10 great film trilogies

As Roberto Rossellini’s groundbreaking War trilogy makes its UK debut on Blu-ray, we round up 10 more of film history’s very best trilogies.

Matthew Thrift
Updated:

Paisà (1946)

Paisà (1946)

As far as Hollywood is concerned, you can never have too much of a good thing. This year alone will see everything from the fourth (The Hunger Games) to the seventh (Star Wars) to the 24th (James Bond) instalments of popular franchises dominating multiplex screens. In this age of cross-pollinating ‘cinematic universes’, the trilogy appears to have suffered a fate similar to the simple pleasures of a tub of Neapolitan ice cream. Four – at least – is the new three (unless you’re Peter Jackson, when three is the new one).

Of course, we’re used to long-form or episodic narratives in television; the release of entire series on a single day suggesting our proclivity for consuming them in 10-hour stints is an epidemic best fought in pyjamas. The same can be said for a good film trilogy, three seemingly the perfect number for whiling away a lazy Sunday.

So it’s handy that March sees the Blu-ray release of one of cinema’s greatest, Roberto Rossellini’s War trilogy. The three films (Rome, Open City; Paisà; Germany, Year Zero) may not share a narrative connection, but together offer a sweeping, street-level portrait of Europe during and after occupation.

Once you’re done with those – and if playing catch-up with six Fast and the Furious movies just feels like too much work – here are 10 other great film trilogies to wrap around that Sunday roast…

The Dr. Mabuse trilogy (1922-60)

Director Fritz Lang

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)

Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960)

Fritz Lang first introduced the world to cinema’s most famous criminal mastermind with his startlingly modern, four-and-a-half hour silent epic, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. The Mabuse narrative would span Lang’s entire career, the subtitle with which The Gambler opens – “An Image of Our Times” – as apt for its 1933 follow-up, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (one of the key texts of German Expressionism) as it is for his 1960 swansong, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.

While the first film tipped its hat to the previous decade’s Louis Feuillade serials, it’s the second film – charting the spread of the insane doctor’s diabolical influence through his criminal empire – that proved most retrospectively prescient, given its concurrence with the rise of Hitler. Mabuse himself may be long dead come Lang’s final masterpiece, but his insidious methods of social control have been appropriated and integrated into the everyday by a new generation of monsters bearing his name. As warnings – that evil doesn’t die, it just wears a different mask – go, they don’t come more terrifying.

The Cavalry trilogy (1948-50)

Director John Ford

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Fort Apache (1948)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Rio Grande (1950)

While the three films that make up John Ford’s masterful Cavalry trilogy are by no means without incident, action is hardly at the forefront of the great filmmaker’s mind. Concerned instead with the social dynamics and minutiae of the camps in which the films spend most of their time, they’re celebrations of military tradition and ritual in which a drinking in of atmosphere (along with plenty of drinking) takes precedence over the dramatic impulses often centred on ideological oppositions.

There’s no narrative connection between the three films, but there are constants: the pomp and pageantry of the uniforms (resplendently so in the sole colour entry, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), the epic backdrop of Monument Valley, and the ubiquity of Ford’s stock company of actors (led, of course, by Victor McLaglen and ‘The Duke’ John Wayne). An almost Hawksian looseness prevails (even if that filmmaker could never succumb to the sentiment or nostalgia redolent here), allowing space for the small moments – the dances at Fort Apache, Duke examining the hole in his tent in Rio Grande – that see the trilogy at its best.

The Noriko trilogy (1949-53)

Director Yasujiro Ozu

Early Summer (1951)

Early Summer (1951)

Late Spring (1949)
Early Summer (1951)
Tokyo Story (1953)

The greatest trilogy in cinema history – collectively named after the character played by the luminous Setsuko Hara – doesn’t follow a progressive narrative across the films, but offers three exquisite variations on a theme. Late Spring – one of the director’s personal favourites – charts the efforts of Noriko’s father (the magnificent Chishu Ryu) to dissuade her of her responsibilities towards him, gently nudging her out of the family nest. In Early Summer, the family dynamics have shifted (Ryu now plays Setsuko Hara’s brother) as Noriko struggles to choose a husband independently of the wishes of her extended clan. For Tokyo Story, Noriko is the widowed daughter-in-law to the elderly parents visiting their busy children.

Each film explores the shifting cultural landscape of postwar Japan – the push and pull between progress and tradition – under Ozu’s characteristically static, low-angle gaze. But for all the formal majesty on display, it’s Ozu’s tenderness for his characters, for life’s ebbs and flows, that can break hearts in an instant, and cements the trilogy’s peerless effect.

The Samurai trilogy (1954-56)

Director Hiroshi Inagaki

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1954)
Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955)
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956)

As synonymous with the samurai picture as John Wayne was with the western, actor Toshiro Mifune is perhaps best remembered for his multiple collaborations with Akira Kurosawa. The same year that Seven Samurai hit screens, Mifune took on the role of Japan’s most famous swordsman, the 17th-century ronin, Musashi Miyamoto. Over the course of three films for Hiroshi Inagaki – all adapted from the novel by Eiji Yoshikawa – Mifune depicts the folk hero’s passage from troublemaker into legend.

