All my life, I’ve felt drawn to stories about people unjustly thrown in jail who then escape. This may have started with the 1973 animated version of Robin Hood and the big jail break section where Robin Hood and Little John break all the other animals out of Prince John’s prison, where they’re being held because they can’t pay their taxes. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love that movie (and the little 33 rpm story-record version of it I listened to way more often than I watched the film). And that’s always been my favorite part of the whole movie.
Then there’s the theme of “proving one’s innocence,” or maybe “clearing one’s name.” That’s a huge part of my favorite movie, The Man from Snowy River (1982), which I first saw when I was two years old. Again, it’s a theme about fighting against injustice, and I have very strong thoughts and feelings on that subject.
Combine those fascinations with “escape from an unjust imprisonment” and “clearing one’s name” and “fighting injustice,” and it’s pretty inevitable that The Fugitive (1993) would be one of my absolute favorite movies of all time. Because that is exactly what it’s all about, with a healthy dose of exciting action scenes, an excellent script, and strong acting from the two leads.
Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) is, to all appearances, a happy and successful man. He’s a top vascular surgeon, probably the best in Chicago. He and his beautiful wife Helen (Sela Ward) have an affectionate and vibrant marriage. But all that gets stripped away the night his of his wife’s brutal murder. The authorities arrest Kimble on suspicion of killing her.
Casting Harrison Ford as Kimble ensures the audience is going to be sympathetic to him from the get-go. He was at the top of his career in the early ‘90s, rocketed there by starring in a string of hits in the ‘80s thanks to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. He’d made a few dramas and comedies along the way, and could carry just about any picture with assurance. By the early ‘90s, Ford had learned to project a wholesome gravitas that audiences connected with. He was easy to trust, easy to root for, and easy to feel sympathy for.
Harrison Ford’s skill at acquiring an audience’s sympathy was essential to convince the audience within the first few minutes of The Fugitive of Kimble’s innocence. He insists a one-armed man entered his home and attacked his wife. Kimble fought him off, but was too late to save her. But the police found no signs of burglary and ignore his claims.
Of course, as you can expect from a movie titled The Fugitive, Kimble doesn’t stay behind bars for long. He escapes during a spectacular action sequence that involves a real train hitting a real bus, no miniatures and no green-screen involved. And then Kimble hunts for that one-armed man who killed his wife.
Which brings us to the other lead character, Deputy Marshal Sammy Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones). Gerard gets tasked with tracking Kimble down. The bulk of the film is a cat-and-mouse game, with Gerard nearly catching Kimble over and over. Along the way, of course, Kimble collects the evidence he needs to prove his evidence, and he leads Gerard to it at the same time.
Casting Tommy Lee Jones as Gerard was just as key as casting Ford as Kimble. Up to that point in his career, Jones had played a lot more bad or morally questionable characters than good ones, so having him play the white hat added a bit of an unexpected twist to the story for audiences. Plus, Jones has an innate fierceness that makes him seem unstoppable, like a juggernaut that will smash through any barrier or blockade to get to its prey. And yet, his sarcastic, skeptical, tireless lawman goes from not caring who’s guilty and who’s innocent to being fully invested in making sure Kimble receives justice. Gerard’s character arc is a huge part of what brings me back to this story time and again.
I first watched The Fugitive in my early teens, when we rented it over and over for months while we waited for it to come out for sale on VHS so we could own our own copy. I have lovely memories of being curled up in front of our small TV with my whole family, all eating Pizza Hut takeout for supper and watching The Fugitive for the umpteenth time. It hit so many sweet spots for me, and it’s been a favorite ever since.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com