Hits offer up new history lesson

The success of “Gladiator” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” has reopened the history books and given momentum to a bunch of equally ambitious period actioners. As much as filmmakers and actors love the conflict, heroism and epic-sized canvases that historical films provide, are studios ready to underwrite a true renaissance?

“Hero,” a Chinese-lingo drama written and to be directed by “Raise the Red Lantern” helmer Zhang Yimou, is fast-mobilizing. The film, about China’s first emperor and his relationship with an assassin, is on course to take advantage of the Hollywood production stoppage and shoot this summer.

Martial artist Jet Li is negotiating to join Jiang Wen, Zhang Ziyi (“Crouching Tiger”), Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung for a drama that has the full backing of the Chinese government and Chinese financing for its $17 million budget.

Also looking Far East is “Gladiator” co-writer John Logan, who has made a deal to team with “Glory” helmer Ed Zwick on an epic about the 19th century opening of Japanese borders and the violent eradication of the nation’s samurai warrior set.

“It’s a good time for students of history,” said Logan. Referring to his project, he said, “This is amazing epic material and all true. Over the span of 10 years, Japan went from a completely closed feudal society into a modern East-West power.”

Also on the horizon, Fox is eyeing a late-year production start for a Peter Weir-scripted adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s nautical novel “Master and Commander,” with Weir directing the story of a British Royal Naval Officer given command of a ship during the Napoleonic War.

Fox also has just gotten the script for the sure-to-be-retitled “Hannibal,” the David Klass-penned saga to star Denzel Washington as the Carthage general who, riding an elephant across the Alps, led an army on a sneak attack that almost toppled Rome in the period of 237-250 B.C. And Warner Bros. and producer Mark Canton have “Troy,” the Michael Tabb-scripted Trojan War drama that’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida.” At Paramount, Tom Cruise is said to be developing a drama in which he’d play a Civil War general.

David Franzoni, who hatched “Gladiator,” has just completed for Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer a radical new interpretation of the King Arthur story, subject matter that is also being covered by “You Can Count on Me” scribe Kenny Lonergan, who’s adapting the T.H. White novel “The Once and Future King” for “Saving Private Ryan” producer Mark Gordon and Warner Bros.

Franzoni is also working with “Perfect Storm” director Wolfgang Petersen on a period epic they’re keeping secret, which Petersen will develop as he closes in on a greenlight on his dream epic, the Sir Ernest Shackleton saga “Endurance” at Sony. And director Michael Mann is developing dual sword-and-sandal sagas “Gates of Fire” and “Rubicon,” the latter about the battle between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great for undisputed rule of the world.

“After our ‘Apollo 13’ experience, we found that when you can find a great period story you’ve got a huge advantage,” said Karen Kehela, co-chairman of Imagine Films, which is bullish on its Shane Salerno-scripted “Bay of Pigs” for Universal, the Kevin Jarre-scripted “The Alamo” at Disney and the Robert Schenkkan-scripted Civil War film “Play for a Kingdom.” “The most important thing about ‘Gladiator’ is that it reminded everyone of is what is possible through technology.”

HOW MUCH WILL THE SUCCESS of “Gladiator” and “Crouching Tiger” help? The architects of those films think it’ll be little, because period pics are agonizing to make. “Braveheart” filmmaker Mel Gibson couldn’t get financing until he nixed his wish to have Jason Patric play William Wallace. On “Titanic,” Fox execs felt like passengers on the doomed liner for the year in which film doubled its $100 million budget. On “Pearl Harbor,” Disney’s filmmakers Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay were humbled by Michael Eisner when he rescinded the greenlight until they gave up their fees and became responsible for overages on the $135 million film. The Martin Scorsese-directed “Gangs of New York” and the Michael Mann-directed “Ali” had gone through similar budgetary travails.

“We’ve had a lot of historical epics thrown our way recently, but you had better let the story lead you and not the period because these films are extremely expensive and risky,” said DreamWorks production cohead Walter Parkes, who championed “Gladiator.”Studio judgments, he said, are made based on genre as opposed to period, going back to Amblin-produced “Zorro,” whose appeal was as a romantic costume melodrama, or “The Road to Perdition” which harkens back to Cagneyesque gangster films.

Parkes isn’t alone in his wariness. “You really need an exceptional idea to justify this,” said Bruckheimer. ” ‘Pearl Harbor’ had it and we’ll (give) King Arthur a realistic story that’ll be more like ‘The Wild Bunch.’ I will say that period films have been made much easier by CGI. I defy you to tell the real planes from the digital planes in ‘Pearl Harbor.’ ”

Despite those advantages, the failure of a high-pricetag film could close the history book quickly. “The fear here is that someone will follow these films, spend a lot of money and fail, and ruin this genre again now that people are more open to making these kinds of films,” said Franzoni.

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