Cinema’s Best Trilogies

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In light of my recent review of Hiroshi Inagaki’s 3-part masterpiece, The Samurai Trilogy, I think a quick little tangent into the art of the film trilogy would be rewarding.  If anything, I hope to gain some readers who may find the list interesting.  Empire made a list of the cinema’s greatest trilogies awhile back, and it didn’t go without its detractors or its commentary. Many decried the list because it featured trilogies that weren’t even trilogies: for example, Alien and Terminator were, at one point, trilogies, but are no longer.  Still others complained that the list was ethnocentric and overly-focused on mainstream film.

I don’t have a problem if the list is overly-focused on mainstream film or is ethnocentric if, in fact, the mainstream and ethnocentric selections deserved to be there.  Too often, we are too “affirmative” in our actions.  Many of the trilogies that appeared on the list did, actually, deserve to be there…they were just placed a little higher than they should have been.  This is the inevitable result of a popular vote.  I, however, do not allow popular votes to influence any lists that I may create in this blog.  They are not conducive to my delusions of grandeur and elitism.  Instead, you have to hear my opinion, lone and unadulterated by the opinions of others.

The film trilogy is an interesting thing.  When poorly handled, it reeks of merchandising and commercialism to the point that even the basest of crowds will complain.  The recent backlash against Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies or Walt Disney Studios’ Pirates of the Caribbean films highlights this premise well.  When well-handled, however, a trilogy brings light and depth to an idea.  In the United States, the idea” for which extra light and depth is needed is normally the plot.  In other words, it is the story-idea.  Hence, we see films like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings; movies that follow an intricate storyline that is too involved to be made into a single movie.

When story is not the key idea motivating the creation of trilogy (particularly in the United States), then character takes over.  Series like Indiana Jones and The Godfather do not have inter-connected stories complete with multi-film story arcs and cliff-hangers.  No, they are instead focused on characters.  In resurrecting these characters, they can tell new stories.  The depth and light that is provided through the creation of a trilogy in these instances is focused on fine-tuning the character and going ever deeper into their motives and lives.

Then, you go overseas.  With a few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of great international trilogies are focused on a different motivating idea.  In these cases, the idea is just that: an idea.  For example, the “idea” of the silence of God, the lost depravity of man, and the overwhelming need for humanity to reconcile death with eternity is at the heart of Bergman’s famous “Silence” trilogy, three films made independently of one another but now revered as one of the finest of cinematic trilogies.  The “idea” of romance as a spectacle and love as an opportunity for tabloid is at the center of Renoir’s “Spectacle” trilogy.  There are many other instances of ideas coming to full fruition because of the light and depth made available through the medium of the trilogy.

Kieslowski, the Polish master, made a trilogy wherein the characters connect at various plot points that are mostly meaningless; the real connecting factor is his appeal to color as a symbol of some cultural element at work in each film.  Rossellini, the Italian Neo-Realist, made a trilogy that was focused on melding the actual with the fictional in order to romanticize and decry the Italian situation following World War II.  For him, the joining factor of his trilogy was not just the war, but the emergence of a new style of cinema that he (and Vittorio de Sica, and others) was working to bring to life in his native land.  Fassbinder, in Germany, would make a trilogy that focused on the lives of individual, fictional women in West Germany during the economic miracle of the 1950s; in doing so, he would work to show that “forgetting the past for the sake of moving to a brighter future” was a key element not only to his filmography, but to the thematic works of many of his colleagues.

Elsewhere, you have trilogies that meld these elements, giving us masterpieces based on ideas, stories, and character.  There are two trilogies that I hold to be the finest of this category.  The first is Jacques Tati’s work in creating a comedic trilogy that follows the exploit of single man, Monsieur Hulot.  While each movie follows his exploits and moves in what appears to be a chronological order, there is far more to the trilogy than just character.  Each story is connected by a satirical undertone.  We watch as Mr. Hulot is continuously confronted with a changing world, and we watch his adjustments to that world.  Not unlike the silent masterpieces of Charlie Chaplin, Tati’s films are rooted in ideas first, and those ideas are played out before our eyes by the character upon which the trilogy is based.  The other trilogy, one more loosely-bound, but even better in terms of the movies that comprise it, is Yasujiro Ozu’s trilogy of films all based on a 28-year-old woman named Noriko (played by the illustrious Setsuko Hara).  The stories are all different, only the name of the character and the person who plays her are the same.  But, through the trilogy, Ozu’s general philosophies and themes stand out in predominant ways: family, the inter-generational relationship, marriage, parenting, and coming-of-age.

Not unlike Tati, another director made a character-driven trilogy that is focused more on satire and style than on the character himself.  That director is Sergio Leone; and that character is Clint Eastwood’s “Man with no Name.”  That trilogy shows us a stylized approach to the old west that challenges the notions of the romantic expansion that so dominated the Western genre in the preceding decades.

But, then, you have stories about characters that are so touching that you just have to stay around with them.  These are not stories like Indiana Jones or Back to the Future.  As good as those movies are, they are not about life.  They are about adventure.  Life, if life is to be the motivating “idea” behind a trilogy, is best told through growing up.  It is best told through coming of age, romance, war, loss, gain, hardship, and family.  While Indiana Jones is great for its own reasons, Indy doesn’t change from one show to another.  But, in the works of Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy or Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition, we are shown the growth and change of characters as they live their lives.  Often, these are sad.  But life is often sad.  These stories tell us about ourselves.

