Ridley Scott Retrospective

Ridley Scott released his debut film The Duellists at the age of 40 in 1977. Since then he has worked at quite a fast pace, averaging more than 1 film every 2 years in his 40 year career. Interestingly only making 1 sequel (to a film he did not make) and 2 prequels, something worth applauding in this day and age.

2017 has been a busy year for him as well. I am publishing this article on his 80th birthday in a year that he has turned down the sequel to his best film Blade Runner in order to create another prequel to one of his other best films, Alien. And just recently his next film, All the Money in the World scheduled for release in December/January in the US/UK has been embroiled in the Kevin Spacey scandal, resulting in him having to go back and re-shoot Spacey’s role with Christopher Plummer. An unprecedented decision given that the film was complete.

Scott is an important figure to me, as my love for Blade Runner resulted in my son sharing his name. And it is for this reason that I thought I would try to share something different on my Blog by giving my thoughts on every film he has directed.

Preparing for this article it came as a surprise that I had not seen 6 of his films including his debut, The Duellists. The others to miss my attention were Someone to Watch Over Me, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, White Squall, G.I. Jane and A Good Year. So the article has also given me the ability to ensure I am complete on my Scott filmography as a Director.

Scott’s films have famously been subject to Director’s and Extended cuts with Blade Runner and Kingdom of Heaven substantially transformed by them. Where possible I have endeavoured to watch both Director’s Cut and Theatrical Cut in an effort to comment on both.

And what seems to be most important these days in web articles, I have given some form of ranking at the end.

The Duellists (1977)

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Scott’s debut feature is about obsession and honour. It follows two soldiers in the French army fighting duels across the course of 15 years following a perceived slight.

D’Hubert (Keith Carradine) is sent to arrest fellow lieutenant Feraud (Harvey Keitel) following his involvement in a duel that wounds the nephew of the town’s mayor where the army is currently garrisoned. Feraud, played by Keitel as a man of few words, is greatly angered by this and it fuels an obsession that is played against Napoleon’s rise and fall across Europe.

The story is slight, but gripping. The origin of the quarrel slowly fades, as obsession takes over, consuming both men’s lives as they rise in rank and campaign across Europe. The costumes and locations are also superb, the final shot beautiful to behold.

Interestingly, whilst the film is based on a Joseph Conrad story, this itself is based on a true story of soldiers who had 17 duels across two decades during this era.

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Alien (1979)

Responding to a distress call the crew of the Nostromo investigate a crashed space ship. When Kane (John Hurt) disturbs an egg in the ship a parasite attaches to his face and he is quarantined. When the parasite dies and Kane appears unhurt the crew mistakenly relax and find themselves hunted by an Alien.

For me, Alien is the original and best in the franchise. And a crucial reason you should go back to it, is that everything that you know about Alien lore is unlikely to have come from this film. This is a stripped back horror film that involves crew members being hunted one by one in darkly lit corridors. A master class in claustrophobic horror it contains some explosively tense scenes with a barely seen threat and it all culminates in a race against the clock. What it is also very good at is creating rounded characters in a very short space of time. The crew numbers 7 people but by the end of the film you feel that you have an understanding of each of their motivations and mourn their loss. Sigourney Weaver is obviously the break out success of the film as the resourceful and determined Ripley. but the film also features well-known faces such as Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto.

The set design and practical effects are superb. H.R. Giger’s alien design still gives you chills and the spaceship looks like a lived and heavily used vessel.

When it comes to Scott’s Director’s Cut I have mixed feelings. It is an odd thing in that it is actually shorter than the theatrical version albeit by 47 seconds. But contains altered/additional scenes of 321 seconds. It adds one crucial scene of Alien lore that James Cameron worked into the sequel Aliens, so whether you watch the original or Director’s Cut it is not lost. Both are excellent versions, but the original feels truer to the horror theme as it does not linger on certain scenes and as a result is much more tense.

For my 2017 Alien Day double bill thoughts see this article:

Alien Day – Alien Director’s Cut & Prometheus

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Blade Runner (1982)

Scott’s best film and one of my all time favourite films ever is essentially a sci-fi detective noir story with a meditation on what it is to be human. Harrison Ford is Rick Deckard, a retired Blade Runner, a policeman who tracks down replicants and retires (assassinates) them. Brought back into the fold following the escape of four replicants and assigned to track them down he encounters a replicant working at the Tyrell Corporation called Rachael (Sean Young) who makes him question everything.

The eyes are considered the window to the soul and the film opens on an eye with the 2019 L.A. skyline reflected in it and lit up by fire in the night sky. Moving through to an office we see a Blade Runner performing the Voight-Kampff test on Leon (Brion James). A replicant lie detector that focuses on the eye and how it contracts when asked questions designed to provoke an emotional response. Throughout the film there are references to what make us human and how are emotions are formed. With the ultimate question posed being whether Deckard himself is human.

Stylistically the film is beautiful to watch and the practical special effects, lighting and sets are astonishing. Still holding up 35 years later. The score by Vangelis is haunting and manages to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up in places. The film also features what I would consider to be career best performances from Sean Young as Rachael and Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, the leader of the escaped replicants. His “tears in the rain” speech one of the all time great moments in cinema history.

