I love a good train film. They make perfect settings for suspense, thriller, horror, comedy and, in fact, any genre. This is because they contain movement, pace and a destination too. Above all else they trap the characters within a confined space, thus creating an abundance of opportunities for drama and action.
In this little article I pick out six of the best films I have seen that have been set mainly on a train. I omit films which, while they may have had a train or train station setting they also veered into other locations. Thus, for the purpose of this piece classics such as Strangers on a Train (1951), Brief Encounter (1945), Great Train Robbery (1903), and Source Code (2011) are cruelly omitted. Lastly, I’m sure there are loads I have missed off so please do suggest any.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1976)
Germ warfare, a runaway train, European terrorists and and all-star cast feature in this pretty awful disaster movie which I absolutely loved watching as a kid. The cast get their payday and we get Martin Sheen, Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren, Richard Harris and OJ Simpson etc. all hamming it up to great effect.
THE LADY VANISHES (1938)
This is still one of my favourite Alfred Hitchcock films. Starring the radiant duo of Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, the sparks fly between the two amidst a fast-paced spy plot. Hitchcock takes his time establishing the characters at the start but really ratchets up the suspense when no one believes Lockwood’s assertion a woman has gone missing.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)
Agatha Christie was a genius and this story is one of her best. What we now consider to be a cliched genre, the “whodunnit”, was practically invented and reinvented by Christie and this one has a particularly brilliant plot and ending. Even though I know who committed the crime the starry cast in Sidney Lumet’s production are a joy to behold. Kenneth Branagh gave us a fine, if unnecessary, remake last year too.
Cruelly buried by the Weinstein studio, this under-rated graphic novel adaptation was absolutely brilliant. Set in an apocalyptic future, the train becomes an analogy for class struggle between the haves and have-nots. Bong Joon-ho directs Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Tilda Swinton expertly, as the film marries social commentary and blistering action with aplomb.
THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (1974)
Another film I watched the hell out of as a teenager, this classic New York Metro set film is gritty, funny and as tense as waiting for test results. Walter Matthau provides the everyman charm as he attempts to negotiate with Robert Shaw’s menacing criminal. A big influence on Tarantino, this little classic remains one of the 1970s unheralded crime films.
TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)
Zombies on a train – I’m in! What an amazing movie, as this kinetic mix of horror, family drama and action grabs you by the throat from the start and never lets go! While taking a lead from World War Z (2013), notably the ferocious plane set-piece, it surpasses that zombie film with an incredible pace, violence and unrelenting tension.
Samuel “Billy” Wilder is arguably one of the finest screenwriters that ever put fingers to typewriter; and certainly one of the best writer-directors of all time. Indeed, until Woody Allen surpassed him he was nominated for best screenwriter at the Academy Awards TWELVE times! Overall, he would win six Oscars plus a special Academy Award.
Wilder was born in 1906 in Austria Hungary; in an area which is now part of Poland. Having moved to Berlin in his twenties, Wilder served an apprenticeship as a writer on a newspaper. However, he soon got work as a screenwriter in the German film industry and a star was born. The rise of the Nazis caused Wilder to move again, to Paris and then latterly to Hollywood. There he would have an incredible career in movie-making spanning over thirty years, writing, producing and directing over thirty-odd films, many of the classics of cinema.
So, in keeping with the remit of this occasional series I have decided to pick out six of Wilder’s best films and explain why they are just brilliant. To be honest I could probably pick out twenty of the best where Wilder is concerned, but will stick to six!
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Double Indemnity (1944)
For any screenwriters out there Wilder’s work is often a technical and intricate joy. Character, dialogue, plot and twists are all combined to create an incredibly deep texture within the work. Double Indemnity was adapted from James M. Cain’s devious noir novella and found Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck plotting to kill her husband for the insurance money. Wilder worked on the screenplay with Raymond Chandler and while the two didn’t hit it off their collaboration produced one of the classic film noirs of the period. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and confirmed the star status of both Stanwyck and MacMurray. As MacMurray’s desperate voiceover reveals the events of the story we are pulled into a web on deceit and murder which show human nature as greedy, vicious and unforgiving.