I suppose that the trilogy that I recently reviewed, The Samurai Trilogy of Hiroshi Inagaki, is of this last group.  It tells a story too long to be told in a single film.  It is focused on a single character.  We watch as that character grows up.  And we watch as Inagaki’s world view is portrayed to us through him.

You see, trilogies don’t have to be sell-out corporate money-making schemes.  They can be beautiful too.

Now, on to the list.  I’ve gone ahead and put an asterisk by the best movie in each respective trilogy.

  1. The “Noriko” Trilogy (directed by Yasujirō Ozu)
    1. Late Spring
    2. Early Summer
    3. Tokyo Story*
  2. The Monsieur Hulot Trilogy (directed by Jacques Tati)
    1. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday
    2. Mon Oncle
    3. Playtime*
  3. The Lord of the Rings (directed by Peter Jackson)
    1. The Fellowship of the Ring
    2. The Two Towers
    3. The Return of the King*
  4. The Human Condition Trilogy (directed by Masaki Kobayashi)
    1. No Greater Love
    2. Road to Eternity
    3. A Soldier’s Prayer*
  5. The Michelangelo Antonioni Trilogy (directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
    1. L’Avventura*
    2. La Notte
    3. L’eclisse
  6. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
    1. The Godfather*
    2. The Godfather Part II
    3. The Godfather Part III
  7. The Apu Trilogy (directed by Satyajit Ray)
    1. Pather Panchali*
    2. Aparajito
    3. World of Apu
  8. The Original Star Wars Trilogy (directed by George Lucas, Irvin Kirschner, and Richard Marquand)
    1. Star Wars (or, A New Hope)
    2. The Empire Strikes Back*
    3. The Return of the Jedi
  9. The Three Colors (directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski)
    1. Blue
    2. White
    3. Red*
  10. Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (directed by Roberto Rossellini)
    1. Rome, Open City*
    2. Paisan
    3. Germany, Year Zero
  11. The Silence of God Trilogy (directed by Ingmar Bergman)
    1. Through a Glass Darkly*
    2. Winter Night
    3. The Silence
  12. Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time” Trilogy
    1. Once Upon a Time in the West*
    2. Duck…You Sucker
    3. Once Upon a Time in America
  13. Toy Story (directed by John Lasseter and Lee Unkrich)
    1. Toy Story
    2. Toy Story 2
    3. Toy Story 3*
  14.  The Samurai Trilogy (directed by Hiroshi Inagaki)
    1. Musashi Miyamoto*
    2. Duel at Ichijoji Temple
    3. Duel at Ganryu Island
  15. Laurence Olivier’s Shakespearean Trilogy (directed by Laurence Olivier)
    1. Henry V
    2. Hamlet*
    3. Richard III
  16. Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle (directed by Jean Renoir)
    1. The Golden Coach*
    2. French Cancan
    3. Elena and her Men
  17. The Original Indiana Jones Trilogy (directed by Steven Spielberg)
    1. Raiders of the Lost Ark*
    2. The Temple of Doom
    3. The Last Crusade
  18. The Man With No Name Trilogy (directed by Sergio Leone)
    1. A Fistful of Dollars
    2. For a Few Dollars More
    3. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly*
  19. The BRD Trilogy (directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
    1. The Marriage of Maria Braun
    2. Veronika Voss*
    3. Lola
  20. The Orphic Trilogy (directed by Jean Cocteau)
    1. The Blood of a Poet
    2. Orpheus*
    3. Testament of Orpheus
  21. Luis Buñuel’s Mexican Trilogy with Pinal and Alatriste (directed by Luis Buñuel)
    1. Viridiana*
    2. The Exterminating Angel
    3. Simon of the Desert
  22. Jacques Demy’s “Romantic” Trilogy (directed by Jacques Demy)
    1. Lola
    2. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg*
    3. Modelshop
  23. The Dark Knight Trilogy (directed by Christopher Nolan)
    1. Batman Begins
    2. The Dark Knight*
    3. The Dark Knight Rises
  24. The “Before” Trilogy (directed by Richard Linklater)
    1. Before Sunrise
    2. Before Sunset
    3. Before Midnight*
  25. The Original Jason Bourne Trilogy (directed by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass)
    1. The Bourne Identity
    2. The Bourne Supremacy
    3. The Bourne Ultimatum*
  26. Roman Polanski’s “Apartment” Trilogy (directed by Roman Polanski)
    1. Repulsion*
    2. Rosemary’s Baby
    3. The Tenant
  27. Back to the Future (directed by Robert Zemeckis)
    1. Back to the Future*
    2. Back to the Future Part II
    3. Back to the Future Part III
  28. Alexander Korda’s “Private Life” Trilogy (directed by Alexander Korda)
    1. The Private Life of King Henry VIII*
    2. The Rise of Catherine the Great
    3. The Private Life of Don Juan
  29. John Ford’s “Cavalry” Trilogy (directed by John Ford)
    1. Fort Apache
    2. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon*
    3. Rio Grande
  30. The Proletariat Trilogy (directed by Aki Kaurismäki)
    1. Shadows in Paradise
    2. Ariel
    3. The Match Factory Girl*
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2 thoughts on “Cinema’s Best Trilogies

  1. Pingback: Harakiri (1962) | A Slice of Cake

  2. Pingback: My Introduction to a Series of Essays on The Rules of the Game | A Slice of Cake

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