While the trilogy contains thrilling action set-pieces (not least Musashi’s battle against 80 men at the climax of part two), there’s much more to the films than the sum of their swordplay kicks, as they dexterously chart the hero’s emotional and spiritual growth. Inagaki demonstrates a knack for propulsive storytelling as keen as Kurosawa’s, and an eye for dismantling the hero-building tendencies of genre with all the complexity of Ford.

The Apu trilogy (1955-59)

Director Satyajit Ray

Aparajito (1956)

Aparajito (1956)

Pather Panchali (1955)
Aparajito (1957)
The World of Apu (1959)

“I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it,” said Kurosawa of Pather Panchali, “I have had several more opportunities to see the film since then and each time I feel more overwhelmed. It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river”.

Adapted from the source novels by Bengal author Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, each of the three films in Satyajit Ray’s exquisite trilogy charts a different stage in the development of protagonist, Apu. Pather Panchali – as well as being one of the most extraordinary debuts in cinema – provides one of its richest evocations of childhood. Its follow-up, Aparajito, begins in 1920 with an older Apu, and goes on to the chart the clash between tradition and modernity as embodied in the incompatible values of mother and son. The third film, The World of Apu may find Ray at his most uncharacteristically sentimental come the final reconciliation between Apu and his son, but it also demonstrates the director’s mastery of the medium at full power, and it’s a hard heart that fails to be moved.

The Human Condition (1959-61)

Director Masaki Kobayashi

The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959)

The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959)

The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959)
The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity (1959)
The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer (1961)

Best known in the west for his later masterpieces Harakiri (1962) and Kwaidan (1964), Masaki Kobayashi’s most personal work took the form of his monumental epic, The Human Condition. Adapted from the six-volume novel by Junpei Gomikawa, the film’s running time offers little change from 10 hours of viewing. Unsurprisingly released in three lengthy parts by the Shochiku studio between 1959 and 1961, it remains a single work, a fierce anti-war statement charting the gradual moral compromise of an idealistic pacifist (brilliantly played by Tatsuya Nakadai), slowly broken down by brutality and bureaucracy.

Despite some early dialogue stating Masaki’s case as bluntly as the film’s title (“I’m boarding this run-down truck, but you’re trying to catch the train of humanism before it’s too late”), the cumulative effect of Nakadai’s physical and mental degradation hits hard come Part III’s snowbound climax. The director’s eye for striking visuals – not least his movement of bodies through the frame – carries a solemn weight: the tragic impotence of Part I’s half-starved Chinese labourers, in a slow-march protest against the execution of their comrades, resignedly filing back to incarceration, proves heartbreaking, but merely the tip of the iceberg with seven hours still to go.

The Faith trilogy (1961-63)

Director Ingmar Bergman

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
Winter Light (1963)
The Silence (1963)

Whether due to metaphysical progress or by virtue of some special arrangement, in 1976, if you were feeling troubled or life was getting you down, you could pick up the cosmic blower and have a talk with God – at least, you could if you were Stevie Wonder. A decade or so earlier, on the Scandinavian island of Fårö, it was a different story for one Ingmar Bergman; furiously scrawling ‘hotline to the maker’ on any number of polystyrene cups, only to puzzle over the attached string’s listless droop into the void.

Such theocentric failures of communication form the spine of the director’s early 60s trilogy; from the paranoid psychological breakdown of Through a Glass Darkly (in which a schizophrenic girl finds God manifested in the form of a spider), to the emotional chasm between two sisters investigated by The Silence, whose formal experiments prefigure Bergman’s 1966 masterpiece, Persona. It’s Winter Light that proves the trilogy’s high point however, as Bergman simultaneously escalates and undercuts his trademark austerity with a sardonic wit blacker than any he’d demonstrate elsewhere.

The Godfather trilogy (1972-90)

Director Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather Part II (1974)

The Godfather Part II (1974)

The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather Part II (1974)
The Godfather Part III (1990)

As metaphorical polygons of quality go, the Godfather trilogy is of a decidedly isosceles-ian persuasion. While the third entry has its apologists (both presumably second cousins of Coppola), it remains impossible to reconcile that bastard offspring’s lumbering gait with the towering stature of its predecessors.

Picking a favourite between The Godfather and Part II is a veritable Sophie’s Choice: who can choose between Brando and the structural magnificence of its sequel; between James Caan’s Sonny and young Vito’s arrival in America; between the murders of Sollozzo and Don Fanucci? Of course, we don’t have to. Either one is a meal, both together a feast. And yet it’s impossible to sate those bi-annual Godfather cravings without going all the way, despite knowing better. Who wouldn’t want to gorge on more after that gunshot rings out across the lake? So we order dessert – we eat it because it’s there – and time and again we regret it. Part III may promise closure, and contain a vaguely appetising essence of nostalgia among its list of synthetic ingredients – but we’re always served the same limp cannoli, over-baked in the oven of indifference.

