The Fugitive is one of those films that when you’re flipping through channels, and it’s on, you will watch, or re-watch, it. This has resulted in me having seen the film multiple times over the years. It’s one of those films that don’t age, and even though you know the plot, is a great ride even the 10th time around.
I never gave it too much thought as a viewer. But during a recent rewatch, I found myself wondering what it was that held it together and made it timeless. Then when I read the script and thought about the different elements that work so well together in this story, I started looking at the obvious elements –it is a thriller, after all-- was it the pacing, the relentless pursuit of truth, the suspense, the fact that it was based on an existing IP? Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones certainly helped.
And then I read an article in The Atlantic that had the following quote by the director, Andrew Davis., “A year before The Fugitive arrived, its director didn’t think much of the genre. “The basic underpinnings don’t have any soul or value,” he told The New York Times.
And I started ruminating about the underpinnings of the Fugitive…did it indeed have soul? And what was it? The initial, obvious, and more thematic thoughts were seeking justice, wrongfully accused and convicted, and the relentless pursuit of truth. But those were not it.
Then I thought it was helping others, saving others, saving lives….he is a doctor, after all.
And then it hit me…it’s about the cost of human lives…i.e. at what cost do you save or sacrifice a human life?
We only discover this in the end, but the truth Dr. Kimble is seeking…who killed his wife… uncovers a bigger and more sinister plot. Because on the surface, his wife’s murder doesn’t make sense. They’re a well-respected, loving couple. There was no forced entry. And it didn’t seem to be a burglary.
Throughout the story, the soul is revealed in a variety of sequences, and each time there are huge costs attached. He attempts to save his wife at a potentially fatal cost to himself when he fights the one-armed intruder. Then when the prison bus ends up on the railroad tracks, he again risks his life –there’s a train approaching at high speed—to save a fellow inmate and toss him out of the bus window just before escaping the massive collision and derailment.
When Kimble is confronted by US Marshall Gerard and points a gun at him, he doesn’t shoot. Instead, he chooses at a huge risk to himself to jump into the dam. He risks his life rather than shoot an innocent man, albeit a man who wants to take him to jail.
Before the jump, when Kimble says, “I didn’t kill my wife,” Gerard answers, “I don’t care.” Again underlying the soul of the film. Doesn’t he care? Or is he just a trained law enforcement officer who would say this to any convict? As we find out, he will care in the end.
There was one instance of this value that left me with an unanswered question. When Kimble visits the prisoner and is almost caught by Gerard, he narrowly escapes by squeezing himself through the glass door…right before he gets away, Gerard shoots Kimble only to be thwarted by bulletproof glass. I kept wondering, why did Gerard shoot at him? Did he try to kill him, or did he know it was bulletproof glass and was shooting at him as a warning or out of personal frustration? He is the law, and at this point, Kimble is still a fugitive, so was he just doing his job? Because earlier, when he shoots the other convict from the prison transport who is holding one of his men at gunpoint, he doesn’t hesitate. He shoots the man dead and, after the event, proclaims, “I don’t negotiate.” Is he the yang to Kimble’s yin, and is he the one who will go through a transformation by the end of the story? Probably. Even though I’d like to think Gerard has more heart than he leads on. Kind of like Rick in Casablanca, who constantly proclaims that he “doesn’t stick his neck out for nobody” but actually sticks his neck out for multiple characters throughout the film. I’d like to think that because Gerard is a thinking law enforcement officer, contrasted to the CPD cop, who just does. However, that shootout remains a question for me.
But unlike just doing his job….Kimble must do what he does….save people; it’s part of his DNA, it’s who he is…character is soul. Kimble must save people no matter what the cost. This again plays when he changes the chart of the boy’s injury and risks getting caught, once again narrowly escaping security and exposing himself.
A different variation of it plays when he has a chance to kill Sykes, the one-armed man whom he knows has killed his wife. It wouldn’t be a stretch to feel for a man wanting revenge for having his wife murdered and him convicted to death. But he doesn’t. He can’t. It’s not who he is, and the cost of human life is not something he’s willing to bargain with. This is reinforced one more time when he saves Gerard, who’s about to be shot by Kimble’s former colleague and friend, Dr. Nichols.
His character trait finally helps blow up and resolve the story…he was merely looking for his wife’s murderer, but he uncovered the plot by the pharmaceutical company and his friend Nichols to falsify the results of the clinical trials of a new drug. And we finally have the answers, both, who killed his wife and why, and the cost of human lives…hundreds of millions of dollars from the sales of a potentially fatal drug. And in the case of Kimble, there is no price…every life is worth saving, no matter the cost.
Character is soul. And in this case, soul resolves the plot.