Go tell it to the current batch of Hollywood big boys. Plodding into a multiplex near you over the next month or so, like a troop of weary behemoths, will be: Michael Mann's Heat (172 minutes), Martin Scorsese's Casino (177), and Oliver Stone's Nixon (190). None of these is an inconsiderable film. But there is still a nagging suspicion in each that the exorbitant length is not quite matched by the scale of the characters or ideas. Rampant ego or chaotic organisation can be as responsible for long films as grand design. This coming trio may strain the bladder as much as the intellect.
Each of these movies conforms to a type of long film. Almost since cinema began (or since it has been able to project anything more than fragments), certain subjects have been deemed too substantial for the conventional hour-and-a-half format. Chief among these is war. The first great long film in American cinema, 1915's The Birth of a Nation (159 minutes) was a Civil War film, as was Gone With the Wind (222); and subsequent conflicts have commanded their stacks of celluloid. The Deer Hunter (182) and Apocalypse Now (153) represented Vietnam, while still more footage has been found for the ultimate horror, the Holocaust, in films like Schindler's List (197) and Shoah (563).
Related to this genre, by its representation of a sort of civil war, is the gangster epic, best exemplified by Coppola's Godfather films (175, 200 and 162), and into which category both Heat and Casino loosely fit. At its best this genre uses length to give a social context to its melodramatic brutality. Its ancestors are the serial studies of criminal organisations made at the dawn of cinema by the great French director Louis Feuillade, such as 1914's Fantomas (480). Finally comes the category of great (or important) men who have been represented on vast canvases, from Gance's hagiography of Napoleon (235) to Stone's psychobiography of Nixon.
The Great Man movie most often illustrates the great fallacy of long films: the idea that more means more. Or in the case of the "greatest" Great Man movie, Lawrence of Arabia (222), that more means anything at all. For all its stunning desert vistas and masterly set-pieces, what insights does Lawrence give us into Lawrence, save cliches about his rebelliousness and masochism? Lawrence is obsessed with monumentality. It takes every opportunity to mock smallness. "So long as the Arabs fight, tribe against tribe," Lawrence tells them, "so long will they be a little people." Earlier he quotes Themistocles: "I can make a great state from a little city." Again: "Great Britain is small, but it's great" (because it has discipline). Size is just about Lawrence's only virtue, and its sole subject.
Good long films either have very strong story-lines or use cinematic form inventively. The driving plot of Gone With the Wind prompted its first test audiences to beg that the movie not be cut. In contrast, Lean, according to Adrian Turner's The Making of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, authorised 20 minutes of cuts (although he later blamed his producer, Sam Spiegel, for them). But gripping yarns often lack the complexity of great art. Even Kubrick was unable to elevate Spartacus (196) into much more than a thrilling saga. The finest epics use their length more ambitiously. Godfather II outdid its predecessor by using its dual time-scheme to deepen the historical focus on its American mayhem. Schindler's List combined a tight psychological study of good and evil with a documentary-style reconstruction of the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. Maybe greater than both, Hans Jurgen Syberberg's Hitler, a Film From Germany (435) used narration, actors, puppets, vaudeville and Wagner to tell the story of an entire race.
It is not just long movies that are over-long these days. Films that would have been 90 minutes long a few years ago tend now to stretch to 110 or even 130. It has partly to do with video: a hefty running time offers the browser the prospect of a full evening's entertainment. Gone are the tight-packed yet dizzyingly complex movies of yesteryear. Fritz Lang often clocked in at under 90 minutes, as do many other classic film noirs and westerns (High Noon: 85). The lean Lean, such as The Passionate Friends (91), is better than the long. The oldest rule in showbiz is to leave them begging for more. Woody Allen, from Annie Hall (93) to Zelig (79), gets it; but few other modern directors do. They seek the grail of greatness in giganticism. I know how they feel, relishing epics in prospect, but rueing them in practice. It may be that film, by its fleeting nature, is unsuited to monumentality.
! 'Heat' (15) opens in London on Fri, and nationwide on 2 Feb; 'Casino' (18) opens on 23 Feb; 'Nixon' (15) opens on 15 Mar.Reuse content