Perhaps one of the things Blade Runner is most famous for though is how many versions of the film there are. I own a collectors edition box set which has allowed me to watch 5 versions; U.S and International Theatrical versions released in 1982, the Director’s Cut released in 1992, the work print of the film never released and the Final Cut released in 2007. The key differences are that the theatrical versions have narration from Ford and a happy ending, with the International version featuring some additional footage. The Director’s Cut introduces a unicorn dream and the original ending that open out the question of Deckard’s nature. Whilst the Final Cut is a remastered amalgamation of the Director’s Cut and International Theatrical Cut Scenes.

All of these versions are worthwhile to see, but if you are short on time you should watch The Final Cut and then if you are interested one of the Theatrical versions. This is because the former is Scott’s approved vision and the Theatrical cuts contain the incredibly interesting voiceover and happy ending. Ford, rumoured to be unhappy about having to record a voiceover gives a dour reading of his narration and the footage from the happy ending is reportedly out takes of the opening scene of The Shining.

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Legend (1985)

Another of Ridley Scott’s films to have multiple cuts. Thanks to a friend I was able to watch the Blu-ray version that contained both the European Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut. The difference in running time is dramatic, 95 minutes versus 113 minutes and the result is a drastic change in tone. An already dark fable becoming much darker. Whilst I would argue the Director’s Cut to be the superior version, one word of warning (which is on-screen in a note from the director at the start) is that the image quality is much poorer. For such a spectacular looking film, the theatrical version is well worth viewing to appreciate the visual quality.

The story is a fairly simple tale of good versus evil, light versus dark. The dark lord (Tim Curry) wants his evil goblin minions to kill the last of the unicorns to cast the world in eternal darkness. Lilly (Mia Sara) is a pure of heart princess who frolics in the forest with Jack (Tom Cruise) who is a forest dweller who can speak with the animals. Can Jack save the world or will Lilly be corrupted by the dark lord?

I can not recommend this film enough as a visual feast, but I have some major qualms in terms of the film as a cohesive whole.

The aspect of the film that struck me the most is how it moves from light to dark to light as the plot unfolds. Opening in glorious meadows in bright sunshine and slowly sliding into darkness as the dark lord’s plans come to fruition. In terms of representing the range of fairy tale characters the prosthetics are also stunning.  Made after The Dark Crystal, but before Labyrinth this is their much darker cousin. Whilst the Director’s Cut is unrated, the Theatrical Cut is a PG and whilst I may owe some of my wariness to being scared by this film as a youngster I would not be quite ready to share it with my young children.

Before moving to the negative, I would be remiss to not talk about Tim Curry as the dark lord. His performance is perfect. Imposing and powerful, especially under more impressive prosthetics. A memorable performance.

So, given all of this, why doesn’t it work? The fact that this is a fable is sometimes hard to grasp. This isn’t just a fantasy story in the vein of The Lord of the Rings. This is an old-fashioned dark fable that you could imagine being told in the Dark Ages. Featuring sing-song speech, whimsical language and all sorts of creatures and frankly it is hard for all of these things to gel together. And whilst I have sung the praises of Tim Curry, unfortunately Tom Cruise and Mia Sara really struggle to convey the ethereal, other worldly aspect the visuals and script are trying to establish. Especially in the film’s opening, set in the sort of forest I would imagine Puck and Oberon prancing through, but full of wooden delivery from our two leads. They do improve as the tone moves darker, but the damage is done.

A beautiful failure worthy of a viewing, and interesting to see how unicorns are the key to this world’s beauty following their featuring in the sublime Blade Runner.

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Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)

Scott’s first feature to be set in contemporary time and unfortunately it is a very generic thriller common to the 80’s era.

Detective Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) has just been assigned to the Manhattan precinct in New York and is handed the task of babysitting a murder witness played by Mimi Rogers. Unfortunately for this married man and father, she is a beautiful socialite whom he falls for.

Scott’s usual visual flair is less apparent in 80’s New York and the plot is too thin to really hold your attention either. Berenger, Rogers and Lorraine Bracco, as Mike’s wife Ellie all try hard in predictable roles but I would be hard pitched to find anything to recommend here. It is far too ordinary to warrant any more discussion.

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Black Rain (1989)

Michael Douglas is Detective Nick Conklin, a cop very much in the 80’s action thriller mould. The film opens with a power ballad playing over a scene of Douglas driving his motorcycle across a New York bridge, without a helmet, mullet hair billowing in the wind. It then segues into an illegal street race designed to show us his macho daring, his desperation for money to pay his bills and set up a pay off later on. Conklin is a grey area, under investigation by Internal Affairs for stealing drug money, prone to assaulting suspects and not listening to senior officers.

So, has Scott moved from one generic 80’s cop thriller to another? Almost! On the face of it this is a by the numbers cop revenge film but there are a number of redeeming features that make it eminently more watchable than Someone to Watch Over Me.

The plot is far more interesting for a start. Nick and his partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) stumble into a war between the Yakuza and the Mafia and upon arresting a Yakuza lieutenant are charged with babysitting him back to Japan. One cunning escape later and they are working with Masahiro (Ken Takakura) to try to capture him again in Japan. This isn’t just a clash of cultures, this is a reference to Japan/U.S. tensions post World War 2.

