Category: Men on a mission film

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Man’s gotta do what man’s gotta do in this iconic rollercoaster of a Western

Director: John Sturges

Cast: Yul Brynner (Chris Adams), Steve McQueen (Vin Tanner), Horst Buchholz (Chico), Charles Bronson (Bernardo O’Reilly), Robert Vaughn (Lee), James Coburn (Britt), Brad Dexter (Harry Luck), Eli Wallach (Calvera), Vladimir Sokoloff (Old Man), Jorge Martinez de Hoyos (Hilario), Rosenda Monteros (Petra), Rico Alaniz (Sotero), Pepe Hern (Tomas)

“That’s the greatest shot I’ve ever seen!” – Chico after seeing Britt take down a bandit on a horse with a pistol from an unimaginable distance.

“The worst. I was aiming at the horse.” – Britt’s response.

To be honest I could probably just watch The Magnificent Seven for that moment alone. Akira Kurosawa enjoyed this remake of his greatest film so much, he presented Sturges with a samurai sword as congratulations. It’s a staple of any rainy Bank Holiday and the actors who played the seven is a classic pub quiz question (how many have scratched their heads trying to remember Brad Dexter’s name?). The Magnificent Seven has passed into cultural legend.

It’s a very faithful remake of the Japanese original (if an hour shorter). A farming village is plagued by bandits, led by scruffy, smug rogue Calvera (Eli Wallach). So, the farmers set out to find a gang of gunmen willing to work (almost literally) for peanuts to protect them. And they find themselves a heck of a posse: Chris (Yul Brynner), the unflappable tactician, Vin (Steve McQueen) the maverick sharp-shooter, tough-as-nails Bernardo (Charles Bronson), nervy veteran Lee (Robert Vaughn), samurai-like Britt (James Coburn), boisterous mercenary Harry (Brad Dexter) and plucky newbie Chico (Horst Buchholz). But will these few protect the village or will they cut and run when the going gets tough?

What do you think? The Magnificent Seven is one of those classic men-on-a-mission films, where men were stoic, noble and only stopped taking names to kick some ass. While The Magnificent Seven sheds much of the class and culture-based depth and tragedy of the original, it certainly doubles down on its fun and excitement. It barrels along with glorious energy from set-piece moment to set-piece moment, all marshalled with great skill by Sturges.

And those set-pieces are great. Chris and Vin riding a hearse shotgun (literally) through town when no-one else has the guts to do it. Britt’s dazzling knife-throwing skills calmly winning him victory in a one-on-one with a braggart. Chico proving his worth on the journey back to the village and berating the villagers running in fear from their rescuers (“Now we are seven”). The first battle with the bandits. That legendary bad shot from ice cool Britt. The final face-off in the village. What’s not to love about this explosion of well-paced, gripping, exciting action?

The casting was a smorgasbord of talents. Books have been written about Brynner and McQueen’s personality clash. The evidence of their on-going game of one upmanship is all over the picture. In nearly every shot Brynner is in, McQueen can be spotted in the background fiddling around with his hat to pull focus. Brynner took to elaborate cheroot lighting using his boot to keep eyes on him. Either way, the two of them bring their qualities perfectly to the screen. Brynner has more than a touch of the old master samurai to him, McQueen the cocksure cool (it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him turn up to the village on a motorbike). Sturges’ film builds a surprisingly warm friendship between these two that forms the emotional heart of the film.

The rest of the gang all get their moments in the sun. Robert Vaughn expertly makes Lee’s loss of nerve look like careful, deadly precision rather than a desire to duck whenever bullets go flying – in a few strokes he presents a lifetime of front to maintain presence. James Coburn – a huge fan of the original – brilliantly channels Seiji Miyaguchi as an unflappable professional. Brad Dexter bounces along as jovial chancer. Bronson gets the dullest role as the guy who befriend the village kids but manages to make his priggish material (the Western equivalent of “you kids should take care of your education and listen to your parents”) sound like tough-guy cool.

The film’s main change was to dramatically reduce the importance of Toshiro Mifune’s character, here represented by Horst Buchholz’s farmer turned gunman (also taking on Isao Kimura’s romantic subplot). Buchholz gets a version of the “the farmers are made who they are by the warriors” speech that the iconic Mifune nailed in Seven Samurai. But it’s a weaker, under-written part – it feels like what it is, a functional role for a pretty actor – with Buchholz awkwardly and dutifully going through the romantic motions with village girl Petra.

It’s part of the lack of depth to The Magnificent Seven. The original’s study of shattered world orders and the dangers of progress and change have no comparison here, although the film has a rather nice moment as the heroes bemoan the loneliness of their chosen lot (“Home, none. Wife, none. Kids… none. Prospects, zero. Suppose I left anything out?”). Brynner’s Adams has a lovely touch of regret at lost chances behind his manly eyes. The surviving gunmen know it’s the farmers who really win in the end. But, even with that, this is a film more interested in entertaining you.

That’s why we get a proper villain – Wallach’s great value as this ingratiating bully, who can’t even begin to understand what would motivate people to do something for so little gain – to give the final battle even more of a personal touch. Sturges also makes sure we get the full entertainment value of these grizzled fighters giving their all – perhaps for the first time – for a cause that goes beyond their immediate needs and that might just help give some meaning to their lives.

Above all though it’s rollicking good fun. Sharply written with tons of good lines, well-played by the cast and shot with pulsating excitement by John Sturges, every scene offers a little moment of delight. It’s a film you can kick-back and enjoy no matter what day it is, full of thrills and spills. One of those classics that never troubles the greatest films list, but always finds a place on the most popular lists.

Hell and High Water (1954)

Hell and High Water (1954)

Action below the waves in this dutiful, for-the-money thriller from Samuel Fuller that lacks imagination or freshness

Director: Samuel Fuller

Cast: Richard Widmark (Captain Adam Jones), Bella Darvi (Professor Denise Gerard), Victor Francen (Professor Montel), Cameron Mitchell (“Ski” Brodski), Gene Evans (Chief Holter), David Wayne (Tugboat Walker), Stephen Bekassy (Neumann), Richard Loo (Hakada Fujimori), Wong Artarne (Chin Lee), Henry Kulky (Gunner McCrossin)

Few films start with a bigger bang than Hell and High Water: a nuclear explosion. What caused it? The film winds back to tell us. Retired submarine captain Adam Jones (Richard Widmark) is hired by a cabal of intellectuals and scientists working to maintain world peace. Somewhere on an island off Japan, the Commies are working on a secret nuclear bomb. Jones – in return for a fee – will shuttle Professors Montel (Victor Francen) and Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi) to investigate. Cue submarine duels, personality clashes, romance and shoot-outs.

To be honest, nothing in Hell and High Water lives up to that bang at the start. Samuel Fuller took on the film as a favour to producer Darryl F Zanuck, but had a low-opinion of the result (labelling it his worst film). Fuller rewrote the script, added a lot of his compulsive drive to the direction and handled it well – but it feels like a “gun for hire” film. Goodness only knows what Fuller made of Spielberg telling him in 1979 he loved it so much he carried a print of it in his car (perhaps “Have you not seen Pickup on South Street?”)

