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The Instant Expert's Guide to: Ridley Scott

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Fifty-five years ago, Ridley Scott made his first short film and Cinema Paradiso marks the occasion by adding him to the pantheon in its popular Instant Expert series.

In the preamble to an interview in the Directors Guild Quarterly magazine, Sir Ridley Scott was described as 'the last master of traditional, old-school epic film-making'. He has certainly produced several milestone historical blockbusters, although the Screen Rant website claims his strengths lie elsewhere in dubbing him the 'sci-fi's most important director'. But there are so many diverse titles in Scott's filmography that it's impossible to pin him down.

One thing we can say for certain, however, is that he's a big fan of film on DVD and Blu-ray. He has recorded commentaries for a number of his features and has used disc to introduce audiences to the director's cut of the pictures he has revisited. We like to think he would approve of Cinema Paradiso, as he told Total Film in 2006: 'After all the work we go through, to have [a film] run in the cinema and then disappear forever is a great pity. To give the film added life (on disc) is really cool for both those who missed it and those who really loved it.'

Putting the Blame on Mame

After the war, the Scotts settled in Greens Beck Road in Hartburn, with Ridley and Tony attending Grangefield Grammar School in Stockton. From an early age, Scott became involved in school plays and harboured secret ambitions to make movies. 'I thought it would be too silly to suggest to my parents that I wanted to be a film director,' he told one interviewer. 'Because in the north of England, the part of the world where I came from, that would be unthinkable. The film industry and theatre and all that stuff was the other side of the moon. And so I figured I wouldn't even dare try acting, although I thought about that as well. That was just too silly for words, I wouldn't dare.'

Nevertheless, as Elizabeth was a great film-goer, the boys often frequented the local picturehouse. Indeed, cinema ran in the family, as their great-uncle, Dixon Scott, had founded a newsreel theatre in Newcastle upon Tyne to ensure that the working-classes who couldn''t afford to buy a daily newspaper could keep up with current events. The Art Deco auditorium is still in use today, as the Classic screen at the Tyneside Cinema, and it proudly stands as Britain's last surviving newsreel theatre.

A still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The first film Scott remembers seeing was Henry King's The Black Swan (1942), a swashbuckling Technicolor adventure starring Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara. Naturally, it's available to rent from Cinema Paradiso, as is Charles Vidor's Gilda (1946), a noirish monochrome gem that showcased the talents of Rita Hayworth. According to Scott, this was 'the first film that gonged me' and he recalled something funny happening to his seven year-old self when he saw Hayworth singing 'Put the Blame on Mame'. As a teenager, Scott started reading the science fiction novels of H.G. Wells and credits Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Gordon Douglas's Them! (1954) for affirming his interest in the genre. He has also cited Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) and David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as important influences. But the picture that left the deepest impression was Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). 'Once I saw that,' he claimed, 'I knew what I could do.'

Back in his youth, Scott was primarily concerned with art. He started painting with oils around the age of eight and preferred to stay home and draw than go out with his mates. Scott's schooldays were stressful, however, and he still has the report card placing him bottom of a class of 31 on his office wall. Luckily, one teacher recognised his talent and encouraged him to enrol at the West Hartlepool College of Art, where he received a diploma in design.

Taking Bread to the Top of the World

Comparing his art school experience to the sun rising, Scott landed a place at the Royal College of Art in London. He contributed to the in-house ARK magazine and refined the skills that he still uses each day while making films: 'It's all about white sheets of paper, pens and drawing.'

Although the college didn't have a film-making department, Scott decided to have a go at directing after finding a wind-up Bolex camera, a light meter and an instruction booklet in a cupboard. Having written a screenplay, he returned to Hartlepool with some rented equipment and managed to persuade the teenage Tony, as well as their father, to star in a black-and-white short.

Filmed on 16mm over six weeks and costing £60, Boy and Bicycle (1965) opens in Scott's own bedroom and follows a boy playing truant from school. The voiceover was inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses (which would be filmed a few years later by Joseph Strick), while the beach scenes were inspired by Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957).

Fortunate enough to secure a grant from the BFI to complete the sound and editing, Scott also lucked out when noted composer John Barry agreed to supply some music, which he released as 'Onward Christian Spacemen' on the B side of 'The Human Jungle', the theme from the cult TV series of the same name, which stars Herbert Lom as psychiatrist Dr Roger Corder. This is available to rent from Cinema Paradiso, as is Boy and Bicycle, which can be found on Cinema 16: British Short Films (2003).