Black Rain is the term used for post nuclear fallout rain due to the toxins it contained following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Masahiro at one point tells Nick “we won the peace” in regard to Japan’s technological might and the gang war is triggered by the counterfeit dollars being created in Japan that are better than the Mafia’s. All of this is supposed to be portrayed in the detectives’ clashes in the way they work, but it is a one-sided view, the Japanese portrayed as a rigid, inflexible group and the Americans as unique rebels who get things done.

One of the most interesting facets of the film is Nick and Charlie’s partnership and the question over whether Nick is dirty or not. Garcia’s Charlie is the rookie cop who looks up to Nick and believes in his innocence. When sent to a strange land, the crucial scene Black Rain is known for happens, hard to describe without spoilers, and it results in Nick reflecting a lot more on his actions and possible mistakes. This plot thread is so intriguing that I almost wonder if the creators of Insomnia, both Norwegian original and American remake felt it was worth exploring better?

Scott’s visual flair is also back, shot mostly in Japan with Jan De Bont (who would go on to direct Speed) as cinematographer this is a great looking film. Maybe in an effort to reflect Nick’s blue-collar credentials it features meat-packing factories, fish markets and a steel mill as locales, all displaying a grimy, down and dirty atmosphere.

But for all of these intriguing aspects, it’s still an 80’s cop thriller! Characters smoke moodily in offices and planes, it starts and ends with a power ballad, people get shot in slow motion, the ending is cheesy as hell and it even features Kate Capshaw post Temple of Doom.

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Thelma and Louise (1991)

Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) plan a weekend away in the mountains fishing, but when a stop at a bar for a drink ends with Louise shooting a rapist the women go on the run.

I was only 10 when this film released and missed the furore that it apparently caused. An anthem for women and a step too far for some men in its depiction of bigoted controlling men. But 26 years later it’s hard to see that too much has changed. The women go on the run after the shooting because they are scared no one will believe them that they were defending themselves from a rapist, something that still resonates in studies on rape convictions. The reaction to female led films in recent years with the Ghostbusters remake and Wonder Woman seem to suggest that men are still not ready for female leads. It’s actually slightly depressing in that context that it seems only baby steps have been made since its release. What isn’t depressing though is how much fun the film is, easily Scott’s best feature since Blade Runner.

Davis and Sarandon shine throughout the film and they really sell both their amazing friendship and the characters’ transformation throughout the film as they become free. A key scene that underlines the fun in that relationship is when they teach a truck driver a lesson in manners. Working around them are the men in their lives. Christopher McDonald is good as a controlling husband, Michael Madsen as a boyfriend who only cares when he thinks he is losing his woman and Harvey Keitel as possibly the only sympathetic male character playing the detective on their trail. Of course there is also Brad Pitt in his break out role as a drifter who catches Thelma’s eye.

Scott’s visual flair is firmly back on show as well, especially as the road trip progresses into the desert. There are plenty of impressive vistas and aerial shots tracking Louise’s iconic Thunderbird car.

Speaking of iconic, it would seem Thelma and Louise invented the “selfie” with the Polaroid they take at the opening of the film that is focused on briefly at the dramatic end.

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1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

The story of Christopher Columbus’ (Gerard Depardieu) discovery of the New World covering his attempt to gain funding, his initial and subsequent voyages and interactions with the natives.

As with any Scott film the visuals on display here are fantastic, joined with a rousing score this is a visual and aural feast. But that unfortunately is where the plaudits end for me. In fact I would argue this is Scott’s first terrible film. The major issues being factual accuracy and casting.

Whilst it is understood all true stories committed to celluloid undergo embellishments to the truth, this film stretches believability to impossible lengths. The liberties taken with real events are shocking, painting Columbus as someone proving the world wasn’t flat and a protector of natives. Neither of which are close to true given it was commonly known the world was round at this point and Columbus enslaved the natives forcing them to pay him tribute. The film even creating a villain played by Michael Wincott – an actor known for sneering villains – to do the things it is more likely Columbus himself did. The tone of the film feels completely misjudged as a result.

And then we come onto Depardieu’s performance, full of histrionic shouting and throwing things. It doesn’t help that he seems to take Sean Connery’s approach to acting, in that he makes no efforts to play an Italian at all.

Perhaps with no interest or knowledge of the historical events it is attempting to portray there would be more time to enjoy the visuals. Otherwise this is painful to watch, especially as it is 2 hours 30 mins long.

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White Squall (1996)

Based on a true story, this is a coming of age tale of a group of students who in 1960 set off on an ill-fated voyage on the school sailing ship Albatross, swapping their senior year at school with something that will build character as well as teach. Our guide is Chuck Gieg (Scott Wolf), an idealistic teen who provides voice over to the tale. Whilst the mythical Captain Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) tries to instil character and discipline. The adults providing guidance consist of Sheldon and his wife – an English teacher who quotes Shakespeare’s The Tempest when they boys board the ship – and a cook. Whilst the teenagers in general have issues they need to deal with including a young Ryan Philippe who still idolises a now dead brother.

1492 must have given Ridley Scott a taste for the sea and that experience clearly paid off, as the film again looks stunning and realistic given that the majority of it is set on the water. We see beautiful vistas, take in cultural events on the radio (The Bay of Pigs and space travel) and see boys become men as we head to the squall of the title. A segment that is brief, but brutal.

