What Makes A Great Movie by Tom Donelson


My daughter published a piece on her website on what makes a good movie.  She wrote, “A good story is real.  Subtlety is good….A good story isn’t how a perfect kingdom is run but how a King tries really hard to make sure his kingdom doesn’t fall apart.”  My daughter relayed to me an Indian story about a king dressed up like a commoner to see what the common man and woman thought of his leadership. What he found was that they would never trust their king as long as their king’s cheating wife still lived in the palace.  What he learned surprised him.  We found that the Kingdom was threatened from within and that was the surprise.

Good stories begin with everyday people living in normal times forced to rise to an occasion that is seemly beyond their control.  My daughter observed, “And for one moment they see beyond the everyday.  They tell their story. They fall silent.  The silence is important.”  The good storytellers do not explain beyond what is needed and allows the audience to participate in their life and put themselves in the narrator shoes.

These common individuals are simply people just doing their jobs.  In Gladiator, Maximus was not interested in promotion or the offer of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius- all he wanted to do was to go home.  Maximus was willing to accept the offer of his Emperor only because it was job- a soldier’s job is to obey his emperor. Maximus followed his penchant to follow duty and honor over mere glory.  Maximus’ stoicism was contrasted to the Emperor’s son, who became the new Emperor after killing his father.  Throughout the movie, Maximus obedience to the virtue of Old Rome of honor, duty and integrity is contrasted to more frivolous boy- Emperor. That is why it was a good story and a good movie.  We followed this man until his heroic end for we really cared what happened to him.  We put ourselves in his shoes, following his every step and applauding his strength and character.  The ending did not deviate from the story.


In the movie, BraveHeart, Mel Gibson’s William Wallace was the common man forced to fight.  All he wanted was to stay home, farm and raised a family. He only fought and pillaged when the English tyrants took from him all that he treasured – his wife.  His future died when she was executed and he first wanted vengeance and then freedom, for he realized that only when Scotland was freed from the English yoke could he and others like him live their life as they see fit.  When he screamed “Freedom” at the end, we were screaming with him.  King Edward finally saw that he could not win for the death of Wallace merely created a martyr for the Scots to rally around.  Even today, Wallace is still a hero to the Scots and reminder of a day in which Scotland was independent of London.

A story that failed was Minority Report.  During the Movie, the Tom Cruise character was caught in a web that he helped to create and supported.  In a society where even a thought could get you arrested, Tom Cruise found himself guilty of plotting the murder of a man he did not even know.  The movie wondered how far a Society would go to maintain law and order. Do we really arrest a man for thinking about doing a crime or do we wait until the deed is done?   Can an individual change his own future?

Tom Cruise found himself trying to change his own future while escaping from the local authorities.  In the end, he faced his own mentor, who was responsible for his fate- we were left with many questions.  Then Spielberg ruined his movie with his concluding narrative.  With a saccharin ending, Spielberg informed the audience that all will end well and that humankind learned all the right lessons.  Up to that point, we were never sure what was learned.  In real life, heroes do not always do what is right and we do not always learn the right lesson.  In Orwell’s 1984, there was no happy ending as Winston Smith surrendered to Big Brother. In Minority Report, Cruise’s mentor died at the end but his plan for the future of humankind was still in doubt.  Uncertainty created unease about the future.  At this point, the failure of the mentor’s vision was obvious but there was no guarantee that the lesson was learned.  Instead Spielberg used the last five minutes to undermine what was a good story.  He eliminated the uncertainty and in some way, went against the grain of his own movie.

The one movie that Spielberg did succeed was Schindler’s list.  Oscar Schindler was a failed businessman who saw a golden opportunity. He could use cheap Polish Jewish workers to staff his factory.  He convinced the German authority of his business savvy and immediately got his own plant.  What happened was that this failed businessman found success, using slave labor. As the war progressed, he started seeing his workers not as Jews but human.  He also knew that his workers were doomed.  His conscience began to distress his inner soul as he realized that he had to do something, so he began a list of “needed workers” and convinced the cruel German prison camp commandant to allow him to keep these workers under his purview.  The story detailed his effort to save his workers and get them through the war unharmed.  He became their Moses and in the end, he succeeded at great risk to himself. Initially, he made income that he could only dream of but he ended the war as he began- broke. The money that he initially made was used to ensure the survival of his Jewish worker. After the war, he continued his prewar business failure but he did win something bigger.