Hell and High Water is a serviceable men-on-a-mission film that sneaks in a few interesting beats, but otherwise goes for well-shot action and predictable events over invention and insight. It’s anchored by a grumpy Richard Widmark (who thought the script was crap and co-star Darvi couldn’t act) as a hard-to-like hero. Never-the-less Jones’ ruthless mercenaryism is the film’s most interesting beat – even if it is a repeat of the same actor’s attitude in Pickup on South Street, right done to mouthing almost the same contemptuous line about ostentatious flag wavers. Jones does his job professionally – and he’s got no truck with his country being dishonoured or attacked by Commies – but his main concern is always the $50,000 fee he’s been promised.

Also paid off are the whole crew who, in the film’s other interesting beat, are a regular united nations all of whom treat each other with equality and respect (the only people not represented here are Black people). We’ve got a German, a Japanese, a Frenchman, several Americans – considering only nine years previously all these nations had been working over-time to kill each other, it’s great to see the team on the ship working as a tension free-unit. We even have a Chinese sailor – who entertains his fellow crew with improvised ditties – becoming a crucial hero.

Fuller also shoots the sub action – a mix of models and trick photography – very well. The angles he uses of the subs underwater, in particular their turns, and the sweaty look of those underwater (and the increasing tensions) influenced several future films. All the submarine lingo you’d expect is trotted out with real commitment (“Right full rudder!”) and every box is carefully ticked, from sinking the bottom, to the costly rush to close a bulkhead. The torpedo fights are well-staged and whenever the film dives it’s at its best.

Where it is less so is whenever the film dwells on its characters. It tries to push the envelope a bit by introducing a female professor who is assured, competent, super-smart and gets stuck in with helping out when things go pear-shaped. She’s played by Bella Darvi, a protégé (and more) of Zanuck, who he was determined to elevate to stardom. Despite Widmark’s criticism, she’s fine here, even if she struggles to convey the charisma the role needs, often falling back on slightly grating over-earnest, head-girl smartness. What fails is the complete lack of chemistry between her and Widmark, their half-hearted, dutiful romance (probably mostly Widmark’s fault).

You’ll feel sorry for her though as the crew – and Jones – eye her up like a piece of meat when she arrives. Of course, this dated sexual leering is par for the course, but is still more than a little uncomfortable. But this is still the era when a sailor taking his top off to push his tattoos into a woman’s face was funny rather than a crime. The film does gives Darvi’s Professor a lot of proactivity and does generally take her side – even if she, inevitably, needs to learn our hero knows best.

Hell and High Water charges through to a decent ending, with just the right mix of self-sacrifice, tension and pay off. Victor Francen gives the films best performance as an illustrious, brave French scientist. But it never feels like anything more than a dutiful, for-the-money film. There is none of Fuller’s fire or feeling here, no real imagination or freshness in the ideas or concepts. It hits all the beats, ties things up with a bow and sends you home – but its very hard to really remember anything distinctive about it when the credits roll.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954)

Superb, archetypal action-adventure men-on-a-mission film: Kurosawa’s masterpiece, brave, bold and thrilling film-making

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Toshiro Mifune (Kikuchiyo), Takashi Shimura (Kambei Shimada), Daisuke Katō (Shichirōji), Isao Kimura (Katsushirō Okamoto), Minoru Chiaki (Heihachi Hayashida), Seiji Miyaguchi (Kyūzō), Yoshio Inaba (Gorōbei Katayama), Yoshio Tsuchiya (Rikichi), Bokuzen Hidari (Yohei), Yukiko Shimazaki (Rikichi’s wife), Kamatari Fujiwara (Manzō), Keiko Tsushima (Shino), Kokuten Kōdō (Gisaku)

I’ve often been a Kurosawa sceptic. But it’s hard to stay critical, when he made a masterpiece as near perfect as Seven Samurai. It’s one of those films that is long (the favoured cut is nearly three and a half hours) but never once drags. Kurosawa directs with such intelligence, skill and pace, you can’t help but be swept up in it. It’s one of the finest action epics ever made, but also has a rich vein of sadness and melancholy. After all, the samurai may fight the good fight, but they always lose.

In the sixteenth century, a farming village is under-threat from a bandits, rogue samurai turned ronin, who plan to steal the harvest. To protect themselves, the village elder (Kokuten Kōdō) declares they need samurai of their own (and since the farmers have little to offer, they better “hire hungry samurai”). They recruit a team of seven, led by experienced Kambei (Takashi Shimura), who accepts out of nobility. Among the team is wild-card peasant-turned-wannabe-Samurai Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune). The seven arrive in the village and prepare for battle: but, even when working together, no one ever completely forgets the rigid societal boundaries of Japanese culture.

Seven Samurai is a wonderful character study, a sublime action film and complex and engaging exploration of Japanese history and society. It also has a perfect three act structure, it’s run time expertly divided into the samurai’s recruitment, preparation and defence of the village. This careful construction counters that epic run time – each act tells an almost self-contained story, meaning the film’s momentum never slackens.

It’s bought together by a director making a perfect fusion between Japanese cinema and his American and European influences. Kurosawa had never been shy about his admiration for directors like Ford and Hawks. You see elements of cowboy flicks throughout: from the set-up of the villagers as homesteaders, the samurai as the cavalry and the rogue ronin as the Indians, down to sweeping camera shots and vistas straight from Ford (the kinetic energy of Stagecoach is surely an influence). His Western influences always made Kurosawa more digestible than (for example) Ozu.

Seven Samurai is an also electric employment of Eisenstein style techniques of skilful editing, dissolves, fast cutting and an embracing of the language of cinema. Kurosawa accentuates action with slow motion: when Kambei dispatches a bandit (in his superb introduction scene), the body falls seemingly forever, death building in impact. Zoom cuts introduce locations, bringing us closer and closer to events. Kurosawa shot the battles with three cameras (a master and two roving cameras) allowing him to capture the kinetic action of his rain-soaked finale. Brilliant montages introduce concepts, characters and themes. It’s a masterclass.

It’s also masterful at quickly sketching character. We know from his first introduction – a brilliant cold-open fifteen minutes or so into the film – that Kambei is a man of both shrewd tactical awareness and puts duty before superficial pride, by his willingness to shave his hair so he can pass as a monk to rescue a child. (The gasps of those watching say it all at this willing acceptance of a cultural mark of shame). Kyūzō is introduced duelling with wooden swords. Why don’t we swop to real blades says his opponent: because you’ll die, Kyūzō matter-of-factly describes, his matter-of-fact bluntness and lack of bragging backed up by his immense skill when the chap dies seconds later. Gorōbei’s shrewdness is shown by the ease he dodges Kambei’s ambush test, just as Kikuchiyo’s rawness is when he blunders straight into it (and promptly loses his temper). Little moments like this abound, in a film stuffed with clever character beats.

The film presents a Japanese culture where concepts of honour and self-sacrifice sit awkwardly alongside regimented hierarchical and societal rules. The samurai can’t help but look down on the peasants – even while they see it as their duty to protect the weak. The villagers, in turn, look at the samurai as barely-to-be-trusted potential oppressors or dangerous parasites who steal their land and daughters (or both). Much of the film’s second act, as the samurai train the villagers to resist the attack, is about these two communities learning to respect each other. But it’s a tenuous alliance, held together by circumstance: when the dust settles, the surviving samurai are no longer welcome.

