Epic Proportions: For Months, We've Heard the Drumbeat about the New Age of Big Pictures. Now Three Panoramas of Love and War Are upon Us. Two Are Stunning. One Is Stunted

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Byline: David Ansen

If there's an image that defines this holiday movie season--a period that has nothing to do with Christmas, and everything to do with Oscars--it's the grave, grandiose spectacle of troops rushing into battle. From the left, flanks of Union soldiers charge across a muddy Virginia battlefield toward a horrible confrontation with their Confederate foes ("Cold Mountain"). From the right, sword-wielding 19th-century samurai speed on their mounts across green Japanese knolls into the cannon fire of the emperor's Army ("The Last Samurai"). From bottom to top, seen from a flying God's-eye view, a numberless mass of human warriors streaks across the plains of Gondor as the even larger forces of Sauron's army descend for the slaughter ("The Return of the King").

These panoramas are thrilling, terrifying and expensive. It's been a long time since Hollywood has painted so many pictures on so grand a scale. For decades the historical epic was thought to be an extinct species, left for dead back in the '60s when costly debacles like "Cleopatra" toppled entire studios, then buried again in 1980 by "Heaven's Gate." Hollywood liked to say the audience had lost its taste for the genre, but that wasn't it. They were just too damn costly to make. Filmmakers who wanted 10,000 extras and ancient coliseums had to wait for technology to catch up with their imaginations. It did--with computer-generated images. Suddenly you could get as many genies as you wanted out of one desktop bottle, and they were affordable. "Braveheart" and "Gladiator" opened the floodgates. Now we're on the high seas in "Master & Commander," and just over the horizon Brad Pitt and Colin Farrell are buckling on their Greek armor for "Troy" and "Alexander the Great."

What the makers of these three martially minded holiday epics couldn't have foreseen was that their images of war and destruction would be fraught with a daily-headline resonance. This is particularly true of Anthony Minghella's stunning, stately adaptation of Charles Frazier's Civil War odyssey "Cold Mountain," the one film that addresses the psychological impact of war. With vivid precision it shows what war can do to a person, a community, a country. It's the story of Inman (Jude Law), a disillusioned, wounded Confederate soldier who rises from his hospital bed determined to walk home--no matter how long it takes--to North Carolina and Ada (Nicole Kidman), the woman he loves yet hardly knows.

Minghella grounds the high romanticism of the love story in the bloody muck of hand-to-hand combat. He opens his movie with the Battle of the Crater, a nightmarish encounter in Petersburg, Va., that left thousands dead. It's not in the book, but it brilliantly evokes the inferno Inman is determined to escape. Minghella intercuts the battle with the bucolic town of Cold Mountain three years earlier, when the taciturn Inman first met Ada Monroe, a sheltered Southern belle. The sparks between Law and Kidman are palpable, the contrast between her pastel gentility and the brutality of Petersburg as stark as a steel blade.

"Cold Mountain" is a movie of episodes, and Minghella pulls off dazzling set pieces: he knows how to infuse violence with emotion, so it never seems gratuitous. If "Cold Mountain" runs the risk of self-importance, the arrival of Renee Zellweger as the spunky, dirt-encrusted drifter Ruby solves that problem. A gal who knows her way around a farm, she moves in with the hapless Ada--left to her own devices after her father's death--and teaches her how to survive. Ada, in turn, teaches Ruby there are more things in life than ripping the heads off roosters. Zellweger can push the "Annie Get Your Gun" swagger too hard, but she mixes it up with sharp stabs of honest emotion. It's a daring, delicious performance.

Kidman deftly captures both Ada's diffidence and her determination, though I wish she didn't always look fresh out of the beauty parlor. …