The Lost Weekend (1945)
It is worth noting that Wilder’s success would perhaps not been as successful if not for his partnership with producer and writer Charles Brackett. They worked on many successful films together and The Lost Weekend was one such triumph. Based on Charles Jackson’ novel about an alcoholic writer teetering on the edge of self-destruction, Ray Milland’s character found himself awash in an existential and drunken haze. Wilder’s work as a screenwriter is again brilliant as he takes a very unsympathetic character and makes him both human and empathetic. This is down to both Milland’s fine performance and Wilder’s key direction; both would win Academy Awards. Overall, it’s a tragic struggle which reflects those individuals who constantly battle against the booze. Many see alcohol as a friend but it can quickly turn into an enemy without warning or notice.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Working from an original story Wilder and Brackett turned the eyes and ears inward toward the Hollywood machine; asking the question: what happens to the Hollywood legends after their star has crashed and burned. The answer was the character of Norma Desmond, a silent movie star craving a comeback and refusing to accept her career is over. Gloria Swanson is absolutely terrifying as the ageing screen goddess, as she spits out famous lines such as: “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small!” Meanwhile, William Holden is also superb as the cynical writer beaten down by his own world weariness within the Hollywood system. The classic opening scene of his limp dead body lying face down in a swimming pool as he recounts how he came to be there is one of the most iconic images in all cinema.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
I probably could have gone for a number of Wilder’s movies including: Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954) or The Fortune Cookie (1966), which was the first film to place Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon on screen together; however, I’m a sucker for a good Agatha Christie story. Witness for the Prosecution features two stunning acting turns from Marlene Dietrich as the wife of the murder suspect, and Charles Laughton as the barrister charged with defending him. In his final film Tyrone Power plays the accused Leonard Vole, who is on trial for murdering a wealthy widow. Laughton’s eccentric barrister defends him but he has help on the way from an unexpected source. Wilder directs his cast with wit and suspense, making the most of Agatha Christie’s dynamite plot which has two grand and unexpected twists at the end.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Arguably the best film comedy ever and also one of the best films of all time, Some Like It Hot, on paper, shouldn’t really work. Two male musicians dress up as women to go on the run from the mob is as silly an idea as you could get. However, with Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond’s intricate script, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon so good in the leads, plus an effervescent Marilyn Monroe at the height of her star power you get all-round cinematic gold. Combining gangster, comedy, musical and romance elements the film fizzes with style, humour and song, as the complex plot involves hilarious identity and gender switches. At one point Curtis’ Joe has split himself into three parts. Ultimately, Wilder and his collaborators have created almost a perfect movie featuring one of the finest end lines in cinema history.
The Apartment (1960)
While Some Like It Hot veered toward comedic farce, The Apartment is a somewhat more mature and darker-themed comedy. Once again starring Jack Lemmon, he portrays C.C. Baxter, a downtrodden office worker whose apartment is used by executives for their extra-marital dalliances. While these liaisons see him gain promotion he begins to doubt his actions and his conscience gets the better of him. The guilt is especially heightened when he begins to fall for Shirley MacLaine’s elevator operator, Fran. Fighting back against the corporate bosses does him no favours but it does bring him closer to Fran. Both a satire against odious men and their sexist practices, plus a touching romance, Jack Lemmon illuminates the screen all hang-dog expressions and nagging angst. MacLaine too shines in a sympathetic role as a woman treated like a perpetual door-mat. The film won five Oscars and once again proved the genius of Billy Wilder.
A DAY IN THE LIFE – SIX OF THE BEST #13 – FILMS SET IN A DAY
With a cursory Google search there’s a few of these articles around concerning films set in one day or a twenty-four hour period. But it’s something I wanted to explore from a narrative perspective in order to understand how it can help a screenwriter with their story. Indeed, as a writer a twenty-four hour period could be a seen as a limitation for one’s story but it can also create a hell of a lot of suspense, drama and comedy.
