'The Fugitive' 25th Anniversary of Tommy Lee Jones Not Caring That Harrison Ford Didn't Kill His Wife
…Dr. Richard Kimble, an innocent victim of blind justice. Falsely convicted for the murder of his wife…reprieved by fate when a train wreck freed him en route to the death house…freed him to hide in lonely desperation…to change his identity…to toil at many jobs…freed him to search for a one-armed man he saw leave the scene of the crime…freed him to run before the relentless pursuit of the police lieutenant obsessed with his capture.
These were the words that began nearly every episode of the ABC television series The Fugitive, which aired from 1963 to 1967 and starred David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble and Barry Morse as Lt. Philip Gerard, the Indiana State Police detective determined to pursue Kimble no matter where he goes and bring him to justice. Created by Roy Huggins and inspired by both Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables as well as the Sam Sheppard case (though Huggins would regularly deny the latter inspiration) each episode would show Kimble adopting a new identity, and taking on a new job in a new town, pursuing the one-armed man he believed to be responsible for his wife’s murder. And it wasn’t until the two-part series finale, “The Judgment” that both Kimble and Gerard’s crusades were finally able to come to an end, with Kimble confronting the one-armed man who set this entire thing in motion and Gerard taking him down once and for all and seeing to it that Kimble’s name was cleared so that the running would stop and so he could once again be a free man. Until the “Who Done It” episode of Dallas, which revealed who had actually shot J.R. Ewing (spoiler alert: it wasn’t Waylon Smithers or Maggie Simpson) which aired on November 21, 1980, “The Judgment, Part 2” was the most-watched television episode in history, as millions of viewers tuned in to see for themselves how this four-year-long manhunt would actually end.
Twenty-six years later, audiences would once again find themselves on the edges of their seats as this cat-and-mouse game would be adapted for film by director Andrew Davis (Code Of Silence, Above The Law, Under Siege) with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in the lead roles.
The film adaptation of The Fugitive, which opened in theaters on August 6, 1993, told the same story as the television series, but with a few notable differences: Dr. Richard Kimble (Ford), a successful and respected vascular surgeon comes home from work and is attacked by a one-armed man who has just brutally murdered Kimble’s wife, Helen (Sela Ward), and manages to escape and leave the house unnoticed. With no evidence of forced entry, a 911 call by Helen which is misinterpreted and made to seem as if she is identifying Richard as her killer, and investigating officers who see this as nothing more than an open-and-shut case, Kimble is convicted of Helen’s murder and sentenced to die by lethal injection. While riding in a prison transport bus with several other inmates and a couple of armed guards, a violent escape attempt results in plenty of gunfire, followed by the bus crashing and rolling down the side of a hill into the path of a speeding freight train. Kimble manages to escape before the collision, but soon finds himself being hunted by a team of U.S. Marshals, led by Samuel Gerard (Jones), who is as determined to find Kimble and bring him in as Kimble is determined to prove that he didn’t kill Helen and find the one-armed man who actually did.
One of the very best things about The Fugitive and what makes it fire on all cylinders as much as it does is that, with the notable exception of the Chicago detectives who instantly assume Kimble’s guilt and refuse to pursue the case any further until they find out that he’s alive after his prison escape and back on their turf, the characters all come across as smart and capable and proficient at what they do and how they do it. Neither Kimble nor Gerard (or any of Gerard’s fellow Marshals) appear stupid or lucky in how they stay ahead of each other or how they come across clues that assist them in their respective pursuits. Kimble knows that he will never stop being hunted and never stop running unless he finds a way to prove that he didn’t kill Helen. So he uses the one piece of evidence that he knows about, which is also the strongest piece of evidence that he knows about: the prosthetic arm used and owned by the one-armed man. His medical knowledge is what helps him narrow down the list of people who have the particular model of prosthetic that the one-armed man has, which is what leads him to Fredrick Sykes (Andreas Katsulas), and what leads him to realize that Sykes is the one who killed Helen.
(Though to be fair, when Kimble moves into a basement apartment located at a house where the two men who live there are drug dealers and the house is soon raided by narcotics officers, it is only because the dealers are immediately apprehended and taken into custody outside of the house that none of the cops feel the need to do any further inspection and leave Kimble completely unnoticed. And judging from his reaction, Kimble is both relieved that the cops didn’t notice him at all, and angry that he allowed himself to be placed in a position where he could be easily caught and with no possible means of escape)
As for Gerard and his crew, it’s difficult and perplexing enough for them to realize that Kimble has returned to Chicago instead of attempting to cross the Canadian or Mexican border. And as they’re standing in Cook County Hospital and wondering why Kimble would even return to Chicago at all and spend time in a place that is populated with both cops and hospital personnel on the lookout for him, it isn’t until they see a one-armed man walk past them on his way to an appointment with the Prosthetics department that they realize why Kimble was there and what he was looking for. And it’s that revelation which makes it even more clear that Kimble is no ordinary fugitive on the run from the law and that he has no interest in simply going into hiding, and that like it or not, they’re going to have to solve the same puzzle as Kimble and follow the same clues that he is following in order to bring this chase to an end.
And this chase is both exciting and fun to watch. From the prison bus/freight train collision that sets Kimble free and starts it all, to Kimble fleeing in a stolen ambulance and being cornered by Gerard and his crew at the Berkeley Dam (which was actually the Cheoah Dam in North Carolina) and choosing to jump and risk death rather than allow Gerard to take him back into custody (which makes even Gerard smile in both admiration and disbelief), to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade where Kimble is this close to being apprehended as he narrows down his list of suspects, the tension in this film never lets up until the very last scene. And by the time it’s all over, you’re probably left breathing a sigh of relief alongside Gerard.
