(Spoilers for all films listed)
Autumn is upon us – or, if you’re so inclined, ‘Fall’.
It would be tempting, and easy, to do a list of the best autumnal films. I could have waxed lyrical about When Harry Met Sally and An Autumn Afternoon, Days of Heaven and The Straight Story.
But I wanted more of a challenge. Moreover, I wanted to tackle a more important issue. It’s for these reasons that I have looked high and low for the greatest falls in film history.
Before we get started, I’ll lay down some ground rules:
- The fall must be on screen. We must see a character fall. It cannot just be talked about by characters, like the freshman who supposedly fell from the Moontower in Dazed and Confused.
- The fall must be a physical fall – not ‘falling in love’ or ‘falling from grace’. We need to see bodies moving.
- The fall must be involuntary. The faller cannot have intended to fall. This means that, unfortunately, the spectacular HALO scene from MI: Falloutis disqualified, as is Buzz Lightyear’s “falling with style”.
- The fall cannot just be the result of a gunshot, punch or tackle. In cases of falls induced by others, the intent must be to cause a fall. Plenty of people hit the deck in Hard Boiled – because they get shot. That’s not what we’re looking for.
- The fall cannot be vehicle-based. Careening cars, nosediving planes, derailed trains and other wayward conveyances do not count. We’re purists here at Flip Screen.
Those are the rules – they tell us what constitutes a fall. But they don’t tell us what constitutes a good fall. As we shall see, classic falls come in all shapes and sizes. They can be comic or tragic; epic descents or simple pratfalls. There are no strict criteria to judge them by, yet a great one is unmistakeable. In that way, film falls reflect the nature of films themselves.
Ready? Let’s trip, stumble, and dive into it.
10. 300 (2008) – in which Gerard Butler shouts exceptionally loudly
The Persians want Sparta to submit to their empire, and Gerard – I mean, King Leonidas – is not happy about it. In an accent dodgier than a cheap vindaloo and sporting an outfit that would make the cast of Baywatch blush, Gerard yells: “This. Is. Sparta!” and kicks the Persian messenger down a big dark well.
It’s one of the most memed movie moments of all time, and for good reason. The infamous “this is Sparta” is a complete non-sequitur – he might as well have shouted “I’m wearing a jockstrap!” or some other meaningless declaration. But that doesn’t matter when, like the Persians, we fall into Zach Snyder’s black hole of CGI blood, erotically throbbing pecs and macho posturing – all in slow motion, of course. All we can do is laugh.
9. Being John Malkovich (1999) – into the Malkovich
Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote: “hell is other people”. But Charlie Kaufman, in his wacky masterwork about a portal leading into the mind of John Malkovich, suggests that hell is oneself.
What happens when a person falls into their own mind? Being John Malkovich has the answer, and it’s one of the most wickedly funny moments ever put to film.
Malkovich? Malkovich, Malkovich. Malkovich.
8. Vertigo (1957) – Maddie’s mad moment
Vertigo is a film whose reputation has reached unscalable heights. Also unscalable, is the bell tower of a certain Spanish nunnery – at least, Scotty (James Stewart) can’t scale it, due to his debilitating fear of heights. But Madeline, his mysterious lover, has no trouble getting to the top and throwing herself off. Or so it seems…
Hitchcock’s signature tension is off the charts here, with Bernard Hermann’s score whipping things up to unbearable levels. Then there are the famously innovative dolly zooms which literally stretch space to simulate Scotty’s terror. Then Madeline goes down, sailing past the window with a grace only Kim Novak could have achieved. Bonus points for the grim squelch of coiffured blonde hair hitting roof tiles.
7. Die Hard (1988) – Hans’s hands slip
The late, great Alan Rickman created a classic villain in Hans Gruber, German terrorist, techno-thief, and euro-snob. But, of course, Gruber meets his match in John McClane, the quintessential wisecracking, all-American tough guy.
Right to the end, Gruber is arrogant: even when he’s dangling out of a window, he smiles as he prepares to shoot McClane and his wife in their respective faces. But finally, as he falls to his death, we get a wonderful slow-motion look as his face turns to panic. Even the slick, suited Hans Gruber can’t handle a thirty-storey plummet.
Bonus points for the gratuitous but crowd-pleasing shot of his long descent, and for the satisfying splat heard on touchdown.