The biggest issue with the film however is its tone. The easiest touchstone would be to say this is “Dead Poets Society” on the water, but perhaps even more melodramatic than that film. Jeff Bridges plays the inspirational captain whom the teenagers come to idolise well, even when he has to regularly utter portentous speeches such as, “Behold, the power of the wind!” Scott Wolf’s Chuck tells us in voice over about how he is moulding and guiding them, at one point describing their skipper as follows, “He’s strong, he’s tough and he won’t take no for an answer”. Each boy has their own emotional baggage to work through and there are grand statements, a score that regularly swells for dramatic effect and an ending reminiscent of Poets “oh Captain! My Captain!”

Is that necessarily a bad thing? If you can stomach the idealism and you are not as big a cynic as I, I think this would be an inspiring coming of age story.

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G.I. Jane (1997)

Senator Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) successfully pressures the Navy into a test case to prove whether women can perform all roles within the Navy. In an effort to ensure failure the Navy choose their toughest program, the Navy Seals. Can Jordan O’Neil (Demi Moore) make the cut under brutal instructor Master Chief John James Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen)?

G.I. Jane passed me by in my teenage years, I remember there being a slight furore about it but mostly that it was meant to be terrible. But it is far from that. It is a very entertaining army training film. Essentially a more feel good, softer edged first half of Full Metal Jacket.

I assume Scott was seen as a good choice for the gender politics aspect of the film due to Thelma and Louise, but they do not actually feel that much at the forefront of the film. They are certainly present at the beginning and end when the candidates are being chosen (they need someone glamorous enough for the papers) and when a dramatic conclusion is called for. But otherwise this focuses more on the tough training course and the bonding between the group. The only misstep I felt were the training montages of Demi Moore that are shot like Flashdance.

Otherwise though there are decent performances from Moore and Mortensen in an entertaining film.

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Gladiator (2000)

Opening in the freezing cold of Germania just before an epic battle takes place and ending in the sunshine of the Colliseum in Rome, Gladiator is never less than a film on an epic scale. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) is dying and requests his trusted General Maximus (Russell Crowe) help with his plan to return Rome to the Senate rather than pass power to his duplicitous son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). One betrayal later and Maximus is on a mission of revenge as a Gladiator fighting his way to Rome.

Scott’s first and best collaboration with Crowe is a powerful, epic film filled with a rousing, emotional score and hugely exciting and bloody battle scenes in the Colleseum. Nothing more than a revenge film, it manages to pack emotional heft with excellent supporting characters, an evil villain and a man we can all root for.

Crowe won an oscar for his performance here and it is certainly a memorable one. Physically powerful and adept in the battle scenes and able to manifest the pain and rage simmering inside of him. Elsewhere there are a number of other fine performances. Oliver Reed as gladiator wrangler Proximo gets to complain “you sold me queer giraffes” whilst giving his final performance as a gladiator who won his freedom. His death during filming resulted in Scott resorting to CGI to complete his role and it mostly works. Harris is perfectly understated as a world-weary Caesar and Phoenix and Connie Nielson excellent as his immoral and moral offspring.

I also managed to watch the extended version on Blu-ray and it is worth noting that even Ridley disapproves. His gruff intro explains that the theatrical cut is the director’s cut and this is just simply that film with some additional scenes inserted. And I would have to agree with him. There is nothing notable in the additional 15m 56s and you can see why it was cut. Stick to the theatrical version and perhaps watch them as deleted scenes out of curiosity.

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Black Hawk Down (2001)

Based on the true story of The Battle of Mogadishu this is a blistering war movie with little emphasis on politics and an absolute focus on the grunts on the ground and their brotherhood with each other. The film starts with a rather in-depth write-up of the political climate of the Somali civil war in order to be able to insert us as fast as possible in amongst the bullets. It is an intense, brutal and well orchestrated visual feast with a huge cast of famous and soon to be famous names.

Choosing to ignore the enemy force and the politics certainly might give some cause for concern if you want a balanced view, but Scott manages to show us what is essentially a military disaster in a way that shows the bravery of those on the ground without making it jingoistic. Electing to focus on groups of soldiers allows us to build some rapport and attachment whilst allowing tension to be built up in different areas. Overall it is a technical masterpiece that any war film fan must see.

The cast is worth focussing on for a moment to, as it is absolutely crammed with names including Orlando Bloom, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepherd, Jeremy Piven, Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Jason Isaacs, Ewan Bremner, Ioan Gruffold, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Tom Hardy. The fact that the majority of these actors have equal part and do not over shadow each other is a feat in itself. The one person who does stand above the pack is Eric Bana. In his first major role after his break out film Chopper he is magnetic as a Delta Force soldier named Hoot. It is a shame he is not in more films when you see him here.

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Hannibal (2001)

Coming 10 years after The Silence of the Lambs this film would have had an awful lot of pressure on it given that Lambs is one of only 3 films to have won Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay at the Oscars. The fact that this is Scott’s first and so far, only sequel is a surprise as well (Prometheus and Covenant being prequels technically). But given all the pressure the film holds up remarkably well.

Set 10 years after the events of Lambs it places Clarice Starling in the background of the story, following Hannibal through Florence and the attempted capture of him by the FBI, an Italian detective and a former victim called Mason Verger.

