Widescreen movies were invented to lure people away from television, not keep them chained to it. Pop in an epic, and you can hardly see the thing. Watching films from the heyday of Hollywood's CinemaScope period on a tiny television screen today seems like bitter irony, the bad punchline to a sad joke.
Well, the formula isn't that simple. With today's technology, the image and sound from the TV can be better than what you get in the theater, where the Coke stains and the tears on the screen are visible every 20 minutes when the projector breaks. But also, the extras that come on many DVD special editions enhance viewing pleasure for buffs, and can turn a bad movie into an interesting lesson in film history. Four wide screen epics all recently released on DVD are cases in point.
(Fox Home Entertainment)--This controversial costume drama with Liz Taylor popularly vies for the title of "Worst Movie of All Time." Released in 1963, the movie had been dogged for years with news reports exposing marital scandals (Liz left Eddie Fisher for co-star Richard Burton), and storm-ruined sets, among other things. But it's not the worst film of all time. It's just real boring. Something of a George Bernard Shaw knock-off, or a K-Mart Shakespeare, trying to be arch and epigrammatic but ending up cutesy and precious, the film recounts the fabled romance between the Queen of the Nile and her two Roman suitors, Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Mark Antony. This long, long film isn't really worth much attention, except that it inspires one of the best documentaries about the making of one film. Included on this three-disc set, along with the usual commentary track, publicity stills, and archival news footage, is a new film called Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood. The doc doesn't make all that much of a case for the film's ameliorative qualities, but it's a rollickingly fun story of hubris, pressure, fear, chaos, ill-health, and fiscal irresponsibility, which tells you frankly more about Hollywood than you've heard on the E! channel in a year.
Lawrence of Arabia
(Columbia Home Entertainment)--One of the weirdest epics in film history, this is a dark, murky, psychologically mysterious movie set in the bright sun of the Arabian desert. In a beautiful transfer of the restored print of this movie, the viewer can renew an obsession with T. E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), a British functionary who led the Arabs to independence. This two disc set also comes with a host of extras, including a lengthy and detailed "making of" documentary. But also on hand are some DVD-ROM extras (archival photos and an interactive map) which for once exploit informatively and imaginatively the DVD-ROM aspects of DVD discs.
(Universal Studios Home Video)--The more you hear about movie making, the more you wonder how any films get made. According to the rich supplements over two discs accompanying this 1960 Kirk Douglas-Stanley Kubrick tale of the Roman slave revolt, you learn that Douglas hated Kubrick, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo hated source novelist Howard Fast, and that Laurence Olivier hated Charles Laughton (and vice versa). On the edited audio commentary track, one of the voices is Howard Fast's, and he is withering (and a little short-sighted) about what he views as the deficiencies of the adaptation and Douglas' performance. Probably one of the best features is a 30-minute interview with Oscar-winning actor Peter Ustinov, who relates many telling and funny anecdotes, and who does a perfect Laughton impression.
The Magnificent Seven
(MGM Home Entertainment)--So, want to know how your man really thinks? Take a spin with this surprise hit western from 1960. Adapted from Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, this is the ultimate boys' adventure movie, as it tells of seven gunmen hired to protect a Mexican town from bandits. The film is another oddity, with a Russian (Yul Brynner) and a German (Horst Buchholz) playing Western gunfighters, and it never really transcends the thinness of its material. But Steve McQueen looks great shooting a gun, and the extras really make you like the movie more. Another frank documentary chronicles some of the tensions, but also delights, on the set, as well as the film's lawsuit littered origins. And an audio commentary track with still-living contributors hints at how fun it was to make this movie.