The samurai are a dying breed. Kambei knows the future belongs to people who provide industry and food. Samurai principles of honour and duty, pride in their skill, is also increasingly irrelevant in a world where the gun decides conflict. The ronin have three rifles and these deadly weapons are no respecter of skill or honour (none of the seven are bested in conflict, but all who fall do so to a bullet). Perhaps this is why the samurai cling to their principles and their honour. They know the world they knew is dying away and that there may be no place for them in the new.

This conflict is given a human shape by Kikuchiyo. Played with an electric, charismatic wildness by Toshiro Mifune (allowed to let rip, he’s a breath-taking explosion of jagged movements, eccentric line deliveries and unbound energy), Kikuchiyo is neither peasant nor samurai. Bought up from working stock – carrying stolen papers of nobility to try and pass himself off as samurai – he’s also rejected by his farmer peers for his warrior status. This makes him a character who can expose hypocrisies on both sides: denouncing the farmers pleading for help but cowering from the samurai; then angrily arguing samurai selfishness and pride have left the peasants with little choice but to horde food and riches to survive.

Not that Kurosawa is shy of admiration for the samurai. Yes, the flaws of their class are exposed – and we see more than enough their potential for arrogance, pride and violence. But the seven also contain a collection of their best traits. Takashi Shimura is brilliant as Kambei: selfless and honourable who takes on the task to honour the peasant’s offering all they can (however little that be). Heihachi (played by an ebullient Minoru Chiaki) represents generosity and warmth. Kyūzō (an enigmatic Seiji Miyaguchi) is awash with self-effacing warrior skill, shrugging off his feats with simple matter-of-fact statements. Shichirōji and Gorōbei are loyal and thoughtful warriors, Katsushirō (a charming Isao Kimura) a decent man eager to prove his worth. These are the best of their class.

They’ll need to be to win in this desperate action. Their preparation carefully outlines the obstacles facing to defence of this village – and to corral the villagers to defend their property. Houses outside the village walls are abandoned (Kambei seeing down a near rebellion on this, with threats of immediate justice), a raid on the ronin’s base aims to reduce their numerical advantage, the difficulty of turning the terrain against superior numbers repeatedly made plain. Kurosawa’s visual storytelling means the action when it comes is not only captivating, but completely understandable.

And what action. Seven Samurai can take its place on any list of the greatest war films ever made. The final hour features attack-after-attack on the village, interspersed with raids, skirmishes and derring-do. Both Kyūzō and Kikuchiyo take solo missions out of the village, though Kikuchiyo’s hunt for glory, even while he captures a rifle, leaves part of the wall undefended and leads to tragedy (Kambei is furious at this failure in discipline). It culminates in a rain-soaked final stand, shot with an all-absorbing power and engrossing kinetic energy.

The samurai sacrifice much for the village. But for what thanks? A peasant disguises his daughter as a boy, because he assumes, if discovered, the samurai will instinctively rape her. When the ronin don’t arrive as expected, the peasants grumble that the samurai are eating more than their fair share. As the samurai fall, their deaths are marked with a decreasing lack of notice (the final deaths don’t even gain on-screen funerals). With victory assured, the peasants return to their crop and don’t even lift a hand to wave the samurai goodbye.

It seems like poor reward for people who have sacrificed so much. But then that’s part of the point Kurosawa is making. Some samurai chose honour. Some choose the opposite. But they are always relics of a feudal system that is being left behind by events and the modern world. Its not just guns that will take them eventually. It’s a sadness that adds an even richer vein to this gripping, superb action drama. Kurosawa’s films may have flaws – but he doesn’t put a foot wrong in Seven Samurai.

True Grit (1969)

True Grit (1969)

The Duke wins an Oscar in this solid Western (already old-fashioned in 1969) put together with a professional solidity

Director: Henry Hathaway

Cast: John Wayne (Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn), Glen Campbell (La Boeuf), Kim Darby (Mattie Ross), Jeremy Slate (Emmett Quincy), Robert Duvall (Lucky Ned Pepper), Dennis Hopper (Moon), Alfred Ryder (Goudy), Strother Martin (Colonel Stonehill), Jeff Corey (Tom Chaney), John Fiedler (Daggett)

By 1969 John Wayne had been pulling his six shooters against rascals and rapscallions for thirty years, ever since making one of the all-time great entries in Stagecoach. He’d been an American icon, box-office gold and practically the Mount Rushmore of Hollywood. What he never really had was recognition that, underneath the drawl, he was a fine actor who knew his business. He’d only had the single Oscar nomination in 1949, so by 1969 there was a sentimental urge to correct that – especially since illness had already seen the Duke (one of the first major stars to be open and frank about his cancer and urge others to get checks) lose a lung a few years previously.

And correct that they did, as Wayne beat out two respected thespians (the perennially unlucky Burton and O’Toole) as well as the whipper-snapper stars of Midnight Cowboy (the sort of cowboy film the Duke would never even consider making!) to scoop the Best Actor prize for taking a character-role lead (all Wayne roles are lead roles) in True Grit. Wayne was “Rooster” Cogburn, a hard-drinking but hard-riding, always-gets-his-man US Marshal, hired by Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) the teenager daughter of a murdered father to track down his killer Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey). Rooster develops an avuncular relationship with Mattie, despite his penchant to get pissed and (of course!) eventually proves he has the ‘true grit’ that made Mattie hire him in the first place.

True Grit is a traditional yarn, directed with a smooth competence (but lack of inspiration) by Henry Hathaway. It must have felt quite a throwback in 1969: you could imagine it pretty much would have been shot-for-shot identical if it had been filmed in 1949 (especially since Wayne had been playing the veteran since at least Fort Apache). Compared to other major Westerns made that year – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, especially, the grim nihilism of The Wild BunchTrue Grit looks like the cosiest film imaginable. It even shies away from the book’s ending where Mattie loses an arm after a snake bite (something the, frankly superior, Coen Brother’s remake would not do 40 years later).

It does feel odd to see Wayne, that bastion of old-school Hollywood, sharing the screen with New Hollywood icons like Dennis Hopper (playing a yellow-bellied squealer at the baddies hideout) and Robert Duvall (a belated villain, looking uncomfortable in this genre saddle-flick as a bad-to-the-bone gang leader). But Hathaway makes sure it’s The Duke’s show. Which it is from start-to-finish.

Rooster isn’t really a stretch for Wayne. Compared to his work in The Searchers and Red River, Cogburn is a cosy and straight-forward hero, a straight-shooter who always holds to his word. But it’s a perfect showpiece for his charisma. Wayne shows a decent comic-timing (he has a nice line in deadpan reactions, particularly when he meets Mattie’s famed lawyer Daggett for the first time, discovering far from the imposing figure he imagined he’s actually the mousy John Fiedler) and there’s just a little hint of lonely sadness in Rooster as he talks about the family who left him or the homes he’s never known.

Wayne also has a lovely chemistry with Kim Darby, the relationship flourishing in a rather sweet big-brother-“little sister” (as Rooster calls her) way. Although of course it takes time to form: Rooster spends most of the first half of the film trying his best to shrug her off so he can hunt down the gang Tom Chaney runs with (and collect the bounty for them) unencumbered. The two of them form a tenuous alliance with Texas Ranger La Bouef, who is far keener to deliver Chaney to another state for a higher bounty than that offered for the killing of Mattie’s father.