Having taught himself the filming process, Ridley also inspired Tony, who would follow him to both West Hartlepool College of Art and the RCA in London. In 2015, Scott returned to his alma mater to receive an honorary doctorate.

On graduating in 1963, he joined the BBC as a trainee set designer and made his mark by reworking the title credits for Cliff Michelmore's current affairs programme, Tonight (1957-65). Among the shows to which Scott was assigned were Z Cars (1962-78) and Out of the Unknown (1965-71), which gave him his first professional brush with sci-fi.

Naturally, Cinema Paradiso users can discover both shows, as well as thousands of other small-screen classics and curios. Among them, of course, is Doctor Who (1963-) and Scott might have found sci-fi immortality of another kind had a directing course at Granada not prevented him from designing the second serial. The Daleks, which is also known as 'The Mutants' and 'The Dead Planet'. Instead, Raymond Cusick got to rise to the challenge of envisaging the cyborg extraterrestrials described in Terry Nation's script.

A still from Adam Adamant Lives!: The Complete Series (1966)
A still from Adam Adamant Lives!: The Complete Series (1966)

On the plus side, the course did allow Scott to start directing and he followed a single episode of Z Cars with three instalments of Adam Adamant Lives! (1966). The following year, while working with actor Ian Hendry on The Informer (1966-67), he received some advice that would change his fortunes. Recognising that Scott struggled to talk to his casts, Hendry confided: 'Your voice is too quiet. You're too apologetic. Take no prisoners. Apologise for nothing. And be assertive. Above all things, any decision is better than no decision.'

With these words ringing in his ears, Scott ducked out of television and joined Tony in forming Ridley Scott Associates in order to make commercials. 'I was out of the era of Mad Men (2007-15), ' he later claimed, as he worked alongside such aspiring directors as Alan Parker and Hugh Hudson. Looking back, he has claimed, 'We were really inventing modern advertising and modern communications.' He certainly knew how to speak to an audience and isn't far wrong in insisting that 'people at that time said TV commercial breaks were better than the programmes'.

Cinematographer Hugh Johnson was also a key member of the RSA team, as Scott made such iconic adverts as the much-loved Hovis 'Bike Round' spot, which saw a delivery boy pushing his bicycle up Gold Hill in the Dorset town of Shaftesbury to the accompaniment of Antonin Dvorák's 'New World Symphony'. Among Scott's other celebrated items were Chanel's 1979 'Share the Destiny' campaign and Apple's '1984' ad, which took its cues from George Orwell's novel and made such an impact during Super Bowl XVIII when hammer-thrower Anya Major took on Big Brother that Danny Boyle incorporated it in his 2015 biopic, Steve Jobs.

In all, Scott estimates that he made as many as 2000 commercials. 'I stayed in (advertising) for 20 years because I just loved it,' he enthused in one interview. He particularly enjoyed operating his own camera, as it gave him the same kind of intimate connection with his actors that photographers have with their models. 'In those days,' he reflected, 'I would be doing, personally, 100 commercials a year, averaging two a week. And they were big.'

This award-laden period made Scott realise the key question that all film-maker's should ask themselves when seeking to reach an audience: 'Am I communicating, or am I going over your head?' At the age of 40 and having filmed in glamorous locations around the world, Ridley Scott was ready for a new challenge.

Screaming in Space

It used to be said that 'life begins at 40' and Scott's daily routine changed considerably when he embarked upon his first feature. Adapted from a Joseph Conrad short story, The Duellists (1977) centred on the 15-year feud that develops when Armand D'Hubert (Keith Carradine) is sent to arrest fellow Hussar officer Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) for illegal duelling. Neither American seemed entirely comfortable in his role, but Scott ably learnt lessons from Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) and defied critics who claimed his film had more style than substance by winning the Caméra d'or for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival.

Despite receiving financial backing from Paramount, Scott was largely left alone during the shoot in France and producer David Puttnam warned him that he would never have so much creative freedom again. The authenticity of the historical detail impressed studio chief Barry Diller and he was open to Scott's suggestion of following up with a retelling of the story of Tristan and Isolde when Scott abruptly changed tack after accompanying Puttnam to a screening of George Lucas's Star Wars (1977).