Of course, in some cases it can also increase the need for an audience to suspend disbelief with many events occurring in such a short space of time. For example, in the classic TV show 24, we kind of know that it’s totally unlikely that our hero Jack Bauer is going to suffer THAT many bad days but we still root for him to save the his family, the dog, his neighbours, and the world. Yet, the distillation of narrative incidents also raises the dramatic stakes, providing much fun and tension for the audience.
As well as creating entertainment the structural benefits of setting a film in one day can provide a “ticking clock” or race against time scenario. Moreover, fixing a time scale or limit conjures up a dramatic sense of containment for the characters. They are trapped within this day and must survive it and whatever fate throws at them. As time moves on during the day suspense is funnelled to a striking denouement as sun-up moves toward sunset. It’s a grudging acceptance of life’s incessant clock of fate as our existence flickers along to the inevitable end.
There are many films which have been set during a one day period and a lot of them are bona fide classics. Here is SIX of what I consider the best or at least my favourites from a story perspective. I have not included one of the greatest comedies of all time Groundhog Day (1993) because, while that is set in the same day, it actually repeats its day in a Sisyphean and fantastical never-ending situation. Thus, the films here are all set in a fixed period so no temporal loops or time travel movies are included.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)
Spike Lee’s incendiary look at the day in the life of a Brooklyn neighbourhood finds a variety of characters coping with both rising temperatures and simmering racial tension. Lee’s brilliant script is fully of boldly written and brightly sketched characters presented via a succession of hilarious and dramatic vignettes. The formal excellence on show too from Lee is to be applauded as he uses devices from: music video and cinema to tell his rich stories. The day does not end well as the neighbourhood erupts into tragic violence with Lee proving himself adept at balancing humour, politics and tragedy in equal measure.
DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)
Sidney Lumet really was a terrific director. Moving from stage and television to film and his first cinema production was rather incredibly 12 Angry Men (1957). This film was ostensibly set in one location over one intensely dramatic period and he would revisit the day-structure for the equally intense bank-robbery-gone-wrong film Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. Lumet directs Al Pacino and John Cazale as ill-fated and inexperienced criminals who rob a New York bank and get deep in over their heads. Once again the set-in-a-day structure creates a bottle-neck effect, squeezing the drama to a suspenseful denouement. As these empathetic and hapless criminals find themselves surrounded by law enforcement Al Pacino’s performance as Sonny dominates, becoming more and more animated and emotional. Incredibly, this original heist movie was based on a bizarre, true story and was another compelling addition to Lumet’s fine directorial C.V.
FALLING DOWN (1993)
Michael Douglas is, in my opinion, a very well rated movie star but also a very under-rated actor. He proved it again in Marvel’s Ant-Man films that he is an altogether reliable on-screen presence, while his staggering performance as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra (2013), garnered deserved praise. Similarly he is in career-best territory as “D-FENS” – named so after his number plate – whom begins his day in a sweltering, polluted traffic jam, before deciding enough is enough. What follows is a violent and explosive rampage both bleak and darkly comic that highlights the anger an individual can feel at being discarded by society. While “D-FENS” actions are appalling it’s clear he has had a mental breakdown and gone over the edge, in this damning and compelling indictment of capitalist society.
FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986)
John Hughes was arguably the definitive creator of what came to represent iconic 1980s Hollywood teen and comedy cinema. It may have pretty conservative dealing with, on the main, middle-class American characters and their lot; however, he always had affection for the geek, outsider and under-dog. Yet, it is important to note that Ferris Bueller is not a geek or an underdog but rather a narcissistic, lying, brash, confident and handsome youth trying to rail against the school system. But in the hands of Matthew Broderick’s standout performance he is also very cool. Because as well as skipping school he is a risk-taker and cheeky and amazingly talks directly to the audience too. During his day off school he crams all manner of crazy things into the day while trying to outwit the school Principal because as he (Hughes) says: “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it!”
