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Genre Blast: Adventure – “We’re Going to Need a Bigger Boat!”

It will probably happen one of two ways at some point in your life: you will search out adventure on your own, or, in some cases, it will hunt you down unexpectedly. The former takes a certain kind of individual who, unsatisfied with the regular routine, sets out to explore the unknown, often risking life and limb. The latter are just plain folks who are going through life as it should be when circumstances erupt and send the “same ole, same ole” into a tailspin. “Adventure” occurs when extraordinary things happen to ordinary, usually curious, people.

 Two competing Victorian-era explorers, an archeology scholar who happens to know how to use a bullwhip, the sheriff of a sleepy beach town, pilots in the right place at the right time, or even a bunch of lay-abouts in the middle of nowhere just sitting around waiting for an opportunity to make some easy cash – these are the folks who have adventures. And that’s why the genre is so popular. Adventures can happen to anyone at anytime and we are as excited by those that happen to other people almost as much as if they happened to us. I would even wager that films in this genre have the highest number of repeat viewings.

 Criteria for this exciting and entertaining genre include ordinary people, professional or amateur who are living in a routine and have a nagging itch for knowledge that’s waiting to be scratched. Sometimes the adventure comes in the form of a threat that endangers that sleepy routine and challenges the participants to evolve and overcome it. Last but not least – a terrific musical score is a must! Most of the best film scores have been written for adventure films.

 Five adventure films that riveted me over and over again are:

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Raiders of the Lost Ark – Steven Spielberg (1981)

The first 15 minutes of this classic is a breathtaking obstacle course of thrills that jams us into the action right along with Indiana Jones, himself. Classic Saturday afternoon serials and action comics inspired the Lucas/Spielberg spinning wheel and the result made a superstar of Harrison Ford in his first solo (sorry) lead role. Snakes, Nazis, scimitar-brandishing giants are all part of the mix in the race to find the Ark of the Covenant. It’s Ford’s easy, smirking charm combined with Spielberg’s precision skill at audience manipulation that make this film a constant treat, even if you’ve seen it 20 times before. Plus, the last scene is direct salute to none other than Citizen Kane. Why Citizen Kane? Who knows, but it works.

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The Right Stuff – Philip Kaufman (1984)

The Mercury 7 space program in the 60s was one of the most exciting human endeavors of the 20th Century, but Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s acerbic book adds a spectrum of facets, including of satire, drama, suspense, romance and inspiration. The space race overpowered everything else in the news at the time and the astronauts (what a clunky old-world confection of a word) were feted and tested to absurd lengths for what many, especially test pilots like Chuck Yeager, considered to become “spam in the can”. Clearly defined characters portrayed by then relatively unknown actors (plus one playwright, Sam Shepherd), stunning desert and aerial cinematography, and a moving and somewhat tongue-in-cheek score make up my favorite film of 1984.

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La salaire de la peur (Wages of Fear) – Henri-Georges Cluzot (1953)

This diamond rattles around within the top five or six entries on my list of all-time favorite films. Big Oil almost stopped its release in North America – they provided the fuel for the 50s economy but Cluzot had their number decades before the rest of us, and the company didn’t appreciate the exposure of their exploitive intentions and impact. The simple plot involves the hiring of a few indigent and expendable do-nothings to transport truckloads of explosives to drilling sites over the worst terrain imaginable. What makes the film timeless is Cluzot’s original, unglamorized style and relaxed pacing. From the gritty heat and boredom in the dusty, sun-bleached town to the sweaty darkness lit only by headlights on the rough road, suspense builds with each obstacle encountered and the increasing tension between the drivers. In one particular key scene, where Hollywood would have filled the screen with a massive explosion, Cluzot opts to portray the event by showing a match lit for a cigarette being silently snuffed by a sudden, silent shock wave gust of air from the unseen blast. His point of view is from a personal, character-centered angle – not showy spectacle – that more intimately involves the viewer in every scene. Simply a great piece of filmmaking.

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Jaws – Steven Spielberg (1975)

If “Bruce”, the mechanical shark, had not malfunctioned during filming, I wonder if we would have the same level of suspense that makes this blockbuster a classic. As with Wages of Fear, it’s what we don’t see – the invisible, unknown threat – that provides fertile ground for director Spielberg, editor Fields and maestro Williams to work their considerable magic. The term “blockbuster” pretty much started with Jaws as lineups to see the film were insane, and much attention was paid as it overtook and devoured every film on the list of top grossing films of all time. What’s odd is that one of the most influential films ever made – one that changed Hollywood’s focus – failed to garner Spielberg a Best Director nod at the Oscars.

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Mountains of the Moon – Bob Rafelson (1990)

If one had to list the most ambitious and fascinating undertakings of the 19th century, Richard F Burton and John Hanning Speke’s search for the source of the Nile would be near the top. Why Bob Rafelson’s self-acclaimed personal favorite of all his films did not achieve adequate attention when it was released is a mystery. It has everything – magnificent settings as captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins, adventure based on historical fact at every turn, and a stylized presentation of the rivalry between two very famous and competitive characters who were in constant personal conflict with each other. Patrick Bergin and Iain Glen (Burton and Speke, resp.) deliver solid performances, as does Fiona Shaw as Burton’s very understanding wife, Isabel. This story is adventure in its purest form as it portrays the hunger and overwhelming desire to search out the unknown, the hardships encountered and, most of all, the wonder of discovery.

So there — you have five examples of a film genre that justifies the importance of cinema and its ability to take us deep into places and situations that we could never hope to encounter on our own.

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