Serious film fans will--of course--often notice references to other films when they watch a movie. These references are known as “homages.” And for film buffs, they are fun to spot. There is a difference, however, between an homage and a straight-up steal.
One of the better-known homages in film history occurs in the 1987 Brian De Palma gangster epic, The Untouchables. The climax of the film involves a shoot-out between FBI agents led by Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and gangsters loyal to mobster Al Capone. The shoot-out takes place on a steep marble staircase in a central train station. During the shoot-out, a character loses control of a baby carriage with a cute little baby inside, and the carriage careers down the steps, while bullets whizz all around it. It eventually arrives at the bottom of the stairs, where it’s stopped--baby unhurt--by a G-man played by Andy Garcia, who simultaneously shoots a few gangsters as he grabs the carriage.
It’s a brilliantly choreographed scene, and it’s also an acknowledged homage to a famous scene in the 1925 silent film epic, The Battleship Potemkin, by Sergei Eisenstein. Potemkin is a film about a mutiny aboard a Russian Imperial warship a few years before the 1917 Russian Revolution. When the ship docks at the Port of Odessa after the mutiny, citizens turn out to demonstrate their support of the mutineers, and are massacred as the Czar’s soldiers open fire. The massacre takes place on a grand, outdoor marble staircase.
During the massacre, a woman is shot dead, and her baby, in its carriage, bounds down the steps, while bullets whip furiously all around it.
Below are clips of both sequences. You be the judge — is the De Palma scene an homage, or a steal? IMHO, it’s an homage, and a good one. De Palma even graciously acknowledges his debt to Eisenstein by plopping a group of white-suited sailors in the middle of the shoot-out, a clear (and clever) reference to the mutineering sailors aboard the Potemkin.
In addition, despite the similarities, the two sequences are very different in context: a shoot-out is not a massacre, and in the case of The Untouchables, the authorities are the heroes, not the villains. De Palma has taken a legendary film sequence, and twisted it around to suit his own purposes--very effectively.
Now let’s move on to another reference to a very famous film sequence, which occurs in the 1995 Sam Raimi film, The Quick and the Dead. This film stars Sharon Stone as a mysterious female gunfighter nicknamed “The Lady.”
The Lady rides into a small Western frontier town controlled by an evil gangster named Herod (Gene Hackman, in a role that recalls the corrupt sheriff he played in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.) Herod is sponsoring a gunfighting contest that awards a huge monetary prize to the last man (or woman) standing.
The Lady enlists in the contest, but later on we learn she holds a grudge against Herod, and is intent on killing him. We find out why she wants to kill him in a flashback to her childhood, which also explains why she trained to be a crack shot. Herod was the leader of a group of desperadoes who raided her family farm and put a noose around her father’s neck. We see The Lady as a child of ten, being told by the cruel Herod that she can save her father’s life if she shoots the rope asunder. He gives her a loaded gun, but she misses the rope and kills her father.
The scene is a reference to a very similar one in Sergio Leone’s epic spaghetti Western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). In that film, Charles Bronson plays a mysterious gunfighter nicknamed Harmonica, who gets involved in a range war between a railroad boss and a female rancher over a water stop in a Western town called Sweetwater.
Bronson is determined to kill a desperado boss named Frank (played brilliantly by Henry Fonda) against whom he holds a terrible grudge. In a flashback to Harmonica’s childhood, we learn that Frank and his gang invaded Harmonica’s family farm and put a noose around his older brother’s neck. The brother is balanced on Harmonica’s childish shoulders, and the child is told that as long as he remains standing, his brother will stay alive. As a last act of cruelty, Frank stuffs a harmonica in the boy’s mouth and tells him to play it for his brother. Eventually of course, the boy can’t carry his brother’s weight anymore, and the man is hanged.
IMHO, the similarity of The Lady’s childhood “back story” with that of Harmonica is not simply a reference or an homage, but a straight-up steal. It’s not just a famous set piece--it’s a major plot development. Moreover, there’s nothing in The Quick and the Dead that acknowledges the source material, unlike the acknowledgement of Eistenstein in the De Palma film.
At no point does Raimi insert a reference that says, “Hey Sergio, thanks for the cool idea.” While I mostly like The Quick and The Dead, the blatant thievery in the flashback sequence bothers me a lot. It's lazy and disrespectful.
Here’s the original clip with Bronson and Fonda in the Leone film, and here’s a still photo from the copy, with Stacy Linn Ramsower as the younger Sharon Stone (I couldn’t find a clip from the actual scene.)
Post-edit: To be fair, Raimi does insert an oblique hat tip to Once Upon a Time in the West by giving a role to Woody Strode--one of the most famous Western character actors of the 50s and 60s--in The Quick and the Dead. Strode, who in his long career played the lone black guy in a Western frontier town again and again, also plays a member of Frank's gang in Once Upon a Time in the West. The inclusion of Strode still doesn't excuse the blatant theft of Harmonica's back story, however.