The Action Hero (Heroes Part 3)

The Action Hero (Heroes Part 3)


The Action Movie is defined by car chases, martial arts, gunfights, spectacular stunts, and lots of things blowing up. The Action Hero has to pull off all of this and look convincing doing it.  All movies have some kind of action, but the Action Hero as a specific type of movie genre evolved from the Antihero movies of the 60s and the 70s.


The ancestor of all Action Movie car chases is the famous car chase in the movie Bullitt (1968), starring Antihero superstar Steve McQueen. This chase has been copied, parodied, and referenced in countless movies, as car chases in general have become a staple of Action Hero films.


Bruce Lee epitomized Kung Fu and popularized the martial arts movie as a whole new genre of world cinema. Because of Bruce Lee, Karate, Kung Fu, and Tai Kwan Do became the primary form of cinematic unarmed combat.  This style of martial arts quickly became a staple of action films starring actors such as Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jackie Chan and more recently Jason Statham.

The two biggest influences on Action films are James Bond films and Star Wars (1977). The James Bond of the Ian Fleming novels was the protagonist in Cold War era espionage/suspense novels but the James Bond of movies quickly evolved into an Action Hero with technological gimmicks, car chases, spectacular stunt work, and improbable Special Ops combat. For example, in Thunderball (1965) frogman armies fight underwater battles to recover stolen atomic bombs; and in You Only Live Twice (1967) a Ninja army breaks into a secret underground space launch facility hidden in a fake volcano.


Possibly the biggest single impact on the development of the Action Film was Star Wars (1977). The inspiration for Star Wars was the Flash Gordon (1936)serials of the 1930’s and 1940’s.  With light sabers, barroom brawls, exploding Death Stars, and non-stop action Star Wars ushered in a new era of action packed blockbuster film.


Like Star Wars, the hugely successful Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) starring Harrison Ford, paid homage to the 1930s & 1940’s serials with a breathless fast paced series of cliffhangers, special effects, and incredible stunts. The movie also copied the look and feel of the 30s and 40s serials with a pre WWII era setting for added effect.  The rock-jawed hard-boiled Indiana Jones is considered by many to be the greatest of all Action Heroes.  Indiana Jones was featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1985), and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008).

Mel Gibson also became a superstar by playing the Action Hero. The Road Warrior films and the Lethal Weapon (1987) series are hugely successful Action franchises.  Bruce Willis entered the fray with Die Hard (1988).  Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the science fiction action genre with his Predator (1987) and Terminator (1984) series, while Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo character introduced in First Blood (1982) has become so infamous it is now an eponym.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “Rambo” as “A person resembling or displaying characteristics of Rambo; an exceptionally tough, strong, and uncompromising man (esp. in militaristic contexts); one who is characteristically aggressive and violent.”


While the Action Hero has some of the elements of the Swashbuckler from the serials of the 1930s and 1940s, the Action Hero also reflects the characteristics of the Antihero. All of the chivalry, romance, and gallantry of the Swashbuckler and classic Western Hero are gone.  James Bond for example takes on the persona of his creator Ian Fleming who once said “I’m going to be quite bloody-minded about women from now on. I’m just going to take what I want without any scruples at all…”  In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana’s guiding principles are “Fortune and glory, kid.  Fortune and glory.”  In the Mad Max films like the Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985); Max rarely shows the slightest hint of a code of honor or a sense of right and wrong, nor any romantic interest whatsoever.  He is “a scavenger…living off the corpse of the old world.”





For Valentine’s Day I thought I’d look at Romantic movies. The American Film Institute helpfully provides a list of the best romantic movies called 100 years 100 Passions.  It is a ranked list and of course Casablanca is the highest ranked movie on the list (#1). Casablanca is often cited as being one of if not the best movie ever made and for pure cinematic story telling; it is.  Even minor characters are fleshed out with story arcs and subplots that help drive the movie’s main plotline and establish the main character’s personalities.  There is a marvelous little sub plot involving a newlywed Romanian couple that helps show that beneath Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) crusty exterior is a heart of gold while at the same time helping to establish Captain Renault (Claude Rains) as a unscrupulous cad but Casablanca is a true cinematic romance with the relationship between Rick and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) driving the story.


However, most movies have some romantic elements. High Noon, for example, is widely regarded as one of the best Westerns ever made.  It has a fairly typical western plot line where the hero’s code of honor will not allow him to avoid danger but by staying true to his ideals he is drawn into conflict and prevails.  It is the romantic relationship between Sheriff Kane (Gary Cooper) and his pacifist Quaker wife (Grace Kelly) that drives the story and provides the film’s resolution, yet this movie is not considered a romance nor is it on AFI’s the list of the 100 most romantic Films. King Kong is on the list at number 24!  So are Beauty and the Beast (#34), Double Indemnity (#84), and the Hunchback of Notre Dame (#98).  All of these are great movies with some romantic elements but romance is no more central to the plot of these movies than with High Noon .



If a great movie with a romantic element that drives the plot doesn’t make it a famous romance what does? Why do people see the King and I as a romance when Some Like it Hot, one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time, did not make AFI’s list?  The answer lies in From Here to Eternity which is number 20 on the list. From here to Eternity has a couple of romantic subplots but the main story line is about a soldier that doesn’t want join the company boxing team so sadistic sergeants give him company punishment trying to force him into boxing for the team, but From here to Eternity has a great kiss.  When Burt Lancaster kisses Deborah Kerr on the beach they made movie history.   It is one of the great movie kisses of all time and put From Here to Eternity on every true romance movie list.

Gone With the Wind, An Affair To Remember, Love Story, and Ghost are all movies most of us tend to think of as romance movies, but there are some movies whose central plot does not revolve around the leading characters romance that have pivotal movie moments that are so memorable we think of them as romance.  The fireworks seduction scene in To Catch a Thief, the sizzling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall in To Have and to Have Not, the long kiss between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, and the obsession of Jimmy Stewart for Kim Novak in Vertigo made these movies romances.  Ultimately, all it took for King Kong  to be a romance was a single memorable line; “It was beauty killed the beast.”   Robert Finch