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Some historical epics, like Gandhi, adopt a biographical approach. In another attempt to bring an epic dimension to the story of a life, Richard Atten-borough directed Chaplin (1992), but the film's 144 minutes rush through the events of the great comedian's life all too quickly. If too many three-hour films would benefit from cutting an hour or so, Chaplin may be one of the rare cases when an extra hour of development would have capitalized more satisfyingly on the great performance by Robert Downey Jr. (who even altered his posture to approximate the gait of the Little Tramp), and the excellent period detail. Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992) minimizes the director's usual flamboyance of style to settle instead for a controlled but compelling portrait of its hero, personified memorably by Denzel Washington. Far less effective is El Cid (1961), the account of the eleventh-century leader who liberated Spain, and Cromwell (1970) with Richard Harris in the title role, a film that focuses on the clash with Charles I (though the battle scenes are superior). The two parts of Peter the First (1937, 1938), directed by Vladimir Petrov, maps out the life of the czar in scenes more visually than dramatically impressive.

Another biographical effort makes an interesting note for the curious: the unfinished attempt in 1937 to film Robert Graves' novel I, Claudius reportedly resulted in some of Charles Laughton's finest moments before the camera. The fascinating story of this aborted project is told in the documentary The Epic That Never Was (currently included with the videocassettes for the BBC mini-series of Graves' novels with Derek Jacobi).

Other mini-series have also focused primarily on history. One of the longest—at twenty-four hours—was Centennial, based on the novel by James A. Michener. It aired in 1978 and dramatized the changes occurring in one location, a piece of land in what became Colorado, from 1795 to the present. The series featured, among others, Robert Conrad, Richard Chamberlain, Raymond Burr, Sally Kellerman, Chad Everett, Mark Harmon, Timothy Dalton, Richard Crenna, Brian Keith, Lynn Redgrave, and Andy Griffith. One of the best mini-series, Holocaust (1978), won eight Emmys and featured excellent work by Meryl Streep, James Woods, Fritz Weaver, Michael Moriarty, David Warner, and Ian Holm, among others. The nine-hour epic traces the impact of the war years on two very different families—one victims, the other, benefactors—and has often been touted as one of television's finest moments.

Other epics based on history would include two giant film versions of Tolstoy's War and Peace, one at 208 minutes from Hollywood (1956) with Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda directed by King Vidor, the other at 373 minutes from the Soviet Union (1968). Both are easier to respect than to enthuse over, though the Russian version was five-plus years in the making at a rumored $100 million cost and a meticulous attention to the source. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), an expensive epic from Anthony Mann, with Alec Guinness and James Mason, succeeds at spectacle and action more than at personalizing the drama. The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) features two memorable performances from Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston in a drama based on Irving Stone's historical novel about the clash between Michelangelo and the Pope. Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa reunited in 1965 for Red Beard, the story of a nineteenth-century doctor whose social aspirations conflict with his posting at a clinic for the poor (Mifune plays Niide, the clinic supervisor). The War Lord (1965) in a sense reverses one of the emphases of Braveheart, by having its hero (Charlton Heston) invoke the law of “prima nocta” to claim the first night with a peasant's bride (Rosemary Forsyth), the woman to whom he declares his love.

Finally, the only Indian filmmaker to earn international acclaim, Satyajit Ray, adapted the novel Aparajito into a trilogy of films (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and The World of Apu) from 1954 to 1959 that follows in neorealistic fashion (Ray had marveled over Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief) the coming-of-age of one boy.

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