Reel Releases: From history to mystery, some tales are worth telling again

Basil Rathbone (right) played Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce was Dr. Watson in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

While there are some stories Hollywood is willing to tell once and then discard – sometimes with good reason – there are others that filmmakers seem tempted to tell time and time again.


Be it a classic character, a strong story or a fanbase always willing to drop a little dough on a fresh interpretation, there’s something about certain properties that seems to make them evergreen for a cinematic makeover.

Of course, these popular properties are often interpreted with varying degrees of commercial and artistic success. After all, while Love At First Bite might have its fans, I think we can all agree it is no match for the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic.

Here is a look at a few examples.


A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958): Almost from the moment the Titanic slipped beneath the surface of the sea, filmmakers have been trotting out their models of the fabled liner and smashing them into all manner of faux icebergs. The Nazi government tried to turn the story into a propaganda film, James Cameron wrote it as an epic romance and The Legend of the Titanic animated the tale. But the best of the bunch has to be A Night to Remember, which takes the large event of the liner’s sinking and reduces it to a series of very human stories of survival and despair. More than 50 years after its release, this film, considered the most historically accurate of the Titanic films, still moves audiences in a very visceral way.


THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938): It’s impossible to estimate how many times the noble thief known as Robin Hood has swashbuckled his way through Sherwood Forest. He’s been a cartoon and a bloody action hero. He’s been a noble defender for the poor and, if Shrek is to be believed, sort of a jerk. There’s something about the character that seems open to endless interpretation, and chances are we haven’t seen the last of him yet. I, however, am a little bit of a Robin Hood purist. I like my Robin in tights and a pointy hat, as quick with a quip as he is with his bow and arrow – that means the 1938 version starring Errol Flynn as the classic booty-snatching hero.


THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939): Basil Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes 17 times. That leaves Robert Downey Jr. some catching up to do. In fact, it’s hard to separate the actor from the popular perception of the fictional detective. The image we conjure – the hat and pipe, the elongated features and tweed cloak – are all part of Rathbone’s classic characterization. While many hold up The Hound of the Baskervilles, Rathbone’s first Sherlock, as his best, I prefer the film that followed. Not only does it feature the actor in full Sherlock action, but it also introduces his most famous nemesis, the brilliant Dr. Moriarty.


PAT GARRET & BILLY THE KID (1973): The true story of Billy the Kid is short, bloody, staged against the bleakest of backdrops and, truth be told, more than a little sad. Still, there’s something about the New Mexico outlaw that resonates. While there have been many fine films built around the story, my favorite is Sam Peckinpah’s violent fable of friendship. This film is less about Billy the killer than it is his relationship with Pat Garrett, the lawman who eventually brings him down. If Peckinpah runs a little too red for you, I would also recommend the little-seen Left Handed Gun, starring a young Paul Newman as the Kid.


TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934): While there have been a lot of Tarzans – I’m also partial to the ’80s ape-filled art film Greystoke – there’s something about seeing the great Johnny Weissmuller find jungle love for the first time that gets me. And quite frankly, who can blame him? His Jane was played by the great Maureen O’Sullivan. Had the lovely Maureen expressed an interest in me, I might’ve let loose with a Tarzan yell, also.