The Fugitive: Doc on the Run

A MURDERED WIFE. A ONE-ARMED MAN. AN OBSESSED DETECTIVE. THE CHASE BEGINS. 

If you ever come to Sylva, North Carolina, there is at least one must-see tourist attraction – the train wreck from The Fugitive (1993). After shooting this expensive action scene that had a bus colliding with a train, the crew left the wrecks behind in the woods. Two decades have passed and they’re still there, rusty and covered in weeds. You can still read ”Illinois Dept. of Corrections” on the side of the bus, the vehicle that was meant to take Dr. Richard Kimble to prison.

That’s a great attraction – especially since had The Fugitive been filmed today, most of the scene might have been cooked up in a computer. It’s nice to have tangible traces of a classic film in the middle of nowhere.

After the murder of his wife Helen (Sela Ward), successful Chicago vascular surgeon Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is arrested. He tells police that he came home one night, found his wife attacked by a one-armed man and had a violent struggle with him; the man disappeared and Helen died from her wounds. Kimble is subsequently charged with murder and sentenced to death. The disgraced doctor is brought aboard a bus to be transported to the prison where he will end his days, but a few of the other prisoners on the bus attempt an escape.

The bus careens off the road down a ravine where it crashes on a railway track. Kimble is now a survivor who intends to find the real killer… but he will be hunted by a dogged U.S. marshal, Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones).

Recreating small-screen magic
If you were paying attention to director Andrew Davis at the time of this release, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was about to turn into one of Hollywood’s great directors. After starting out with Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal movies, he made Under Siege (1992), a silly but slick action movie that actually made Seagal look good. Then came The Fugitive, a big-screen adaptation of the popular 1963-1967 TV show. Every filmmaker who tries to recreate that small-screen magic while also providing a fresh breath of air to the concept is in for a challenge and there are few successful attempts. Almost every critic would agree that The Untouchables (1987) and this one are perfect examples that it can be done.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Davis brings a personal touch to The Fugitive (even though it takes place in Chicago like several other of his films), but the excesses that made Under Siege fun but implausible have been stripped away and something that could almost be called credibility has been added. We believe in the basic premise of this film, in Kimble’s plight and Gerard’s motivations; the action scenes hold us on the edge of our seats, and they look realistic to a satisfying extent. I’m sure that Kimble wouldn’t have survived the spectacular crash between the train and the bus, or that iconic leap from a dam, but Davis makes us think he could. He also tells the story in a solid, exciting way, shifting our perspective from Kimble’s hunt for the one-armed man to Gerard’s investigation.

Jones has our attention right from the start when he barks at his team to ”search every warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse”; the members of his team know that he expects a lot and practices tough love with them. But Ford is also terrific as Kimble; he makes us identify with him but also hints at a greater depth. The doctor has no experience of being in a situation like this, and the way he handles it is not always smooth. Ford’s everyman charisma is very effective. 

The Fugitive 1993-U.S. 127 min. Color. Produced by Arnold Kopelson. Directed by Andrew Davis. Screenplay: Jeb Stuart, David Twohy. Cinematography: Michael Chapman. Music: James Newton Howard. Cast: Harrison Ford (Richard Kimble), Tommy Lee Jones (Samuel Gerard), Sela Ward (Helen Kimble), Julianne Moore, Joe Pantoliano, Jeroen Krabbé… Jane Lynch.

Trivia: Followed by U.S. Marshals (1998). Remade in India in 1995.

Oscar: Best Supporting Actor (Jones). Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actor (Jones). BAFTA: Best Sound.

Quote: “Listen up, ladies and gentlemen, our fugitive has been on the run for ninety minutes. Average foot speed over uneven ground barring injuries is 4 miles-per-hour. That gives us a radius of six miles. What I want from each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area. Checkpoints go up at fifteen miles. Your fugitive’s name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him.” (Jones)

Last word: “Harrison had committed somehow and I had to figure out how to make the script work. So I called up my sister, who was a nurse at Cedars, and I said ‘Josie, what could get a doctor in really deep shit?’ She called me back the next day and said ‘What if there’s a drug protocol going on and the guy disses it? He says this drug isn’t worthwhile and this big pharmaceutical company wants to shut him up.’ So that became the basis for Devlin-MacGregor and Provacic. So I owe it to my sister’s insights that we fixed it. The script wasn’t completely finished, so we improvised a lot on the set. Tommy Lee and I had done that a lot on ‘Under Siege’. So we’d improvise, write it down and shoot it.” (Davis, The Hollywood Interview)

 

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