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Apr 23, 2011

CINEMA SPIRIT GUIDES

Citizen Robot has come up with one of the best ideas for a movie list ever - but it's also proven to be the hardest. Her idea is to list our "Cinema Spirit Guides" - characters from movies that inspire and move us. The characters (not the actors) in the movies we would most like to be, and with whom we can relate to in some mystical way.

My list started out pretty simple - my top 5 sprung to mind almost immediately. But as I worked on it, more and more names presented themselves, hence my 5 quickly turned into 12.

So since I'm a guy, my characters all ended up to be men. There are a lot of strong female characters in the cinema that I admire, but sadly, Hollywood is notorious for giving females the shaft. Compare how many all-male cast movies there are compared to all female? I can only think of 2 (female) off the top of my head - and one is a remake of the other. That would be the George Cukor version of THE WOMEN and the Diane English remake. Female honorable mentions would be Joan Crawford as MILDRED PIERCE and I could probably cite 1 or 2 movies with Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Taylor and Susan Sarandon.

Here are my guides - in order of preference.




1) Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr. (Harrison Ford)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) - [Reluctantly]

"We named the dog Indiana!"

Not only does Indy's name instantly conjure up a feeling of adventure and daring-do, but he is one snappy dresser. The Fedora, the leather jacket, the satchel, and he carries a whip and knows how to use it. A female character like Catwoman can carry a whip and suddenly every male is a-twitter with sexual innuendos, but with Indy it just comes off as cool and macho and unique.

One of the things I appreciate the most about the Indiana Jones films - especially the first three - is how Indy is surrounded by these supernatural happenings and icons, but his character is firmly based in reality. After being dragged behind a truck, being shot and generally beaten to a pulp, we later see Indy with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) on the ship (Bantu Wind), and he's hurting. Bruised all over, Marion touches him and he flinches. That would never happen to say Arnold or Sly (it is also one of the things I appreciated about Bruce Willis' Jon McClane character from DIE HARD). This is a guy who takes a beating and pays for it later - which makes when he keeps on going even more exciting knowing he is fighting through the pain and injuries.

Scholarly and conservatively dressed University professor by day, but once he's on the trail of an artifact, the rugged costume comes out and he stops shaving giving us the alter ego of adventuresome archaeologist - which probably is more true to his character than the day job.

Indy does it for the history. The artifacts make him "giddy as a school boy", and he will go to whatever lengths to make sure they end up in a museum. Belloq (Paul Freeman) from RAIDERS is his dark evil twin, out for power and possession. Not that Indy hasn't been lured by the almighty dollar. In INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, Indy goes after the "Fortune and Glory" and ends up essentially in hell - attacked an ancient cult, hearts being ripped out, ritual sacrifices, he gets possessed with some sort of mind altering drug, kids are whipped and beaten and used as slaves - you get the idea. Luckily when he returns to the village with the Sankara stones, he's back to the being the Indy who isn't driven by fame and fortune. Personally, I blame Willie.

Indy has a passion, and is in his element when pursuing that passion - literally leaving reality behind.





2) Jefferson Smith (James Stewart)
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Who hasn't wanted to be a part of something big and exciting, then got involved in it only to find that it's a corrupt and cynical mess. Jefferson Smith believed in America, and the Government. He then finds himself in his dream job, a U.S. Senator, hired by a man he respects and admires, only to find that the entire system is corrupt and he is now a pawn and sent down the river for being idealistic.

Jefferson Smith will not be licked. He uses the powers of government to fight the corruption, and almost kills himself in the process. And here's the amazing part about this film - Jefferson Smith essentially loses. If it wasn't for the pang of guilt that drives Claude Rains to suddenly try and blow his brains out in the U.S. Senate, Smith was doomed.

