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7 Most Absurdly Schmaltzy Historical Movies

Sometimes filmic seriousness gets so intense it becomes hilarious.

Photo Credit: cliff1066 at Flickr


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 scene gets full on acid-trippy, and the depiction of the devil as a talking female snake is hilarious.