HIGH NOON (1952)
Not only is this classic Western set in one day but it’s pretty much shot in real time. It makes the most of the ticking-time-clock scenario, anchored by Gary Cooper’s noble sheriff and fine direction from Fred Zinnemann. The story is very simple. Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) is about to leave town with his wife, Amy (an early role for Grace Kelly), finds out a vicious gang of outlaws are coming to town out for revenge. Kane’s choice is to flee or stay and fight. Guess which one he chooses? Ready to face the outlaws on his own he tries to enlist the help of the townsfolk of Hadleyville, but he is admonished at every request. The suspense and drama are palpable as the clock slides toward noon and the gunfight. The film received many awards and nominations and is a truly humane examination of duty and courage under fire. It could also be seen as an allegory for the McCarthy and Communist “witch-hunts” occurring in Hollywood at the time. However, one could easily see it as a conservative validation of law and order too and the individual fighting for justice against a common enemy.
TRAINING DAY (2001)
David Ayer’s career as a filmmaker has taken a few critical body-blows lately on big budget Hollywood productions; notably his over-blown mess of a franchise trifle that was Suicide Squad (2016); and the odd mix of fantasy and cop thriller that was Bright (2017). While Suicide Squad really did not make any sense it made loads of dough and Bright was actually pretty decent entertainment. Indeed, it actually had a similar structure to Ayer’s brilliant cop drama Training Day. Ethan Hawke is the in-awe trainee to Denzel Washington’s fierce narcotics officer, who has taken his younger charge along to see if he has what it takes to join his team. What I love about this superior genre film is, aside from the brilliant plot and characterisation, is the day unfolds so dramatically with their two respective characters beginning as master and student only to find the respect between the two eroding and a violent power game ensuing.
SIX OF THE BEST #11 – GAME OF THRONES (S: 1 – 7) – GREATEST BATTLES
Game of Thrones is one of the biggest literary and TV phenomena of recent years. It has entered Western cultures’ psyche offering a glut of: plotting, death, sex, class-divide, war, fantastical beasts and devilish sorcery! I think the main strength lies though in the wonderful writing that stems first from George R.R. Martin’s behemoth tomes and the incredible production values of the show. Plus, the casting, acting and directing is more often than not better than most cinema offerings.
For my latest article on the show I would like to look at six of the best battles. The spectacular fighting and warring is often amazing but what makes it work is the emotional impact you feel during the battles. The writers have always strove to build empathy, sympathy and antipathy with the characters so you feel strongly as to whether they live or die. Heroes, anti-heroes, friends and nemeses are often pitted against each other in the most violent fashion and epic quite frankly doesn’t cut it as a word to describe such rousing and emotional action.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
BLACKWATER (S2 – EPISODE 9)
Arguably the first major battle epic of the whole show found Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) attacking King’s Landing in an attempt to smash through the Lannister’s stronghold and claim the Iron Throne. Shadowed boats float amidst the blaze of wildfire as men cut down other men on the shore. Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) gives a rousing speech as the Hound (Rory McCann) spites barbs and curses before finding fear in fire. Within the castle keep Cersei (Lena Headey) gets drunk and bullies Sansa (Sophie Turner) to tears. It’s a dirty, bloody and fiery battle tremendously edited and expertly directed by Neil Marshall.
THE MOUNTAIN AND THE VIPER (S4 – EPISODE 8)
While this fight between the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) and Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) is nowhere near as big as the others on this list, it does not make it any less impactful or brutal. Their hand-to-hand trial by combat is a both a legal fight to determine Tyrion Lannister’s guilt for the crime of murder; and a personal revenge for Prince Oberyn for the death of a loved one. Pascal is absolutely superb in his performance throughout this season and the hatred he for the Lannister’s spits out of his whole being. He is a skilful fighter and linguist too but sometimes that just isn’t enough as hubris proves his downfall. This fight is as unforgettable as it is gruesome and the end is one I will never forget.
