Early action films
Some historians consider The Great Train Robbery to be the first action film. During the 1920s and 1930s, action-based films were often “swashbuckling” adventure films in which actors, such as Douglas Fairbanks, wielded swords in period pieces or Westerns.
The 1940s and 1950s saw “action” in a new form through war and cowboy movies. Alfred Hitchcock ushered in the spy-adventure genre while also establishing the use of action-oriented “set pieces” like the famous crop-duster scene and the Mount Rushmore finale inNorth by Northwest. The film, along with a war-adventure called The Guns of Navarone, inspired producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to invest in their own spy-adventure, based on the novels of Ian Fleming.
The long-running success of the James Bond films or series (which dominated the action films of the 1960s) introduced a staple of the modern-day action film: the resourceful hero. Such larger-than-life characters were a veritable “one-man army”; able to dispatch villainous masterminds after cutting through their disposable henchmen in increasingly creative ways. Such heroes are ready with one-liners, puns, and dry quips.
The Bond films also used fast cutting, car chases, fist fights, a variety of weapons and gadgets, and elaborate action sequences.
During the 1970s, gritty detective stories and urban crime dramas began to evolve and fuse themselves with the new “action” style, leading to a string of maverick police officer films, such as Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971) and The Seven-Ups (1973).Dirty Harry (1971) essentially lifted its star, Clint Eastwood, out of his cowboy typecasting, and framed him as the archetypal hero of the urban action film. In many countries, restrictions on language, adult content, and violence had loosened up, and these elements became more widespread.
In the 1970s, martial-arts films from Hong Kong became popular with Western audiences and inspired big budget films such as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973). Chuck Norris blended martial arts with ‘cops and robbers’ in films such as Good Guys Wear Black(1977) and A Force of One (1979).
From Japan, Sonny Chiba starred in his first martial arts movie in 1973 called the Karate Kiba. His breakthrough international hit was The Street Fighter series (1974), which established him as the reigning Japanese martial arts actor in international cinema. He also played the role of Mas Oyama in Champion of Death, Karate Bearfighter, and Karate for Life (1975–1977). Chiba’s action films were not only bounded by martial arts, but also action thriller (Doberman Cop and Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon – both of 1977), jidaigeki(Shogun’s Samurai – 1978, Samurai Reincarnation – 1981), and science fiction (G.I. Samurai – 1979).
In the 1980s Hollywood produced many big budget action blockbusters with actors such as Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lorenzo Lamas, Michael Dudikoff, Charles Bronson and Bruce Willis. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas paid their homage to the Bond-inspired style with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). In 1982, veteran actor Nick Nolte and rising comedian Eddie Murphy broke box office records with the action-comedy 48 Hrs, credited as the first “buddy-cop” movie. That same year, Sylvester Stallonestarred in First Blood, the first installment in the Rambo film series which made the character John Rambo a pop culture icon.
1984 saw the beginning of the Terminator (franchise) starring Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger. This story provides one of the grittiest roles for a woman in action and Hamilton was required to put in extensive effort to develop a strong physique.
1987’s Lethal Weapon starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and Darlene Love was another significant action film hit of the decade, and another “buddy-cop” genre classic, launching a franchise that spawned 3 sequels.
The 1988 film, Die Hard, was particularly influential on the development of the action genre. In the film, Bruce Willis plays a New York police detective who inadvertently becomes embroiled in a terrorist take-over of a Los Angeles office building high-rise. The use of a maverick, resourceful lone hero has always been a common thread from James Bond to John Rambo, but John McClane in Die Hard is much more of an ‘everyday’ person whom circumstance turns into a reluctant hero. The film set a pattern for a host of imitators, like Under Siege (1992), which used the same formula in a different setting.
By the end of the 1980s, the influence of the successful action film could be felt in almost every genre.
Like the Western genre, spy-movies, as well as urban-action films, were starting to parody themselves, and with the growing revolution in CGI (computer generated imagery), the “real-world” settings began to give way to increasingly fantastic environments. This new era of action films often had budgets unlike any in the history of motion pictures. The success of the many Dirty Harry and James Bond sequels had proven that a single successful action film could lead to a continuing action franchise. Thus, the 1980s and 1990s saw a rise in both budgets and the number of sequels a film could generally have. This led to an increasing number of filmmakers to create new technologies that would allow them to beat the competition and take audiences to new heights. The success ofTim Burton’s Batman (1989) led to a string of financially successful sequels. Within a single decade, they proved the viability of a novel subgenre of action film: the comic-book movie.
While action films continued to flourish as the medium-budget genre movie, it also fused with tent-pole pictures in other genres. For example, 2009’s Star Trek had several science fiction tropes and concepts like time travel through a black hole. However, most of the film was structured around action sequences, many of them quite conventional (hand-to-hand, shooting). While the original Star Wars featured some of this kind of fighting, there was just as much emphasis on star-ship chases and dog fights in outer space. The newer films featured more light-saber duels, sometimes more intense and acrobatic than the originals. Some fan films also have similar duel scenes like those the prequel trilogy. It was action with a science fiction twist. The trend with films such asThe Matrix and The Dark Knight series, is that hand-to-hand fighting and Asian martial-arts techniques are now widely used in science fiction and superhero movies.
Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables used nostalgia for a perceived golden age of action films by casting 1980s action stars alongside new actors in the genre such as Jason Statham.
In The Fast and the Furious series the action film staple of the car chase is the central plot driver as it had been in Smokey and the Bandit films in the 1970s.
The cross-over of action with science fiction and superhero films continues with many Marvel Comics characters and settings being used for big budget films.