Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Red and Andy.

Whereas The Fugitive depicts a Windy City, Big City on-the-lam thrill-ride and The Shawshank Redemption narrates a tale of Big HHHHHHouse stoicism (in which the wind plays a limited role) these two films nevertheless share a number of conventions, including through-actions populated by convenient arrivals. Both main characters have been wrongly convicted of murdering their wives. The viewer, from the outset, would hardly doubt the innocence of Dr. Richard Kimble (played by Harrison Ford) as well as the innocence of Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) and therefore the essential tensions of the films concern the attempts of both characters to nullify their convictions—given the obstinate machinery of a blinded legal system gone amuck.

Both characters escape. Kimble, in The Fugitive, frees himself in the film’s early going, after a speeding freight train, fortunately, strikes a prison bus which has been crippled, at night, after the bus comes to rest upon train tracks, following a prisoner uprising. It takes Dufresne the bulk of The Shawshank Redemption to escape from his cell, but he does, after the camera reveals the tunnel he has been digging with a small rock hammer, over a couple decades, through walls that obligingly crumble. At the end of his travails, Kimble is once again under arrest, but the audience understands that he will soon be freed, and Dufresne, though a fugitive, himself, at the end of his story, has nevertheless achieved incontrovertible freedom by crossing into Mexico.

Though Dr. Kimble operates mostly as an outcast and must dodge the attempts of a zealous but curious U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (played by Tommy Lee Jones) he nevertheless does not seem to display any character flaws, is perfectly likable, and in a way that exemplifies Hollywood Morality, carries the water (figuratively speaking) for anyone who has suffered the cruel weights of the system upon his or her shoulders. The Fugitive seems to take place over a few months whereas The Shawshank Redemption, in fits and starts, settles in for twenty years. Dufresne, in that span, oscillates between brash, optimistic, maudlin, and withdrawn, and suffers real consequences—beatings, isolations, exposure to unsavory populations—when he acts out against authority. His life before prison, though dealt with in brief, suggests imperfections—his wife, after all, had been cheating at the time of her murder, and he, apparently, drank to excess. Nevertheless, as a prisoner, Dufresne always seems to triumph over his surroundings, gaining privileges for himself and his friends, including one friend in particular, Red (played by Morgan Freeman), who also serves as the film’s voice-over narrator. (Dufresne’s chief tormentor in the population, a rapist who leads a gang, “The Sisters”, is clubbed into submission—and paralysis—by the guards.)

Both films offer compelling oppositional dynamics among different groups. In The Fugitive, the Chicago Police Department are villainous in their zeal to capture and punish Kimble, while at the same time, many former colleagues aid the doctor, and the film’s second protagonist, Marshal Gerard, who, at first aims to “get his man”, comes to his rescue, instead, by the time Kimble finally solves the mystery of his wife’s murder. Dufresne, at first an outsider, must weather the assaults by The Sisters, before he can win himself a crowd of friends, led by Red, and before he can win the Chief Guard’s attention in a risky gambit. The guards bend back and forth between tolerating Dufresne and acting brutally towards him, as does the Warden, who cuts a devoutly corruptive figure by laundering money with Dufresne’s financial expertise. Both films, similarly, contain conspiracies. A major pharmaceutical company seems to murder many people, including Kimble’s wife, among other felonious acts, in a muddy plot to establish a new drug. In The Shawshank Redemption, the warden and his guards conspire to murder a new inmate, one who conveniently validates Dufresne’s claims of innocence. 

Gerard and Kimble.

Both films are long; they both contain amusing moments where probability is stretched too thin. For example, Kimble memorably does a “Peter Pan” off the top of a huge dam, a jump that would kill anybody else. Dufresne’s escape is especially difficult to believe—not that a man couldn’t escape from prison, rather, the night he must go, there just happens to be a loud, lengthy thunderstorm, one that allows him to rupture a thick, impenetrable pipe, loudly, with an ordinary rock. Scant hours later, Dufresne exposes the warden, tidily mailing evidence of his malfeasance to a newspaper reporter while clad in a flawless suit. Owing, perhaps, to implausible moments in the scripts, neither leading man seems to do his best acting. (I always liked Harrison Ford in Blade Runner and Witness, and as for Robbins, his acting in Mystic River was strong, not to mention his part in The Player.) No, it’s the supporting characters who deliver the better performances, in part because their scripted roles twist through humanistic changes which the viewer can identify. The Marshall switches from a pursuer to a sympathizer in The Fugitive, and in The Shawshank Redemption, Red finally exhibits remorse over the murder he had committed as a young man.

The Fugitive appeared a year earlier (1993) than The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and earned staggering box office revenue of $368.9 million, whereas the latter film barely exceeded its budget, grossing but $28.3 million. Both were nominated for seven Academy Awards, with Tommy Lee Jones winning for Best Supporting Actor, the only win among the fourteen opportunities. The Fugitive is a thriller; The Shawshank Redemption is a drama—perhaps allowing for the box office differences. Kimble is cleaner than Dufresne; he does not go to prison, he does not get sodomized, he physically saves a law enforcement officer (Marshal Gerard) in the penultimate scene of the movie, whereas Dufresne implicates the entire staff at Shawshank. Even though the storylines contain the deaths of the wives, still, both films are about birth, as both main characters—ruggedly—attain their freedom. Viewers never doubt this, however, nor do they doubt that the two couples, Kimble and Gerard and Dufresne and Red, will be united in friendship, as well. Both heroes are innocent, after all, so how could they fail in friendship?

The problem isn’t that Hollywood created two films that don’t really challenge the ever-simplifying moviegoer’s sense of entitlement to triumph, but that cable TV is forever airing these two movies. I’d like to see two new movies, instead. The first one, starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, would be called The Punitive, and would dramatize the travails of a wrongly accused doctor who would be suing, like, everybody: the police, the marshals, the hospital, the drug company. (“I thought we were friends!” Tommy Lee Jones would holler, as he is served a subpoena.) The second film, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, would be dubbed The Middle Aged Man, the Old Man, and the Sea, and would depict two ex-convicts sailing around in Mexican fishing waters, perhaps landing a large albacore. Better yet, how about a flick that brought together all four chaps—and some women, too, for gosh sakes—in a film entitled Four Actors in Search of a Movie.

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