La Bouef is played with try-hard gameliness by singer Glen Campbell, largely hired to commit him to singing the film’s best-selling theme tune. To be honest, he makes for a weak third wheel – but it’s hard not to hold it against Campbell when he charmingly later said he’d “never acted in a movie…and every time I see True Grit I think my record’s still clean!”. Far better is Kim Darby, who gives a spunky tom-boyish charm to the shrewd and persistent Mattie who is far too-smart to either by cheated by short-changing landlords or to be ditched from the trail by Rooster and La Bouef.

It’s Wayne’s film though, and a final act face-off with the villains shows that there were few people better with a gun on screen (his one-handed shotgun twirling reload while riding a horse is surely the envy of Schwarzenegger’s similar move in Terminator 2). The whole enterprise is carefully framed to showcase Wayne and he rises to the occasion. Think of it like that, and it hardly matters that Hathaway offers uninspired work behind the camera and fails to provide either any moments of visual interest or dynamism (or work effectively with the weaker actors).

True Grit is an entertaining, second-tier Wayne film, lifted by his charisma and enjoyment for playing a larger-than-life gravelly cool-old-timer and cemented in history by his reward with that sparkling gold bald man. Compared to other Westerns – both before and at the time – it’s traditional, straight-forward and unchallenging. But it’s fun, has some good jokes and offers decent action. And it’s a reminder that no one did this sort of thing better than the Duke.

Speed (1994)

Speed (1994)

Thrills never came faster (or as much on a bus) as they did in Speed one of the greatest action films of the 90s

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Keanu Reeves (Jack Traven), Dennis Hopper (Howard Payne), Sandra Bullock (Annie Porter), Jeff Daniels (Harry Temple), Joe Morton (Lt Herb McMahon), Alan Ruck (Doug Stephens), Glenn Plummer (Maurice), Beth Grant (Helen), Hawthorne James (Sam), Carlos Carrasco (Ortiz)

For most of the 90s, nearly every action film made was promoted as “Die Hard in/on an X”. We had determined, maverick heroes fighting alone against the odds on trains, planes, mountains, aircraft carriers, Alcatraz… You name it, it was Die Hard-ed. But which one was the best? It might just be Die Hard on a Bus – or rather Speed. A never-ending rush of propulsive excitement, Speed is one of the most entertaining films of the 90s. It’s possibly the best high-concept actioner ever made and if you don’t come out of it with a sort of daffy grin on your face there’s something wrong with you.

“Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. What do you do?” And there’s the whole set-up right there. Detective Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) is the hotshot, who has already foiled mad bomber (Dennis Hopper’s scheme to hold a lift full of hostages for ransom. Now, for round 2, he’s got to try and keep a bus moving over 50mph through the streets of Los Angeles. Helping him out is passenger Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock) who takes the steering wheel, and best friend Detective Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels) who’s trying to find the bomber. It’s pedal to the metal all the way.

The fact that Speed is as good as it is, is a miracle. Graham Yost’s original script had the bus not going above 20mph (it was called Minimum Speed – and sounds hilariously like the Father Ted spoof where Dougal was trapped on a milk float that couldn’t go below 5mph). It was set entirely on the bus and ended with it exploding into the Hollywood sign. The hero was a wise-cracking smart-ass John McClane type, the bomber was revealed to be his friend Harry and one of the passengers was a cowardly lawyer who met a grizzly end. Die Hard director John McTiernan passed on this unpromising mess, recommending his regular cinematographer Jan de Bont instead.

De Bont – in what remains the only good movie he directed – helped restructure the film into three acts: hostages in a falling lift, hostages in a speeding bus, hostages in an out-of-control subway train. Joss Whedon rewrote the dialogue (Yost generously attributes “98.9% of the dialogue” to Whedon). The bomber became a separate character – with the insane energy of Dennis Hopper behind him. Bullock’s part became a combination love interest and comic sidekick. And Keanu Reeves’ Jack Traven, from being a McClane knock-off, turned into an earnest, dedicated, insanely brave and determined police-officer. And that lawyer was turned into Alan Ruck’s out-of-his-depth wide-eyed tourist. Boom: suddenly, we had a film that felt a little unique.

From there, what made it work was the propulsive pace. An opening act with a lift in peril, sets up the race against time, perilous stakes and dangerous risks (powered by an effective strings and drums soundtrack by Mark Mancina). There is a perfectly poised battle of wits between Hopper’s mastermind bomber and Reeves’ cop. Split second decisions and acts of chance have life-saving consequences. The dialogue is just the right side of cracking wise, with enough earnestness to temper the spice. The whole first act makes a hell of a movie in itself. Like the best of the Bond pre-credit sequences, you could go home happy at the end of it – and having never even seen a bus.

But hang about because that bus is well worth waiting for. More wildly exciting than a one-vehicle chase scene has any right to be, de Bont brilliantly cranks the tension up and never lets go. You’ll grip the edge of your seat as Traven races through town and down the freeway to try and get to the bus before it hits that ominous 50mph – even though, of course, we know there is no chance of him succeeding. Because, after all, if he did Reeves wouldn’t need to jump from a car to a bus at 50mph. de Bont – a skilled cinematographer – has the camera duck and weave among the traffic so hard you’ll feel the g-force throwing you back in your seat.

That’s before we even have the bus itself charging through traffic, with the reluctant Annie at the wheel. Throwing itself through crowded streets, around hair-pin bends and over huge gaps in unbuilt freeways, the entire film is basically an opportunity to gorge yourself on an unlikely vehicle doing gripping stunts at insane speeds. We also get the peril of Jack’s attempts to defuse the bomb on the run – when, inevitably, the fuel tank is damaged the film has the wit enough for Annie to say “what, you felt you needed another challenge?”. It’s, frankly, exciting, expertly shot and edited stuff.

And it also works because the characters are lightly – but very warmly – sketched. Reeves – at the time still best known as “Dude”-ing his way through Bill & Ted – shaved his hair to look more like Hollywood’s idea of an action hero. But what makes him stand out is the sincerity, politeness and rather endearing determination to save lives and serve his community. It’s the trademark Reeves sweetness that has made countless action films afterwards work – he’s never an alpha male or a ‘damn the consequences’ maverick. Bullock became an overnight mega-star with a performance overflowing with charm and wisecracking girl-next-door vulnerability. No one did lip-smacking villiany like Hopper. Daniels is great and the bus was crammed with reliable character actors who craft people we care about from crumbs.

That and the relentless excitement of almost every scene. I’ll agree that the third act resolution on the speeding subway train effectively just re-treads elements of the first two acts. Is it any wonder that Speed 2 was such a disaster when even the original can’t go through less than two hours without repeating itself? But you won’t care, because if the film doesn’t have you firmly in its grip by then, there must be something wrong with you.