As Starling and Hannibal spend much of the film on different continents the film adds additional strong male roles for her to spar with. Gary Oldman is virtually unrecognisable as Mason Verger, an evil and twisted man whom Hannibal convinced to cut off his own face. Ray Liotta is typically convincing as sleazy FBI agent Paul Krendler. But perhaps the best of them is Giancarlo Giannini as Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, an outdated has been who is on Hannibal’s tail in Florence hoping to collect the reward placed on him by Verger. The most shocking casting decision of course though is that Jodie Foster turned down the chance to reprise the role of Starling and Julianne Moore gives a solid performance in her place. Perhaps this is another reason why Starling’s standing in the story is relegated somewhat as well. Moore is good when she is involved, but this, as the title suggests, is Anthony Hopkin’s film. He relishes another turn as Lector, especially a Lector who is able to roam freely.

Scott handles the set pieces well and the photography is beautiful, especially in Florence. The violence and brutality on display is consistently shocking and uncomfortable in its short, sharp shocks and feels like an escalation in comparison to the original.

The Silence of the Lambs was a hard act to follow, but this is a respectable and entertaining sequel.

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Matchstick Men (2003)

A con artist with obsessive compulsive disorder has his world turned upside down when his long-lost daughter turns up. How this impacts his life and his current con is the subject matter of one of Scott’s lowest key films.

Matchstick Men is an interesting change of pace for Scott. There are no grand vistas or action scenes to speak of. The film is set in a perpetually sunny, but seedy Los Angeles with a lounge singer soundtrack and in fact, not much really happens. In the tradition of films about con artists there is a long con that the film revolves around which I will not discuss, but it is neatly put together and when the rug is pulled out from under you, not only will you not feel cheated but you can see how it embellishes the main storyline. In fact the ending has quite an emotional kick that slowly creeps up on you.

All of this works because of the cast. Nicolas Cage deploys a huge range of tics as OCD afflicted Roy and has one explosive scene in a pharmacy, but other than that he keeps things simmering. Sam Rockwell plays another loveable rogue as Roy’s partner Frank. Bruce Altman is great as Roy’s “shrink” coping with his breakdowns. And Alison Lohman is in what should have been a career making turn as his daughter Angela. She manages to be both manipulative and caring in an emotional role.

If I was being negative it is not on a par with a David Mamet con film in terms of sheer intellectualism but it does have heart.

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Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Kingdom of Heaven is perhaps Ridley Scott’s film most in need of a Director’s Cut given the stunning change in quality it lends to it. I recall seeing the film at the cinema and being completely underwhelmed and wondering what the point was. So for the first time I sat and watched the Director’s Cut and was blown away by the scale and scope of the story and perhaps most importantly, how balanced a modern depiction of religion in film it is given it was a Hollywood blockbuster.

The Director’s Cut clocks in at 3 hours 13 minutes and is 50 minutes longer than the theatrical release. The key plot that was cut is actually an entire character, that is somewhat integral to the plot and motivation of other key characters. As well as many more extended and additional scenes that build the relationships between characters.

The story begins in the year 1184 between the 2nd and 3rd Crusades. Balian (Orlando Bloom) is a lowly Blacksmith whose life is in tatters following the death of his child and his wife’s subsequent suicide. That is until Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson) returns to the village to claim his illegitimate child and take him to Jerusalem to serve his King. At this time in the Crusades, Christians control the city of Jerusalem and there is a strained peace with the Muslims led by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). This is in the main because of the good nature of King Baldwin (a completely concealed Edward Norton as the leprous king). Baldwin is assisted by Tiberius (Jeremy Irons) and opposed by the Knights Templar led by Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) and Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas) who believe that God wills war with the Muslims. Baldwin’s deteriorating health mean that his nephew is heir to the throne, a matter complicated when his sister Sibylla (Eva Green) meets and falls in love with Balian despite being married to Guy. It is this nephew who is the entire character cut from the theatrical release, thus muddying a key component in the political battle for who will inherit Jerusalem.

The main themes covered by the film are religion and goodness and how the two are not necessarily the same thing. Balian feels as though God has forsaken him and seeks forgiveness in the holy city, his focus on improving the lot of others. King Baldwin, Tiberius and Godfrey saw the slaughter involved in taking the city and want the two cultures to live in harmony with each other. Saladin seems reticent to begin a war but compelled by his people to take back the holy city as their religious right. It is unusual to see the story from both sides and I wonder if Scott had taken on board some of the backlash towards Black Hawk Down when ensuring a more balanced viewpoint in this film. Of course this balanced view is the modern viewpoint and is less historically accurate, certainly in regard to the knights who want to live in harmony. But it puts modern-day themes in a medieval story and is far more palatable given the argument that religious war is a bad thing.

Ultimately whilst the enlightened characters consider the Kingdom of Heaven not to be the physical city of Jerusalem but the idea of people living together in peace there are many religious fanatics who believe they are entitled to the Holy City and war is inevitable.

The cast and the visuals on display are all universally excellent. Scott marshals a large cast again, all putting in very good performances, with Orlando Bloom probably at his career best. But where Scott excels as usual is in the visuals. The film looks sumptuous. There are shipwrecks, single combat and huge full-scale battle scenes. The size and scale of the armies on display are incredible. Everything that Scott learned from White Squall, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down are on show here.

Make no mistake, the Directors Cut of Kingdom of Heaven is worth your time.

