The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

By Roderick Heath

So, what is an adventure film?

Amongst film genres, some are defined by links to a specific time and place, like Westerns, or essential elements and gimmicks, like the futuristic setting or advanced gadgets in science fiction. Others are defined by the emotion they are supposed to inspire: comedies make you laugh, whilst horror and thriller films work as advertised (or try to). Genres are, of course, never impermeable things: Westerns have moved into outer space, comedies can revolve around profound fears, and the adventure film can cross the borders of many other genres.

Today, the adventure film might be considered an adjunct of the action film, but in truth, it’s more the other way around: the action film is the specifically contemporary version of the adventure film, defined by an essential need for kinetic movement and violence, utilising the props of the world as is, an ethic purely of the present tense. The adventure film, on the other hand, is uniquely ancient, possibly the most ancient genre of storytelling in existence, with links to bardic songs, campfire tales, cave paintings. The adventure movie, whilst usually retaining an action element, is defined as much or more by a sense of physical movement not necessarily involving violence, but rather travel and globetrotting, or a sense of having reached and become trapped in the world’s extreme and hostile locales, living on the edge in places of desperate straits. Such adventure tends to take place in settings that old-world, often pretechnological, or at least set in periods where technology is not so tyrannous or has been neutered as a world-ordering force. The adventure can, however, also be futuristic, set in times and worlds where technology restores a level of elasticity to personal freedom and heroism. The adventure film is politically difficult: it can invoke the rise and fall of nations, and stands squarely on the resilience of its heroes and the people they encounter. The meeting of cultures, violence between the two, and also their mutual acceptance and blending, is a constant frontier of the adventure film.

Men are usually the heroes of adventure films, but not always, and if it can be said that the genre is not necessarily one of violence, then some of the hardiest venturers into psychic and physical extremes are women, for example, the cast of William Wellman’s Westward the Women (1951) and the entrapped ambassadors of western culture in John Ford’s 7 Women (1966). The genre can tread the edge of the utterly fantastical, and yet, as with the likes of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s and William Friedkin’s diptych of films based on Georges Arnaud’s novel The Wages of Fear or Mikhail Kalatozov’s depiction of the ill-fated true-life Italia expedition The Red Tent (1969), it can also depict extremely simple, grindingly realistic scenarios. Adventure films are often built around motifs for transmitting knowledge that have roots in human prehistory: the riddle, the map, the quest, the search. Whilst action films are often seen as containing elements that pander to social conservatism, with an emphasis on law enforcers and authoritarian solutions, the adventure film can have links to colonialism and imperialism but just as often can have antiauthoritarian, even radical narratives, often encompassing, sometimes incidentally but also often directly, the establishment (or reestablishment) of legitimate government, or the fight against tyrannies. Such a scenario can be seen as far back as the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, where the hero embarks on his long voyage in order to bring down the usurping tyrant back home, and flows through the adventure swashbucklers of Errol Flynn and the struggles of Indiana Jones and Alistair Maclean’s pulpy heroes against Nazis, or George Lucas’ rebels against the Galactic Empire. The adventure film is also more fundamentally romantic than the action film: indeed, the modern genre has roots in romance, the broad name for all early fiction, and in courtly ballads and poems extolling the knight and lady fair. Saving the damsel, or more rarely but occasionally, the dude in distress is oft a key element of the adventure genre’s ideals.

One reason I’m engaging with this topic is my general frustration with how few great and actual adventure films there are, particularly in the modern pantheon. Recent attempts to revive subgenres like the pirate movie, with the increasingly intolerable Pirates of the Caribbean films, and the find-the-buried-treasure tale, like the National Treasure movies, raked in money but left a bitter aftertaste at their incapacity to develop coherent narratives. Instead, they compiled tropes and gimmicks harvested from a range of predecessors and hurled them onto the screen without even the clear-minded organising principles behind earlier examples of the process, like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Much of the thunder of both the classic action film and the adventure film has been stolen in the past few years by the superhero flick. Superheroes, by dint of their extraordinary gifts, are able to keep aspects of the classic swashbuckler alive in the age of drones, rockets, armour-piercing bullets, and nuclear weapons. Superheroes certainly have links to the more-than-human heroes of Greek, Jewish, Indian, and Chinese myth, but in being superhuman and barely vulnerable to all but the most absurd dangers, they cannot really channel the sure reality of physical stamina and witticism, the sense of being merely human even whilst contending with terrible forces, necessary for the swashbuckler. Beginning in the early ’50s, with the likes of The Crimson Pirate (1953), the genre became increasingly comic and self-mocking, with some stronger examples emerging from France, like Philippe de Broca’s giddy duo of Cartouche (1962) and That Man from Rio (1964), and Louis Malle’s Viva Maria! (1965); in Britain, Richard Lester’s series of seriocomic deconstructions of the form in the mid ’70s managed to both critique and satirise the genre whilst still engaging it on its own terms.