Some three months after this eye-opening experience, Scott was offered a science fiction project of his own. Walter Hill, Peter Yates, Jack Clayton and Robert Aldrich had already turned down the chance to direct Alien (1979), but Scott had been reading European comic strips in Heavy Metal magazine and submitted such detailed storyboards that 20th Century-Fox knew they had their man. Consequently, the studio went along with his idea of ditching the traditional male hero and focusing the action on Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).

They also bought into Scott's plan to stress the low-key, blue-collar atmosphere aboard the USCSS Nostromo so that the moments of terror that followed the enduringly jolting 'chestburster' sequence feel all the more gnawingly invidious. The combination of the excellent ensemble, a doughty ginger cat and H.R. Giger's fearsome extraterrestrial caught the popular imagination and not only spawned a franchise and spin-offs of various calibres, but it also transformed the sci-fi genre. Not bad for a sophomore outing and Scott's third wasn't too bad, either!

A still from Blade Runner (1982)
A still from Blade Runner (1982)

While spending a year working on an adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune (which was eventually realised by David Lynch in 1984), Scott lost his older brother and his grief filtered into the ambience of Blade Runner (1982). Based on Philip K. Dick's story, 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?'' (which Scott never managed to finish), the action is set in a 21st-century Los Angeles that owes a lot to 1950s Hartlepool and follows the efforts of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to round up a trio of genetically manufactured replicants: Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and Pris (Daryl Hannah).

Working in Hollywood for the first time. Scott found the shoot frustrating and was underwhelmed when Warner Bros reacted to the film's modest box-office showing by using Scott's notes to create a 1991 'director's cut', whose changes included the removal of a key character voiceover. This proved not to be the last word on the subject, however, as Scott supervised a 2007 restoration that was released as 'The Final Cut'. Despite its tortuous evolution, Scott considers this to be his 'most complete and personal film'. He was actively involved in developing Blade Runner 2049, but was forced to settle for a producing berth, as he was unable to resolve a scheduling clash over Alien: Covenant (both 2017).

Given the incalculable influence that Blade Runner has had on the look and feel of the sci-fi genre, it's amazing to think that it received such a lukewarm welcome. The same proved true of Legend (1985), as Scott sought to put a new spin on the fantasy film by drawing on the influences of the Brothers Grimm, Jean Cocteau and Walt Disney. In order to create a suitably magical milieu in which Jack O'Greene (Tom Cruise) could protect Princess Lili (Mia Sara) from the horned Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry), Scott built a massive forest set on the 007 Stage at Pinewood. But, despite Rob Bottin's make-up earning an Oscar-nomination, Scott had misgivings and restored the Jerry Goldsmith score that had been replaced by one by Tangerine Dream when he released a director's cut in 2002.

Feeling the need to return to the real world, Scott moved on to Someone to Watch Over Me, a romantic thriller that owed much aesthetically to his RSA origins. Similar in tone to fellow ad-maker Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction (both 1987), the narrative centres on the marital tensions that arise between NYPD detective Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) and his wife, Ellie (Lorraine Bracco), when he is detailed to protect glamorous socialite murder witness, Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers).

A still from Black Rain (1989)
A still from Black Rain (1989)

Critics complained about the lack of chemistry between the leads. But Bracco excels as the plucky spouse, while the imagery capably captures the thrust of the 'Me Decade'. However, Scott remained in perfunctory mode for Black Rain (1989), a slick, but formulaic police procedural that follows NYPD maverick Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas) and longtime partner Charlie Vincent (Andy García) to Japan, as they deliver yakuza Masahiro Matsumoto (Ken Takakura) to their counterparts in Osaka. Occasionally making the designated city feel as though it had been twinned with the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, this is good and gutsy, especially when being driven along by Hans Zimmer's score. But Scott would do better next time out.

Making Screen History

Having reinvented the action hero (ine) in Alien, Scott teamed with screenwriter Callie Khouri to reformulate the 'buddy movie' in Thelma & Louise (1991). Khouri had hoped to direct herself and Scott had been prepared to hand the reins to Bob Rafelson, Kevin Reynolds or Richard Donner. But none saw any mileage in a tale of fugitive friends fleeing a post-rape parking lot shooting. Having been cast alongside Jodie Foster, Michelle Pfeiffer persuaded Scott to direct, although Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn went on to inherit the roles of Louise Sawyer and Thelma Dickinson that eventually passed to Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.

