Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

15 Thematic Trilogies From 15 Directors

by Charlie Schmidlin
May 7, 2014 1:48 PM
  • |

It’s quite likely that, in a few summers’ time, cinemagoing will start to resemble entering a giant narrative web, as each auditorium will be hosting a film featuring characters on their way to the plot being screened in the next theatre over. Disney, Marvel, DC—the brilliance of their crossover strategy seems only matched by the appetite of moviegoers for the results. The thought, then, of a standalone narrative, a one-off rather than a sequel springboard, is a rare phenomenon in today’s cinematic landscape, let alone the idea of linking films together only loosely, in such a way that they can't be shorthanded by sticking a "2" or a "3" on the end of the original title. 

But over the past ten years director Edgar Wright, for one, has successfully steered fans away from the pull of direct sequels. Instead, he favored a grand thematic statement by devising the Three Colors Cornetto Trilogy: “Shaun of the Dead," which is currently celebrating its 10th birthday, “Hot Fuzz” (2007), and “The World’s End” (2013), three distinct statements co-written by Wright and Simon Pegg on conformity, aging, and friendship, which all simultaneously serve as quality, rip-roaring entries in three separate genres.

While Wright’s trilogy is perhaps the most high-profile, recent example of such an approach, many filmmakers, most of them outside the United States, have quietly built up similar meditations on a certain subject or theme, and delivered a trio of films that, while nothing like a franchise, still reward being thought of as a single entity as well as their disparate components. Here, to celebrate 10 years of 'Shaun,' we delve into 15 other examples of cinematic trilogies, (mostly) delivered by a single distinctive filmmaking voice. And while the first selection of "Road To..." movies are centered around the actors, one could very easily argue that without them, it simply wouldn't have worked.

The “Road to…” Trilogy: “Road to Singapore” (1940)/“Road to Zanzibar” (1941)/”Road to Morocco” (1942)
Seven films from 1940 to 1962 made Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour household names back in the day, and rewarded Paramount with one of their most financially successful series. But it was the initial trilogy of films, “Road to Singapore," “Road to Zanzibar," and “Road to Morocco," that set the stage for the long-running antics of Hope and Crosby—largely improvised, energetic, and rife with brilliant chemistry. Also featuring Lamour as the straight man and the duo’s object of affection, arguably the films never really kept a straight face long enough to construct the kind of thematic consistency we’re really talking about here, outside of your most basic con artistry. But consider these genre-swapping films a prototype for the balancing acts of action, comedy, and genuine drama in the Cornetto Trilogy later on, and simply enjoy the interplay of Hope and Crosby as they travel from country to country, hatching new financial schemes, falling for the local beauty, and fleeing town promptly afterwards.

“Road To Singapore," the first film of the bunch and with its filmmakers uncertain of the creative direction, is definitely the weakest of the three, essentially an Apatow production of the ‘40s that let its two leads improvise the entire show. But it was a rumored outburst to camera from Lamour during its filming (“Hey fellas, I haven't had a line for ages!”) that clarified for the crew the winking and entirely absurd approach held from that point forward. ‘Zanzibar’ and ‘Morocco’ both showcase a number of recurring jokes and fourth wall breaks that grew to define the series: the patty-cake routine signaling a brawl, or a camel lamenting his status in “the screwiest picture I’ve ever been in." Hope and Crosby found their groove in “Zanzibar” and perfected it with “Morocco”, a film that in fact netted two Oscar nominations—one for Sound Recording and one for the screenplay by Frank Butler and Don Hartman. Essential, and without a doubt the most easygoing trilogy on this list, a point to keep in mind once Lars von Trier enters the arena in a fit of existential ennui.

John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy: Fort Apache” (1948)/”She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949)/”Rio Grande” (1950)
"You say someone's called me the greatest poet of the Western saga. I am not a poet, and I don't know what a Western saga is. I would say that is horseshit." As glimpsed in nearly every interview during his lifetime, including this New Republic one, John Ford kept his ornery perspective more than grounded when it came to analyzing his own work. This could explain why the director saw nothing unique or connected in his so-called Cavalry Trilogy—“Fort Apache”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," and “Rio Grande”—other than that they all take place on American Cavalry forts, and are based on stories by James Warner Bellah.

Behind-the-scenes records support Ford’s claim: the only reason “Rio Grande” even went into production was contractual obligation, but the film historians who remain the primary advocates of a unified Cavalry Trilogy have a strong case too. An emphasis on the individual in military duty, a consistent stable of actors in similar roles, and musical motifs from composers Richard Hageman and Victor Young all feature heavily into the three films. Bypass the creaky depictions of Native Americans (still far more balanced here than in Ford’s prior work), and the films also reveal a surprising thread of commentary on warmongering and American colonialism. Each film in this Western trilogy essentially follows John Wayne as a character in the American army post-Civil War, “Fort Apache” sees him attempting as a Captain to stop an Apache massacre from taking place. “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” charts an aging Captain as he embarks on one last mission to quell a reservation breakout; and we then finally glide through to “Rio Grande” where, as a Lieutenant Colonel, Wayne is a broken old man separated from his wife (Maureen O’Hara) and child for 15 years. Victor McLaglen, Harry Carey Jr., Ben Johnson, and Mildred Natwick all inhabit colorful supporting roles throughout, and Ford brings a host of symbolism, both religious and historical, that elevates the films to a lasting station in his filmography.

