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History in the Filmmaking

Hollywood is betting that the time is right for epics set in the 19th century

June 22, 2003|Michael Cieply | Times Staff Writer

The century that began with Napoleon's thrust across the Alps in 1800 and ended with the publication of Sigmund Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams" hasn't been fertile ground for the Hollywood blockbuster.

Only two pictures set in the tumultuous Age of Revolution are among the 100 top-ranked films at the U.S. box office: MGM's "Gone With the Wind," which has collected almost $200 million in ticket sales since 1939, and the Western "Dances With Wolves," which topped $184 million for now-defunct Orion Pictures

That soon may change. During the year-end holidays, some of the film industry's biggest players are planning to take a bite out of the 19th century with no fewer than four big-budget movies set in an era that hasn't ignited audiences for decades.

The unusual cluster probably owes something to the unavoidable accidents of film scheduling. Peter Weir, Anthony Minghella and Ed Zwick -- three top-drawer directors with tastes for period pieces and tendencies to pause for years between films -- all surfaced at once. But Hollywood's latest history trip also reflects a bet that a mass audience primed by successful spectacles such as "Titanic" and "Gladiator" can be lured by superstars, computer effects or sheer storytelling power into territory that has been fallow for years.

"The door is opened to genres that have been underserved for a long time," said Hutch Parker, production president at News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox unit.

A consortium formed by Fox, Vivendi Universal Inc.'s Universal Pictures and Walt Disney Co.'s Miramax Films will lead the pack Nov. 14 with "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," a Napoleonic-era sea epic directed by Weir, starring Russell Crowe and with a reported budget of $135 million.

Three weeks later, AOL Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. unit is set to release "The Last Samurai," which is directed by Zwick and stars Tom Cruise. It tells the story of a Civil War veteran caught up in a Japanese emperor's war on the samurai class.

On Christmas Day, Miramax will follow with Minghella's "Cold Mountain," a book-based Civil War adventure starring Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger and Jude Law. It will square off against Disney's "Alamo," directed by by John Lee Hancock and featuring Billy Bob Thornton, Dennis Quaid and 5,000 extras in the famous story of the Texan revolt against Mexico.

No one seems quite sure why the 19th century has been something of a black hole for audience response -- as evidenced by the less-than-spectacular results of Miramax's "Gangs of New York" last Christmas -- while entertainment set in other periods has prospered.

"The 19th century, that's hard, because in the U.S., everything revolves around the Civil War," said Charles Maday, a programming executive with the History Channel. Maday said the cable channel usually has done much better with World War II than with divisive stories of the Blue versus Gray or even Westerns -- though it scored a major hit this year with its "Russia: Land of the Tsars," possibly suggesting improved prospects for the century before last.

Zwick, whose Civil War saga "Glory" won an acting Oscar for Denzel Washington but took in just $26.8 million at the U.S. box office in 1989, is among those who believe the year's historical confluence owes more to accident than trend. "It's got to be happenstance, because of the eccentric path each project has taken to reach this moment," said Zwick, who last directed "The Siege," a contemporary political thriller released five years ago.

Indeed, the path for "Samurai" typically was meandering. According to Scott Kroopf, Radar Pictures president and one of the film's producers, Zwick became involved with the project after it was conceived at Radar's predecessor company 10 years ago as a "fish out of water" story meant to mix elements of America's Old West with Japan's warrior culture. Kroopf eventually set the picture up at Warner, where, by happy chance, he knew he could get a hearing from studio President Alan Horn, an old colleague who happens to collect Western art.

The script -- with contributions from John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick -- meanwhile came to feature a damaged, brooding lead character that appealed to Tom Cruise, who was looking for more complex roles as he turned 40 and simultaneously was considering the lead in "Cold Mountain."

Some observers believe Hollywood has been looking to the 19th century because the more immediate past, which yielded successes such as "Saving Private Ryan," or the heavily mined science fiction future, feel spent. "People tend to rediscover genres when they have used up everything else," said Larry Ferguson, a veteran writer who worked on adapting "Master and Commander" from a Patrick O'Brian novel for producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr., at Disney, before the picture finally wound up with Fox and company.

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