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The Expendables and the History of the Action Film Genre

Updated on August 15, 2010

The Expendables

The Action Film…What can we learn about the Genre from The Expendables?

The Expendables is a high-octane, mucho-macho, testosterone filled, manly adventure; written, directed by and starring action icon Sylvester Stallone. Stallone, who has criticized modern adventure movies for their reliance on CGI effects and Wire stunts, wanted to bring back some good old fashioned eighties-style mayhem.

The film has been called a tribute to Sly’s glory days, when he was Rambo-ing his way to box office dominance. Along with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford, he was part of the gun-totting Trinity of action legends for a generation. The Expendables brings back some of the other macho stars of the day, like Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke, along with brief appearances by those box office titans Schwarzenegger and Bruce (“Die Hard”) Willis. But it doesn’t limit itself to one decade. The film also gathers some 1990s musclemen (“Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Jet Li) and even some modern generation tough guys (Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Jason Statham). So in a strange way, while the film is trying to imitate a bygone era, it also pays tribute to the action films that have come since then. Stallone even adopts the recent filmmaking technique of the “unsteady-cam”, which consists of quick edits, close-ups and a shaky camera. (It’s an annoying style that many modern film fans hate) instead of the wide-angle style made famous by Bruce Lee and which is still utilized in Hong Kong and China. So The Expendables is a hybrid of all the action film styles since the early 1980s.

So if the Expendables is the accumulation of thirty years worth of cinematic ruggedness, then what about the years that came before it? Who were the action stars of yesterday and what is their legacy? Is there a modern corollary or is the adventure film of yesteryear merely a fossil in filmdom?

In the early years of film, action films were dominated by a genre called “the Swashbuckler”. The Swashbuckler genre consisted of period era stories, where the heroes used swords instead of guns. They rode horses and sailed ships instead of having car chases or jumping out of airplanes. The closest modern corollary of the Swashbuckler would be the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although the Rings Trilogy combines the Swashbuckler with the Fantasy genre, it’s really the only successful recent foray into a similar terrain.

The first big action star was Douglas Fairbanks. He was the action king of the silent film era, as well as one of the co-founders of United Artists Studios. Fairbanks delved frequently into the Swashbuckler and it made him a huge star. Films like Sinbad, Zorro, Robin Hood and the Three Musketeers made him a household name in his day.

When sound films came along, lots of adventure movie serials came along. The uncontested action icon of the old serials was Buster Crabbe. A former Olympic swimmer, Crabbe went on to play some of the most famous adventure characters. He portrayed Tarzan and Buck Rogers but his biggest success was in a trilogy of sci-fi serials about space adventurer Flash Gordon.

Errol Flynn

King of the Swashbucklers

Many dramatic stars delved into the action genre in the 30s, but the first major adventure film legend (who specialized almost exclusively in action fare) was Errol Flynn. The improbably handsome Flynn was born in Australia, raised in Ireland and broke into film in America. He achieved overnight success in the pirate film Captain Blood in 1935 and suddenly studio executives rolled out a plethora of Swashbucklers for the dashing Flynn to appear in. The Sea Hawk, the Prince and the Pauper, Don Juan and especially the classic Adventures of Robin Hood, for which he is best remembered. There were other swashbuckling stars like Tyrone Power and Doug Fairbanks Junior, but Flynn owned the genre. He dabbled in other genres too, including Westerns. Although he may have seemed miscast, the public readily accepted him in the white hat. Films like Dodge City and They Died With Their Boots On added to his reputation as an action Superstar.

John Wayne

king of the Cowboys

And speaking of Westerns, that was another popular genre of Action film. Westerns started out as B-List entertainment, rarely seen as great art. Not until the great director John Ford revolutionized the Western with a series of character driven, adult oriented Western dramas, beginning with Stagecoach in 1939. The star of Stagecoach was a tall young man who would go on to become not only the biggest Western Star ever, but arguably the greatest action hero in film history. His name was John Wayne.

After rocketing to instant fame in Stagecoach, Wayne became the ultimate screen cowboy. He made more Westerns than anyone else. Some of those genre entries were The Searchers, FortApache, Hondo, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rio Bravo and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, to name just a few. The Western genre has died off since the late sixties/early seventies. The most famous Western from the last 20 years is Dances With Wolves (1990). An occasional Western is still made but they generally don’t do too well. The heir to the Western is likely the post-apocalyptic genre. Films like The Book of Eli use the old western formula of the nomadic stranger wandering off the wild frontier and into the isolated small town where he comes into conflict with the local boss and his gang. Other films of the genre, like the Mad Max series, follow the Western blueprint.  