Federico Fellini’s Trilogy Of Loneliness: La Strada” (1954)/“Il Bidone” (1955)/“The Nights of Cabiria” (1957)
Poignant, touching, and emotionally rich, the tragic nature of Federico Fellini’s Trilogy of Loneliness arguably elevates it above some of his greater known works like “8 ½” and “Amarcord.” Part of his early neorealist bent that predated the fanciful poetic realism of more surreal works, the three films in Fellini’s loose trilogy are “La Strada,” “Il Bidone” and “Nights of Cabiria” and all center on a class of misfits and outsiders on the fringes of society.

A heartbreaking “Beauty and the Beast”-like dichotomy, “La Strada” involves a faithful young girl (Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina) being sold to a cruel circus performer (Anthony Quinn) by her poverty-stricken family for a plate of pasta; the fucked-up co-dependent relationship that forms; and the hardships they both endure scraping to get by. Fellini follows “La Strada” with “Il Bidone,” which chronicles a group of professional swindlers also trying to carve out a meager existence, and the lead con man for whom the personal consequences are ultimately devastating. Lastly there’s “Nights Of Cabiria” which re-teamed Fellini with his wife, again as a prostitute with a heart of gold, dreaming and grasping for a better life, rounding out the director’s three must-see meditations on hope and survival in Italy.

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    


  • Robthom | June 3, 2014 2:21 PMReply

    I could never really picture those Carpenter movies as a trilogy.
    I guess they all involve the end of the world or something, but that seems like a minor aspect to the best of the three, and the other two just seem so removed in feel and quality.

    And to be honest I'm not always comfortable considering the first 3 SW's a trilogy, return being so bad. Its like calling the first 3 X-men a trilogy.

    I'd prefer not to.

  • JZ | June 1, 2014 6:39 PMReply

    It's Wajda, not Wadja! An exquisite article, though. I'm glad you mentioned Kieślowski's Three Colours.

  • The MF | June 1, 2014 2:05 PMReply

    Gus Van Sant's death trilogy in which he has even said are connected: GERRY, ELEPHANT and LAST DAYS

  • Jeff | May 24, 2014 11:30 AMReply

    Oliver Stone's Vietnam Trilogy

    Platoon/Born On The Fourth Of July/Heaven And Earth

  • Indie fan | May 23, 2014 12:50 AMReply

    John Carney's struggling musician trilogy-in-a-making.
    Begin Again

  • Mood for love | May 21, 2014 10:38 AMReply

    How come you forgot to mention Wong Kar Wai ?? such a shame...

  • BrianO | May 18, 2014 10:11 AMReply

    Barry Levinson's Baltimore Trilogy--Avalon, Diner and Liberty Heights.

  • TheSvengali | May 13, 2014 4:22 PMReply

    Ozu's Noriko Trilogy is not here.

  • DepressedSF | May 13, 2014 1:42 PMReply

    Oliver Stone Vietnam trilogy?

  • Todd | May 13, 2014 8:54 AMReply

    Upon completion, "Silence" will complete what could be called a "meditation on faith" trilogy for Scorsese, preceded by "Last Temptation of Christ" and "Kundun".

  • George | May 12, 2014 3:51 PMReply

    In We own the Night.....James Caan Its not the father of Joaquín phoenix and robert duvall

  • Bustermarx | May 10, 2014 12:57 PMReply

    I think John Frankenheimer's (self titled) Paranoia trilogy should be there.
    1) Manchurian Candidate
    2) Seven Days in May
    3) Seconds

  • Monotreme | May 10, 2014 1:35 AMReply

    Another worthy honorable mention is Spielberg's "running man" trilogy - Artificial Intelligence A.I., Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can. All three feature alienated and isolated protagonists who find themselves on the run from forces they cannot control. And all excellent movies, of course.

  • JK1193 | May 9, 2014 7:46 PMReply

    Missing two trilogies from Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson.

    Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove, 2001 and A Clockwork Orange
    Anderson: There Will Be Blood, The Master and Punch-Drunk Love (view in that order)

  • YOUR DEAD UNCLE | May 30, 2014 4:12 PM

    Punch-Drunk Love does not qualify. Inherent Vice, however, will be the real missing part of the trilogy. The Kubrick films you suggest follow very different themes, he didn't make a thematic trilogy, per se. If we were going to choose a thematic group of his films, it'd be more like Paths of Glory, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket, they present the individual as a machine for a purpose, dehumanization by society, etc. And there's his upper class kind of trilogy, including Lolita, Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut.