De Bont never again even got near the outstanding quality of this ultimate thrill ride. But then, when you’ve touched action-thriller perfection, does that matter? Speed is the best high-concept, Die Hard rip-off ever made – so much so that you feel a bit churlish mentioning that as part of its DNA. Superbly paced, totally gripping and guaranteed to leave you with a big cheesy grin on your face, I’ve seen it more times than I can count and still I feel floored by it. You’ll believe a bus can fly.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

You’ll feel the need for speed in this triumphant better-than-the-original sequel

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Cast: Tom Cruise (Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell), Miles Teller (Lt Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw), Jennifer Connelly (Penny Benjamin), Jon Hamm (Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson), Glen Powell (Lt Jack “Hangman” Seresin), Monica Barbaro (Lt Natasha “Phoenix” Trace), Lewis Pullman (Lt Robert “Bob” Floyd), Ed Harris (Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain), Val Kilmer (Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky), Charles Parnell (Rear Admiral Solomon “Warlock” Bates)

It’s been 38 years since Tom Cruise last felt that need for speed. Top Gun is a sentimental favourite, partially because its the ultimate brash, loud, Reaganite 1980s Hollywood film. But (whisper it), it’s not actually – and never has been – a very good film. Perhaps though that’s all for the best: Top Gun has so little of merit in it, it offers an almost completely blank canvas for a sequel. It helps the team create Top Gun: Maverick, a film so insanely entertaining it should carry some sort of health warning.

Decades have passed and Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is pretty much the greatest pilot in the world, deliriously skilled at everything in the cockpit and pretty much hopeless at anything outside it. He’s distrusted by all his superiors except his old wingman Iceman (Val Kilmer). Thanks to Iceman he is selected to train the next generation of pilots at TOP GUN for an impossible mission to take out a nuclear plant in a “hostile nation” (clearly Iran). One of that next generation is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), son of Maverick’s late best friend “Goose”, the guilt for whose death Maverick never recovered from. After Maverick tried to prevent Rooster from following in his father’s footsteps – not able to stand the thought of being responsible for the deaths of both his surrogate brother and son – can the two overcome their problems?

Top Gun: Maverick was delayed from hitting cinema screens for nearly two years thanks to Covid. Cruise resisted all opportunities to sell it to streaming: a decision vindicated by the supreme big-screen entertainment it offers. This one you really do need to see on the big screen. Its aerial footage is so stunning it makes the original look like tricycles on training wheels. Combined with that though, and unlike the original, Maverick has a thoughtful and engaging emotional storyline, with characters who change through well thought out emotional arcs.

But I’ll be honest, the staggering, visceral enjoyment of these plane sequences is probably the principal thing you’ll immediately take out of the film. Working from a training programme partly devised by Cruise, the film shows the impact of punishing G-forces by… actually putting the actors in planes travelling at these huge speeds. Unlike Top Gun, with its blue-screen cockpit shots, there is no doubt Cruise, Teller et al are actually in the planes as they bank at impossible speeds. Partially shot by the actors themselves – sitting the camera up in their cockpits – the film literally shows you the scenery flashing by. It’s Cruise’s mantra of doing it for real taken to a stunning degree. It’s the simple old-fashioned joy of knowing almost everything you see is real.

The mission this time is far more detailed: effectively it’s a steal from Star Wars, our heroes required to fly through a narrow ravine (below the radars of surface to air missiles) before climbing a steep bank and using their laser targeting to successfully blast a small access port. (It won’t surprise you to hear that on the final mission one character has to “use the force” when their targeting laser fails). Maverick’s training programme pushes the pilots to the limit, while his extraordinary flight skills quickly win their awe (in the first session he challenges all the pilots to take him down in a simulated dogfight, with everyone shot down doing 200 press-ups – Maverick does zero, everyone else 200+). Kosinski shoots with a cool clarity that makes you feel you are being punched by G-force.

But Top Gun: Maverick would just be a showcase for cool planes without its emotional heart. And it’s the intelligent and involving story that makes it work. Cruise is at his charismatic movie star best as Maverick – he knows exactly how to win the audience over – but his cocksure confidence is underpinned by a growing sense of fear at the risks he puts others through. Unlike the navy, his main concern is to get the pilots back alive and his guilt-ridden treasured memory of Goose is the hallmark of a man who never managed to put ends before means. He’ll take any risk himself, but balks at taking chances with anyone else’s life.

It’s what drives his troubled relationship with Rooster. The two have a surrogate father-son relationship, fractured by Maverick’s attempt to keep Rooster safe out of the cockpit. (Pleasingly, Rooster does not hold Maverick responsible for his father’s death, only for derailing his career.) The relationship between these two – Cruise’s Maverick quietly desperate to rebuild some sort of familial connection and Rooster shouldering resentment for a father-figure he clearly still loves – is handled with a great deal of tact and honesty. It really works to carry a wallop.

It’s also part of how Maverick’s place in the world, and decisions in life, are being questioned. As made clear in a prologue where he thumbs his nose at a sceptical Admiral (no one scowls like Ed Harris) by taking a prototype jet out for test run, he’s both a relic and a guy who doesn’t know when to stop (he wrecks the jet by pushing past the target of 10 Mach by trying to go another .2 faster). Unlike Iceman – a touching cameo from a very ill Val Kilmer that leaves a lump in the throat – Maverick never fit in within a military organisation (“They’re called orders Maverick”). He’s lonely, his past failed relationship with Jennifer Connelly’s Penny just one of many roads-not-taken. (There is no mention of Kelly McGillis’ character.) In a world of digital drones, he’s an analogue pilot flying by instinct: his days are numbered.

This is proper, meaty, thematic stuff explored in a series of involving personal arcs which by the end not only leaves you gripped because of the aerial drama, but also genuinely concerned about the characters. I can’t say that about the original. Top Gun: Maverick is not only a thematically and emotionally richer story – carried with super-star charisma by Cruise – than the original, it’s also more exciting and more punch-the-air feelgood. This sort of thing really is what the big screen is for.

Top Gun (1986)

Top Gun (1986)

Cruise flies into movie super-stardom in this fun-but-much-worse-than-you-remember flying film

Director: Tony Scott

Cast: Tom Cruise (Lt Pete “Maverick” Mitchell), Kelly McGillis (Charlie Blackwood), Val Kilmer (Lt Tom “Iceman” Kazansky), Anthony Edwards (Lt Nick “Goose” Bradshaw), Tom Skerritt (CDR Mike “Viper” Mitchell), Michael Ironside (LCDR Rick “Jester” Heatherly), John Stockwell (Lt Bill “Cougar” Cortell), Barry Tubb (Lt Leonard ”Wolfman” Wolfe), Rick Rossovich (Lt Ron “Slider” Kerner), Tim Robbins (Lt Sam “Merlin” Wells), James Tolkan (Cdr Tom “Stinger” Jardian), Meg Ryan (Carole Bradshaw)

“I feel the need: the need for speed!” Those words lit up mid-80s cinema screens with one of the biggest hits of the decade. Top Gun is still one of Cruise’s most iconic films, its blasting rock-and-roll soundtrack, beautifully backlit romance and cocksure go-getting self-confidence making it one of the definitive Reaganite 80s films ever made. Its legacy is so all-consuming, it’s always a surprise when you sit down to watch it what a fundamentally average it is.