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A Good Year (2006)

Opening in flashback we see a happy young boy (Freddie Highmore) raised by his uncle (Albert Finney) on his vineyard in France. We then cut to the man (Russell Crowe), a rude, arrogant city trader in London. Receiving the news that his uncle, whom he has not seen in 10 years has died. He travels to the vineyard with the goal of selling it, but is slowly bewitched by the allure of the French countryside.

A Good Year is a real anomaly for Scott. The film has occasional moments of farce including a “Benny Hill” speeded up car scene and is probably the most light weight film he has made, both in terms of plot and comedy. The main narrative points never feel truly earned either. Why does such a nice young man turn into an arrogant trader and back again so quickly when in France? There is no real peril for a man with millions leaving his life behind for a vineyard in France and the romance between Crowe and Marrion Cotillard (in her first major English language film) also feels unearned with very few moments between the two. Despite all of these things it is still an amiable watch, never troubling you too much. Perhaps the allure of the French countryside has been captured on film?

An interesting aside is that before David quotes Lawrence of Arabia in Prometheus for Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe does it here first.

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American Gangster (2007)

Based on a true story, American Gangster charts the rise and fall of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) who became the biggest drug dealer in New York in the early 1970’s. On the flip side it shows Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) fighting the murky corruption of the New York police to capture him.

The interesting spin here is the creative license taken on real life events to show the crime lord as a disciplined family man (albeit one who guns people down on the street) and the detective as the wayward philanderer in a custody battle with his soon to be ex-wife. Lucas is first seen as a devoted right hand man and driver to Bumpy Johnson, the crime king of Harlem and it is when he dies that Lucas takes advantage of the power vacuum, using a lesson taught to him by Bumpy about cutting out the middle man. Roberts on the other hand is painted as a dishevelled cop, missing his child visitation weekends but with the saving grace that he is honest when it comes to the job. It’s an interesting take but there is never any question of subverting whose side we should be on, just that sometimes things are a little bit more grey.

Aside from the powerhouse performances from Washington and Crowe the film has a number of other small but impactful performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Idris Elba and Cuba Gooding Jr. just some of the names in the underworld and dirty cops on show. And with Washington and Crowe kept separate for the majority of the 157 minute running time it is important that they make their mark and give the leads something to play off.

Oddly though, I find this a hard film to recommend unreservedly. Despite its technical prowess and impressive performances it has never managed to get under my skin. It might be that its touchstones are Serpico (police corruption) and Scorcese gangster films (Casino, Goodfellas) and those films provoke a visceral rather than intellectual response.

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Body of Lies (2008)

Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a CIA field agent on the trail of a terrorist with the help of his handler Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) and Hani (Mark Strong) the Jordanian Secret Service Head. As he tracks the terrorist we take in the scale of the war on terror and the methods used to do so.

Body of Lies is very much a companion piece to Kingdom of Heaven. Both are written by William Monahan and both cover the politics of Christian / Muslim relations. It just so happens that one is set in medieval times and the other modern. One shows us how we set ourselves on this path and the other shows us the mess that we are in. This time however the moralistic viewpoint is different, can you do wrong in order to make things right? And this is explored through the characters and their actions.

DiCaprio is fantastic here as the man embedded on the ground. He is firmly the lead here and we see him travel through some difficult times to try to get his man. But we also get to see his character’s affection for the people and the culture by virtue of living in the region. Crowe on the other hand is arrogant and detached. Both morally and physically – the majority of their relationship is on a telephone. Crowe’s character wants to win the war at any cost. Elsewhere Oscar Isaac impresses in a small role as one of Ferris’ assets in Iraq and Mark Strong is suitably menacing as the head of Jordan’s secret service.

The film jet sets around between multiple locations throughout the world and the middle eastern photography is spectacular. As usual with Scott films there is a visual flair and attention to detail that comes to the fore when out in the desert and under the eye of drones.

A much more down beat outlook on the world since Kingdom of Heaven, but an impressive one.

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Robin Hood (2010)

Scott’s Robin Hood is such a peculiar film that it is hard not to wonder about the circumstances in which it was made. Some research uncovers a film heavily rewritten, even whilst filming was taking place and one that also created strain between its Actor/Director pairing, one that was now on its 5th installment. Originally the script was called Nottingham and the main character and hero was the Sheriff of Nottingham, with Robin the villain. Multiple rewrites apparently resulted in a total script cost of $6.7 million and required Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) to polish dialogue whilst on set. Scott and Crowe who shared an agent at the time required a shuffling of management and have not made a film since.

All of this results in a Robin Hood origin story of sorts. One clearly setting up a sequel that would never come. The film begins with Robin Longstride making his way back from the Crusades with Richard the Lionheart’s army currently in France. Following the death of the king, Robin impersonates Sir Robert Loxley in order to return home and is embroiled in a complicated plan to overthrow King John (Oscar Isaac) by the French that is led by a close friend of John’s, Godfrey (Mark Strong). This is absolutely not the Robin Hood you are familiar with. The Sheriff of Nottingham barely features, Robin is not yet an outlaw and full-scale warfare both opens and closes the film.

The film is at its best during battle and its camaraderie between Robin’s men. The battle scenes are fantastic and include a castle siege and horses galloping on a beach. As with all of Scott’s work he has an eye for visual flair and this is no different. Robin’s merry men, Little John (Kevin Durand), Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes) and Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle) also feature great chemistry with Crowe and are regularly seen singing, dancing and drinking. The fact that Crowe seems to have been able to fill his merry men with real life friends who in the case of Grimes is actually a musician seems to have worked well here.