Scott received his first Oscar nomination, alongside his leads, who lost out in ironic circumstances to Jodie Foster in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, which she had chosen over Thelma & Louise. But only Khouri went home with a statuette, although cinematographer Adrian Biddle and editor Thom Noble can consider themselves unlucky to have lost out to their counterparts on Oliver Stone's JFK (both 1991).

Whether you rent Scott's 30 year-old masterpiece from Cinema Paradiso on high-quality DVD or Blu-ray, we can guarantee that it will still pack a punch. Sadly, we can make no such promises for 1492: Conquest of Paradise, which sought to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's epic voyage to the New World by rewriting history and whitewashing its protagonist to an inexcusable extent. We can aver, however, that Gérard Depardieu makes a better Genoese explorer than either Georges Corraface in John Glen's Christopher Columbus: Voyage of Discovery or Jim Dale in Gerald Thomas's Carry On Columbus (all 1992).

A still from White Squall (1996)
A still from White Squall (1996)

Following a four-year directorial hiatus, Scott remained at sea for White Squall (1996), the first production released by his Scott Free company. Scripted by Todd Robinson from Charles Gieg, Jr. and Felix Sutton's 1962 tome, The Last Voyage of the Albatross, this nautical rite of passage joins teacher Christopher B. Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) on a sailing trip aboard a two-sail brigantine with some of his charges. Scott directs the more tempestuous action with typical gusto, but the cookie-cutter characterisation makes it difficult to identify with teens Scott Wolf, Ryan Phillippe, Jeremy Sisto and Eric Michael Cole.

A similar problem best G.I. Jane (1997), which Scott clearly saw as a companion piece to Alien and Thelma & Louise. Even he, however, was confounded by a combination of David Twohy's cliché-strewn script and Demi Moore's struggle to make the audience believe in Lieutenant Jordan O'Neill's stand-off with Command Master Chief John James Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen) in her bid to join the US Navy Combined Reconnaissance Team. Don't let us put you off renting from Cinema Paradiso, however, as Moore did win the Razzie for Worst Actress and there are few more irresistible recommendations.

Three years passed before Scott returned to the screen. But he bounced back in extraordinary style by guiding Gladiator (2000) to the Academy Award for Best Picture. In the process, however, he and the scripting trio of David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson made a little bit of unwanted screen history, as the Roman epic became the first feature since Robert Rossen's All the King's Men (1949) to take the top prize without also picking up either Best Director or Screenplay.

Taking its inspiration from Daniel P. Mannix's 1958 novel, Those About to Die, the plot turns on the betrayal of army general Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) by Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the son of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Complicating matters was the fact that Scott - who has been persuaded to accept the assignment by Jean-Léon Gérôme's 1872 painting 'Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down) ' - had to resort to pioneering digitised body-doubling after Oliver Reed had succumbed to a heart attack while playing gladiator trainer Antonius Proximo. But Scott followed in the footsteps of David Lean in ensuring that his 'characters never got lost in the proscenium'.

Despite being credited with reviving the popularity of the Peplum or 'sword and sandal' genre, this much-garlanded box-office behemoth proved a hard act to follow and Scott spent much of the next decade seeking to emerge from its shadow.

Ridley Scott films from 2000 onwards

When producer Dino D. Laurentiis approached Scott on the set of Gladiator with an offer to direct Hannibal, the sixty-something thought he was referring to a biopic of the Carthaginian general who had crossed the Alps by elephant during the Second Punic War against the Roman Republic. In fact, the Italian wanted Scott to adapt Thomas Harris's sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, which Jonathan Demme had declined because he felt the material was too lurid. Jodie Foster agreed and Julianne Moore assumed the role of Clarice Starling opposite Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter.

Working from a script by Steven Zaillian that retained nuggets from David Mamet first draft, Scott secured Harris's permission to change the book's ending. But he never quite came to terms with the Lecter-Starling dynamic and rather let Hopkins to play to the gallery. So, while Hannibal is gripping during its Venetian sequences, its credibility is strained during the gorier set-pieces involving Ray Liotta and Gary Oldman.

A still from Black Hawk Down (2001)
A still from Black Hawk Down (2001)

Later the same year, Scott demonstrated that he could do restrained realism with the best of them in Black Hawk Down (2001), which presents journalist Mark Bowden's account of the US military's 1993 raid on the Somalian capital Mogadishu as a combat docudrama. Led by Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor, the ensemble conveys the hellish nature of warfare in showing how human foible can snafu the best laid plans.

