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7 Most Absurdly Schmaltzy Historical Movies

Sometimes filmic seriousness gets so intense it becomes hilarious.
 
 
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In case you haven’t been alerted by the sound of Celine Dion singing “whereeeeeever you areeeeeee” on your radio or television: James Cameron’s 1997 epic Titanic was just released in 3D, in all its iceberg-murdering glory. A romantic cult classic and one of the highest-grossing films of all time ($1,847,901,606!!!!!!), the film clearly still has a hold on America for its tragic, class-friction love story, gorgeous costumes, accurate recreation of the actual Titanic, and dramatic conclusion. Fans are going crazy about the re-release.

You know who isn’t going crazy about the re-release? Titanic’s stars. Kate Winslet recently told MTV that whenever she hears the film’s theme song, Dion's “My Heart Will Go On,” she wants to puke. “I actually do feel like throwing up,” the actress told the site, and said she’s also regularly forced to sit through the track with a “massive internal eye roll.” Meanwhile, Leonardo diCaprio, Winslet’s love interest in the film, did not attend the premiere, and isn’t doing any interviews about it.

And who can blame him? Part of the reason Titanic is such a lasting cult film is precisely because of its uninhibited embrace of its own schmaltz—certainly a function of James Cameron’s legendary narcissism, but also in retrospect the only way the movie could have been filmed: it’s a story about an impoverished young rapscallion winning a ticket on the most doomed boat trip of all time and then finding his one true love who happens to be a super-rich British socialite. COME ON!!!

But retrospective films are bound to get wrapped up in themselves, particularly when the director's flair for romance (and enthusiasm for his own talent) is integral to the story. Here are seven great films that over-romanticized their historical subjects into total, utter schmaltz.

1.Braveheart. In 1995, right before we knew how crazy Mel Gibson was, he played a rebellious and heroic young Scotsman named William Wallace, who was influenced by the treachery of the King of England to lead an uprising and free his country. The film was set in the 13th century, but with the perspective of time, its preciousness about its own topic is completely hilarious—and Gibson’s blue-faced, thick-thighed portrayal of Wallace giving inspirational speeches no doubt fueled the actor’s own inflated sense of righteousness. Here’s the funniest scene in the movie.

2.Amadeus. Okay, this 1984 biopic about the relationship between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his colleague/murderer Antonio Scalieri actually received a slew of Academy Awards, and was loosely based on a play by Pushkin. It’s quite good, to be honest, but Tom Hulce’s portrayal of the brilliant young composer is so campy it’s impossible to watch without laughing, even when it’s unintentional. It’s also strange for those of a certain sensibility and age watching Jeffrey Jones play Emperor Joseph in a powered wig, when in our minds, all we can hear is “BUELLER.”

3.JFK. Obviously Oliver Stone had been waiting his whole life to make this picture, which is two and a half hours long and speculates that a tangled web of players in and out of the government conspired to assassinate President Kennedy. It’s deeply suspicious and actually makes a pretty good case for its own historical accuracy, which a lot of people were more prone to believe than the Warren Commission. That said, the film’s own confidence in the truth of its story is what steps it right over the line—and Stone’s rightful paranoia crosses just a tad into the realm of corny.

4.The Last Temptation of Christ. This film’s controversy precedes it, and 24 years after it was made, endures: directed by Martin Scorsese, it depicts Jesus’ (Willem Dafoe! haha) final days struggling with earthly temptations—all those deadly sins—before he’s betrayed and crucified. Christians were not psyched at the portrayal of Jesus’ sex fantasies; movie critics may not be psyched, either. It’s actually crazy thinking of Scorsese directing this, but it sheds light on a slight tendency toward cheesiness that he’s had throughout his career. (Remember the rat at the end of The Departed? Way to ruin a perfect film!) The Satan scenegets full on acid-trippy, and the depiction of the devil as a talking female snake is hilarious.

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.