Epic Contrasts: Australia (Luhrmann, 2008) vs. The Sand Pebbles (Wise, 1966)

The Epic film might have died a long time ago, but Baz Luhrmann makes sure to hammer the last nail in the coffin of this once beloved genre with Australia, a self indulgent farce of dramatic intentions and comedic results. It’s a story so huge and symbolic that all of Australia’s historical traumas and mythologies can be summed up in three hours of gloss, genre revisionism, and melodrama. It would take days to describe all the twists and turns that anchor Australia to the hot coals of storytelling contrivance, but what good would it do considering the film bases its entire moral trajectory on an inane revelation – that the church during the 1930’s basically stole an the innocence of an entire generation of children because of their mixed race.

Luhrmann’s huge staging really turns false when he attempts to create dramatic moments using some twisted sort of linkage with the magic of The Wizard of Oz, or through the extreme wide shots of the mysterious outback (lets hope Nicholas Roeg misses this film). Maybe what’s most insulting is that Luhrmann might have been able to construct a fascinating piece of genre historiography if he had only gotten over this desire to upstage interesting content with absurd and meandering exhibitions of formal prowess. Bigger is not necessarily better.

A reminder of the great power Epic films were once able to generate, Robert Wise’s problematic but fascinating film The Sand Pebbles offers countless cinematic pleasures seeped in conflict, inaction, and guilt, heavy personal themes wedged in between a gargantuan condemnation of American foreign policy in 1920’s China. Like Australia, The Sand Pebbles deals with a foreign hero who stumbles into a bristling conflict of interest at the local level, a series of confrontations that reflect a growing global unrest. But unlike Lurhmann’s mess, Wise’s film allows the slow, subtle build of character development and tension to define the layered and fluid mise-en-scene.

Steve McQueen’s bad boy engineer Jake Holman isn’t a cliche of anti-establishment angst, but a devoted Navy man whose stoic professionalism calls attention to the red tape and pit falls of the institution he serves. The beauty of The Sand Pebbles lie in the details: the loyal glances of respect between Jake and Frenchie (the great Richard Attenborough), the disturbing cheeriness of the local Chinese brothel, and of course Jake’s final sacrifice at the hands of Chinese soldiers. The Sand Pebbles also displays one of the great battle sequences of all time (listen up Baz), where Wise meticulously stages an aquatic bloodbath between the grunts of The Sand Pebbles and a string of Chinese ships acting as a barricade. It’s a brutal and personal affair with dire political implications; the polar opposite of the CGI-infested and impersonal Japanese bombing of Darwin that ends Australia.

If an audience is to spend an eternity investing in the epic struggles of characters, then the filmmaker must understand that the Epic film should not be singularly defined by large set-pieces or endless extras, but by the humanity residing underneath the grandiose facade. This is something Robert Wise understood, and Baz Luhrmann glosses over completely.

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