THE WATCHERS ON THE WALL (S4 – EPISODE 9)
With the White Walkers march painstakingly forward toward the realms of men and women, The Wildling tribes and their hordes of men, women, barbarians, cannibals, Worgs and giants descended upon The Wall in this brutal episode. Like the battle of Blackwater, Neil Marshall again directs the whole shebang as we get fifty or so minutes of spectacular cinematic action throughout. The brave soldiers of the Night’s Watch essentially re-enact the conflict of Rourke’s Drift – albeit with a massive wall in the way – as they fend off the Mance Ryder’s fierce Wildlings. The emotion is high to as Ygritte (Rose Leslie) once again comes face-to-face with her lover Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), as their savage romance ultimately proves to be a doomed one also. Its fire, it’s ice; it bones crunching and bloody to the end.
HARDHOME (S5 – EPISODE 8)
The walking, running and horse-riding dead finally reach some semblance of civilisation as they launch a vicious attack on the Wildling settlement of Hardhome. It’s a beautifully designed battle sequence which begins with unease between Jon Snow and his Wilding allies, before a deathly silence befalls the area. After which silence gives way to: the slow drumming of feet, the slippage of snow and then the racing army of skeletal men and women smashing toward the living. We knew the first major battle with the Night King and his acolytes would prove deadly and just the beginning of the cold war. As Jon Snow and the flame-haired Tormen take the fight to the zombie foes many Wildling lives are lay waste in the sodden black and red dirt of Hardhome; only for them to rise again.
BATTLE OF THE BASTARDS (S6 – EPISODE 9)
I recall seeing an advert for Sky TV and Game of Thrones at the cinema. They ran with the tagline “Believe in better!” over an image of Jon Snow, sword held in hands, while affront him is an army of Ramsey Bolton’s cavalry charging toward him. It is a moment of sheer breath-taking spectacle. Designing and filming war scenes must be some of the most difficult for filmmakers. The Game of Thrones directors are under added pressure to differentiate their images as well. In the Battle of the Bastards the director, Miguel Sapochnik, and his team of cameras, actors and stunt-people open with these incredible wide shots before taking us into the nitty gritty of the fight. It’s all shot from Jon’s perspective. He fights off foes on foot and horse; mud and blood splashes and soaks him until the Bolton army are pushing the Stark’s army back and back until all seems lost. There’s one further twist before the end of a quite amazing battle set-piece.
THE SPOILS OF WAR (S7 – EPISODE 4)
Season 7, while suffering from pacing issues due to a speeding up of the narrative, was arguably the most cinematic and spectacular season of all. There were so many great battles as in Stormborn, where Euron Greyjoy’s attacked his niece’s Yara’s ships in a burning row under moonlight. Moreover, in the episode Beyond the Wall, the magnificent seven (Hound, Jon Snow, Tormen, Gendry, Davos, Jorah etc.) of Game of Thrones went white-walker hunting and found themselves surrounded by the dead. But, arguably the most exhilarating battle was in The Spoils of War. Having been blindsided tactically by Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) went on a Dothraki and dragon offensive and set about destroying the Lannister army and allies. Like a medieval Saving Private Ryan (1998), we are thrown from the air to ground to right into the faces of the soldiers. The shot where we track Bronn (Jerome Flynn) as he attempts to load the Scorpion catapult is incredible. Emotions are high too as our favourite characters face off against each other as they all perilously come close to losing their lives. Kudos goes to the stunt-team, extras and crew for pulling off one of the most memorable battles ever committed to celluloid.
If you love the show like me, please check out my other articles on Game of Thrones listed below.
SIX OF THE BEST #12 – UNRELIABLE NARRATORS IN CINEMA
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
I find the nature of storytelling and narrative construction a fascinating craft. As someone who reads and watches a lot of stories via: books, cinema, theatre, comedy, radio and television, I am always drawn to devices which differ from the conventional norm. When I was younger I used to pour scorn on stories told straight and in chronological order. I like difficult or unconventional works as it appealed to my younger rebellious side. Of late though, I have come to realise that unconventional or non-linear storytelling can be used as a stylistic device for the sake of it and adds nothing to the story. Screenwriting navel-gazing devices such as fragmented timelines can detract from the emotional impact of the characters’ journey. Thus, to get a complex layered and non-linear storyline right is difficult. Many writers and filmmakers experiment with variant structures to escape standard narrative conventions. Indeed, with hard work and positive creative decisions it is possible to capture magic in a script and transport it to the screen.