A question then arises: is the adventure film fundamentally just a mode for playful divertissement, or can it be more serious than is often allowed? Action films are often caricatured as Pavlovian, anti-intellectual fodder for the mindless masses, not without reason, but also often in ignorance of the deft balance of the aesthetic and mechanical ingenuity necessary to make the genre work. Adventure films require similar gifts, and yet it can also be said that the adventure film stands at odds with the action film in that it can more easily be thoughtful, even philosophical, as some advanced examples like Richard Brooks’ Lord Jim (1965), Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), or Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) testify. Adventurers can be intellectual, scholarly, like Indiana Jones or Sir Richard Burton in Mountains of the Moon (1989), or meditative or even self-destructive: Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1983) and John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Zardoz (1974) both push the genre to its physical limits whilst also engaging its deepest meanings in terms of both the psyche and the world where Conradian heroes disintegrate in trying to face down the primal, and civilisation becomes a death-dream from which the adventurers need to be awakened.

Many war films cross the line into adventure film territory: The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Great Escape (1963) take place in World War II, and yet they elide the usual brutal realism of the combat genre in presenting neo-swashbucklers, and Apocalypse Now (1979) grafts the Conradian adventure onto a wartime setting. Westerns, too, often cross paths with the genre, particularly the likes of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930), Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), and Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966): these films involve a scope of action and character beyond the familiar parameters of the horse opera.

And what about films from cultures beyond Europe and the US? The likes of Atarnarjuat (2001), the first Inuit cinema epic, certainly tell adventure stories, and, indeed, document the sorts of folk myth from which the genre evolved. Asian cinema’s classic genres of wu xia and jidai geki are tantalisingly close in nature to the swashbuckler, and though defined by certain specific rules of structure, the kind of action they depict, and their settings, Tsui Hark, Kihachi Okamoto, Akira Kurosawa and so many others have pushed into the realm of the adventure genre.

Can adventure films even be chamber pieces, or purely psychological? The likes of Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006), Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape (1984), and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) all take place in their hero’s headspaces. But how about the psychedelically derived adventure, as in Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967)? Dennis Hopper, who cowrote that film, was a kind of adventure filmmaker, expanding on the notion through his definitive hipster odysseys Easy Rider (1969) and The Last Movie (1971).  How about sexual adventures? Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June (1990) described itself as “A True Adventure More Erotic Than Any Fantasy,” and, indeed, erotica has always had a certain structural affinity with the adventure tale, with wandering, assailed, curious individuals delving into realms far beyond the normal. So what about Emmanuelle, or Deep Throat? Okay, now I’m just teasing, but you get my drift.

In any event, this series is going to look at both iconic and some less well-known works of adventure cinema: I am open to requests and petitions for works to be covered, and I’ll be interested in whatever suggestions you have. Please keep in mind that I won’t be dealing with films Marilyn or I have already written about here or at This Island Rod.

Now, hold onto your hats. We’re on our way.

The series so far:

Raiders of the Lost Ark

The Sea Hawk

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried & Kriemhild’s Revenge

The Black Swan

Judex

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Seven Samurai

Centurion

Farewell to the King

The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Necklace/The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge

Forever Amber

Lord Jim

A Chinese Ghost Story/A Chinese Ghost Story II

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad/The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

Enter the Dragon

The Naked Jungle

Two Mules for Sister Sara

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/06/2012 to 10:50 am

    Ooo, ooo, can’t wait. I really love adventure pics, and their scarcity these days I put down to the impoverished imaginations afloat in the film industry. Money is all that matters, and we have lost our connection to the psychic source of quest tales for the most part. It is no surprise that the Harry Potter books/films hit with such force because youth and adults still hunger for a way to express their heroic, questing natures. The fascistic tendencies in popular culture are designed to stifle our heroism so we all behave like good little drones. It’s a meager manner of existence (to quote Arthur Miller, a man who understood the corrosive qualities of commerce on heroic aspiration).

