Book review: Ridley Scott – A Retrospective

One consequence of the sad death of filmmaker Alan Parker last July, is that at least now the status of Sir Ridley Scott, as the grand old man of British cinema is now pretty much unchallenged. For, make no mistake, while there are undeniably many other great British directors around –  Sam Mendes, Christopher Nolan,  Edgar Wright, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Mike Figgis and Danny Boyle amongst them – no one else has been producing quality films since the 1970s in quite the way Scott has.

There are similarities between Parker and Scott. Both came to filmmaking as a result of careers in advertising. Scott was successful enough to be a millionaire by the time he was thirty and received acclaim for his famous nostalgic ‘boy on a bike’ Hovis TV commercial. Both made there directorial debuts at almost the same time: Parker with the unique and ambitious ‘kids’ only’ gangster musical, Bugsy Malone in 1976, Scott with the period drama, The Duellists in 1977 starring Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel.

There are plenty of differences too, however. Scott’s life and career was blighted by the deaths of his two brothers, Frank who died after suffering from skin cancer and Tony (himself a very successful director, of Top Gun amongst many others) who committed suicide following a cancer diagnosis in 2012.

Parker and Scott also directed very different kinds of films. Ridley Scott has never directed a musical or a film with a very young cast as Parker often did. Parker, in turn never did a science fiction film or an historical epic. Although some of Parker’s films (such as Mississippi Burning or Evita) are set in the past, none are set outside the 20th century as more than half of Scott’s are.

Finally, after Bugsy Malone, Parker enjoyed a twenty year heyday with numerous commercial and critical successes in the 70s, 80s and 90s including Midnight Express, Fame and The Commitments but directed nothing good after that. Scott, in contrast, really only made two big successes in the 20th century: Alien and Thelma and Louise. All of his other 1980s and 1990s films were essentially flops. But despite being five years older than Parker and into his early sixties by  the year 2000, the 21st century has given Ridley Scott a new lease of life. The last twenty years have seen him produce many of his biggest successes including the Oscar-winning triumph, Gladiator, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down and The Martian.

As this sumptuous and beautifully illustrated coffee-table book from film expert, Ian Nathan reminds us, he has directed at least three of the best science fiction films of all time, as well as many other great ones. The sheer power and horror of Alien (1979) has never been equalled. Both this and Blade Runner (1982) have elevated the science fiction quality level forever, the second of these not really sufficiently appreciated until the 1990s. Some of his ‘minor ‘films such as White Squall (1996) and Matchstick Men (2003) are undeniably worth revisiting and even where the results have occasionally fallen short of expectations (see, perhaps, 1492: Conquest of Paradise or A Good Year), Scott certainly be faulted for a body of work which is always interesting, ambitious and which has occasionally resulted in some of the greatest films ever made.

To quote the title of one of his less successful films: he remains a Legend.

Ridley Scott: A Retrospective.

By Ian Nathan.

Published by: Thames & Hudson.