Its plot, such as it is, can be summarised thus: Tom Cruise cockily flies planes and romances Kelly McGillis until Goose dies. Then he flies planes with the same level of skill but slightly more humility and commits to Kelly McGillis. It all takes place in TOPGUN, the navy’s dog-fight training school for elite pilots. Cruise is Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, super-confident best-of-the-best. Kelly McGillis is the astrophysicist and civilian instructor on the course whose heart melts for Tom’s boyish charms. Anthony Edwards is the doomed Goose (he might as well have a skull and crossbones hanging over him – he’s even got a loving wife and son back home). Val Kilmer is Cruise’s rival pilot, super-professional “Iceman”. The training is fast-paced, macho and culminates in a clash with a (conveniently unnamed) country that definitely isn’t the USSR.

There are three things undeniably great about Top Gun. The songs from Kenny Loggins and Berlin are top notch, full of soft-rock sing-along bombast. Scott shoots the hell out of scenes and the sun-kissed beauty framing the various airplanes and aircraft carriers is superb. With its fetishistic worship of the manly glory of the navy and its equipment, the film had full military backing, a huge boon it exploited for wonderfully executed scenes of dogfights and faster-than-sound planes (Scott even paid $25k to get an aircraft carrier to change course – writing a cheque there and then – so a sunset shot would look better). And of course there is Tom Cruise.

Top Gun is the foundation stone in the Church of Tom Cruise, defining a persona Cruise would effectively riff on for huge chunks of his career. Pete Mitchell is so cocksure he’s even called Maverick. But, as well as being arrogant and over-confident, he’s preternaturally skilled, boyishly enthusiastic, strangely vulnerable, yearns for affection, wins people over with a grin and goes through a crisis of confidence that sands down his negative qualities while never touching his courage, skill and likeability. Cruise cemented his eye-catching charisma and relatability: audiences wanted to be him or be with him. A huge chunk of its massive success is down almost exclusively to what a star Cruise is and how easily he makes this hackneyed stuff work.

The rest is a bizarre mix of half-formed plot ideas, weakly sketched characters and a plot so shallow it almost doesn’t deserve the name. Top Gun is all about a cool guy flying planes accompanied by some excellent songs. There is no depth to its character exploration. There is a dim suggestion Maverick needs to mature (with Goose as the sacrificial lamb to prompt that development) but it’s barely explored. It has no shrewdness in its look at the risk-taking intensity of flying or the type of personalities it might attract. The training is awash with familiar tropes: hotshots, grizzled trainers (two of them in Skerritt and Ironside!) mixing growls with behind-his-back grins at Maverick’s pluck. His rival is the anthesis of Maverick, but (gosh darn it!) he eventually learns to respect him.

The central romance seems thrown in because a film like this needs it – it’s very much An Officer and a Gentlemen in the skies. Maverick’s true emotional love story is with Goose – this surrogate brother/uncle providing Maverick’s only friendship and the vicarious family this Cruise archetype character secretly longs for. But gosh darnit, it’s Hollywood so gotta have a beautiful woman for our hero to manfully seduce. Poor Kelly McGillis looks rather uncomfortable in her ill-shaped and poorly developed character, while her love scenes with Cruise are acted with a slobbering over-intensity that suggests both of them are trying too hard (he constantly kisses her tongue first, which is gross). Perhaps they wanted to really go for it in the hope viewers would overlook the obvious homoerotic tensions of most of the film.

Oh those tensions! Top Gun drips with gleaming, tanned half-naked men squaring up to each other in dressing rooms – and that’s not even mentioning the infamous volleyball sequence (where only Edwards, bless him, wears a t-shirt). Characters forever utter variations on “I’ll nail his ass” lines. Iceman and Maverick take part in a homoerotic-tension fuelled rivalry that culminates in an explosive dog-fight climax and a loving embrace on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

It’s hard to tell how much all this was a joke, and how much Scott, Bruckheimer and Simpson just didn’t notice in the middle of all their glistening, back-lit, fast-paced shooting of military muscle (in every sense) how gay it might look. Maybe they thought people wouldn’t notice either amongst all the military machinery (this must be Michael Bay’s favourite ever film). Top Gun’s aerial footage is super impressive (though it is funny noticing now that famous daredevil Cruise clearly does all his cockpit shots in front of a green screen) even if the whole film feels like an MTV video to promote its knock-out songs.

Top Gun is still fun, even if that’s mostly mocking the nonsense and emptiness it’s built upon. Nothing much really happens, its plot so flimsy it barely stands up against the Mach-9 force of its planes. But it’s got Cruise at his blockbuster best – and when you’ve got that you don’t really need anything else. It’s poorly written, junkfood trash all framed in a fetishistic beauty – but it’s sort of goofy, stupid, empty fun.

The Edge (1997)

Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin take on nature (and a bear) in The Edge

Director: Lee Tamahori

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Charles Morse), Alec Baldwin (Robert Green), Harold Perrineau (Stephen), Elle Macpherson (Mickey Morse), LQ Jones (Styles), Bart the Bear

During a trip to a remote part of Alaska to celebrate his birthday, millionaire Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) is stranded hundreds of miles from rescue after a plane crash. The only other survivors are Robert (Alec Baldwin), a photographer Charles suspects of having an affair with his much younger wife Mickey (Elle Macpherson), and Robert’s assistant Steve (Harold Perrineau). Their best chance for survival may well be Charles’ photographic memory and his recall of all sorts of knowledge, recently topped up by reading a survival book. They’ll need it if they are to defeat and kill a man-hunting grizzly bear that swiftly dispatches Stephen.

With a script by David Mamet and some tight, tension-filled direction from Lee Tamahori, The Edge is a well-above average survival film where the main interest is less on the methods of survival than on the spiky, punchily-written interplay between Hopkins and Baldwin. The style of both actors – Hopkins channelling a zen-like calm, while Baldwin goes for a spiky flamboyance masking vulnerability – makes them a very well-matched pair and ensures The Edge constantly has something to entertain and intrigue in every scene.

The Alaskan outback is beautifully filmed, but still oppressively dangerous – a vast canopy of nothing but trees, mountains and snow. The film conveys a brilliant sense of the intense cold – our heroes almost die immediately due to exposure, after crashing into ice cold water – as well as the never-ending difficulties of navigating and surviving in the wilderness (almost inevitably their first day is spent walking in a large circle).

That’s before you even take into account the bear. Much of the film is taken up with Charles and Robert setting aside their differences to take on this killer creature, dodging its advances and finally laying a trap to slay it. Played by experienced acting bear Bart – who even gets an extra special credit all of his own – this creature serves as a superb embodiment of all the natural obstacles our heroes are facing, a running and clawed representation of the dangers of the wild made flesh. It also makes for a series of very tense confrontations.

What’s fascinating about the film though is that the real outback hero who emerges is not the jet-setting Robert, but the bookish and reserved Charles. This is one of the few films where a photographic memory and an ability to stay calm and collected make for practically superhuman skills. Hopkins is very good as Morse, a thoughtful man who surprisingly finds a greater sense of purpose and drive in the wilderness than he ever had in his business life. Mamet’s script delights in the titbits he has memorised, from building compasses to celestial navigation and the psychological requirements for staying alive in the wilderness.

