There’s a fine line between homage and plagiarism and it’s one that even the biggest Hollywood films sometimes cross.
We’re not talking hack directors stealing ideas from classic films though. You may not have realised, but some of your favourite movies shamelessly borrowed whole scenes from earlier pictures.
Scene: Ezekiel 25:17
Ripped off: 'Sonny Chiba’s The Bodyguard’
Samuel L Jackson had been a bit-part actor for many years before Quentin Tarantino propelled him into the big leagues with a lead role in 1994’s ‘Pulp Fiction’. His delivery of the Ezekiel 25:17 speech was one of the film’s most memorable moments and it firmly cemented Jackson as an actor worthy of everyone’s attention. But did you know that Tarantino had half-inched the speech from a 1973 kung-fu film?
The American version of this vehicle for veteran Japanese star Sonny Chiba opens with the same quote. It’s even read out in a menacing voiceover, eerily reminiscent of Jackson’s rendition.
Quentin substituted “I am Chiba the bodyguard” with “my name is the Lord” for Jackson’s iconic speech and movie history was made. Jackson can still deliver the speech with aplomb as this interview with Graham Norton proved.
Scene: Ride of the Valkyries
Ripped off: 'Birth of a Nation’
Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ will forever be indelibly linked with the helicopter attack scene in ‘Apocalypse Now’. Robert Duvall’s maniacal Colonel Kilgore pumps the stirring classical music out of his helicopter’s PA as he rides into battle.
Coppola’s use of ‘Valkyries’ here is very deliberate as it alludes to D.W. Griffith’s controversial ‘Birth of a Nation’, which also used the same music in its climactic scene.
In ‘Birth of a Nation’ Ku Klux Klansmen are seen riding into battle to rescue a young white girl from the clutches of black man (we told you it was controversial), so you can read Coppola’s use of the music as a searing indictment on America’s foreign policy in Vietnam.
Scene: Stairway scene
Ripped off: 'Battleship Potemkin’
Brian De Palma is no stranger to homage, after all his 1981 John Travolta thriller ‘Blow Out’ was based directly on Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’. But it’s this scene in ‘The Untouchables’ that is the easiest direct rip-off to spot in his back catalogue.
The film’s big shoot-out takes place on the steps inside Chicago’s Union Station. A baby in a pram is seen trundling down the stairs, in slow motion, through the gun fire.
It’s lifted directly from Sergei Eisentein’s seminal propaganda film ‘The Battleship Potemkin’. Film students will be familiar with ‘Potemkin’ as it’s often cited as introducing the concept of montage to cinema.
Scene: “Here’s Johnny!”
Ripped off: 'The Phantom Carriage’
In one of the most famous scenes in cinema history, Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance hunts down his wife and child and uses an axe to chop through the door that separates them.
You may not realise it, but the sequence is a near shot-for-shot remake of a scene from Swedish horror film ‘The Phantom Carriage’ in which an enraged alcoholic husband attacks his wife and child.
The silent 1921 film is considered to be a landmark work in Swedish cinema, influencing Ingmar Bergman and many other contemporaries. Kubrick never directly credited the influence on his film, but when you watch the scenes side-by-side it’s impossible to think he wasn’t paying homage with the sequence.
Scene: Butch sees Marcellus crossing the street from his car
Ripped off: ‘Psycho’
It’s that pop culture raven Tarantino again, but this time, he’s borrowing liberally from Alfred Hitchcock. The scene in question is the one where Bruce Willis’ Butch, having ripped off gangster boss Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), pulls up at a pedestrian crossing, only to have the mob leader cross the road directly in front of him.
The exact same thing happens in Hitchcock’s ‘Pyscho’ when Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane is leaving town having stolen $40,000 from her boss. She stops at the intersection and who should cross just in front of her? Her boss Mr Lowery. The difference being is that in ‘Psycho’ that scene doesn’t result in a sex-dungeon hillbilly torture sequence.
'Back to the Future’
Scene: Doc hanging from clock hands
Ripped off: 'Safety Last’
In Robert Zemeckis’ time-travelling romp, Doc Brown ends up hanging from the Hill Valley Courthouse clock tower in the centre of town, just like Harold Lloyd does in the classic 1928 silent comedy ‘Safety Last’.
Rather than labeling this as a “rip-off” though, we’re chalking up as a loving homage. Why? In the film’s opening sequence, a slow camera pans across Doc Brown’s lab, showing countless ticking clocks. One of them is a black and white timepiece which shows Harold Lloyd dangling from a the clock’s hand. Talk about neat foreshadowing.
Scene: Every opening crawl
Ripped off: 'Flash Gordon’
Aside from that iconic John Williams theme which jolts every ‘Star Wars’ film to life, the opening crawl is the most memorable thing that precedes each adventure. However, it wasn’t an original George Lucas idea.
The film-maker stole the concept from the ‘Flash Gordon’ serials of the 1930s and 40s which would begin with a brief recap of the story so far.
It’s no secret that Lucas had tried to acquire the rights to ‘Flash Gordon’ in order to adapt them for the cinema which, when that failed, led him to create ‘Star Wars’ in tribute. Fun fact: Brian De Palma helped Lucas write the opening crawl for the first ‘Star Wars’ film.
Scene: Most of it
Ripped off: 'Perfect Blue’
In Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’, Natalie Portman’s ballet dancer Nina is driven to the edge of insanity when she lands the lead role in ‘Swan Lake’. She becomes haunted by her double (could it be her imagination?) and at one point convinces herself that she has killed someone.
The whole storyline is eerily similar to that of an obscure anime film ‘Perfect Blue’, which has a soap actress as the lead, rather than a ballet dancer. There are numerous scenes in ‘Black Swan’ which seem to be directly lifted from ‘Perfect Blue’ including one where images of the lead character pinned to a wall begin taunting her.
Interestingly, Aronofsky bought the rights to ‘Perfect Blue’ in 2000 so that he could pay homage to a bath scene in his earlier film ‘Requiem for a Dream’. The director denies the anime film inspired his ballet thriller – we’re not so sure.
Scene: The Mexican standoff
Ripped off: 'City on Fire’
Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut borrows so heavily from Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong crime thriller ‘City on Fire’ that it seems more of a tribute to the original than a simple case of plagiarism. The plots are virtually identical. They both show an undercover cop that infiltrates an armed robbery gang, whose jewelry shop raid goes drastically wrong. They both finish up with the gangs bickering in a warehouse and they both end with a Mexican stand-off.
Tarantino has never openly admitted that he ripped off his film plot from Lam’s movie, but he did dedicate the script to the film’s star Chow Yun-Fat amongst other people, and he told Film Threat that he has a ‘City of Fire’ poster framed in his house.
Are there any more classic movie scenes that were total rip-offs? Let us know in the comments below.
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Image credits: Miramax/Toei/American Zoetrope/Paramount/Warner Bros./Universal/20th Century Fox