Films That Reference Other Films: The Difference Between an Homage and a Straight-Up Steal

in film •  3 months ago  (edited)

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.

The Homage

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.

The Steal

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.

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Back in the 1980's, there was a manga entitled Fist of the North Star, which was set in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-style wasteland.

Of course, the wastes are controlled by roving gangs of sadistic arseholes, and at one point they do the same thing to a girl and her father that happened to Harmonica and his brother in Once Upon A Time In The West: noose around the dad's neck, and he's balanced upon the girl's shoulders until she can no longer hold him up.

I never, until now, made the connection, but the manga was written by Okamura Yoshiyuki under the pseudonym "Buronson" (which is how the Japanese would phonetically spell "Bronson"). Fist of the North Star is basically an enormous martial arts tribute to spaghetti westerns and post-nuke films, and Buronson would have been in his twenties when Once Upon A Time... came out.

Not sure if that scene would qualify as a rip-off or an homage, but either way, it's awesome to make a connection like that thanks to someone else's writing. :)

I think I've seen the 1986 movie 'Fist of the North Star' but I remember little of it, let alone the Western references. Strange, as it must have been years after having seen loads of spaghetti Westerns.

By the way, do you guys know why spaghetti westerns are called 'spaghetti' westerns? :>)

P.S. I like the 'Buronson' find haha!

As I recall, "Spaghetti Western" was something of a derogatory term to indicate an Italian in the director's chair, or that it was shot in Italy. I could be wrong though, and if someone else knows for certain, I hope they pipe up.

Kind of amusing, if you think about it. Only Westerns got this appellation. You never heard about "Spaghetti Horror" or "Spaghetti Romance". :D

It was indeed the Italians in the cast and crew and thus referred to the food eaten on set most of the time. Funny enough many Spaghetti westerns were shot in Spain :>)

Spaghetti horror / thriller could have been a name for Italian Giallo movies but it doesn't sound as fancy haha

I don't think it was meant to be derogatory. I think it was just "Wow, how weird is it that Italians are making Westerns!" Westerns being the quintessential American film genre and all that. We tend to not realize how much our movies and TV and music impact the rest of the world.

That definitely makes sense :>)

Plus in the early 60s, spaghetti was the only type of Italian food that Americans knew about.

That's very possible! I believe pizza's ( and possibly lasagne and other pasta ) became only widespread in the 70s but, being a kid from the 1980s I'm not too sure about that :>)

Wow, that's interesting. I don't know much about manga, but that's a great bit of trivia. PS -- we've got a film club on Discord now. If you've got the time, we'd love to have you. The link is on @namiks blog.

The cultural impact of the spaghetti Western is amazing!

Nice write up and definitely something worth discussing...

Both Sergei and Sergio didn't live to see these hommage / steals. Apparently, Eisenstein passed away aged 50 and Leone aged 60. Even then, they might be turning around in their graves if they aren't paid credit ( did Leone do so? )

Brian de Palma sure knows his classics. Don't ask me why exactly, but I like his work more than that of Tarantino ( talking about people knowing their classics and copy pasting them into 'their' work ).

I always felt that de Palma paid hommage ( what about Scarface? I love the version by De Palma! ) and Tarantino a little less. Or perhaps there's other reasons why I don't like the work of Quentin T. ( or perhaps Tarantino the person? ) too much. It might be because - back when I studied film - people always asked me 'How I liked Tarantino?' I enjoyed telling them I did not necessarily like his work and often killed the chat haha ( 'film snob' ).

To get back to De Palma, once again, what do you think of Blow-Out? Is it a hommage to Antonioni's Blow-up or more of a steal? :>)

P.S. I always found The Quick and The Dead an a-typical Sam Raimi film. Although he did a lot of superhero stuff my favorite films by him are easily The Evil Dead movies.

See you around :>)

Brian de Palma has forgotten more film history than I'll ever know in my entire life. (This is an American idiom that means a person who knows so much about a subject that they can afford to forget large parts of it and still be considered an expert.) I kind of see him as collage artist, not a thief. He's like the person who cuts out photos from magazines and then pastes them into an original picture that looks totally different from what the photos were meant to depict. In that way, he is better than Tarantino who is just kind of lazy and thinks that audiences won't recognize all the stuff he's ripping off (we do notice!). I need to watch Blow-Up and Blow-Out back-to-back again to answer your question. It's been a long time since seeing both.

The main problem with De Palma is that he gets so caught up in his technical proficiency (technically he's the equal of Kubrick or Hitchcock or Ridley Scott etc.) that he often forgets about scripts, acting, telling a story. He's made a lot of brilliant films and a lot of dogs, which has hurt his reputation. Where as top-tier directors like Kubrick etc. haven't made a lot of dogs. I kinda feel bad about where De Palma's career has ended up in his later years.

Ohh, the title only made me think about 2 bollywood pictures where I can think of the homage and the total steal thing. I know some total steal or maybe a lot of them. Still thinking about the homage in bollywood. Nice points thrown here seriously.

Thanks for sharing with us all, and congrats on your cure :)

Can't help but thinking that most Bollywood films are steals ( merely Romeo and Juliet style ) but, to be honest, I have seen very few of them ( as the couple I've seen where three or four hour love stories with loads of dancing and singing ( not my thing! ) so I'm surely prejudiced haha! :>)

They've made some interesting horrors, but even their horrors often have those dumb singing and dancing videos. And have clearly copied Western horror ideas. 13-B is great, (except for the musical videos.)

Let's be honest, In a way Hollywood is doing the same with ( often ) European and sometimes Asian cinema, there's just less singing and dancing ( although it can be found too ). And let's not even start on Disney ( I don't want to spoil my childhood memories ).

I will keep an eye out for 13-B :>)

hahahaha agreed here.

Hi janenightshade,

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Hi there @janenightshade!

This is such an interesting movie review! I think movies had a little similarities at one point and yes the difference are quite notable too.

Im gonna try to find this movies and watch a few tonight. Thank you for the insighful reviews! Congrats on your curie love.. Cheers! ❤

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Thank you, and thanks for commenting!