  • Lobbo | May 17, 2014 8:50 PM

    I see them as a trilogy too, but why do you suggest that particular order?

  • Felip Serra | May 8, 2014 7:05 PMReply

    Director Theo Angelopoulos had 3:
    The Trilogy of History: "Days of '36", 1972; "Traveling Players", 1975; and "The Hunters", 1977.
    The Trilogy of Silence: "Voyage to Cythera", 1984; "The Beekeeper", 1986; "Landscapes in the Midst", 1988
    The Trilogy of Borders: "The Suspended Step of the Stork", 1991; "Ulysses' Gaze", 1995; "Eternity and a Day", 1998
    He would have completed a fourth trilogy (referred to as Trilogy on Modern Greece) that began with "The Weeping Meadow" (2004) and "The Dust of Time" (2009) but was killed during the filming of the third film, called "The Other Sea" (2012).

  • Rob | May 8, 2014 12:15 PMReply

    No Canada? Bruce McDonald's Rock 'n' Road trilogy? Highway 69, Roadkill, and Hardcore Logo?

  • toufique | May 8, 2014 11:41 AMReply

    1. Francis Ford Coppola's 'Godfather' Trilogy
    2. Satyajit Ray's 'Apu Trilogy'
    3. Satyajit Ray's 'Calcutta Trilogy'

  • TJCoolguy | June 3, 2014 4:04 AM

    Movies with sequels telling the same story do not qualify. It's mentioned in the intro, and if they were allowed this list could be hundreds of films long. So Godfather 1 - 3 would not apply.

  • The Playlist | May 8, 2014 12:15 PM

    Check the honorable mention and guys, as usual, this is just a slice of 15 trilogies we wanted to write about now, this could have been 50 filmmakers long. They'll be another edition.

  • Manni | May 8, 2014 10:34 AMReply

    Clearly The Playlist hates Linklater and his "Before..." trilogy...

  • Buddy | May 8, 2014 2:44 PM

    Sorry that was meant for LH, bloody iPhone.

  • Buddy | May 8, 2014 2:42 PM

    Did you even read the article?

  • LH | May 8, 2014 10:29 AMReply

    The Cornetto Trilogy? Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World's End

  • Buddy | May 8, 2014 2:45 PM

    Did you even read the article?

  • Leone | May 8, 2014 10:10 AMReply

    Where in the hell is Sergio Leones "Once upon a time..." Trilogy?

    Other than that and the missing Herzogs Jungle Trilogy, really great list.

  • Atul | May 8, 2014 8:28 AMReply

    How can you forget Pakula's paranoia trilogy...Klute, Parallax View, All the President's Men!!!

  • Bobby | May 7, 2014 11:45 PMReply

    Ulrich Seidl's Paradise trilogy from last year was brilliant. Love and Faith in particular, but Hope is excellent as well.

  • Denis | May 7, 2014 11:32 PMReply

    From the Americas, it could also be mentioned Pablo Larraín's trilogy of the Chilean military dictatorship: “Tony Manero” (2008), “Post Mortem” (2010) and “No” (2012).

  • Andrew | May 7, 2014 5:54 PMReply

    Can't forget the dour and depressing tone of all the films in the "Jennifer Connelly Suicide Trilogy" - ie. "Requiem for a Dream," "House of Sand and Fog" and "Dark Water".

  • Danel Griffin | May 7, 2014 5:29 PMReply

    Great list, though I submit that Claire Denis made a quadrilogy-- "White Material" was almost certainly a cap on her colonialist films. I would also recommend Werner Herzog's "Kinski in the Jungle" trilogy (for lack of a better title): "Aguirre," "Fitzcarraldo," and "Cobra Verde."

  • Charlie S | May 7, 2014 6:09 PM

    Good call on the Herzog. I'd also throw The Commando Leopard Trilogy into the hat as a potential title It describes Kinski perfectly, and reminds me of his bonkers supporting turn in Antonio Margheriti's '80s war trilogy, which started with the trophy title "Code Name: Wild Geese".

  • Ian | May 7, 2014 3:33 PMReply

    Park Chan-Wook didn't win the Palm D'or with Oldboy, he won the Grand Prix.

  • John Kinsella | May 7, 2014 2:21 PMReply

    Both John Frankenheimer and Alan J. Pakula produced "paranoia trilogies". Frankenheimer had The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Seven Days in May (1964), and Seconds (1960). Pakula directed Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), and All the President's Men (1976).

  • wes | May 7, 2014 2:14 PMReply

    Wong Kar-Wai?

  • Harrison | May 7, 2014 9:43 PM

    Second -- Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046

    And arguably Chungking and Fallen Angels compose three related stories

Email Updates