I’ve been trying to write my “epic” feature-length screenplay with some struggle. With a film spanning so many decades and covering many characters and plot lines, I found myself at a loss to what’s good and what’s bad, what’s important and what’s not. And it is at this moment that I felt the need to visit an acclaimed “epic” to learn a few things. Sadly, what I learnt the most was what not to do.
Sure, Once Upon A TIme in America is a film of epic proportions. But what is an “epic”? If the requirements are merely length and scope then there are countless number of decaying mini-series and amateur films out there begging for that title. No, I think for me, the film has to earn it’s epic-ness by being worthy of the length and scope. If the movie is 251 minutes long, then every minute of it better be fucking gold, otherwise it shouldn’t be there. Anyone can make a 4 hour long movie of dullness, but not everyone can make a film of that length grand and captivating and not make you want to check your watch every ten minutes. It is the latter that we need.
For me, Sergio Leone has only met me halfway here. There are many scenes of genuine beauty and poetry, especially those with the young Jennifer Connelly were done to a perfection (I think she was my favourite thing about this film). But there were an equal number of scenes that were just dreadful and lacked life and direction, namely all the current day old men scenes. And many potentially great scenes were somehow marred by too much music and awkward pacing.
I initially thought that perhaps Leone went out and made the film without knowing exactly what he wanted and somehow ended up with a movie that’s way too long for the studio to release, so he cut himself into a corner. But upon research, it seems that Leone knew exactly what he wanted to every look and piece of dialogue. Yet he still managed to end up with a 6 hour movie that he then trimmed due to studio pressure down to a near 4 hour version that he was satisfied with. It was this version that I saw, and I have to say, a 6 hour version would have been a travesty. It’s a fine line between artistic integrity and self indulgence. And I think in this particular case, Leone over indulged himself. In my humble opinion, what really needed work was his screenplay. Trim, combine, keep it interesting and focused. If he had gone into production with a tighter script, I don’t think the film’s release would’ve suffered so tragically and ultimately ended Leone’s career on a very low point. Yes, even as the way it is, the film is still beautiful and at times very moving, but…it should have been better. Obviously, this is much easier said than done. But the difference separates the greats from the rest.