  • Roderick spoke:
    8th/06/2012 to 11:14 am

    That’s a great comment Mare, and one that cuts to the quick of much of my thinking. Indeed, a hallmark of many of the best recent films in or close to the genre is lead characters who are often in profound conflict with their native societies in a fashion that has distinct political overtones, and who therefore go looking for other worlds. Everyone I’ve asked the question over the past few years as to why there are so few good adventure tales, the answer everyone gives is much the same as yours: Hollywood doesn’t have the real imagination for them these days. And indeed considering the general reaction to John Carter, the source material for which stands right at the cusp of where the adventure genre branched into sci-fi, I don’t wonder if much of modern audiences and critics don’t have the imagination either. But as you say, the Harry Potter tales did tap some of it; but those stories were simultaneously defined by an attachment to the familiar and the solidly grounding as well as the teemingly strange (Hogwarts stood in for both), and thus represented a kind of armchair adventuring.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    8th/06/2012 to 11:36 am

    Yum! Can’t wait! I’d suggest “The Letter Never Sent” for Kalatazov, rather than “The Red Tent”. “The Crimson Pirate” is a fave, tho – it has a fun aspect many adventure films lack. I’d also suggest “Ice Cold in Alex”. a war film, yes, but not many films surpass it in having an adventure, and the 1956 “The Forty-First”, as well. Looking forward to this!

  • Jason Hedrick spoke:
    8th/06/2012 to 12:19 pm

    Very much looking forward to reading these. While reading your preface a few came to mind, most notably Philip Kaufman’s “The White Dawn,” which is not even a film I love, but when you were talking about the big letdown of modern adventure films like “National Treasure,” it popped into my head–it seems a dying breed of adventure film, in comparison, and though not even a great film, much preferable to any of the “Pirates” movies. Also, what about “The Man Who Would Be King”? Or, to add another to your list of adventure movie styles, what about the “road picture”? The quest of the open road seems to be something of a lost genre these days.

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    8th/06/2012 to 12:25 pm

    The best adventure movie that came out recently, to my knowledge, was The Adventures of Tintin — a great pirate movie as well as a great treasure-hunting movie. I’d recommend that for a possible review, but Mountains of the Moon, which you’ve mentioned, is easily my #1 request. Love, love that movie.

  • mark s. spoke:
    8th/06/2012 to 1:36 pm

    Do disaster films qualify (there is, after all, a turkey that goes by the name of ‘The Poseidon Adventure’)? I was thinking of ‘The Last Voyage’, a rather pedestrian affair featuring the amazing, almost mythic Adonis Woody Strode, an African-American hero years before the term became fashionable, and he saves Dorothy Malone’s beautiful blonde neck at the last breathless nanosecond.
    Can’t wait for the games to begin, Rod.

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    8th/06/2012 to 2:00 pm

    One handicap the adventure film faces today is modernity’s stunted sense of the exotic. Classic adventure, as you suggest, revels in discovery and exploration and in difference itself. But if movies emphasize the difference of different cultures they face charges of stereotyping or worse. Look at the grief George Lucas got for the exotic and eccentric aliens he created for Phantom Menace. Many people could see nothing but disguised racism, and the fact was that Lucas tried to bring the exotic ethnic “types” of classic adventure fiction into space opera. Audiences today seem more comfortable with assuming that everyone is like us, talks the same way, etc. . The only other acceptable option is “harmony with nature,” (Native Americas, Navi’i, etc) which tends to minimize the range of personality. The adventuring imperative itself is distrusted. The 1933 King Kong is an adventure film, while the 2005 film really isn’t. It’s hard to be an adventure film when you can’t celebrate the adventurer. In any event, cinema is always tempted to favor action over adventure, the sight gag over the swashbuckler, Keaton over Fairbanks. Think of The General as the first action movie and you get the idea. Meanwhile, I look forward to an adventure survey and I like a lot of the recommendations so far. The most recent thing that worked for me as an adventure film was Ridley Scott’s Kingdom Of Heaven — a better film than Gladiator in my book. Ping He’s Warriors of Heaven and Earth is a good recent international example, being more adventure than wirework or CGI fantasy. But i can’t close without admiring your invocation of Conan the Barbarian right up front.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/06/2012 to 2:37 pm

