This week, the eyes of the world will turn toward Middle Earth, a mythical piece of real estate where hobbits, elves, dwarves and humans come together in a time of crisis and embark on a great quest. Of course, any film fan expecting to join J.R.R. Tolkien's famous heroes on their journey, slated to begin when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring opens Wednesday, will have their own epic obstacle to overcome - the great, long ticket line.
So here's an idea. Little Frodo Baggins and company are going to be hanging around in cinemas for a long time. Wait a week, maybe two. And if your thirst for a great journey seems unquenchable, perhaps one these quest movies will satisfy you, at least until the Lord lines get shorter.
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979): Based (very loosely) on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola's war epic is, on the surface, about a military mission down a dark and mysterious waterway. But, as in Mr. Conrad's novel, the truth is more complicated. The quest Martin Sheen's Capt. Willard embarks on is an internal one. It's a journey to the center of his soul, a journey that can conclude only if he deciphers what is right, what is wrong and what, if anything, he can do to alter the course of human nature.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940): Can there be any greater quest than that of John Steinbeck's Joad family, crossing the Southwest, searching not for wealth or power but simply a better life? John Ford's spare camera work, coupled with a career performance by Henry Fonda, make The Grapes of Wrath one of the rare novel adaptations to live up to the reputation of its literary source.
THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979): There are no internal struggles or socio-economic messages woven into Kermit and company's grand road trip across America. They just want to be stars, in the grandest Hollywood tradition. Sly and subtle, The Muppet Movie is more than a puppet show. The movie, scribed by comedy writer Jack Burns and Muppet mainstay Jerry Juhl, combines satire, irony and the endearing warmth that made the Muppets famous. Particularly appealing are numerous cameos by the elite of old and new Hollywood, including standout appearances by Milton Berle, Steve Martin and James Coburn.
AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (1972): The question with Aguirre is which was the more difficult quest, the conquistador Aguirre's (Klaus Kinski) descent into madness as he searches for the lost city of El Dorado, or filmmaker Werner Herzog's struggle to get his striking images on flim while living in the wilds of Peru. A decade later, Mr. Herzog would film a companion piece, Fitzcarraldo, about an insane quest to carry a steamship across the isthmus of Panama.
EXCALIBUR (1981): Nowhere in film, literature or mythology is there a quest quite as resonant as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table's search for the Holy Grail. And while other incarnations of the story might have greater literary merit, never before or since has it been told with as much style. A veritable who's who of British acting appear in the John Boorman film, including Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson in his film debut.
Some other great quest movies are Thelma and Louise, Kingpin, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and any of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road movies except Road to Hong Kong. To be avoided are the dreadful Road Trip and any of the Smokey and the Bandit or Cannonball Run sequels.
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