So visceral are the action sequences that editor Pietro Scalia deserved his Oscar as much as the sound team of Michael Minkler, Myron Nettinga and Chris Munro. Often shooting with 11 cameras, Scott and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak may have felt hard done by to have been respectively pipped by Ron Howard for A Beautiful Mind and Andrew Lesnie for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (both 2001).

Scaling it down, next Scott turned to an Eric Garcia novel for Matchstick Men (2003), which must rank as the most overlooked gem in his canon. Nicolas Cage reminds everyone why he once won an Oscar (for Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas, 1995). None of these traits was evident as the newly knighted Scott rather blundered into the crusading era with Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Following their successful collaboration on Total Recall (1990), director Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger had embarked upon a doomed epic entitled Crusade and Scott might have been wise to reflect on the moral and historical complexities of a quest that had even defeated Cecil B. DeMille in The Crusades (1935).

Yet Scott carried on regardless, even after being forced to replace Paul Bettany with Orlando Bloom as Balian of Ibelin, the 12th-century French blacksmith who is inspired by his wife's suicide to liberate the Holy Land from the Saracens. Given the state of the world in 2005, this was hardly the subtlest of storylines and the restoration of 45 excised minutes in the director's cut did little to promote greater understanding or generate positive reviews.

A still from A Good Year (2006)
A still from A Good Year (2006)

The interloper in A Good Year (2006) is markedly less hostile. But Russell Crowe didn't strike everyone as ideal casting for this adaptation of Peter Mayle's 1989 bestseller, which had already been dramatised for the BBC by David Tucker as A Year in Provence (1993), with John Thaw as Mayle. Ironically, the book had come about after Scott had asked Mayle (who was his neighbour in Provence) to write an expat comedy. But the public had its own view of the book's anti-hero by the time Crowe was cast as Max Skinner, alongside Albert Finney (as the uncle whose vineyard he inherits) and Marion Cotillard, as the café owner he knocks off her bicycle. The die was irretrievably cast, however. when Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of 20th Century-Fox, dismissed the film as 'a flop' to shareholders just a few days after its release. Worse still, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists placed it in the Hall of Shame during the annual EDA awards.

Scott Free Productions

In 1995, Ridley and Tony Scott joined forces to form Scott Free Productions. The same year, the siblings also fronted the consortium that purchased a controlling interest in Shepperton Studios. In addition to refurbishing the facilities, the Scotts also started producing features, music videos and commercials. Indeed, RSA remained as busy as ever, with Scott's sons Jake and Luke and daughter Jordan following in their father's footsteps.

As well as directing dozens of pop videos, Jake has also enjoyed feature success with Plunkett and Macleane (1999), Welcome to the Rileys (2010) and American Woman (2018). Dividing her time between direction and photography, Jordan made her feature bow with Cracks (2009), which came after she had teamed with her father on the 'Jonathan' segment of the 2005 anthology, All the Invisible Children.

After acting as his father's assistant, Luke made his feature debut with Morgan (2016). He also directed a couple of short prequels to Blade Runner 2049, 2036: Nexus Dawn and 2048: Nowhere to Run, which can be found on the Blu-ray version of the film, which is also available from Cinema Paradise in DVD, Blu-ray 3D and 4K formats. No streaming platform can provide choice and service like that!

Scott has always been ready to give his children a helping hand on the producing front. But he has also been busy on behalf of numerous emerging talents. Among the features he has produced, Cinema Paradiso users can enjoy Mike Figgis's The Browning Version (1994), David Dobkin's Clay Pigeons (1998), Benjamin Ross's RKO 281 (1999), Marek Kanievska's Where the Money Is (2000), Curtis Hanson's In Her Shoes (2005), Andrew Dominick's The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Joe Carnahan's The Grey (2012), Zal Batmanglij's The East. Park Chan-wook's Stoker (both 2013), Daniel Espinosa's Child 44, Peter Landesman's Concussion (both 2015), Justin Barber's Phoenix Forgotten, Landesman's Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, and Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express (all 2017).

This is a fascinatingly eclectic list and the same goes for Scott's CV as an executive producer. Once again, Cinema Paradiso is the place to come for Franco Amurri's Monkey Trouble (1994), Kevin Reynolds's Tristan and Isolde (2006), Jay and Mark Duplass's Cyrus, Joe Carnahan's The A-Team (both 2010), Kevin Macdonald and Alejandro Romeo's Life in a Day (2011), Baillie Walsh's Springsteen & I, Eran Creevy's Welcome to the Punch (both 2013), Rowan Joffé's Before I Go to Sleep, Christopher Smith's Get Santa (both 2014), Drake Doremus's Equals (2015), Scott Foley's Mindhorn (2016), Doremus's Newness (2017), James Kent's The Aftermath and Max Winkler's Jungleland (both 2019).