    Samuel – I originally thought the same way you do about the shrinking world and lack of physical challenges not yet accomplished. When you have traffic jams on Mt. Everest, you know that the model of the adventurer needs to be modified. Yet, there are still many ways to craft an adventure film, such as the innerspace films Rod mentioned. I think What Dreams May Come has this quest quality to it. Or perhaps just telling a ripping yard, for example, Tarsem’s The Fall, is an opportunity for us to reclaim our hero myths without worrying about being politically correct. There are also whole worlds out there that the average person will never see in person. Seeing a film from India, even a standard drama or comedy, is an exotic experience that has no hint of racism because it was created in that country itself. I hope that Hollywood can look at such films with fresh eyes and resist the temptation to Americanize them. It’s really not that hard to do, or at least, I don’t think it should be that hard.

  • Jeremy spoke:
    8th/06/2012 to 9:24 pm

    I sensed your grappling to define and contain the genre and empathise. I nodded sagely at the following acute observation regarding the recent crop of action/adventures:

    “Instead, they compiled tropes and gimmicks harvested from a range of predecessors and hurled them onto the screen without even the clear-minded organising principles behind earlier examples of the process, like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).”

  • Roderick spoke:
    8th/06/2012 to 11:22 pm

    Hey guys, thanks for commenting, and for your patience at our hemispheric time differences.

    On general statement: just because I’ve mentioned a movie or used a picture from it in this intro doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily going to write it up.

    Van the Man: nice list for consideration; I’ll need to watch Letter Never Sent to make any decisions about favouring it over The Red Tent, which I like a lot. Ice Cold in Alex is one of those films I’ve always heard of but never seen; one British war/adventure film on similar lines I do admire a lot is Guy Green’s Sea of Sand. And I’m serious need of a revisit of The Crimson Pirate, although in my mind in spite of its fun, it embodies something a little awful that infected the genre for a long time thereafter.

    Jason: I once started watching The White Dawn once very late at night, but sleep defeated me, and I’ve been meaning to watch the whole thing some time, and you’ve given me a spur to do so soon. Kaufman had a gift for making adventure films in unlikely contexts; it was easy to make the space exploration an adventure, but turning growing up in Brooklyn (in The Wanderers) into a Fordian epic? Difficult. And everybody seems to love The Man Who Would Be King except me – I’m just not that fond of Kipling – but because everyone does, I’ll probably do it. As for road movies, sure; the question is, which one(s)?

    Adam: Funnily enough, I finally viewed Mountains of the Moon from beginning to end about an hour before this post went live, and I fully concur and guarantee I’ll post on it in the future. It’s excellent, and a great example of a more modern approach to the genre. If there’s a real-life figure who comes close to elucidating all aspects of the adventurer as I’ve mentioned above, it’s got to be Sir Richard Burton. As for the other one, well, I’ve got another Spielberg up as the first post. I don’t think it’ll be hard to guess which one.

    Mark S.: Hey, hands off The Poseidon Adventure! (note: not a serious warning; but I do have a certain affection for that film) Indeed, many do count disaster movies as a subgenre of the adventure film, and The Last Voyage is a fairly good one. But if The Last Voyage is an adventure movie, then Titanic is even more of one. Which, yeah, might be true. But you’re absolutely right in your characterisation of Woody Strode, a perfect adventurer who barely ever got a part to live up to his innate strength on screen; I can likewise point to his awesome performance in Tarzan’s Three Challenges, and his powerfully glowering air of pain and fury in the likes of Spartacus and The Professionals and his practically cabalistic silence in Once Upon A Time In The West.