Getting back to John Wayne, he branched out beyond Westerns into other types of Adventure movies, most notably the War Film. During World War two, Wayne was the biggest action star in the world.

After the war started, Hollywood churned out an endless series of films where Hollywood stars battled Nazis and seemed to single-handedly defeat Germany. Or occasionally Japan. John Wayne and Errol Flynn took advantage of the fact that many of the other A-List Hollywood stars had either voluntarily enlisted or been drafted into the military. (Flynn wanted to enlist but he had a heart murmur due to a case of malaria he got years earlier, so was rejected.) They made a series of pro-war, propaganda films showing a heroic US or British soldier fighting the good fight against the evil Axis powers. (War films are one genre which has not gone out of style. Take the recent Hurt Locker or the Green Zone as proof of that.)

John Wayne’s career would continue until the 1970s. Although he would no longer have the box office clout he once had, the aging star remained an on-screen presence until his last film The Shootist (1976), a western about a cowboy dying of cancer. Wayne himself had cancer at the time and would die soon after. His 1969 Oscar win for Best Actor in another Western True Grit makes him one of the few actions icons to bring home the Academy Award. 

As for Errol Flynn, his career was cut short by his self destructive tendencies. He lived hard, drank hard and partied hard. His wild life began to show on his face and in the 1950s, he looked much older than he was. His career started to fizzle out and he died at age 50.

 Clint Eastwood was seen as the heir to John Wayne when he came on the scene. He started out on television in the small screen Western Rawhide and graduated to stardom in the trilogy of “Spaghetti Westerns” (Westerns filmed in Italy) in the 1960s, directed by Sergio Leone. A Fist Full of Dollars, followed by For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly made Eastwood western cinematic royalty. But like his predecessors, he didn’t stick to simply one type of film. He spread his wings and delved into different roles, particularly cop films. Eastwood’s most memorable screen character is the non-nonsense, trigger-happy homicide detective “Dirty” Harry Callahan, first brought to the screen in Dirty Harry (1972).  The film spawned four sequels. Eastwood had a long career as an actor but today he is mostly known as a director.

The James Bond film series is longest, most reliable film franchise ever. Based on the popular novels by Ian Fleming, the first of the films, Dr. No, (1962) began the spy film craze and made a star out of handsome young Sean Connery. During its long run, the franchise spawned many rip-offs (Our Man Flint), parodies (Matt Helm) and TV spy shows (The Man from Uncle, Secret Agent, I Spy and the hilarious spy satire Get Smart.) The early bond films were more plot oriented and grounded in realism but they’ve become increasingly fast paced and implausible. The recent revamp of the franchise had tried to recapture some of the dramatic intensity of the Connery films.

So far, there have been six actors to star in the 007 Franchise. Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig have all had their turn as bond, some more successful than others. James Bond Films are still being made today. Craig is the latest Bond and his third outing as 007 is in the works.

Bruce Lee

The Master of the Martial Arts Film

The seventies brought us one of the most unique and trend-setting action stars. He was imported all the way from Hong Kong where he’d been the biggest Eastern film star alive at the time. His American name was Bruce Lee.

Lee only made one American film, Enter the Dragon (1973) but it started the martial arts craze which continues today with Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Lee was a colossal star in his home country and changed the face of the “chop-socky” film, which had lacked credibility until Lee turned the martial arts genre into art. He inspired a legion of copycats after his untimely death at age 32 from a brain inflammation due to a hashish allergy.

The 1980s was a renaissance for action films. It became a Golden Age of a new generation of Action Heroes. Stallone (after his success in Rocky) starred in the successful Rambo Trilogy (Later to become a foursome) as well as Cliffhanger, Demolition Man and others. Arnold Schwarzenegger came on the scene in the sword and sorcery cult favorite Conan the Barbarian, his career really ignited with a bang in first Terminator film (There have been several sequels, two of which Arnold stared in) This began a dizzying string of hit action films including Predator, Commando, Total Recall, Eraser, True Lies and others.

