15 Thematic Trilogies

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.

Road to Morocco

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.

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

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.

La Strada

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.