Completing the family portrait is Tony Scott, who did very well for himself after being bossed around by his brother in Boy and Bicycle. Having cut his teeth at RSA, Scott went to Hollywood to direct Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and David Bowie in his feature bow, The Hunger (1983). Like his brother, he also struck gold with his second outing, as he was recruited by producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer to direct Tom Cruise in Top Gun (1986).

He remained with the dynamic duo for Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Days of Thunder (1990), The Last Boy Scout (1991), Crimson Tide (1995) and Enemy of the State (1998). However, Scott enjoyed success away from all-action, high-concept blockbusters and Cinema Paradiso users can revisit such diverse pictures as Revenge (1990), True Romance (1993), The Fan (1996), Spy Game (2001), Man on Fire (2004), Domino (2005), Déjà Vu (2006), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and Unstoppable (2010).

Sadly, the latter proved to be Scott's swan song, as he jumped from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles on 19 August 2012. In an interview with Variety, Sir Ridley revealed that his brother had been fighting a prolonged battle against cancer. They had worked together on a clutch of TV series, including Numbers (2005-09) and Coma (2012).

Scott also has impressive credentials as a small-screen executive producer, with the following being available for discerning Cinema Paradiso members: The Good Wife (2009-16), The Pillars of the Earth (2010), Prophets of Science Fiction (2011), World Without End (2012), Halo: Nightfall (2014), Taboo, The Good Fight (both 2017-), and The Terror (2018-19).

Ridley Scott, Good Films and Bad

A still from American Gangster (2007) With Russell Crowe
A still from American Gangster (2007) With Russell Crowe

Scott was making Kingdom of Heaven when screenwriter Steven Zaillian penned a biopic of 1970s drug baron, Frank Lucas. Brian De Palma, Antoine Fuqua, Peter Berg and Terry George were all approached before Scott agreed to make American Gangster (2007) and shifted the story emphasis on to the pursuit of Lucas (Denzel Washington), who used servicemen returning from Vietnam to smuggle Blue Magic heroin into the United States, by Newark detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe).

Scott received a Golden Globe nomination for his efforts, despite being accused by some critics of glamorising a sordid trade. In fact, the visually striking picture subverts the urban myths associated with the American Dream and Scott sought to put a similarly revisionist spin on the espionage thriller with Body of Lies (2008). Based on a David Ignatius novel, the narrative questions Western assumptions about the Muslim world, as CIA chief Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) objects to the tactics being employed by field agent Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), who hooks up with Jordanian intelligence boss Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) to capture a notorious terrorist and his network.

Mixed reviews and modest business resulted in this being dismissed as Bond lite. Yet, despite the formulaic nature of the plotting and characterisation, this is slick entertainment and remains superior to Robin Hood (2010), which Scott undertook after failing to greenlight an adaptation of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in spite of the support of Leonardo DiCaprio.

Despite pipping Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer to the director's chair, Scott struggled to rein in old friend Russell Crowe, who seems out of place in Sherwood Forest as Robin Longstride romances Cate Blanchett's Marion Loxley. Oscar Isaac was praised for his turn as Prince John, while Scott's handling of the action sequences was boldly gritty. But you can judge for yourselves how he fared by comparing this version of the legend with such earlier incarnations as Allan Dwan's Robin Hood (1922), with Douglas Fairbanks; William Keighley's The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), with Errol Flynn; Kevin Reynolds's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), with Kevin Costner; and Otto Bathurst's Robin Hood (2018), with Taron Egerton.

Ever the perfectionist, Scott used 18 cameras for the beach scene and audiences proved sufficiently forgiving of Crowe's wandering accent to turn up in sizeable numbers. Expectation was considerably higher for Prometheus (2012), however, which Scott resisted calling a sequel by suggesting that it simply shared 'strands of Alien's DNA'. At its centre is Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), an archaeologist whose discovery of an ancient star map prompts her to board a spaceship skippered by Janek (Idris Elba) to seek out the ancient culture of the Engineers.