My daughter loved the book and the movie version of Bridget Jones.  As she wrote, “She’s not spectacularly smart. She’s not royalty. She doesn’t have millions of dollars or a perfect cellulite free ass. She’s a spinster alcoholic who has to find a new job after an affair with her boss ends unpleasantly.”  Katharine found Bridget Jones someone she saw in every day life and could identify with.  A good story combined with an everyday person struggling with everyday life.

Good Movies tend to sell themselves and bad movies just fade away very quickly.  A good movie, like art, does not need to be explained.  As my daughter discerned, “If Picasso had to put an essay next to Guernica saying ‘Look, this is what this is about.’ It would have stolen all the thunder and magic from the painting. And, just look at it, you know it’s about war. No one ever had to tell you that.”


Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was the perfect story of what happened when avarice took over from idealism.   Kane spent the early part of his life, fighting for what was right but he became corrupted by his own importance and gave up his political career for his mistress.  While the movie implied that Kane’s early childhood was responsible for his later actions, the reality was that his self-destructive behavior was his alone.  Christian Kopff, the author of The Devil Knows Latin, wrote, “To give the Devil his due, I used to believe that no one who could rise to political prominence would be likely to risk it all for a tawdry love affair.  History has taught me to appreciate Orson Welles’ prescience.”

Kane risked everything on one affair and in the end; he thought he was above all the rules- only to find that he was not.  At the conclusion of his life, Kane became a bitter man and mere reactionary, not much different from the men he hated all his life. His last dying words went back to a time of innocence long since gone as he whispered Rosebud- the name of his sled as a young boy.  As the sled burned in the fire, we saw the worth of Kane’s life – a life of promise betrayed by Kane’s ego. Welles’ genius was not just being a good storyteller but his vision as a filmmaker set the stage for many filmmakers after this movie.  His technique would be copied and aid in future storytelling.  Welles was the young genius who would never climb this mountain again but then, most director and producer would die for just one movie like Citizen Kane.

Space Odyssey told a story of our possible origin.  The combination of brilliant filmmaking that was ahead of its time and story of man’s dependence upon technology was beautifully told.  When the computer Hal rebelled against the crew and sabotages the mission, we cringed at the helplessness of the crew, as they have to go it alone hundred of millions of miles from home.  The concluding scene left much to discuss and discern. We were left with questions that could not be easily answered.  Man’s origin was a mystery to the filmmaker and to us in real life.  The search for who we are is man’s eternal quest and Space Odyssey shows that search skillfully.

I must admit that I am big Indiana Jones fan and the Jones Trilogy represented the best of action features.  We were presented with a college professor, who was not perfect and occasionally bended a few rules for his profession.  Indiana Jones found himself in many adventures but the first one, Raiders of the Lost Ark, set the tones as we were treated to one thrill ride after another.  The message that even Jones failed to grasp until the bitter end, there were some things better left untouched.  As one of Jones’ colleagues reminds him, man was not met to discover the ark.  Jesus reminded us in the gospel, “rendered the things that are God unto God” and the ark was that one item belonged to God.  When Jones asked the government agents that hired him at the end of the movie about the fate of the ark, we see the absurdity of government bureaucrats as they put the Ark in a storage unit somewhere; hidden away from the world- forever lost. In Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail, Indiana Jones was forced to give up the grail to save his life.  Again the message of the ark held for the Holy Grail as well.  There are some things that man was not met to have.  The ark had unspeakable power and the Holy Grail gave the gift of eternal life but man was incapable of handling the power of the ark and man was not met to live forever on this earth.


Casablanca was one of those classic movies that stay with you, even today. The multiplayer of suspense combined with great dialogue sucks you in.  You can’t escape as you really learned to care about the characters including the corrupt police chief.  The main character, Rick Blaine, was a tired and cynical club owner, pretending to be oblivious to the world around.  The world was engulfed in war but he created his own island at Ricks, his nightclub. At the movie end, Blaine regained his idealism and made the supreme sacrifice as he sends Ingrid, the girl of his life, on the plane with her husband.  Bogart’s last speech was masterfully delivered as he sent Ingrid way but as Claude Rains told Bogie, “She did not believe you.”  And we know that this was true. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Nazis as the bad guys.


