Simon Moore selects his Five Essential Hollywood Remakes...
Remakes are easy targets. Anyone who wants to make Tim Burton cry, for instance, need only whisper ‘Planet of the Apes’ in his pale, elfin ear. Even seeing Conan the Barbarian rehashed with an Easter Island statue in the title role gets film buffs nostalgic for Arnie’s bouncing biceps. Bear in mind though, if you go to see a film about a guy in a loincloth, you’re getting all the homoerotic mental images you deserve.
Ho there, pilgrim. Let’s be sensible here. Conan is only the tip of the iceberg. The absolute worst remakes are like the worst sequels; it’s the same old story, same old beats, usually even the same bloody sets if they can manage it. So it follows that the remakes that work... aren’t remakes at all. They start over. They look at the whole story in a new light. If you know the original you can spot the similarities here and there, but somehow those beat checklists become irrelevant. The new film has become something else entirely. Inventive. Inspirational. Incomparable.
The Mummy (1999, dir. Stephen Sommers), remake of The Mummy (1932, dir. Karl Freund)
1926. An ancient evil is awakened because some British types get a bit giddy in the city of the dead and start reading hieroglyphs aloud. Now a decrepid, malevolent mummy is putting himself back together by stealing body parts from glorified grave robbers. And only a gun-toting American, a foxy librarian and her Hooray Henry brother can stop it. Bedouin George Harrison lends a hand too.
Everybody saw this. It was high spirited slapstick; it was jaw-dropping horror; it was Indiana Jones for the ‘90s with pyramids and curses and a foxy Egyptologist. Sommers took Freund’s original stark, slow-release horror and gave it a new lease of life, introducing some of the first really convincing CGI sequences in a live-action film at the same time. Tell me you weren’t completely blown away by that sandstorm shaped like Imhotep’s face chasing a biplane through the Saharan desert. Go on. I dare you.
Outland (1981, dir. Peter Hyams), remake of High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)
How do you top Gary Cooper facing down dusty, sweaty goons in the New Mexico desert? Easy. Don’t go back to the desert. Go to the moons of Jupiter, and hire Sean Connery as your Marshal. Marshal William T. O’Neil. He spots a connection between three recent deaths in the mining colony, and he smells a cover up. Nobody on the colony but a crabby doctor will so much as give O’Neil the time of day, so it’s up to him to fight off assassins and corrupt officials with nothing but his wits and a shotgun.
Hyams isolates O’Neil totally; the only light is artificial; his world is the claustrophobic white corridors inside, or the vast infinities of nothingness outside. It takes a hell of an actor to rivet our eyes to one man for nearly two hours of screentime. Luckily, Sean Connery happens to be the first entry in the dictionary under ‘badass’. Now you know why he wasn’t in Alien. He’d have let John Hurt have both barrels before he even started feeling queasy at the dinner table.
True Grit (2010, dir Joel and Ethan Coen), remake of True Grit (1969, dir. Henry Hathaway)
This one threw us for a loop. The Coen brothers remake a John Wayne classic? Except that, no, they didn’t. They squeezed right past John Wayne back to the original Charles Portis novel, immersing us in Indian Territory and eyepatches and aggressive horse trading, to astounding effect. This film is shot through with the puritanical and the profane, the extremes Americans have lived and died by for centuries, never more so than in the Wild West.
You know the story, mostly. Revenge and a precocious girl named Mattie Ross. Rooster Cogburn is a drunk and a slob and probably the most honourable human being little Mattie Ross will ever meet, if she lives to be a hundred. True Grit is everything it ever promised it would be; it’s Biblical blood and thunder and it’s friendship tested to limits this crusty old marshal never knew he had. Fun as John Wayne was, there was never half as much danger and strangeness as the night the Coens came to town.
The Thief of Bagdad (1940, dir. Alexander Korda et al), remake of The Thief of Bagdad (1924, dir. Raoul Walsh)
You read that right. This remake con is nothing new, not by a long chalk. Still, in the 40s, sound and certainly colour were new. Douglas Fairbanks’ silent version was all good and thrilling, but firebrand producer Alexander Korda was much more ambitious. Nothing could stop this man. Don’t like the director? Hire five more. London Blitz hampering production schedule? Move the shoot to America.
Even today, The Thief of Bagdad seems light years ahead of its time. It takes such an obvious and infectious joy in its fantastic story, the viewer can’t help but be swept along. It’s got it all; adventure, flying carpets, palaces that stretch on forever, true love, and a giant spider in the heart of a Buddha statue in a mountain-top temple. It’s a whole other world, ablaze with Technicolor, trilling with the clashes and flashes of daring swordplay and the genie of the lamp laughing fit to burst a man’s eardrums. They’ve remade it again a dozen times since, but for ambition and sheer madness aforethought, Korda’s version is the one that goes down in history.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964, dir. Sergio Leone), remake of Yojimbo (1961, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Chances are you’ve seen one and never knew the other even existed. Yojimbo (Japanese for ‘Bodyguard’) is the culmination of Kurosawa’s fascination with films of the West. For anyone starting out on Kurosawa, or even Japanese film, it’s probably the most accessible film to jump in on. Sergio Leone seemed to think so too. But, he decided, it needed more Clint Eastwood. And the soundtrack, that needs to be weirder, simpler, better than anything anyone’s done before.
And so he made A Fistful of Dollars; a wry, brutal film, smeared head to toe in blood and trail dust, swathed in the rattling, snarling, stirring electric opera of Ennio Morricone’s music. Westerns were dangerous again. They were bigger, cooler, dirtier than ever. The soundtrack mixed whip cracks, whistles and Fender Stratocasters into something bold and exciting and different.
So Leone poached the story from Kurosawa, who (possibly) poached it from Dashiell Hammett. Okay, slightly lazy and a bit sneaky. On the other hand, A Fistful of Dollars and the films it inspired changed the landscape of cinema throughout the 20th century and beyond. So maybe remakes don’t deserve their usual sweeping dismissal after all. It doesn’t matter whether we call it a re-imagining or a re-visitation or a re-gurgitation, the question we ask is the same of any film – is it worth 90 minutes of my time? The answer given, of course, is the same as always: you won’t know until you watch it.
Check out the original Five Essential Hollywood Remakes here.
Agree? Disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts on the list...
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.