A still from The Counsellor (2013)
A still from The Counsellor (2013)

While not everyone was convinced by the script or the characterisation, Scott imposed such a stern visual grandeur upon proceedings that the picture earned an Oscar nomination for its SFX and racked up $403 million at the box office, thanks to scenes like the gruesome DIY caesarian. Moreover, Scott forged a link with Michael Fassinder, who stole the show as David, the fastidious android butler. They reunited on The Counsellor (2013), an uncompromising crime thriller that was scripted by Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy, who had come to know Scott while he was attempting to adapt his bestseller. Blood Meridian.

As the lawyer abetting Mexican druglord Javier Bardem, Fassbender runs into femme fatale Cameron Diaz, who is busy distracting Bardem from fiancée Penélope Cruz. With Brad Pitt contributing a knowing cameo as the facilitator of a major Colombian drug deal, the story twists and turns without always making sense before it gets weighed down by dialogue that clearly worked better on the page. Scott dresses it all up with impeccable style, but can't quite make it click.

Perhaps intrigued by the fact that Russell Crowe was headlining Darren Aronofsky's Noah, Scott next decided to venture into the Old Testament himself for Exodus: Gods and Kings (both 2014). Revisiting incidents that Cecil B. DeMille had created with typically gaudy panache in The Ten Commandments (1956), Scott cast Christian Bale as Moses and pitted him against Joel Edgerton's Pharaoh Ramesses II. But the reviews were quick to point out that an avowed atheist wasn't perhaps the ideal director for a grand-scale parable on the power of faith.

Just as die-hard Scott fans were wondering whether he was stuck in a tailspin, he pulled out in spectacular style with The Martian (2014). Initially, Drew Goddard was lined up to direct his own adaptation of Andy Weir's novel, but 20th Century-Fox brought in Scott to direct Matt Damon's as Mark Watney, the Red Planet Robinson Crusoe who is left for dead after the 2035 Ares III mission returns to Earth following a devastating dust storm.

Taking leaves out of Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void (2003), Scott skilfully contrasted Damon's resourcefully good-humoured isolation with the frantic, hand-wringing efforts of Mission Control to rescue him. Made with input from NASA, the film landed seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Actor. But Scott was overlooked despite being recognised by both BAFTA and the Golden Globes.

A still from Alien: Covenant (2017)
A still from Alien: Covenant (2017)

Moreover, with global grosses of $630 million, this became the biggest hit of the director's career. Wisely, he opted to remain with a winning genre for Alien: Covenant (2017), a prequel sequel that takes the action on a decade to 2104, where the 15-strong crew aboard a colony ship transporting 2000 souls to a human-habitable planet are woken mid-flight by an electrical storm.

Pairing a returning Michael Fassbender (whose robot is renamed Walter) with Billy Crudup as the reluctant commander and Katherine Waterston as the pugnacious science officer, this recycles some of the ideas explored in Morten Tyldum's Passengers (2016). But, even though everyone who bought a ticket knew what to expect, Scott delivered with customary aplomb.

After back-to-back intergalactic hits, however, he opted to remain closer to home for his follow-up. Engulfed by accusations made against Kevin Spacey, All the Money in the World (2017) caused more of a stir in newsrooms than cinemas. Christopher Plummer (who earned an Oscar nomination) stepped in to play J. Paul Getty, who is forced to negotiate the safe return of his grandson after he is kidnapped by a crime syndicate in Rome in 1973.

With Michelle Williams as the 16 year-old's mother who bonds with security expert Mark Wahlberg, the film may be a miracle of digital insertion. But the enveloping ambience and gripping suspense are down to Scott, who is at the top of his game. Let's hope he carries this form over into the two pictures he currently has in post-production.

Could there be echoes of Scott's feature bow in The Last Duel, an adaptation of Eric Jager's 2004 book, The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France, which sees 14th-century knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) challenge squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) to a fight to the death following the rape of his wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer).

As for House of Gucci, this sees Scott re-inherit a project that he had originated back in 2006, with Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio. Daughter Jordan and Wong Kar-wai had subsequently been pencilled in to adapt Sara Gay Forden's tome, The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed. But Scott reclaimed the project in late 2019 and cast Lady Gaga and Adam Driver as Patrizia Reggiani and Maurizio Gucci. With another assignment entitled Kitbag also on the slate, it seems clear that Sir Ridley has no plans to hang up his viewfinder just yet.

A still from House of Gucci (2021)
A still from House of Gucci (2021)
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