The period epic is back, says Ty Burr, and it's reason to celebrate

By Ty Burr
April 26, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

EW Online rates the newest trend in movies

Bye-bye, dead teenagers. So long, dysfunctional suburban families. See you later, intergalactic warriors. What goes around comes around, and what’s coming around right now, after decades in the cinematic wilderness, is… the period epic.

Case in point No. 1: Ridley Scott’s ”Gladiator” is poised to become the breakout popcorn flick of the early summer, based on interest raised by its trailer and by the floored reactions of those who’ve already seen it. I’m one of those lucky folks, and I can attest to the fact that one of the movie’s chief pleasures (along with watching Russell Crowe arrive as a top-level movie star, heavy on the charisma) is the way Scott and company plunge us deep into life circa 150 AD.

It’s not just a matter of Rome’s Coliseum rebuilt with the aid of computer-generated animation, nor the hair-raising opening battle between the Imperial army and the Germanic hordes. The great luxury of ”Gladiator” is in its re-creation of a bygone world, right down to the rough-hewn gold jewelry and weathered sandals. It’s a Hollywood re-creation, to be sure, but that’s the fun of it — we haven’t been here, on this scale, since the days of ”Ben-Hur” and ”Spartacus”. I say, welcome back, pueri.

Case in point No. 2: The WWII-era submarine thriller ”U-571” ruled the box office last weekend. Granted, it was the only new major-studio release, but its $19.6 million take still beat out the debuts of earlier sub flicks like ”Crimson Tide” and ”The Hunt for Red October”. And as likable as Matthew McConaughey is, he can’t open a movie on his own (dare I say ”EdTV”?).

No, this one flew (or swam) on the strength of its pretty-damn-cool premise: Allied sailors stuck on a disabled German U-boat try to get home before their own side bombs them to kingdom come. Give ”Saving Private Ryan” credit, however, for priming the WWII-history pump and getting general audiences interested in the era — and let’s note, in passing, that it was the BRITISH that cracked the Enigma code, not the Americans. Or Hollywood.

Case in point No. 3: Opening June 30, ”The Patriot” is the latest from director Roland Emmerich, of ”Independence Day” and the big ”Godzilla” misfire of 1998. It stars Mel Gibson, and it’s set during the Revolutionary War. Since the last time filmmakers dared tackle this period was 1985’s woebegone ”Revolution” — featuring Al Pacino as a freedom fighter seemingly by way of Bensonhurst — you may feel free to wonder what got the studio executives’ collective nerve back up.

Well, Mel’s in it, and Emmerich’s directing, so there’ll be a lot of big-bam-boom. But I think we’re seeing the belated payoff here of two very different movies: Michael Mann’s 1992 ”The Last of the Mohicans” — which indicated that you could have a period drama that reveled in action and star chemistry while still remaining attentive to historical detail (and ending up much better than the book, in my opinion) — and the more recent ”Shakespeare in Love,” which proved that wimples and doublets and quill pens don’t immediately consign a movie to art houses or PBS.

If ”Patriot” turns out to be a dog, Hollywood may once again get cold feet when it comes to paying out big bucks for the costume department. But I’m hoping that it’s good, or at the least, a hit. The History Channel could use the competition.