The Trilogy of Silence (1984-88)

Director Theo Angelopoulos

Voyage to Cythera (1984)

Voyage to Cythera (1984)

Voyage to Cythera (1984)
The Beekeeper (1986)
Landscape in the Mist (1988)

No one loved a trilogy quite like Theo Angelopoulos; the Greek maestro had just started production on the final part of his fourth when he was tragically killed back in 2012. We could have chosen the earlier Trilogy of History for the purposes of this list, given its magnificent climax with his four-hour 1975 epic The Travelling Players, but then one can sling darts at Angelopoulos’ CV blindfolded and chances are you’ll hit a masterpiece.

If the earlier trilogy offered a more pronounced historical and political discourse, that which followed served to internalise such concerns, fusing them inseparably to the personal to create arguably his greatest works. “History is now silent,” said Angelopoulos of his second trilogy, “and we are all trying to find answers by digging into ourselves, for it is terribly difficult to live in silence.” Tackling respectively – in the director’s words – the silence of History, Love and God, the three films see Angelopoulos at the height of his creative powers (although he wouldn’t take the Palme d’Or at Cannes until 1998, for Eternity and a Day). The final part, Landscape in the Mist is the filmmaker’s crowning achievement, its majestic final shot one of the most unforgettable in cinema.

The Koker trilogy (1987-94)

Director Abbas Kiarostami

Through the Olive Trees (1994)

Through the Olive Trees (1994)

Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987)
And Life Goes On (1992)
Through the Olive Trees (1994)

Abbas Kiarostami’s return to Koker – five years after his first film set in the northern Iranian town – was a response to the 1990 earthquake that devastated the region, claiming upwards of 50,000 lives. While his 1987 film, Where Is the Friend’s House? was a deceptively simple tale of a young boy’s attempt to return a school mate’s notebook, the subsequent works would blur the lines between fiction and documentary, creating – seen as a whole – a reflexive hall of mirrors that questions our perception of narrative and cinematic reality.

While And Life Goes On sees an actor portraying the first film’s director in search of its child stars, Through the Olive Trees begins by unveiling a further layer to the trilogy’s meta-fictional onion, as a second actor reveals himself as director of the previous film. Of course, thrice-removed – framing the wreckage of the natural and social landscape through his trademark long takes – is Kiarostami himself, that grand inquisitor of cinematic representation and the illusive fallibility of its truths.

Your suggestions

Three Colours: Red (1994)

Three Colours: Red (1994)

To our list above, you voted to add these great film trilogies…

  1. The Three Colours trilogy (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
    Three Colours: Blue (1993); Three Colours: White (1993); Three Colours: Red (1994)
  2. The Dollars trilogy (Sergio Leone)
    – A Fistful of Dollars (1964); For a Few Dollars More (1965); The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
  3. The Toy Story trilogy (John Lasseter/Lee Unkrich)
    – Toy Story (1995); Toy Story 2 (1999); Toy Story 3 (2010)
  4. The original Star Wars trilogy (George Lucas/Irvin Kershner/Richard Marquand)
    – Star Wars (1977); The Empire Strikes Back (1980); Return of the Jedi (1983)
  5. The Before trilogy (Richard Linklater)
    – Before Sunrise (1995); Before Sunset (2004; Before Midnight (2013)
  6. The Vengeance trilogy (Park Chan-wook)
    – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002); Oldboy (2003); Lady Vengeance (2004)
  7. The Indiana Jones trilogy (Steven Spielberg)
    – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984); Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
  8. The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson)
    – The Fellowship of the Ring (2001); The Two Towers (2002); The Return of the King (2003)
  9. The Pusher trilogy (Nicolas Winding Refn)
    – Pusher (1996); Pusher 2 (2004); Pusher 3 (2005)
  10. The War trilogy (Andrzej Wajda)
    – A Generation (1954); Kanal (1956); Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Trilogies proved one of our most contentious list topics to date, with your suggestions for what we’d missed going far and wide, from the arthouse to the mainstream. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy took an early lead and held onto it to take the number one slot this week, despite passionate support for Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name films, the Toy Story trilogy and many, many more.

Had we erred this time in overlooking many popular favourites (from Back to the Future to The Lord of the Rings), or was there benefit in shining a light on some lesser-known triptychs of international cinema? The debate raged on Facebook and Twitter, and only one thing remains certain: there are heaps of terrific triple-pronged film series out there; a list of 10 trilogies (and 30 movies) can barely scratch the surface.

A shout out then to some of your other suggestions: the Dark Knight trilogy, the Evil Dead trilogy, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Alienation trilogy, Lindsay Anderson’s Mick Travis trilogy, the Bill Douglas trilogy, the On the Buses trilogy, George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, David Lynch’s LA trilogy, Wim Wenders’ Road Movie trilogy, the Mad Max trilogy, Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy, the Matrix trilogy, the Infernal Affairs trilogy…

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