Hopkins’ coolness is used to great effect – even if Charles seems an unlikely millionaire businessman – and contrasts wonderfully with Baldwin’s energy in the showier role as a weaker man. The Edge – originally titled by the even less inspired name of Bookworm – rather sweetly celebrates the virtues of wide-reading, education, curiosity and intellectual magpieism and shows how these qualities can be turned to life-saving effect. Charles turns out, to a certain extent, to be in his element – and without a doubt without him everyone would have died long before the inevitable rescue helicopter.

The Edge also covers a neat line in psychology. A constant refrain is that psychological collapse – a sense of giving up, rooted in ‘shame’ and assumptions that their fate must be deserved – is the key danger to survival. It’s a theme that the film constantly returns to (perhaps a little too much at times), but also ideas that I’m not sure survival films have focused on so keenly before. Usually in these suggestions gruffness and manly qualities are celebrated, but The Edge suggests that the wilderness is a great leveller and sometimes skills we did not expect become crucial to our survival. Sure, Charles sets about killing the bear with a ruthless determination – but his plan to do it is rooted in his learning and mastery of trivia.

The Edge doesn’t rework the wheel, but it’s a lovely piece of B-movie film-making, full of tension, fine dialogue and some impressive acting.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Tom Hanks leads a platoon of men through incredible sacrifice in Spielberg’s landmark Saving Private Ryan

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks (Captain John Miller), Edward Burns (Pvt Richard Reiben), Matt Damon (Pvt James Francis Ryan), Tom Sizemore (Sgt Mike Horvath), Jeremy Davies (Cpl Timothy Upham), Vin Diesel (Pvt Adrian Caparzo), Adam Goldberg (Pvt Stanley Mellish), Berry Pepper (Pvt Daniel Jackson), Giovanni Ribisi (Medic Irwin Wade), Dennis Farina (Lt Col Anderson), Ted Danson (Cpt Fred Hamill), Harve Presnell (General George Marshall), Bryan Cranston (Colonel), Paul Giamatti (Sgt William Hill), Nathan Fillion (“Minnesota” Ryan)

There are few films you can categorically point to as changing cinema. Saving Private Ryan is one of those films. Before it, there had never been a war film like it: afterwards there would not be war film uninfluenced by it. Spielberg turned the Second World War from the picturesque setting for an all-star epic, into something immediate, ground-level and utterly, terrifyingly all-consuming. The “boots on the ground” vision of war, that didn’t shirk once from capturing the horrific cost and terror of war and had no suggestion of adventure. Hollywood would look at war differently ever more.

From landing at Omaha beach on D-Day, the film follows a single week in the lives of Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and a platoon of soldiers, sent on a ‘public relations’ mission. Three brothers have all been killed in action, with their mother receiving notification of their deaths all on the same day. The top brass decide she has suffered enough and that her last remaining son James (Matt Damon) should be bought home. Problem is, he’s a member of the 101st Parachute Airborne – and no one is quite sure where he’s been dropped. Miller and his men are to find Ryan and bring him home – despite the resentment of his men that their lives at being put at risk to save one man.

Any discussion of Saving Private Ryan begins with that Omaha beach sequence.  It’s hard to even begin to understand the impact this sequence had on audiences in 1998. Quite simply, we’d never seen anything like it. Expectations before its release was that Spielberg was producing a crowd-pleasing, Dirty Dozen style men-on-a-mission film. No one expected a savage, brutally realistic vision of what warfare actually meant, with its brutal, swift and random death.

The sequence starts with Spielberg panning across the faces of soldiers in the landing craft Miller and his company are riding to the beach. He lingers on these faces – only for them to be promptly ripped to pieces by machine-gun fire the second the doors open. Omaha beach is a savage nightmare, the closest thing you can image to hell on earth. Machine gun bullets rip down relentlessly on the pinned down soldiers – and the camera throws us right in there with them.

With drained out colours, hand-held camerawork (some of it operated by Spielberg himself), mud, blood and sand spraying up into the lens, it’s all-consuming. The film’s sound design is awe-inspiringly good, every single sound (the splatter of sand, the thud of bullets ripping through flesh, the snap of rifles) builds into a shatteringly immersive crescendo with no respite. Spielberg doesn’t shy away from the horror. Bodies are mutilated by bullets. Heads are caved in. A soldiers walks the beach, carrying his own severed arm. Medics treat soldiers drowning in their own blood, crying for their mothers. Bullets claim the brave and scared alike.

You watch and you can’t believe anyone emerged from this alive. The cost of getting off the beach is seismic. The visceral horror doesn’t let up over the first 25 minutes as Miller’s company – suffering huge losses – struggles from landing craft, to beach, to storming the German defences. Our ear drums are assaulted by bullet sound effects, and every single step shows us some new horror. There are no long-shots, no cut aways and the only peace we get is when we share with Miller his tinnitus from narrow-escape explosions. The brutality is even-handed – after the massacre on the beach, the US soldiers show no mercy to the Germans (two of whom are gunned down surrendering and begging for mercy), officers urging their men to “let ‘em burn” as on-fire Germans fall from incinerated machine gun banks.

It’s extraordinary – and sets the tone. Combat is immediate, visceral, terrifying, brutal and always carries a heavy cost. The human body is infinitely fragile and every death – high or low – is met with fear, loneliness and regret. Veterans had to leave the cinema during screenings to compose themselves, and viewers were stunned into silence. You could watch Saving Private Ryan and feel you never even began to understand what war was until then – and that even with this taste you can still never understand it. It’s a brutal zero-sum game with only losers.

Any film would struggle to follow that: but Saving Private Ryan does a fabulous job of maintaining the dramatic force of its opening sequence before its book-end final battle, as the remains of the platoon join Ryan’s unit in a seemingly-hopeless defence of a vital bridge in a bombed out town (another grim, gripping and stunning slice of war with the added kick to the guts of watching people we have spent the entire film with being blown away and ripped apart by bullets).

Spielberg’s film explores what makes the cost of this worth it. It’s a film about the power of sacrifice: the sacrifices the men make to find Ryan, but on a larger scale the sacrifices this whole generation made for those that were to come. When Miller urges Ryan to “earn this”, he’s speaking to us all. Men like him died to give us the chance to make the world a better place. The sacrifices of this platoon for one man is all part of the same price this entire generation made for the ones that were to come.

And one of the things sacrificed is the rules of humanity. Prisoners are shot, unarmed men are killed – if you play this game, you play to win. Thrown into Omaha, the audience understand this – meaning we feel as little patience with translator Upham (a fine performance of out-of-his-depth-fear from Jeremy Davies), who whines about right-and-wrong, as his colleagues, who understand living-and-dying is the only issue out here anyone cares about.

Understanding this depends on relating to the soldiers – and the cast has been hand-picked for that. None more so than Tom Hanks, channelling his relatability into a home-spun, ordinary man forced into extraordinary and brutal situations that have left a shattering mark on him. With an intermittent tremor in his hand, Hanks embodies the stoic sacrifice of a generation. It’s a landmark performance. There are many fine performances in the film, Tom Sizemore (battling drug addiction and a promise of instant dismissal if he relapsed) perhaps the stand-out as his hardened sergeant.