Along with Andrew Davis’ outstanding directing and the whip-smart screenplay by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy, the performances are all impressive and keep you fully invested in everything that’s happening.
Sela Ward doesn’t get much screen time as Helen Kimble (which makes sense, as it’s her murder that the film revolves around), but what we do get via flashbacks and dream sequences make it very clear how much Richard and Helen loved and adored each other, and how painful and heartbreaking it is for Richard to not only lose her, but for her final words to be what causes the State of Illinois to take his freedom away and sentence him to death. (And judging from her flashbacks, it’s also clear that Sela Ward as Helen Kimble had a much better and happier marriage with Harrison Ford as Richard Kimble than she did with Ed Harris as William/The Man In Black on Westworld.)
Despite the fact that the original character of Lt. Philip Gerard was based on Inspector Javert from Les Miserables, neither Lt. Gerard from the series or Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard in the film is ever the bad guy in this story nor is he ever made to look as if he is the bad guy. He’s a highly-skilled and fiercely intelligent investigator doing his job, looking out for his people in a stern-but-caring manner, and staying focused on catching Kimble and not caring anything about Kimble, his claims of innocence, or whatever mystery he is trying to solve. Except that with every move that Kimble makes, Gerard is left wondering why he is trying to solve this puzzle in the first place and what he is actually trying to prove. And he not only finds himself learning more about kind of man Kimble really is and that he just might actually be innocent of the crime he was convicted of (Gerard never voices these concerns aloud, but his increasing doubt and curiosity become more evident with each facial expression as the case progresses, and Jones’s performance is masterful enough that he makes absolutely sure to keep his doubt and curiosity close to the chest while staying focused on his work), he also learns more about the circumstances that led to his pursuit of Kimble in the first place.
If someone were asked to describe Dr. Richard Kimble, in both television and film, one of the first things to come to mind would be how Lois Lane once described Clark Kent/Superman in Man Of Steel, in that the only way that he could truly disappear for good would be to stop helping people altogether, and that is clearly not an option for him. Even as he remains laser-focused on finding the one-armed man who murdered Helen and avoiding capture by both the Chicago Police Department and Gerard and his team of U.S. Marshals, Kimble can’t help but do what he can to help others when the situation arises, no matter how much his actions put both his life and freedom at risk. From identifying the near-fatal injury of the armed guard whose life he saved from the bus/train collision to helping a little boy injured in a schoolbus crash who has been misdiagnosed and making sure that he gets the life-saving surgery he needs (and the fact that a young Black child, or any Black adult, is likely to get poor medical treatment from doctors and end up having their ailments and concerns dismissed as not needing further care is still something that happens a lot more frequently than it should), it’s actions such as these that not only show how honorable and kind-hearted Kimble is, but also helps to plant some seeds of doubt in Gerard and leave him wondering who exactly is he chasing. His kindness combined with his refusal to quit, his intelligence and intuition, and his determination to clear his name make him a thorn in the sides of both law enforcement and the guilty parties eager to see Kimble dead, and Harrison Ford shines in showing all facets of his character and making us care about whether he’ll finally able to stop running and earn his incredibly bittersweet victory.
The supporting cast is just as terrific to watch as Ford and Jones. Jeroen Krabbe as Dr. Charles Nichols, who goes from Kimble’s devoted and loyal best friend to deceitful and ruthless mastermind responsible for destroying his life (and also giving us yet another reminder that Big Pharma is not always to be trusted), the late Andreas Katsulas as Fredrick Sykes, an ex-cop-turned-security consultant for pharmaceutical companies and the one-armed man who murdered Helen whose untrustworthy nature is immediately evident to Gerard and his crew from the moment they meet, Julianne Moore as Anne Eastman, an emergency-room doctor who blows Kimble’s cover and eventually realizes that his interference kept one of her patients from ending up in the morgue, L. Scott Caldwell, Daniel Roebuck, Tom Wood, Johnny Lee Davenport, and Joe Pantoliano as Gerard’s team of U.S. Marshals, who are capable of being just as cunning and persistent as Gerard himself, and some other familiar faces making brief appearances, including Richard Riehle, Nick Searcy, Neil Flynn, and Jane Lynch.
The Fugitive was a critically acclaimed box-office success and not only did it defy the familiar claim that no good summer movies are released in the month of August, it also defied the genre bias that many action-adventure movies regularly deal with and was nominated for seven Academy Awards. Its sole win was for Best Supporting Actor for Jones’s performance as Gerard, and his appearance onstage when accepting his Oscar (which occurred while he was still filming his role as baseball legend Ty Cobb in the film Cobb) caused many people at home and at the actual Oscars ceremony to raise an eyebrow.
In the year 2000 (and it’s impossible for me to type that without thinking of Late Night With Conan O’Brien), writer/producer John McNamara (Profit, Eyes, The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr.) developed a remake of The Fugitive, starring Tim Daly as Dr. Richard Kimble, Mykelti Williamson as Lt. Gerard, and Stephen Lang as the one-armed man. It only lasted one season and the unintentional series finale ended on a cliffhanger.
The Fugitive still remains not just one of the best television-to-film adaptations ever made (of which there are very few), but also one of the best thrillers ever made that easily fits in the action genre, adventure genre, or suspense genre, and you’re bound to be entertained no matter which one is applied. So if you’re looking for a good vs. good vs. evil story to watch that is worth your time and your attention, it’s hard to go wrong with a film that has deservedly stood the test of time these past twenty-five years and go with The Fugitive.
And not just because Harrison Ford will point his finger at you in an authoritative manner if you don’t.
Header Image Source: Warner Brothers
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