Conversely, the device of the unreliable narrator is another means which a screenwriter can differentiate a narrative from conventional classic storytelling. Usually, in say a Hollywood blockbuster our hero or heroes will be those we root for from beginning to end. To switch our main protagonist or narrative focus from positive to negative or good to bad is brave writing. To even begin with an anti-heroic or even unlikable lead protagonist is obviously a risk and can alienate the audience. Furthermore, to make the lead character or characters unreliable is very difficult. However, the tricky craft of leading us one way with a protagonist before revealing them to be untrustworthy or twisted is a device which can provide much narrative satisfaction.
In 1981, William Riggan, created a study of various unreliable types, including: The Picaro, The Madman, The Clown, The Naif and The Liar. The Picaro will typically be a bragger, similar to the Liar but not as heinous. The Madman or Mad Woman, however, will be more sinister but The Clown and The Naif will either be playing for laughs or in the latter’s case, telling their story from a naïve position. Moreover, an unreliable narrator will potentially be hiding their own crimes or actions out of guilt. Or they will have amnesia, selective or deliberate to mislead the audience. They may just take great joy in telling lies or simply be unhinged to believe their fractured personality is presenting their version of the truth. It could be they are also attention seekers; OR actually a combination of all of the above.
Examples of unreliable narrators are legion throughout theatrical and literary presentations. Indeed, Agatha Christie and Jim Thompson often utilised them in their crime stories; as did novelists such as: Emily Bronte, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bret Easton Ellis, Gillian Flynn, Vladimir Nabokov and many more. In this piece I would like to consider six of the best films featuring unreliable narrators. It was tough to get just six as I could have easily doubled it but here we are!
***CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS***
Joe Wright’s majestic directorial adaptation of Ian McEwan’s tragic war story is a poignant study of petty revenge and romantic conflict. While the story focusses on the doomed love affair between James McEvoy and Keira Knightley’s class-crossed lovers, the narrator is novelist Briony Tallis (Vanessa Redgrave). Due to a spiteful action by her thirteen year-old self the events of the drama are revealed at the end to be manipulated out of sheer guilt. While she attempts to give the romance story a more positive ending the horrors of war are to the fore and Briony’s remorse will never be humbled.
THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1920)
This silent movie classic is seen as the epitome of German Expressionist cinema. Set within the confines of a mental health asylum it was directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. The story concerns a man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) as he tells of a strange tale involving the mysterious somnambulist Cesare and nefarious Dr Caligari. Both stylistically and structurally formidable the film features: twisted and painterly sets, shadowy key lighting and ghostly make-up. Also, the story-within-the-story is both terrifying and all a lie in the mind of a madman. The ending would now be seen as potential cliché but on release it was astounding and clearly influenced another story with a troubled and unreliable narrator in Shutter Island (2010).
FIGHT CLUB (1999)
Chuck Palahniuk’s seminal novel and David Fincher’s incendiary cinematic adaptation is way too complex a piece to sum up in this little list. However, it still stands the test of time in terms of style and structure as Fincher directs the hell out of Edward Norton’s everyman and his charismatic alter-ego, Tyler Durden. A brutal, violent and coruscating vision of masculinity in crisis within a crumbling, corporate and schizophrenic society, Norton’s unreliable narrator spits and spirals and finally splits literally in half. Funny, dark, and a genuine film classic, no one’s meant to talk about Fight Club but it certainly deserves all the praise heaped upon it.
