Sunday, August 04, 2013

Walter Hill

Back in February, I had planned a spotlight on Walter Hill to coincide with the release of his new film Bullet to the Head. But unfortunately, the film didn’t last too long in the theatres so I postponed the spotlight until the film’s July DVD release. In the few months in between Feb-July, a discussion on Vulgar Auteurism (link to Girish’s excellent post) popped up and Walter Hill’s name was included in the mix. But a lot of the heated discussions & subsequent articles focused on other directors and I didn’t come across any substantial material on Hill. Instead, the best article that I have read about the director and his films has come courtesy of Filipe Furtado prior to the VA discussion.

Filipe’s article is not in English but if the following link is put through an English translator, one is still able to get Filipe’s informed points about Walter Hill’s films, especially the following stellar opening paragraph. 

The best films of Walter Hill express moral conflict in a universe that drowns in the wilderness, survival in a world about to get out of control. It's a feeling attraction for a filmmaker who, over four decades, has been seeking ways to remain viable in an industry in constant motion. Roy Del Ruth John Flynn, going by names such as Andre de Toth and Phil Karlson, being an author-oriented action without apparent pretensions does not get you very far in American cinema. At most, the occasional retrospective and the nickname master after the fact. It is tragic to note the number of promising careers interrupted or lost lushness after half a dozen long. The universe of action film medium is one of the most expendable of the American film industry, because it is after all to make a product to occupy rooms between major releases without large returns of reputation, whether commercial or critical. It is a path with few outlets, but perfectly suits the temperament of some artists like Walter Hill.

The idea for the spotlight was to view Walter Hill’s first 5 features and then finish out with his newest.

Hard Times (1975)
The Driver (1978)
The Warriors (1979)
The Long Riders (1980)
Southern Comfort (1981)
Bullet to the Head (2013)

This was more as a catch-up with his initial works as I had previously seen his late 1980’s and 1990’s films. And it turned out to be a worthy spotlight as Walter Hill’s initial films are probably the best films he has made.

Hard Times

It is incredible to believe this is Walter Hill’s first directed feature as it is far more worthy than most contemporary works. The premise is simple, a stranger (played by Charles Bronson) arrives to town and hooks up with a fixer to fight one-on-one matches. The attention is focused on the fights and the film is as trim as Bronson’s body with no extra ounce of fat present. A little bit of romance is hinted but the film does not waste any emotions on it.

The Driver

The driver character in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive owes a lot to Walter Hill’s The Driver as the two characters share a quiet yet strong personality, able to speed in the blink of an eye and slow down immediately when required. A surprizing discovery from watching this film was learning that the following car park sequence inspired a similar scene in Tinnu Anand’s Kaalia (1981) starring Amitabh Bachchan.


The Warriors

The opening speech by Cyrus (Roger Hill) in The Warriors is one of the most impressive seen in cinema as Cyrus tries to unite all the gangs by mentioning if all 20,000 members worked together, they can rule the city.


But Cyrus is shortly killed after this speech and his murder is blamed on the Warriors, who are forced on the run lest they get killed themselves. In a time before cellphones and the internet, the location of the Warriors is broadcast by a radio station host.

The Warriors is the first example of "Video Game Cinema" as the characters battle rival gangs while traveling through the streets of New York. The plot is kept simple as the end goal of the Warriors is to make it to Coney Island without getting killed. Like in video game levels, each rival gang increases in threat as the film moves along. Also, the music notifies of an approaching gang’s arrival and threat.

Note: If the members of the gang simply removed their jacket, then they can walk away free as no one would be able to recognize them. But no character one ever mentions removal of their jackets as all the gangs in the film are one with their jacket/clothing which is their identity.

Southern Comfort

Once again, a Walter Hill film provides inspiration for a Nicolas Winding Refn work Valhalla Rising. In Southern Comfort, a National Guard unit goes for a training exercise in the swampy lands of Louisiana. But as it turns out, they are in Cajun land and the men’s senseless acts cause them to get hunted by an invisible enemy. Such an invisible enemy is also depicted in Refn’s Valhalla Rising when the characters are killed by arrows fired from an unseen enemy. The fact that the enemy is kept off-screen in both films allows tension to build.

The Long Riders

The Jesse James story is depicted with a unique cinematic experiment by using real life brothers to play the various characters. There are 4 sets of brother used as David, Robert & Keith Carradine, Dennis & Randy Quaid, James & Stacy Keach, Christopher & Nicolas Guest play the main roles.

This film was also seen as part of the Western spotlight and watching this at the tail end of 82 Westerns didn't help as many other Westerns covered similar material. As a result, this film didn't leave much of an impression.

Bullet to the Head

The biggest surprize of the film is the politically incorrect dry humor used by Stallone’s character James who has no problem in speaking his thoughts, even if they are racist or offensive. Sung Kang’s Taylor Kwon is at the end of some of James’ words and the presence of his character results in the film feeling like a mismatched buddy comedy often seen in cinema. Yet, as predictable as events are, Stallone makes this film watchable as he plays a character similar to his age, someone who has seen it all and has scars of past battles.


Walter Hill has worked in a diverse range of film genres from Action, Thriller, Sci-fi, Comedy to Western. As a result, one cannot detect an easily identifiable directorial signature when looking at an individual film. However, patterns can be detected by stepping back and looking at his whole collection of films which results in links between few of the films. For example, both The Warriors & Southern Comfort feature characters navigating their way through a hostile territory, with an urban jungle in the former and an actual forested terrain in the latter. Survival can also be used to explain The Driver as the main character is on the run while both Hard Times & Bullet to the Head show tough physically fit characters willing to do whatever in order to get by.

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