    Samuel: That’s a direct and invigorating comment on some of the problems of the genre, and Marilyn, another great reply. Personally I found Jar-Jar Binks to owe as much to Jerry Lewis with an accent than to racial caricature, but I still understood the chorus of irritation that greeted him; it was clear that rather than trying to reconstruct the ethnic sidekick, Lucas had simply made him an alien in order to leave the cliché undimmed. It does confuse me why Lucas gets keel-hauled for that, however, whilst, say, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies can offer up some rank canards, like the cannibal islanders and the ooky-kooky voodoo priestess, and be largely left alone; was it because Lucas had set himself up as the holier-than-thou stalwart of family entertainment? One flipside to that problematic coin, however, is the fact that adventure narrative speaks so broadly to so many cultures, many of which are still undergoing the pressures of modern transformation and so experience the collision of sensibilities more keenly. That’s one major reason I think why quite a few true modern adventure movies like Kingdom of Heaven and John Carter have actually been bigger hits internationally than at the US box office; whilst a film might have a white hero stranded amongst natives, people from other cultures can still easily relate to the character’s sensations of dislocation; and vice versa. Also, as I’ve said, the adventure genre has closer links to folk traditions of storytelling, and therefore melds more easily to broad sensibilities. I also often find the reverse process of exoticising western culture, which can be seen in Asian films like Once Upon A Time in China or Sex and Fury, to be fascinating and revealing. And indeed, I find Kingdom of Heaven an infinitely better film than Gladiator, and it’s another film I can guarantee will be written up. Scott has, repeatedly throughout his career, made what can be called the PC adventure film – see also 1492: The Conquest of Paradise and Robin Hood to a certain extent; Black Hawk Down is somewhat contradictory and reveals Scott wrestling with his impulses in the context of reactionary fervour – where he tries to delve into the schismatic nature of the adventure narrative in the context of real-world history, and his consistent interest in clashes of cultures and emissaries of worlds within worlds. I fully agree that Keaton was in many ways an action filmmaker, and I’ve discussed that very point, glancingly, in the first post proper for the series. I haven’t seen Warriors of Heaven and Earth, and I’ll put it on the list to take a look at; one recent Chinese film that, CGI notwithstanding, does I think come well under my aegis is Tsui Hark’s terrific Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, which signals its intent in the adventure style by referencing the Indiana Jones movies in its sprawling eponymous title.

    Jeremy: I actually think I’m more trying to liberate rather than contain a sense of the genre, to say, it’s a very broad church. Otherwise, yep.

  • Patrick spoke:
    13th/06/2012 to 9:47 pm

    I’m a few days late, but a couple of suggestions would be some Hawks pictures – The Big Sky and Only Angels Have Wings (I suppose you could throw Hatari in there too as an adventure film, I guess Hawks was an adventure film kind of guy). King Solomon’s Mines is another one I always enjoyed, the good one of course, not that dreadful remake. The Four Feathers maybe, Dersu Uzala is probably one. I know that’s too many, just giving you some options.

    I guess I must like this type of movie, I was trying to dredge a few titles up from my brain and came up with some not very good movies that I still like, realized it’s just because they are more or less adventure films.

  • Roderick spoke:
    13th/06/2012 to 10:09 pm

    Hi Patrick. Oh, I’m not afraid of getting too many options, only not enough. Never fear, Only Angels Have Wings is already on my unofficial list of films for the series, although I really do have to check out The Big Sky, which everyone seems newly smitten by. The Four Feathers mentioned twice now – looks like I’m drafted into that one. I suppose it’s the archetypal imperialist adventure movie, and as much as they tend to make me wince a little, the Zoltan Korda version is superlatively done (I’ve not seen the much-reviled Shekhar Kapur version, but I’m tempted to, just to feel out Kapur’s post-colonial take on the material); I have seen and enjoyed the respective Robert Stevenson and Compton Bennett King Solomon’s Mines versions without finding either particularly great – the Stevenson film’s regular Paul Robeson song breaks and the Bennett version’s Deborah Kerr bathing in the rock pool scenes are both mighty cheese. I’d like to see someone tackle Haggard with the same sense of realism as Bob Rafelson brought to Mountains of the Moon. But, ah, the Richard Chamberlain version. The stuff that embarrassing childhood memories of how much time you wasted watching it are made of…

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