Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films: action and adventure

From Jaws to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, find out which flicks our critic rates as the best of all time

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Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 1989 PG 121min Colour 

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All the Indy adventures — except the most recent, The Crystal Skull — are great romps, but this is the best of them because the presence of a grizzled Sean Connery as Indy’s father brings out the best in Harrison Ford. Dad and “Junior” share the same woman as they seek to beat the Nazis in the quest for the Holy Grail. All utter nonsense, of course, but very well done and thrilling entertainment. Indy even gets Hitler’s autograph at a Nazi rally. 

Did you know? Indiana’s proper name is revealed in the film — it’s Henry Jones, Jr 

Say it again! “You call this archaeology?” Indiana Jones 

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The Adventures of Robin Hood 1938 U 101min Colour 

The recent Russell Crowe/Cate Blanchett Robin Hood runs this one close, but the Michael Curtiz version starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland gets my vote as a peerless adventure movie for its vivacity and, most of all, its conviction. This is not a grim, earnest, tell-it-like-it-was take on one of England’s favourite legends. It’s joyous as well as serious and you get the feeling that everyone involved believed implicitly in the story they were telling. Besides, Flynn was a great Robin Hood. 

Did you know? Western fans might recognise the palomino horse ridden by Olivia De Havilland. He was then known as Golden Cloud, but was renamed Trigger when he was bought by Roy Rogers for $2,500 and went on to be billed as “the smartest horse in the movies”. 

Say it again! “I’ll organise revolt, exact death for a death, and I’ll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.” Robin Hood 

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2000 12 115min Colour 

The first martial arts movie for grown-ups. Ang Lee’s film is far more than breathtaking stunts and action — a rooftop pursuit, a battle in the swaying treetops, for instance — it also deals with romance, love, duty and sacrifice, as Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh go in search of the stolen sword of Green Destiny. The special effects are state of the art, the story much stronger than is usual in such films. Note: shun the dubbed version, stick to the original in Mandarin 

Did you know? Swordfighting heroine Michelle Yeoh had to cope with her fear of heights while performing the high-wire stunts. But her greatest challenge was learning Mandarin from scratch, having been brought up speaking Cantonese and English. Oscars Foreign Language Film 

Say it again! “Crouching tigers and hidden dragons are in the underworld… but so are human beings.” Li Mu Bai 

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Jaws 1975 PG 118min Colour 

Everyone loves Jaws. Well, maybe a few curmudgeons don’t, but it’s their loss. It scares the hell out of you, what with the great white shark of the title snacking on swimmers off the holiday island of Amity and John Williams’s ominous music that announces its presence. But the human characters are strong, too — people we care about — and Spielberg handles the mounting tension and then the relief from it superbly. Terrific performances from Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw. 

Did you know? When composer John Williams first played the two-note theme that for so many defines this film, Spielberg thought he was joking. 

Say it again! “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Brody 

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Gladiator 2000 15 148min Colour 

With this, Ridley Scott revived the honourable tradition of the Roman epic. Russell Crowe plays Maximus, the general who becomes a gladiator after being betrayed by his patricidal emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Plenty of stirring action, both in and out of the arena, and an intelligent storyline that reveals the intrigue and turmoil of the Roman Empire. Crowe won the Oscar with his bravura performance and a starry supporting cast includes Oliver Reed in his last film, Richard Harris and Derek Jacobi. 

Did you know? On a visit to the real Colosseum in Rome, Scott remarked to his production designer that it was too small for what he had in mind. 

Say it again! “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance.” Maximus 

Oscars: Best Picture, Russell Crowe Actor 

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Seven Samurai 1954 PG 190min BW 

If you’ve seen The Magnificent Seven, you’ll know the basic plot. But Akira Kurosawa’s original, set in Japan in the 1600s, is a deeper, more complex film. Here the motives of the samurai in defending the villagers against the bandits for a minimal reward are much clearer than in John Sturges’s remake. They do it because they must; it’s what the samurai do. The cultural differences between the villagers and their defenders are more strongly emphasised, too. This is simply a great film by one of Japan’s greatest directors. 

Did you know? Mifune’s character name is a girl’s name, which explains why the samurai laugh at its mention. 

Say it again! “The farmers have won. We have lost.” Kambei 

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Lawrence of Arabia 1962 PG 209min Colour 

Practically every superlative you can think of has been applied to David Lean’s epic account of how TE Lawrence enlisted the Arab tribes on Britain’s side in the First World War, and it deserves them all. It’s by no means all action (although what there is is stunning) because it has the courage to take its time to explore the sexually and socially ambivalent character of Lawrence — a magnetic performance by Peter O’Toole — and establish the superbly photographed desert as almost a co-star in the film. 

Did you know? Despite its three-and-a-half-hour running time, there are no speaking roles for women in David Lean’s Oscar-winning epic. 

Say it again! “The truth is that I’m an ordinary man.” TE Lawrence 

Oscars: Best Picture, David Lean Directing 

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Deliverance 1972 18 104min Colour 

Four city dwellers, led by Burt Reynolds, find their “back to nature” weekend in the Appalachian wilderness turned into a nightmare when they fall foul of vicious, inbred mountain dwellers. The ensuing violence — male rape included — in what becomes a struggle for survival is graphically portrayed, not to glamourise it but to reveal its horror. There’s also an early ecological warning about the damage man is doing to nature. In his first major starring role, Reynolds gives his finest performance. 

Did you know? He’s now best known for his TV travels, but Charley Boorman made his screen debut in his father’s film playing Jon Voight’s son. 

Say it again! “Sometimes you have to lose yourself ’fore you can find anything.” Lewis 

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The Dark Knight 2008 12 145min Colour 

Christopher Nolan’s second Batman offering takes the comic-book movie to a new level — darker, deeper and more serious than the average superhero caper and all the better for that. Gotham City is in its usual state of criminal chaos, mostly down to the Joker, the late Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar after stealing every scene he was in. That’s no mean feat when the cast also includes Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Christian Bale, as Bruce Wayne/Batman.

Did you know? This was the first Batman film to have no bats, neither live-action ones nor any generated using CGI special effects. 

Say it again! “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun.” Joker 

Oscars: Heath Ledger Supporting Actor

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Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World 2003 12 132min Colour 

An adaptation of two of Patrick O’Brian’s novels about life in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars, Peter Weir’s exuberant film is that rarity — an epic for thinking people, full of intelligence and wit. It includes two of the most exciting, brutal and violent sea battles ever filmed, but at its heart is the fascinating relationship between bluff Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) of HMS Surprise and his intellectual ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), both excellent. This is one of the few films to which I wish they’d make a sequel. 

Did you know? Russell Crowe learnt to play the violin for the film and said it was the hardest thing he’s had to do for a movie. 

Say it again! “For England, for home, and for the prize!” Captain Jack Aubrey

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Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time! part 1 was first published in Radio Times magazine (21-27 January 2012)

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Barry Norman’s 101 Greatest Films of All Time! part 2 is available in next week’s Radio Times magazine