Christopher Nolan’s early noir classic Memento (2000) is famously told in reverse chronological fashion, thus subverting the very nature of linear storytelling. His anti-hero, Leonard Shelby, has no means of making new memories thus via tattoos and Polaroid photos he constructs a present day movie of his own life in visual form. As the story unfolds we flash back and forth to a film within a film about a character called Sammy Jankis. Yet, incredibly and sadly, it turns out that Sammy is an imagined character used to suppress a terrible event in Leonard’s life and the film within a film is in fact the imagined vision of an unreliable narrator.
Akiro Kurosawa’s superbly directed crime classic has not just one but numerous unreliable narrators. Structured around the investigation into a rape and murder in Japan the story splinters around the investigation of said crimes. Various versions of the same story are told from different perspectives as the subjectivity of truth is tested to the full. Are the characters’ stories from the perspective of: the bandit, the wife, the samurai and woodcutter lies or “true” reflections of the events in their respective minds? We all tell stories and is it possible we have got it wrong by mistake or manipulating the truth to our own benefit. Rashomon posits such questions and more in a beautifully rendered cinema classic.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)
Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay remains one of the best I have ever read and the film is not too bad either. Shot on a low budget but cast perfectly the whole story is set around Chazz Palminteri’s cop grilling Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint about a major crime at the docks. What follows is a fractured structure which twists and turns on the basis of the narratives Kint is providing. We flash into event within event which is initially perceived to be truth but ultimately is a fiction. The final reveal where we find Kint has, in fact, been hiding a devilish truth all along astounds the cop and audience beyond belief. The story was so complex that Gabriel Byrne and other cast members actually thought they were Keyser Soze; only finding out they weren’t when they’d seen the incredible twist ending.
SIX OF THE BEST #10 – GAME OF THRONES FINEST HEROES!
According to Christopher Booker’s text The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, there are in essence only a limited number of narratives including the: ‘Overcoming the Monster’, ‘Rags to Riches’, ‘The Quest’, ‘Comedy, ‘Rebirth’, ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Voyage and Return’. Booker echoes too the studies of mythologist Joseph Campbell who argues that the ‘Hero’s Journey’ or monomyth is the common template of most stories.
Christopher Vogler followed on from Campbell’s extensive work in his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writer arguing that most popular stories can be narrowed down to a series of basic structures and archetypes. Indeed, while watching Game of Thrones you can certainly identify many of them notably the Heroes Journey!
So, to continue my exploration of the first six seasons of one of the greatest shows ever, I look at some of the more heroic characters in HBO’s TV masterwork.
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS – SEASONS 1 – 6**
ARYA STARK – MAISIE WILLIAMS
A young tomboy at the start of the show Arya’s transformation from fresh-faced waif into a face-shifting-sword-fighting-deadly-assassin has been nothing short of extraordinary. What strikes me as most heroic is Arya’s propensity for bouncing back and that mental toughness has seen her overcome going blind, being enslaved, kidnapped, beaten and left for dead and STILL managing to get revenge on her enemies.
BRIENNE OF TARTH – GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE
I don’t think there is a nobler character than Brienne of Tarth. She is an honest and loyal Knight of the highest order and an incredibly tough swordsperson too. I was surprised more than anything when she defeated the Hound in combat. Furthermore, her unrequited romance with Jamie was very touching. She is probably the hero with the biggest heart and I hope she gets a good ending in the show.
DAENERYS TARGARYEN – EMILIA CLARKE
Daenerys is arguably not as sympathetic a hero as many of the others on the list. Perhaps, her demand and pursuit for the Iron Throne could be seen as power hungry; and in recent seasons her desire for fire and blood have shown a more dangerous side to her. However, her journey has been from a naïve, sold-off bride to a storming Queen; one that has not only commandeered the Dothraki and Unsullied but also defeated the venal Slave-Masters.
JON SNOW – KIT HARRINGTON
Probably the most heroic character of them all as he had outsider beginnings as an illegitimate bastard before growing in stature and experience to become the King of the North. Having made vows to the Nightwatch his desire to form an alliance with the Wildlings became his undoing and only the Lord of Light prevented him passing into the next world. A handsome, rugged and fine fighting specimen, Jon Snow leads by example inspiring those around him to greater things.