6. Get Out (2017) – slippin’ into the Sunken Place
‘The Sunken Place’ – where black people’s consciousnesses go when Catherine Keener hypnotises them to be taken over by old white people – is such a strong idea that it’s effectively entered the public lexicon. The likes of Ben Carson, O.J. Simpson, Kanye West and Stacey Dash have all been accused of entering the Sunken Place when they’ve supported racist institutions. For Peele, though, it’s not about criticising black people; it’s more an expression of the repression of marginalised individuals. In his words: “The Sunken Place is the silencing. It’s the taking away of our expression, of our art.”
The art of Get Out, however, is confidently in-your-face. When Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris falls into the Sunken Place, it’s a gasp-inducing moment: he drifts down into a darkness that’s half deep sea and half deep space. Nothing could better express the helplessness of paralysis – of Chris’s body, or of an oppressed community.
5. Return of the Jedi (1983) – plummeting Palpatine
Emperor Palpatine, a.k.a. Darth Sidious, a.k.a. just ‘the Emperor’, is a surprisingly iconic villain, given that he’s hardly even mentioned in the first Star Wars film and was played by a woman with chimpanzee eyes. But Ian McDiarmid’s gargling voice combined with the grotesque bags under his eyes (I guess running a galactic empire doesn’t leave much room for beauty sleep) lodged his position into pop culture forever. Oh, and there’s the fact that he shoots lightning out of his hands.
His inevitable fall comes, naturally, at the climax of the whole series – but the surprise is that it’s Vader, not Luke, who does him in. It’s the payoff we deserve after three films of glorious space opera: we hear his anguished screeching as Vader chucks him down a big hole where he detonates in a lightning blast of pure Dark Side nastiness.
Now we know, however, that this wasn’t the end for ol’ Palpatine. Somehow. We’ll have to wait and see how that pans out.
4. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – Turgidson’s tumble
This one isn’t the grandest of falls, but it showcases some magnificent acting. George C. Scott plays Buck Turgidson (who joins fellow characters General Jack D. Ripper and President Merkin Muffley in a ridiculous name contest), an overconfident yet paranoid U.S. Army general with a seat at the war room. In this scene he walks backwards, trips, rolls athletically onto his feet and continues his line.
The fall was unscripted – Scott genuinely stumbled. But he was a professional. Rather than ruin the take, he improvised a moment of authentically surprising physical comedy. A truly thespian fall if ever there was one.
3. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – a tale of two Gandalfs
Gandalf faces off against a Balrog (which, as far as I can tell, is Lou the Devil from Guitar Hero III) and delivers his most famous line: “You shall not pass!” And he’s right. The Balrog gets no further and the Fellowship can escape – but not before it pulls Gandalf down with it. Gandalf manages to give a final word of advice: “Fly, you fools.” Gandalf wishes he could really fly – instead he just drops into the abyss.
Of course, we learn in The Two Towers that this wasn’t the end. He defeated the Balrog, upgraded his outfit and magic skills, and came back as Gandalf the White to help save Middle Earth. Was this the first ever video game boss fight? And has Gandalf been teaching a certain emperor how to survive falling into big holes?
2. The Blood of a Poet (1932) – through the looking glass
Poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau was one of the true visionaries of the screen. In cinema he saw endless possibility for avant-garde art, for expressing his indescribable ideas. His special effects remain spectacular – inventive, dreamlike and otherworldly.
The Blood of a Poet is loose in form, feeling almost like free association. Probably the key moment is when our protagonist falls through a mirror, drifts through darkness, and ends up in some sort of dream-space. The special effects – using clever camera positions, editing, and practical construction – are just as powerful as anything that can be achieved today. And the significance is endless: the mirror is the self; the mirror is the screen; the mirror is vanity and hubris; the mirror is inversion; the mirror is dreams… Rarely has a fall ever meant so much.
1. Buster Keaton – take your pick
Choosing a person and not a specific fall is cheating somewhat, I admit. But Buster’s very name means “fall” – he was so called after he fell down a flight of stairs as a child and got up unscathed. Also, it’s my list and I’m making the rules.
Keaton was, let’s be honest, a madman. His commitment to a gag was so total, it’s a wonder he survived to the end of his career. There’s the extended fall in Three Ages (1923), where he goes from the top of a tower block to the bottom. The building isn’t actually as tall as it looks, but the stunts he performs are still insane. In One Week (1920) he falls repeatedly from a house at various stages of construction. To top it all off, there’s Sherlock Jr. (1924), where he is blasted from a water tank – the force of the water was so great that it broke his neck, but Buster kept his legendary stone-face and didn’t realise it was broken until years later.
I could go on. Keaton was the master of the fall. He’s influenced filmmakers from Jackie Chan to Wes Anderson. We should all bow down to him, even as he tumbles below us.