On the other hand though we have terrible accents and a convoluted plot. Normally I am fairly tone-deaf when it comes to a slightly off accent. But in this film Crowe, his merry men and Maid Marion (Cate Blanchett) all seem to have slightly peculiar British accents that are completely off-putting. And then the plot seems incredibly convoluted to get us to the point where it ends where you would expect most Robin Hood stories to start. Robin has flashbacks to a father he can not quite remember, there is the impersonation of Loxley, the French plot and King John’s selfish evil to all be cogitated over.

But is it bad? It certainly could not be a recommended watch, but it is one that is just so odd that it becomes eminently interesting!

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Prometheus (2012)

Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her partner Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe they have found an invitation to the stars based on ancient drawings across multiple civilisations. Obtaining a grant from the Weyland Corporation they set out on the spaceship Prometheus to discover its meaning. When investigating a structure found on the planet they arrive at they discover something that could mean their end.

The much maligned Prometheus is for me one of the most misunderstood science fiction films made. Hamstrung by being a prequel to Alien there is a weight of expectation about what the audience want to see. The problem though is that the film makers vision was fundamentally different. Scott’s fascination with Alien was that of creation of life and Prometheus is firmly focused on this subject in relation to humans, androids and the alien itself.

Michael Fassbender’s android David is a human creation intrigued by his relationship with his creator whilst Shaw is unable to have a baby and is obsessed with the origin of human kind. Their findings on the planet point them to another civilisation that might be responsible for the origin of not just human kind but other species.

Complaints about the film include decisions made by the crew that put them in danger, its loose linking to the alien universe and a number of unanswered questions about the nature of how these species are created. These are all valid but can be explained with some lateral thinking and the knowledge that sometimes creativity and commerce do not mix well. My suspicion being that Scott would never have directly linked this film to Alien without the studio’s behest. The fact that his Alien story was never lumbered with additional lore muddies the water if you consider this a prequel to the franchise and not his Alien.

My advice is to watch the film ignoring the Alien connection. Think of this as a science fiction film about creation that wants to ask questions without forcing answers upon you. In amongst that you can enjoy the much grander scale of the film in comparison to Alien. This grander scale is matched in the visuals as well, with the Prometheus and planet being created with both digital and practical sets to amazing effect.

For my 2017 Alien Day double bill thoughts see this article:

Alien Day – Alien Director’s Cut & Prometheus

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The Counselor (2013)

Derided on initial release as one of the worst films of the year by some, The Counselor is a divisive film. The weight of expectation given the talent involved makes it a nice headline, but not an accurate one. Although I might accept biggest disappointment given those involved.

Based on acclaimed author Cormac McCarthy’s (Blood Meridian, The Road, No Country for Old Men) first and so far only screenplay, directed by Scott and starring Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt this has an awful lot to live up to.

The Counselor (Fassbender) is about to enter into a drug deal with the Mexican Cartel. Helping him with this are Reiner (Bardem), a flamboyant club owner and Westray (Pitt), an old hand at this game. The Counselor is never given a name, nor do we really know his motivation for doing this, although it might be something to do with the huge diamond ring he wants to propose to Laura (Cruz) with.

Your enjoyment of the film will ultimately boil down to your appreciation of the script. McCarthy appears to have ignored all script writing rules and has essentially compiled a series of two hander scenes. In each of these scenes characters will monologue and talk grandly in a manner no normal human being has ever spoken. They will discuss death, define words and at no point ever talk directly about the subject at hand. Something that might work well as a play, but seems incongruous in a film.

The script also is completely uninterested in character motivations for any action and only in the consequences of those actions. And those consequences are played out in an unbearably bleak view of the world. We never understand why any of the characters do any of the things they do, we just hear them waxing lyrical about it whilst the actors chew the scenery. And boy do they chew the scenery! When you see Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Diaz) have sex with the windshield of a Ferrari as he describes her vagina like a catfish you will understand what I mean!

An acquired taste then, one that I have very mixed feelings on. Scenes taken on their own are eminently enjoyable, but watched as a whole it can be grating. In this case this is the only Scott film where the extended cut offers no added value. The additional 20 minutes are just additional scenes or extended ones and add no character motivation, just more talking.

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Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

The biblical story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt is well known and has been filmed before so it is good to see Scott give it something unique to make it worth seeing again. It’s not just the visual flair on display which is second to none but also the occasional undertones in regard to how miraculous events could be explained that make it intriguing.

Let’s start with the least controversial aspect. The visual effects are spectacular and the scale of the production huge. The ancient cities are brought to life with panache and the huge battle and crowd scenes breathtaking.

Much more controversial though are the slight undertones to the possibility God has no hand in this. Moses character is sceptical of Egypt’s High Priestess prophecies and only has visions of God after a severe head injury, the plagues are explained by an expert in the Egyptian court and the parting of the Red Sea is preceded by cyclones suggesting a tsunami. All of these aspects of the film drew considerable ire from religious groups during production as being untrue, something typically hypocritical for a story that places Jewish people in Egypt when there is no evidence that this was ever the case.

