Highway and Willis Road, but it has been 57 years.)

The Ten Commandments made an enormous impression.  The events were familiar from Sunday school, and Charlton Heston’s Moses – at least before the intermission – was a satisfyingly sympathetic character.  As I recall, even at five, Moses grew less likeable as he evolved into the stern, unbending voice of legalism.  Perhaps that impression was a by-product of being up past my bedtime.

But I’m not so sure.  Director Cecil B. DeMille had Heston speak God’s lines as well as Moses’ – which seems to have had a curious effect on his subsequent acting choices.  In his later career, Heston became something of a parody of his former self – often opting for roles which ended with him speaking lines of dire admonition or condemnation.  Today, he is perhaps best remembered for the line, “Soylent Green is.... people!”

A year after The Ten Commandments came a vastly better BIG movie – The Bridge on the River Kwai, starring Alec Guinness.  On paper, the stakes of this film seem a great deal smaller – a few hundred Allied POWs forced to build a wooden railroad bridge in the Burmese jungle.

But the film was infinitely more satisfying because its characters were so real.  As the British commander, Guinness was gallant, but flawed.  Sessue Hayakawa, as the Japanese prison camp commander, was ruthless, but insecure.  William Holden, the sole American POW, was a cynical con artist who discovered his heroism at the last minute.

Of course, just twelve years after my Dad served in the Pacific, I knew who the good guys were.  But I also grasped something of the complexity and imperfections of the principal characters.  This was real drama – not Sunday school writ large.  I couldn’t have fallen asleep if I’d tried.

At six, I didn’t yet know or care about directors or producers – other than Mr. Disney, of course – but The Bridge on the River Kwai introduced me to British director David Lean, whom I have come to regard as the greatest director of all time.

I say that, having worked – in a small way – with some major directors, including Tom Hooper (John Adams) and Steven Spielberg (Lincoln).  In my view, not even  Spielberg has yet produced a film as great as The Bridge on the River Kwai – though Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List are certainly in the ballpark.  

David Lean kept on directing huge films.  When I was eleven, his Lawrence of Arabia again set a handful of central characters – played by remarkable actors – against the background of earth-shaking events.  Lawrence gave us Peter O’Toole, in one of the greatest performances in the history of film.

And for every American female between eight and eighty, it introduced Omar Sharif.

When I was fourteen, Lean followed up with the ineffably beautiful Dr. Zhivago, a movie remarkable for allowing Americans – in the midst of the Cold War – to sympathize with Russian characters set against the background of the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent civil war.

In this film, Lean advanced Omar Sharif to a leading role.  And – for every American male between eight and eighty (most decidedly including my adolescent self) – he introduced Julie Christie.

In my personal list of great BIG movies, the best was yet to come – though not from David Lean.  In 1982, another British director – Richard Attenborough – gave the world his magnificent Gandhi.  Attenborough had originally hoped Lean would direct this project, but when he ended up directing himself, he adapted the Lean formula to one of the greatest stories in human history.

Starring Ben Kingsley as “the little brown man” who liberated 350 million people from the British Empire – and gave Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the ideas which transformed America’s civil rights movement – Gandhi has been, since its release, my favorite movie.

As a first-year history teacher at Midlothian High School, I persuaded my principal, Frank Poates, to organize a massive field trip to the Westhampton Theatre to see the brand-new film. 

In after years, I regularly showed it to my classes, and it always proved devastatingly effective.

Before we leave the Thanksgiving season entirely behind, I thought I’d take the opportunity to thank the directors who brought us the BIG movies.  I sincerely hope their time is not yet past.


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