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones

The Eighties and today

The third of the Big Three 80s action icons was Harrison Ford, who began in the scene stealing supporting role of Han Solo in the sci-fi mega-hit Star Wars and its two sequels, was tapped by George Lucas (who created Star Wars) to star in an homage to old movie serials. Ford put on his famous fedora and grabbed the trademark whip to portray adventurous archeologist Indiana Jones for the first time. The film Raiders of the Lost Arc (1982) was a phenomenal success. Two sequels were produced (And a poorly made fourth entry was added decades later) all directed by Steven Spielberg, and Indiana Jones has become synonymous with high adventure. Aside from the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, Ford made many other action hits, including the Fugitive, Witness, Air Force One, Frantic, Patriot Games, and A Clear and Present Danger. His career has been in a slump since the 21st century began. His attempt to revive the Indiana Jones franchise was not well received. Rumor has it he wants to vindicate himself by making a fifth installment.

Other stars of the 80s and 90s included martial arts stars Steven Segal and Jean Claude Van Dam. They created a temporary rebirth for the martial arts film, which gave performers like Brandon Lee (Son of Bruce Lee) and big Dolph Lundgren a chance to show off their Eastern fighting skills. Both Segal and Van Dam had a meteoric rise but burnt out very quickly. Of all the martial arts stars, only Jackie Chan seems to have staying power. Although Jet Li seems to have some longevity and may go on to have a very long career.

Former Wrestler Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson seemed poised to be the modern heir to the title of action king after The Scorpion King, Walking Tall and a few others. (There was a scene in The Rundown were Schwarzenegger has a funny cameo, symbolically handing the title of Action King to the Rock.) Strangely, just as he was on the verge of superstardom, he chose a different, more difficult path, appearing in a variety of non-action films.

There’s really no modern action film superstars, like Wayne, Flynn, Lee, Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Ford. Lots of dramatic stars (Like Tom Cruise, Adrian Brody, Liam Neeson, Russell Crowe, George Clooney, Matt Damon) have had success starring in adventure movies but are there any “specialists” out there anymore, other than the old timers, such as the gang Stallone has gathered for The Expendables?


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    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Steve; I agree, it wasn't a great film but it was fun for what it was.

      Bruce Lee was one of the greatest action heroes ever. He's still considered the best in the East. Two of my pals when I was growing up were huge Lee fans. One of them did a great imitation of that "caw" sound he makes when he fights. It's too bad Lee died so young and didn't get to make more movies.

      Good to hear from you,


    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 

      7 years ago from Manchester, England

      An enjoyable read Rob. It's good to see Bruce Lee hasn't been forgotten in Hubland, he was my action hero back in my teens, I idolized him. My first car, a Sunbeam Rapier, had a large picture of Bruce Lee on the bonnet (hood in the US). My dad's action hero was Errol Flynn mine was Lee. :)

      Does my Sandra have an action hero? Let me think.. yes she has - Keanu Reeves. I've watched Point Break an unhealthy amount of times. She loves Vin Diesel too.

      I enjoyed The Expendables, it's not a great anything but it was fun. Looking forward to the sequels.

      Voted Up.

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Ruffridyer; That was a pretty crude remark that Willis' character made, but I would doubt it was snuck in without Sly and Arnold's knowledge. The three of them have been business partners (Planet Hollywood) and have been known to tease each other.

      Thanks for reading,


    • profile image


      7 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      You should mention John Wayne didn't serve in the military because he too was 4f. He suffered a back injury during his football career.

      The scene in The Expendables where Bruce Willis and Arnold Swarzenegger had a cameo Bruce made a VERY nasty remark about Arnold and Sly's hero worship toward each other. I wonder if that remark was edited in After both actors left.

      I seen a T.V. movie about Errol Flyinn many years ago. The actor playing him was miscast, He was a dead ringer for Omar Shariff.

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Thank you, HH. Always good to hear from you.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      8 years ago from London, UK

      A very well written hub. I only can agree with you.

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      I agree dahoglund, that films with no plot or characterization are not interesting to me. I think Errol Flynn and John Wayne generally had a point to their movies. As did Harrison Ford. Eastwood is one of the great filmmakers ever. Bruce Lee made simple films, but there was a visual artistry; a poetry of motion that few have ever matched and no one has surpassed. As for Stallone and Schwarzenegger, some of their films were clever (Demolition Man was cleverly satiric and Total Recall was a brain teasing puzzle) but they could also churn out silly, shallow stuff, too. I'm not sure if The Expendables is Stallone's way of trying to recapture his glory days or distancing himself from modern films.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      An interesting history. I am not much for action films that often seem to have no plot and no character. I like John Wayne in small doses. I like Eastwood and Harrison Ford. I think the problem for me is that things like car chases got to be repetitious and uninteresting. The Last Bond film I saw was nothing but blowing up things. If there was a plot, I missed it.

      on another subject, I notice adds here for Terhunes dog books. Probably considered action stories.


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