The giddiness of Smith when he enters Washington DC and he starts pointing out all the landmarks and how excited they make him is a great scene. When I started working in Hollywood, I had the same reaction. Every day I walked the Walk of Fame or by the Chinese theater, or drove by the Hollywood sign and for the 6 years I drove onto the Warner Bros. lot for my job, I got a chill. I always imagined walking around that lot that at one point people like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Bette Davis once roamed in the exact same spot. When Warner decided to post a list of what films had been shot on each sound stage, I made it a point to go around and imagine that stage busy making those classic films I am fascinated with. In this, I could relate to Jefferson Smith.

To be able to keep and fight for your ideals and morals, that is what makes Jefferson Smith so great.





3) Rhett Butler (Clark Gable)
- Gone With the Wind (1939)

Frankly, he doesn't give a damn.

Rhett Butler is a man's man. He's tough, he's rugged, he's cool and he knows how to be a gentlemen, but not to the point where he would let a lady walk over him (although Scarlett comes pretty close). The fact that his closest friend is a prostitute...well...I am guessing he admires her for the fact that her cards are all on the table. She charges for sex and makes no bones about it.

Scarlett O'Hara is a strong-minded woman and Rhett's attraction stems from the fact that he sees her not only as almost an equal, but also a beast that can be tamed. Rhett though gets tired of Scarlett's constant yearning for the foppish Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and finally walks out in that oh so classic scene right at the moment when Scarlett realizes she needs Rhett more than anything. Rhett knows when it's time to cash out.





4) Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner)
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
- Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984)
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

There is a reason I am listing only STAR TREKs II-IV, and have Kirk listed as Admiral instead of Captain.

I always admired Captain Kirk from the 1960s TV show. He was brash and made decisions on the fly and solved problems so quickly and boldly, the opposition never knew what hit them.

That is TV....this is cinema.

Admiral Kirk is now an older man, bound by a desk job yet still yearning for the adventure days of yesterday that seem to be far behind him. His friends and colleagues all think the promotion was a mistake, and although he doesn't say it, he agrees.

This is a man who has never faced great loss, and when one of his youthful conquests comes back for vengeance - that would be of course Khan (Ricardo Montalban) a genetically superior tyrant whom he left stranded on a planet decades ago that became a barren wasteland and wiped out half his people - Kirk must face a decision from his past and experience loss on a level he has never been subject to.

He later sacrifices everything in his life to save a friend in need - including his beloved Enterprise - and becomes an outcast criminal for it. Even then, he risks everything again to save the Earth, and becomes a hero while on his way to face the music for his earlier actions - which he was doing so voluntarily.

Admiral Kirk in these films also has not yet faced the badness that is STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER which is something we all had to deal with...sadly.





5) Han Solo (Harrison Ford)
- Star Wars (1977)
- The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- Return of the Jedi (1983)

Ok so any surprise Han made the list? Han Solo is a figurehead for fanboys everywhere. I mean really...who wanted to be bland Luke Skywalker. No...Han was a rogue, a guy who didn't care about anything (or so it seemed) except his own neck. He also had a walking furry monster as a companion who carried a cool laser crossbow and was loyal only to Han.

Han shot first and asked questions later (a sticking point that is now ever present thanks to the change in the Greedo scene in the revised editions of the first film). He and Princess Leia were polar opposites, but Leia's tough facade was only masking what Han already knew...she was into him leading to one of the greatest cinematic love exchanges ever -

Leia: "I Love You".

Han: "I Know".




6) R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson)
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Let's look past the fact that McMuphy is a criminal. We never see McMurphy do anything criminal, but here is a guy who has tricked his way into a psych hospital to get out of doing prison time - this is a clever guy. Not to mention...he may be a criminal but never at any point during this film do you dislike his character.

McMurphy knows a bum rap when he sees it, and he immediately realizes that his fellow ward-mates are not being treated with human respect. He treats them better than the hospital staff does - especially Nurse Ratched who is more dictator than nurse - and tries to give them their dignity back and in turn...well...I don't want to spoil it.





7) Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner)
- JFK (1991)

I am completely ignoring the fact that Jim Garrison is a real figure, and going off the movie character alone. The real Garrison has often been cited as being a bit of a kook while at the same time being praised as a crusader for asking more questions than anyone else - but more of a kook.

Costner's Garrison is less kook, more driven. Feeling that he and his fellow American citizens have been blatantly lied too, he obsessively pursues the truth to the point of bringing to light something that the government had closed the book on.

Questioning everything...that's what makes Garrison so great. That and his relentless search for the truth. Sure he makes mistakes, but in the end, the doubt is planted and questions are asked. A character that makes people think.




8) Colonel George Taylor (Charlton Heston)
- Planet of the Apes (1968)

Taylor begins the movie brash and arrogant (he verbally rides one of his fellow astronauts pretty hard) and ends up beaten, abused and treated like an animal by talking, militaristic apes.

Taylor may be a prisoner in this topsy-turvy world, but he finds allies and brings up evolutionary issues that the Ape government would rather keep hidden.

Even when he's beaten and stripped of his humanity, through it all Taylor fights to hold onto his dignity and never loses that fight.




9) J.B. Books (John Wayne)
- The Shootist (1976)

Books is a notorious gunfighter that has cheated death at every turn. Now he faces an enemy he can't beat - cancer.

(Spoilers)

Seeking to go out on a high note, he invites other gunfighters to take him on in a duel, but his instincts take over and Books survives, only to get shot in the back by a bartender.

Books makes no bones about who he is or what he has done. He's realizes he's at the end of his rope, and wants to go out on a high note. Who can blame him? Made even more poignant given that John Wayne was dying himself from cancer when this movie was made. A personal movie with a larger than life actor.




10) Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper)
- High Noon (1952)

So this gunfighter is released from prison and on his way to kill the newly married Marshall Kane. Kane is the reason he went to prison and and as a result, Kane also cleaned up a dusty western town. Kane has the chance to leave - alive - with his new, beautiful (Quaker) wife, but instead he stays to face his demons, abandoned by the very townspeople he risked his life to save with his wife begging him to leave with her the entire time.

A true hero, a man who risked everything for those who later betray him. He still stands up for them even when they openly abandon him in his most desperate time of need.




11) Inspector "Dirty" Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood)
- Dirty Harry (1971)
- Magnum Force (1973)
- The Enforcer (1976)
- Sudden Impact (1983)
- The Dead Pool (1988)

"Go ahead, make my day"

This is a guy whose bad side you don't want to be on. He does his job, and he does it by any means necessary even though his bosses like the results and frown on the methods. To them he's a dinosaur, using his gun instead of diplomacy. But the crooks Callahan takes down are animals on the loose.

Who needs a big gun, Callahan could probably kill with one of those mean squinty looks, and his awesome one liners ("...do you feel lucky, punk...", "A Man's got to know his limitations", you get the idea) just make him cool.

When Hollywood held a televised appeal for money after 9/11, the last person to appear on screen was Clint Eastwood. Looking kind of disheveled and angry, I could only think that the terrorists had to be shaking in their boots - Dirty Harry was coming for them.



12) Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner)
- Dances With Wolves (1990)

This is a guy who is so disillusioned that during a Civil War battle, he tries to get himself killed, but in the process becomes a hero.

Looking to get from it all, he requests a post on the frontier and ends up at a fort all by himself - well except for a wolf companion he names "Two Socks."

Dunbar gets mixed up with the Native Americans and soon finds himself adapting to their culture. (Spoilers) Of course his previous life catches up with him and things don't go so well.

Dunbar opens his mind to new ideas, and finds himself in something he probably never considered existing. He also sacrifices everything for this new life, and eventually (spoilers) sacrifices more to protect that way of life for others. He's a man without a country, but a man with convictions.

Honorable Mention:

William Wallace (Mel Gibson)
- Braveheart (1995)