More well placed controversy was found in the casting of the film. The lead actors being predominantly white and Scott suggesting he couldn’t finance a film of this scale without that being the case. Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton are both very good as Moses and Ramses respectively despite the obvious diversity issues.

On the whole though this is worth your time for the visuals and scale, not the biblical or historical accuracy.

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The Martian (2015)

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind on Mars presumed dead following a violent storm and must “science the shit out of this” to survive.

The Martian must be the most crowd pleasing film that Scott has ever made and there must be an argument that it is his best film? Essentially every component of the film comes together in a joyous whole in what could be described as a science fiction comedy I guess.

Scott always seems to work best on a large visual scale and here he has an entire planet to work with. His trade mark attention to detail and spectacular visuals are on display here and are a perfect blend with the subject matter. Matt Damon gives possibly his greatest performance ever as Mark Watney. A botanist abandoned on Mars who spends the majority of the film talking to himself on camera. Watney is incredibly intelligent, down to earth and often hilarious. By the end of the film you will be firmly rooting for this man to survive. Drew Godard’s script is fantastic at mixing scientific detail with
an irreverent tone, even managing to fit in a Lord of the Rings joke when Sean Bean is at the table. And the supporting cast are universally superb with the likes of Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Jeff Daniels to name a few who all perform admirably at building the tension both on Earth and in Space.

Funny, heartfelt and clever The Martian is a great watch.

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Alien: Covenant (2017)

I stand by my original review of Covenant on release date which you will find below.  This is a really good film that tries to bridge the gap between the science fiction of Prometheus and the horror of Alien. The first half of the film is a master class in build up, letting us see the ship, the crew and their mission. The second half is filled with gore, dark corridors and terror. Michael Fassbender is terrific in a dual role and Katherine Waterston is as close to a Ripley character that there could be.

The film looks stunning as well, from the Covenant ship, the planet’s surface and the scientific paraphernalia in David’s laboratory.

For my original review of Alien: Covenant on its cinema release date see this article:

Alien: Covenant

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Summation

Before the rankings I wanted to say thank you so much for reading my thoughts, it turned out much larger than I anticipated, but I was enjoying myself too much.

Watching Scott’s work in sequence with multiple cuts has been really enjoyable and really eye opening. Being able to see themes among such a wide variety of work has been fascinating. The one thing that seems to be clear to me is that Scott is a fantastic business man and more than a safe and proficient pair of hands for a studio. His budgets are low (Gladiator and Alien: Covenant cost $97 and $103 million respectively) for the types of film he creates, he films fast and he gets troubled projects back on course (Robin Hood). He also does not argue with a studio over final cut. And whilst I started this project believing Scott regularly released Director’s Cuts of his films this is not actually true.

Scott films with Director’s Cuts are Alien, Blade Runner, Legend and Kingdom of Heaven. In the case of Blade Runner and Kingdom of Heaven they are infinitely better than the theatrical release. Where as Alien’s is arguably weaker and Legend is more of a curiosity due to the fact that it is not a pristine version of the print. Otherwise a large number of his films have “extended” versions available, but none of them are championed by the Director and in the case of Gladiator seem to be openly frowned upon. It seems that the man responsible for two of the most acclaimed Director’s Cuts allows studios to make more money on DVD sales with extended versions.

My final thought would be that Scott has not made a poor film from a technical stand point. They are rarely less than stunning to look at and full of intricate detail and great effects work – both practical and digital. When his films falter it feels as though they are let down by the script. Scott does not write his own scripts and only offers guidance to his script writers as to what he wants. Perhaps sometimes this results in films not having a personal touch, but it does allow him to be prolific.

Personally I would like to see him finish his Alien prequel trilogy or perhaps get an original science fiction script that allowed him to focus on the one thing that has popped up repeatedly in Blade Runner and those films – what is it to be human and what does it mean to create life?

Ridley Scott Ranked 

Rather than attempt to give you a list of 24 films in an arbitrary sequence I felt it would work much better if I placed his films in some easily defined categories. The films have been placed in release order in each group.

Essential  – A must watch for everyone

  • Alien
  • Blade Runner
  • Thelma and Louise
  • Gladiator
  • Kingdom of Heaven (Director’s Cut only)
  • The Martian

Good – Exactly that, a good film worth watching

  • The Duellists
  • White Squall
  • Black Hawk Down
  • Matchstick Men
  • Body of Lies
  • Prometheus
  • Alien: Covenant

For fans of his work – Fans will still enjoy these, less so for casual observers

  • Legend
  • Black Rain
  • G.I. Jane
  • Hannibal
  • American Gangster
  • Robin Hood
  • The Counselor
  • Exodus: Gods and Kings

Eminently missable – Even fans might struggle, for completionists only

  • Someone to Watch Over Me
  • 1492: Conquest of Paradise
  • A Good Year
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4 thoughts on “Ridley Scott Retrospective

  1. Wow Phil!
    What a brilliant, interesting and well researched, long form article. This is going in my instapaper for reading again.
    What a lot of work. This must have taken weeks of research before you even started writing. The end product however is well worth all the obvious detailed research. Great read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much Graham.

      I think it was around 6 months from start to finish. A combination of finding the time around work for watching the films (sometimes in multiple forms) and researching and writing about them.

      It was really rewarding though. Especially watching them in the order they were made. I really want to do this again for another Director. Just need to make the time!

      Like

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