Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 27, 2013
Earlier this week I wrote a post on the beginnings and endings of movies, which ones have better beginnings, which ones have better endings and which rare few have a great beginning and an ending. I provided a caveat: “To be clear, I’m not talking about grand finales, that’s a completely different animal (and one I’d like to post on soon). I’m not talking about the endings to big epics with special effects and explosions and the whole budget up their on the screen.” I provided that caveat because I knew that’s what I wanted to talk about next. There are plenty of movies where a grand finale or big finish is in order and while it is certainly a highlight of the film, the whole film offers quite a bit more than just the ending. And then there are other movies where the ending is everything. It’s not just the climax, it’s the whole movie.
Like I said, plenty of movies have big finishes, like The Bridge on the River Kwai (mentioned in the comments of the last post), that are a part of a bigger whole. I love watching that movie from beginning to end but other movies have big finishes that I love taking in on their own, almost as if they were made just so they could film the finale. Of course, big finishes have been part and parcel to Hollywood’s success for as long as spectacle was guaranteed to bring home the box office and it didn’t take long for Hollywood to figure out biblical epics and disaster pictures were custom made for the job.
One example is the reason this whole post starting formulating in my head in the first place, Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah. It got a full restoration last year and is now available in a beautiful copy on DVD and blu-ray but when I was watching it, I have to be honest, I really only care about that ending, the destruction of the temple. I mean, that’s what the whole movie’s there for, the big special effects finale and I’ll give it credit, it doesn’t disappoint. Even viewed today, with moviegoers born and bred on sophisticated digital effects, it was damned impressive. The integration of the miniatures and the optically inserted extras is as seamless as 1949 technology would allow and still, with those limitations, it’s quite a sight. It was the biggest money maker of the year in the states and the second most in Britain and you can see why. I’m sure plenty of people bought a ticket just to see that temple come down full screen.
An early example of the disaster picture that I love watching the end to is John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937). It’s actually a fine film all the way through but that finale, when the hurricane hits? Holy cow! It’s amazing. I once wrote a short post elsewhere on just how great the end of the movie is (which you can see here in all its glory). It’s an incredible combination of full scale action with miniature setups and the actors getting as battered by the soundstage-produced wind and waves as they would in a real hurricane. Heck, there are times during the finale where there’s a genuine concern for the actors on the set. I don’t know how Thomas Mitchell managed to deliver his lines while being utterly assaulted by wind and water in a dinghy but, by God, he did and did it well. His acting super powers were clearly not to be trifled with.
Of course, science fiction has always been good for this kind of thing, too. One of my all-time favorite sci-fi/action movies is director Byron Haskin and producer George Pal’s 1953 War of the Worlds. I’ve watched it more times than I can remember and love the big citywide destruction of the finale before the alien ships crash and burn having been exposed to our bacteria (I would’ve provided a spoiler but, come on, it’s War of the Worlds, who doesn’t know that story?). Now this is a movie that is absolutely terrific from beginning to end so it’s not like you would just fast-forward to the ending to catch the big finale but you could and not be dissatisfied. The design work by Al Nozaki on the alien ships and the model work of Los Angeles is the art of the special effect miniature at it’s zenith and the film revels in it, spending almost a third of the film on Los Angeles’ destruction.
Sticking with the fifties for a moment more, and another Haskin/Pal collaboration, The Naked Jungle, with Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker was a childhood favorite. I never really cared for the story leading up to the climax (it’s rather clunkily done and a bit dull) but no matter because once Heston has to take on the ants, it’s all worth it. No miniatures here. There’s Heston, ants and water. Lots of water. Tons and tons of water. And Heston (and stunt doubles) right there in the thick of it. The movie was based on the short story, Leiningen Versus the Ants, by Carl Stephenson and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would change that title. Give the movie a pulpy title like that, stick to repelling the ants for most of the story instead of just the climax and scrap the whole romantic subplot and you’ve got an all-time winner. Instead, you have an average film made exciting in the last ten minutes.
Sometimes, though, even the big finish doesn’t really pay off. When I saw Earthquake many years ago, I was honest with myself that the only reason I was watching it was for the earthquake effects at the end. And those effects are very well done with great miniature and effects work by a lot of very talented people. But, brother, that movie is bad. Really bad. Even the grand finale plays as kind of disjointed and feckless. Great effects scenes are intercut with hopelessly dull live actor scenes and some not very well matched cuts between the two.
Another example of a not very good movie that you sit through just to see the ending is Raise the Titanic. Again, the movie isn’t much to look at but the effects work on that ship coming out of the water is quite well done. (And yes, I have video of that one, too, here - also, most of the others).
Now, one genre I’ve left out so far is the war film. Many have great and glorious final battle sequences and many are quite well done but some of the best combined miniature/full-scale/stunt work I’ve ever seen employed in the service of a war film is Tora! Tora! Tora! The movie details, in documentary-like fashion, the events of the sixth and seventh of December, 1941 leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was pretty well panned upon its release but, really, it’s a very good film that creates a fair bit of tension and holds onto to it until the release of the attack. And that attack sequence is extraordinary. Amazing stunt work carries the day but fleeting shots of miniatures and plenty of pyrotechnics certainly help to carry the load.
Some movies have grand finales that are visually beautiful (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), some disaster-laden (Deep Impact) and some that are pure visceral excitement (Mad Max II: The Road Warrior) and the dividing line between the good and the bad is defined by how much that ending means to the whole movie. If the ending stands out to the point that the rest of the movie is ignored or forgotten, it probably isn’t a very good movie. If the ending feels like the natural extension of everything that came before, only more so, job well done. Now, these are just some of my favorite big finishes but there are hundreds more awaiting their own due. As for me, I will now exit this post with the finale you’ve all been waiting for… THE END! (sorry, small budget)
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