7 Most Absurdly Schmaltzy Historical Movies
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5. Titus. Julie Taymor is a household name by now for her genius work with Broadway’s Lion King (and her disastrous work with the Spider-man musical). But in 1999, she was still rather unknown. So when she applied her avant-garde style to Shakespeare’s classic play about a Roman general, it was a notorious flop: America wasn’t ready for arthouse post-modernism at their local theaters, apparently. In retrospect, it’s also an exercise in high camp: three-eyed monsters, self-serious-looking actors in ridiculously elaborate makeup, Lavinia’s mental landscape looking like a rock video. Even the genius Anthony Hopkins in the starring role couldn’t rescue this film from making experimentalism into a real laff riot.
6. Gangs of New York. This is my personal favorite, and probably the best example of simultaneous excellence and corniness in film maybe ever. Sorry Leonardo diCaprio, but you can really pick ‘em. it’s 1846, and native-born New Yorkers hate Irish Catholic immigrants enough to cut them to shreds if they so much as tread near their territory. Particularly, “Bill the Butcher” is excellent: he’s brutal enough to nonchalantly toss a knife in a dude’s back with his children watching, but actor Daniel Day-Lewis’ subtle, refined sense of self-aware irony makes the delivery almost pleasant. Bill the Butcher was absolutely a prototype for Day-Lewis’ acclaimed portrayal of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood five years later, only in Gangs he didn’t really have the material, so its violent ruthlessness became both epic and totally funny. Cameron Diaz is so memorably bad you almost want to give her an award.
7. Young Guns. Emilio Estevez plays Billy the Kid leading his band of merry outsiders across the Wild West, robbing, killing and womanizing. When the film came out in 1988, it was an incredible vehicle for that generation’s young stars to finally be taken seriously, and was many of the actors’ first non-teen-oriented film, including Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Dermot Mulroney and Lou Diamond Phillips (as Mexican-American and Native American outlaw Jose Chavez y Chavez, solidifying the Filipino actor’s title as Yul Brenner of the ‘80s). It’s also full of funny, dated scenes and super-quotables, like the time they all take peyote and get weird (oh, brother), and when Chavez screams “Regulators! Mount up!” That latter part not only resulted in a catchphrase for two decades of drunk frat boys, but also a classic hip-hop song that became one of the West Coast’s most important anthems of the ‘90s.
Honorable mention: I haven’t seen that Spielberg horse movie, War Horse, but having seen the trailer there’s no doubt in my mind that it deserves to be high up on this list. Spielberg is the king of corn.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.