Another movie that I enjoyed was Moulin Rouge in which was criticized for being too slick for its own good but as my daughter reminded me, “Moulin Rouge: Clever.  Beautiful cut.  Spectacular color, costumes aided by good dialogue.  The icing of the cake? That both Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor are believable in their roles.”  To me, it was a story of love gained and love lost.  We saw the pain of McGregor own words as he became a writer but a writer of tragedy, his own.  It has been said “it is better to have been loved and lost than never to have to have been loved at all.”  Somehow, McGregor may find such sentiments ludicrous as he wallowed in his own pain.  The death of Nicole Kidman’s character ended both the innocence of the age as well as the dream of McGregor and his bohemian friends.  Convinced that all you needed was love, reality intervened with death and poverty.

Okay, I am asking too much of Hollywood to be true to a book, even a classic. But Peter Jackson was able to make a classic movie out of the Lord of the Ring by allowing the story to stand of its own merit. He stayed true to Tolkein vision.  Troy fails miserably for it attempts to take the supernatural out of a story that requires the supernatural.  The battle between Paris and Menelaus was one example of the failure of the movie Troy and how it changed the tone of the movie and the characters. Homer had the two men battle it out one on one but as Menelaus was ready to finish off Paris, Aphrodite saved him.  In the movie, Paris is made to look out as a coward as he begs his brother to save him and Hector kills Menelaus.  In Homer’s world, Paris was many things among them reckless and selfish but not a coward. In Troy, he is all of that and more.  He was a sniveling little brat who manages to start a war and bring ruin to Troy.  Hardly a sympathetic character.  Orlando Bloom’s Paris was a brat who should have been spanked and sent to bed without supper.

Brad Pitts’ Achilles was a moody, conflicted doomed hero but Homer’s Achilles was less complicated and more selfish as he was willing to allow his disagreement with Agamemnon to nearly doom the Greek mission.  However, the boys in Hollywood did get some things right.  Homer would have recognized Hector played by Eric Bana.  Hector was as heroic in the movie as in the book and King Priam played by Peter O’ Toole almost rescued the movie with his portrayal of the good but doomed king.  O’ Toole’s Priam was a good king but he made crucial mistakes that doom his kingdom just as he did in the book.  The most touching scene of the movie that by itself would be one of Hollywood great scenes was when Priam confronted Achilles to ask for the body of his son back for a proper burial.  This scene had power that could stand the test of time if it was not placed in the middle of this movie.  The scene would be forever lost to classic archives for it is the middle of a muddled mess of a movie that can’t seem to decide to be what my kids classify as a popcorn movie or a serious classic.

Homer may even enjoyed Sean Bean portrayal of Odysseus. Odysseus is a cleaver warrior and his idea of a Trojan horse proves decisive in the movie as it does in Homer’s tales.  The movie version of Odysseus also portrayed a king who was benevolent on one hand but is willing to serve egomaniacal Agamemnon for he understood that his people and all of the Greeks benefited from Agamemnon vision of a united Greece. He was a realist, not polluted with empty idealism but understanding of the real world.

The movie Troy failed as a spectacle for the screenwriters failed to understand how the Greek gods were a central part of the Greek world.  There was a time that Hollywood could handle such a movie for directors such as Cecil DeMille understood that when you do a story about the Bible or the Greeks, God or gods mattered. DeMille could transplant the central thesis of the Bible or any classic because he understood the power of mythology-, which was central to great story telling.  So when old Hollywood did a spectacle, it was designed to last beyond the present generation.  Peter Jackson did that with the Lord of the Rings and Wolfgang Peterson failed to do that with Troy.

So if you were expecting some resemblance to Homer vision of Troy, then be prepared to be disappointed. If you were looking for some great war scenes, gratuitous violence and have a somewhat of a fun time, then you might be satisfied. And if you like to see Brad Pitts buttocks then you will get a few cheap thrills in the process.


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