SAMWELL TARLY – JOHN BRADLEY-WEST
Samwell is what I would class as a quiet hero. Ridiculed for his larger size on first meeting he slowly, through intelligence and diplomacy, came to be respected by the Nightwatch; notably Jon Snow. However, it is his protection of Gilly which has seen his heroic stock rise. Having rescued her from the evil Crastor; adopted Gilly’s son as his own; fought off a White Walker; he even stood up to his bullying father, proving Sam to be a right decent chap all round.
TYRION LANNISTER – PETER DINKLAGE
Much maligned and ousted from the Lannister family following Joffrey’s deserved death Tyrion has proved his bravery and fortitude in many desperate circumstances. I feel his heroism comes from the determination to never give up despite his physicality and the demonization which occurred when he was born. Be it on during the Battle at Blackwater Bay or when standing up to his father Tywin, Tyrion just refuses to buckle and heroically ploughs on.
SIX OF THE BEST #9 – GAME OF THRONES MEMORABLE MONOLOGUES!
Whereas the sex, death and battle scenes are the flesh of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the bones of the show can be found in the characters and serpentine narratives. From the characters, by way of the writers, we always get some cracking monologues throughout the show too. Here are a mere six from the first six seasons which stand out for me.
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS!**
THEON GREYJOY – “WHAT IS DEAD MAY NEVER DIE!” – S2 – EP. 10
Having made a bold move on Winterfell the tragic Theon attempts to rally his bedraggled troops in order to fend off the enemy at the gates. It’s an excellent speech that really belongs in the mouth of someone a bit nobler, as the humorous punchline really sums up the pathetic nature of his character. After a sabre-rattling speech he’s then ignominiously thumped by Finchy from The Office. Brilliant!
JAMIE LANNISTER – “LANNISTERS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN TRUE FRIENDS.” – S3 – EP. 5
What makes this speech stand out is that it’s a quiet scene with both Jamie and Brienne naked and vulnerable in the bath. They are both stripped of their armour and Jamie is quite pitiful having lost his hand to Locke of House Bolton. Broken, he confesses as to why he killed the Mad King, and so begins a potential redemptive path for Jamie through his touching relationship with Brienne.
PETYR BAELISH – “CHAOS IS A LADDER!” – S3 – EP. 6
Varys and Baelish’s exchanges have been missed since they went their separate ways. With Aidan Gillen’s rasping delivery this wonderful speech captures everything evil and great about the duplicitous nature of humanity within the show. It’s made all the more powerful by the images of Joffrey killing the prostitute and Jon Snow and Ygritte scaling the Wall together!
TYRION LANNISTER – “I’M GUILTY OF BEING A DWARF!” – S4 – EP. 6
I was going to choose Tyrion’s brave speech at the Battle of Blackwater Bay but this one is so full of pain and pathos at his betrayal by the women he loves, Shay. His vicious tirade at his captors contains many a fist-bump moment as Peter Dinklage spits revenge and venom while delivering a truly grandstanding monologue.
CERSEI LANNISTER – “THIS IS YOUR GOD, NOW!” – SEASON 6 – EPISODE 10
As revenge goes Cersei Lannister blowing up the Sept. was something else, not only wiping out the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant but also most of the Tyrells too. She then goads Septa Unella, the nun who was her jailer and rang the bell during the “Walk of Shame.” In villainous fashion Cersei confesses her “sins” and states she does it because she ENJOYS IT! She then brings in the Mountain!
DAENERYS TARGARYEN – “KILL MY ENEMIES IN IRON SUITS!” – S6 – EP. 6
Daenerys has some wonderful fiery moments throughout the battling slavers, barbarians, sorcerers and soldiers. Here, atop of a dragon, she belts out her vision for the future and that of the Dothraki hordes. The music, Drogon the dragon, the cheering men and Emilia Clarke’s passionate fervour all add up to a highly impactful Game of Thrones speech.