The summer of 1993 was a magical time. TV viewers had just bid a fond farewell to Sam, Carla and the whole Cheers gang. Tag Team's "Whoomp! There It Is" could be heard on radios. Everywhere you looked there was flannel, flannel as far as the eye could see! And even though Jurassic Park had come out on June 11 and was on its way to becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time, there was still room for other treats, including a late-summer blockbuster called The Fugitive. It came out on August 6, 1993, and if you remember seeing it in the theater, I have two things to tell you: 1) You're Old®; 2) I didn't kill my wife.
The Fugitive had been a popular TV series in the 1960s, with a final episode that shattered viewership records, but making a movie version almost 30 years later wasn't exactly a surefire idea. For one thing, most of the show's fans hadn't seen it since it went off the air: it played only sporadically in syndication, and this was well before the era of DVD sets. People over a certain age remembered it, but nobody was clamoring for a reboot.
Furthermore, making movies out of old TV shows simply wasn't a common practice in 1993. It's hard to believe there was ever such a time in Hollywood, but it's true. With a few notable exceptions (most of them with the words "Star Trek" in the title), TV-based movies weren't a "thing" yet. Part of the reason they became a thing, in fact, was that The Fugitive did so well. Box Office Mojo counts just 16 live-action, TV-based movies in the 13 years before The Fugitive -- but 44 in the 13 years after it. There were other factors in this trend, too, but surely The Fugitive's $369 million worldwide haul had some influence.
This was no cheap cash grab, either. Harrison Ford had already proven his bankability outside of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises with hits like Presumed Innocent (1990) and Patriot Games (1992). The director, Andrew Davis, had made a few sturdy action films with the likes of Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal, and along the way he'd worked with Tommy Lee Jones, an Oscar-, Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated character actor. Nobody realized it at the time, but Tommy Lee Jones is the only person you'd want for the role of a man who looks at Harrison Ford and says, "I don't care." He won an Oscar for it, too.
The Fugitive was also nominated for Best Picture, cinematography, editing, score, sound and sound editing (and lost each category to either Schindler's List or Jurassic Park), but its screenplay -- by Jeb Stuart (Die Hard) and David Twohy (Warlock) -- is also worth noting. It's an impressively efficient and robust piece of work, without extraneous scenes or characters. Everything from Helen Kimble's murder through Dr. Richard Kimble's trial and conviction is covered in 14 minutes. It's not until Kimble is on a bus heading for prison that the "Directed by Andrew Davis" credit appears on the screen, signifying the end of the prologue and the commencement of the story in earnest.
From there, the writers swiftly establish the characters. Kimble is innocent in his wife's murder -- we learn that pretty early -- and he's only on the lam through happenstance. When the prison bus crashes and escape is possible, Kimble's first thought is not to make a run for it but to stay behind and help the injured guard. His innate desire to help people will put him at risk again and again. U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard is introduced at the 20-minute mark, and we immediately grasp that he is not a man to be messed with. Later there's a seemingly irrelevant tangent where he tracks down a fugitive who escaped at the same time as Kimble. It isn't till the end of the sequence that we realize why it's important to the film: it establishes Gerard's personal motto of "I. Don't. Bargain."
At the 44-minute mark, Kimble has gotten away after a thrilling chase and a brief-but-memorable conversation with Gerard. He's accomplished his short-term objective of escaping from Gerard, so the screenplay immediately reminds us of his larger goal: to clear his name by finding the one-armed man who killed his wife. This is the story's focus for another 43 minutes, culminating in the identification of the killer. And once again, as soon as that narrative door is closed, the movie opens another one -- by suggesting the murder was part of a larger conspiracy.
It's a formula, sure, but the film makes excellent use of it, and the intense, believable lead performances help. We're on Kimble's side, yet we respect Gerard's motives and character: while he may be the story's antagonist, he's not a villain. In the misguided sequel U.S. Marshals, Gerard was the protagonist and the escapee (played by Wesley Snipes) was an enigma, thus eliminating the dynamic that had made The Fugitive work so well. It's the traditional Hollywood system: if you do something smart, you have to follow it up by doing something dumb. Whoomp! There it is.
When The Fugitive was released on August 6, 1993...
- It was an instant smash, grossing $23.7 million (third best opening of 1993) and holding the number-one spot at the box office for six weekends -- more than any other movie that year. Also worth noting: after making $23.7 million that first weekend, The Fugitive made $22.4 million the next weekend, which at the time was the smallest drop-off ever for a wide release.
- If The Fugitive was sold out at your local multiplex, your other choices would have included Rising Sun, In the Line of Fire, Free Willy, Jurassic Park, The Firm, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Sleepless in Seattle, The Meteor Man and Poetic Justice.
- Three weeks earlier, President Bill Clinton had announced his "Don't ask, don't tell" policy for gays in the military. Before that, the policy was "What happens in the barracks stays in the barracks."
- Fred "Herman Munster" Gwynne, Pat "wife of Richard" Nixon, and baseball player Don Drysdale had recently died, though not together. That would have been crazy!
- UB40's "Can't Help Falling in Love" was the number-one song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, in the middle of a seven-week run. Janet Jackson's "That's the Way Love Goes," SMV's "Weak" and Silk's "Freak Me" were big. Mariah Carey's "Dreamlover" was climbing. A lot of people were still being annoyed by Snow's "Informer."
- Guns N' Roses had recently played what would turn out to be their final show together, closing out the Use Your Illusion Tour. Natalie Merchant had just announced she was leaving 10,000 Maniacs. Sheryl Crow's Tuesday Night Music Club and The Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream were brand new.
- In the TV world, David Letterman had done his last show on NBC and was preparing for his August 30 debut on CBS, while pale, unknown beanpole Conan O'Brien was getting ready to take over Letterman's old spot. Leno had been doing The Tonight Show for a year already, but who gives a @*&%?
- On the very day that The Fugitive hit theaters, Perfect Strangers aired its final episode, having helped ABC establish its TGIF lineup while also bridging barriers between America and the island nation of Mypos.