Lights! Camera! Action!
By Patrick F. Cannon
Action movies, defined broadly, include westerns, war movies, super hero extravaganzas, spy thrillers, space operas – well, just about any film that aims to get you to the edge of your seat. Most are forgettable – super hero films in particular have been overdone and oversold.
But some stick in your mind, and are worth seeing again (and again!). Streaming services have made most them available to see almost on a whim. Here are a few of my favorites, classics that have more than stood the test of time, starting with the earliest. Have you seen any or all of them?
The Adventures of Robin Hood. There have been many versions of this tale of the legendary character who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. The very best is the 1938 version starring Errol Flynn. Flynn was then in his charming prime. The lovely Olivia de Havilland was the demure Maid Marion; Basil Rathbone hammed it up as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham; and Claude Rains was the hopeful usurper, Prince John. The rest of the cast included a great selection of the era’s notable character actors, including the gravelly-voiced Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck.
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Any number of John Ford westerns could be included, but I always liked this second of Ford’s so-called Cavalry Trilogy (the others are 1948s Fort Apache and 1950s Rio Grande). It’s the only one in color, which takes better advantage of the Monument Valley exteriors. John Wayne, of course, is the star. He is supported by the members of Ford’s familiar reparatory group – Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr, and Victor McLaglen (who provides the comic relief). The obligatory love interest is provided by John Agar and Joanne Dru. Treatment of the Native Americans wouldn’t pass muster these days, but Ford was by no means the worst offender.
Bridge on the River Kwai. A bit long for my taste (but not so long as director David Lean’s masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia), this 1957 classic features a great performance by Alec Guinness as the obsessed British Colonel Nickolson, whose passion for doing things right makes him forget he’s building a bridge for the enemy. His nemesis is the Japanese Colonel Saito, played by Sessue Hayakawa. While they’re building the bridge, a reluctant American, William Holden, and a gung ho Brit, Jack Hawkins, are bent on destroying it. It all builds to a wonderful climax.
The Day of the Jackal. Although we know that the target of the film’s assassination attempt, Charles de Gaulle, was not in fact assassinated, the 1972 thriller, directed by Fred Zinnemann, convinces us to the last minute that he might be! Edward Fox plays the debonaire and menacing Jackal, with the late Michael Lonsdale as the French policeman who tracks him down. The excellent supporting cast includes Cyril Cusack, and a very young Derek Jacobi, on his way to becoming one of the great actors of his generation. Based on a book by Frederick Forsyth, it’s an example of a movie far better than the book upon which it’s based.
The Man Who Would be King. Fulfilling an ambition he had had for years, in 1975 director John Huston finally was able to make a movie of this Rudyard Kipling story. It features Michael Caine and Sean Connery (good friends in real life) as two former British soldiers who decide to travel to remote Kafiristan and use their soldierly skills to take over a local kingdom and make their fortune. Christopher Plummer plays Kipling, who tries to dissuade them. As you might imagine, as most forays to that part of the world did and still do, it ends badly. Even so, there’s lots of action and humor along the way.
The Last of the Mohicans. While the 1936 version starring Randolph Scott is fairly good, director Michael Mann’s 1992 version of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel is more exciting and better acted. Casting Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye was an inspired choice. He is utterly convincing as a White American raised by Native Americans. His intense preparation for roles was legendary – think the title role in Lincoln – and the toll it took was one reason he decided to retire from acting. Madeleine Stowe was suitably lovely as the love interest. Unlike the 1930s, when Native Americans were often played by Italians and Jews, here we have the real thing. Wes Studi convincingly played the menacing villain, Magua; and the late Russel Means – perhaps better known as an activist for Native American rights – was the much more sympathetic Chingachgook, the “last of the Mohicans.” Here is another case where the movie was better than the book.
I’m sure you have your own favorites; but you could find worse ways to waste your time than by searching out and watching one of more of these.
Copyright 2021, Patrick F. Cannon