If Saving Private Ryan has a fault, it’s that it falls into Spielberg’s sentimentality trap. Sometimes the man can’t help himself. The film is bookended by an old man visiting war graves – someone we discover at the film’s end is Ryan himself. As if somehow still not trusting us to get the message about sacrifice and horror the film has so effectively communicated, old-man-Ryan explicitly tell us, tearily asking his wife if he has led a “good life”. It’s a hammer-home the film doesn’t need and dents its final impact. (I’d also say the film has endless empathy for US Joes, but sees all the Germans as a ruthless swarm fighting an evil cause, although many of them were also as scared).

But these are quibbles in a film that does so much right – and which reinvented an entire genre. It’s one of Spielberg’s masterpieces, a stunning display of directorial skill and immersive film-making, and its impact never seems to lessen. It gets as close as any film can to showing us war – and yet it is still a million miles further away than most of us (thankfully) will ever have to get.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Peter Jackson’s near-perfect opening chapter of his Tolkien adaptation

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Sean Bean (Boromir), Billy Boyd (Pippin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Merry Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond)

When it was released, people wondered if there was a market for three mega-length adaptations of Tolkien. By the time it finished, Hollywood was casting eyes at The Hobbit and working out how many films that could stretch to. Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring is a film so completely perfect it pulled off the near-impossible: embraced all, from the novel’s passionate fanbase, to lovers of blockbusters and connoisseurs of cinema. Jackson turned a landmark novel into a landmark film, the sort of work that decades of other films (and TV shows) would be inevitably compared to. By any benchmark, The Fellowship of the Ring is a cultural and cinematic turning point.

Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is a young hobbit who inherits his home from his Uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm) – along with a mysterious ring which gives its wearer the power of invisibility. But more than that, this ring is the very same ring crafted by the Dark Lord Sauron: the source of his power and possibly the most evil item in the world. Warned of its danger by his uncle’s old friend, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo agrees to carry it first to the elves at Rivendell – and then from there to the fires of Mount Doom, the only place it can be destroyed. Joining him on this perilous quest is a ‘fellowship’: Gandalf, fellow hobbits Sam (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boy) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), human Boromir (Sean Bean) and the mysterious ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who may be the heir to the kingdom of men.

Jackson’s film faced a huge problem from the start: cater to the fans too much, make it too drenched in the high-fantasy of the novel, and you risk alienating an audience sceptical about stories of magic and elves; push the film too far the other way and it becomes something denounced by the fanbase. Fortunately, Jackson (and fellow scriptwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens) transform the book into a masterfully-paced, emotionally-invested epic saga with moments of comedy and tragedy and an overwhelming sense that colossal stakes are being played for. By focusing on what makes The Lord of the Rings such a great story they helped nail making it accessible to the sort of people who wouldn’t dream of picking up a fantasy book.

The novel is carefully, subtly altered throughout to increase pace and build up the emotional depth of the characters. Its timeline is telescoped (Gandalf’s 19 year research into the ring becomes a few months), stand-alone sections removed (good bye Tom Bombadil) and personal conflicts and emotions are subtly made more prominent (most notably Gandalf’s grandfatherly affection for Frodo and the conflicted admiration and resentments between Boromir and Aragorn). What this succeeds in doing is creating a film that actually alters a lot of the original book (reassigning multiple actions and shifting many motivations) but ends up carrying so much of the emotional and narrative truth that it feels completely faithful. The tone is perfectly captured but also becomes a gripping, cinematic drama, populated by characters who feel real, for all their hairy feet or wizard’s hats.

The script is a perfect mixture of the greatest lines and quotes from the book, expanded with a real understanding of character motivation. Its all complemented by faultless direction with a sweeping visual panache from Jackson. This is a passionate director, working at the top of his game. The film is, of course, breathtakingly beautiful – New Zealand, the perfect location for Middle Earth, still dines out on the tourist trade to this day – but Jackson brilliantly mixes the epic with touches of his own Grindhouse roots. So, he can shoot stunning chase scenes with Nazgul or dreamy ascents of mountains with the same flair as he can the grimy, body horror of an Uruk-Hai’s birth. I can’t stress too much the level of Jackson’s achievement here: the film shifts between genre and tone from scene-to-scene: the Moria sequence goes through mystery, whimsy, regret, tragedy, action, awe-inspiring scope then crushing loss. Another director could have made that feel like a wildly veering train – Jackson makes it feel all of a piece. Not a single scene is untouched by directorial genius.

Jackson’s passion for the project was communicated to the entire team. In every single technical department, no effort has been spared to create Tolkien’s world (and crucially it always feels like Tolkien’s world). Stills of this film could be slotted into editions of the book and not look out of place. From the detail of the costume, design of the sets, to the writing of elvish – not a single prop, set or costume doesn’t look like it belongs. Everything feels grown out of the imagination of the reader. It’s helped hugely by the effort to recruit famed Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe: their iconic visualisations of the novel inspired every inch of the design.

It’s also a film that feels real (even though so much of it was of course made in a computer). The film used practical locations and shooting tricks wherever possible. Obviously, the New Zealand landscape was used to sumptuous effect, but also wherever possible models and miniatures were used. Even the height differences between hobbits and other characters were largely achieved in camera. It’s an approach which not only subconsciously communicates an intimacy, it also helps make the story feel even more grounded: a sense of dramatic events happening to real people.

The film also brilliantly establishes the sinister darkness of the ring. One of the trickiest things in adapting Tolkien is dealing with the fact that your villains are a suspended glowing eye and a gold ring. TFOR expertly establishes the dark malevolence of the Ring, as a sinister, manipulative, wicked presence that corrupts those around it – it’s even given its own darkly seductive voice. Never for a moment does anyone watching this film doubt that it is bad news, its absolute is evil totally accepted. Think about that for a second and that is a stunning achievement.

Then there’s the score. If you ever wanted to prove to someone how important music is to the experience of watching a film, show them this one. Howard Shore’s orchestral compositions not only deepen and enrich every frame they accompany, they are also perfect in capturing the tone of novel. From the piping hobbit music, to the demonic choirs of the Nazguls, to the soaring but mournful themes of Gondor, this film could almost be a musical. Watch it without dialogue and you still follow it perfectly.

Jackson also nailed the cast. Ian McKellen quite simply becomes Gandalf, on the surface a twinkling grandfatherly presence, but below a frighteningly powerful man carrying centuries of wisdom. It’s a brilliantly iconic performance. Elijah Wood brings a wonderful innocence that slowly strips away as Frodo. Ian Holm’s Bilbo is a delightful charmer with flashes of corruption. Viggo Mortensen is all charisma and conflict as Aragorn. Christopher Lee was born to play Saruman. Liv Tyler was a revelation as Arwen. Sean Bean’s masculine Boromir hides deep-rooted personal doubt, insecurity and fear of failure. The cast is perfect.

And there isn’t a duff scene in the film. It’s opening montage is a masterclass in narrative introduction and awe-inspiring action. The Hobbiton sections have just the right tone of whimsy. The chase through Moria turns descending a staircase into a nail-biter. The final breaking of the fellowship gives us breath-taking battles and heart-rending tragedy, along with an iconic death scene.

No one else could have possibly delivered the novel to the screen better than this. Jackson’s fingerprints are on every inch of the film. It’s a masterclass in adaptation, a beautiful thing to watch and listen to, exquisitely acted and utterly compelling. Both true to the novel and totally engaging for newcomers, it might be the best of the series – and when it was released, felt like the film Tolkien fans had been waiting for their whole lives.