Stephen Arnell

Feuds on film: cinema’s best on-screen clashes

Feuds on film: cinema's best on-screen clashes
Image: Shutterstock
Text settings

With the recent rumours of increasing tension between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, a look at feuding, fall outs and rivalries in the movies.

Infighting between Prime Ministers and Chancellors has a storied history, harking back to the earliest days of the Parliamentary system in the UK.

We’ve had spats between Harold Wilson and Roy Jenkins, Mrs Thatcher and Howe/Lawson, May vs Hammond and of course the long-running Blair/Brown psychodrama.

The reported comity between Cameron/Osborne and Callaghan/Healey appears to be a relatively rare occurrence when it comes to the two most important offices of state in the British government.

As far as cinema goes, feuding between former allies/friends is an established trope, running from Biblical dramas (Noah, Exodus: Gods & Kings etc), Sword & Sandal epics (Ben Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra), Tudor England (A Man for All Seasons, Elizabeth), the English Civil War (Cromwell, To Kill a King) and the Napoleonic era (The Duellists) to the present day (The Deal, Brexit: The Uncivil War).

Crime families are traditionally prone to rivalries and treachery, hence runt-of-the-litter Fredo Corleone’s resentment at being side-lined by his young brother Michael and subsequent betrayal in Godfather II (1974); also, Tessio’s pragmatic ‘tell Mike it was only business’ decision to switch allegiance from La Famiglia in the first movie (1972).

The future appears to be little different, if the backstabbing companies and families in films such as the Alien series, Dune (1984, remake released later this year) and Jupiter Ascending (2015) are to be believed.

W. (2008) Amazon Rent/Buy

After 1995’s Nixon, Oliver Stone takes on another Republican president with this satirical portrait of number 43, George W. Bush. Played by Josh Brolin as a slow-witted dry drunk and Born-Again Christian, it's safe to say the director takes a pretty dim view of his approach to high office.

The picture follows W’s struggles with booze, Christianity, his father (#41) and decision to pursue a political career when he effectively elbows aside younger brother Jeb (‘the smart one’) to become the next Bush president.  Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss, very good) picks himself as Vice-President and cajoles Bush into invading Iraq after 9/11.

Towards the end of the film W finally begins to resent being played by his VP but finds he can do very little about it.

Alexander (2004) Amazon Rent/Buy

Although widely panned on its release, Oliver Stone’s (him again) Alexander has grown in stature over the years.

Admittedly, Colin Farrell’s (Alexander) cute blond wig and Angelina Jolie’s (Queen Olympias, his mum) ridiculous accent grate, but there is much to enjoy, in part thanks script’s veracity, based on respected historian Robin Lane Fox’s book Alexander the Great (1973).

Epic battles, racy interludes in Babylon/India and plenty of internecine struggles make Stone’s film well worth checking out.

Family, friends, and lovers all appear to have it in for the young would-be world conqueror, rendering his occasional bursts of violent paranoia perfectly understandable.

The Lion in Winter (1968, remade 2003) Amazon Rent/Buy

James Goldman’s talky movie about the struggles in the court of the short-lived Angevin Empire (1154-1214 or thereabouts) may have echoes of the present day.

A randy monarch (Peter O’Toole as Henry II), his manipulative Queen (Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine) and their disruptive brood gather to celebrate Christmas 1183 AD in the King’s chateau of Chinon, in Touraine.

All proceed to scheme in various ways against each other, whilst the homosexual King Philip II of France (a young Timothy Dalton) attempts to further his own cause, using his relationship with the similarly inclined future Lionheart Richard (Anthony Hopkins).

John Castle is good as Henry’s neglected son Geoff, whilst Nigel Terry (King Arthur in Excalibur) plays mop-haired Prince John as cowardly, scheming and rather smelly.

O’Toole also played Henry VII in the earlier Becket (1964); Patrick Stewart took on the role in the watchable 2003 TV remake, with Glenn Close as Eleanor.

Gangs of New York (2002) Amazon Rent/Buy

Yes, Martin Scorsese’s epic period drama was ill-served by now-disgraced producer Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein, but it’s still a great picture.

Any film that makes you want to check out the historical facts behind the story merits a watch, at least to me.

A revenge-obsessed young ‘Amsterdam’ Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) who returns to the slums of Manhattan’s Five Points to avenge the killing of his Irish Catholic ‘Priest’ father in 1846 by Nativist Protestant leader Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis).

Day-Lewis is worth the price of cinema admittance alone, with a performance that combines menace, ferocity, and dark humour.  The real-life New York Civil War conscription riots and the corrupt politicking of ‘Boss’ Tweed’s (Jim Broadbent) Tammany Hall form the backdrop to the picture.

Romeo + Juliet (1996) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

The output of Australian director, writer, and producer Baz Luhrmann can sometimes be a shade too flamboyant for my tastes, but of all his movies, his fluorescent modern day take on Romeo + Juliet hits the spot. Partly because we are spared the sight/sound of Ewan McGregor & Co warbling such standards as Elton John’s over-familiar ballad Your Song.

In Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann wisely mainly sticks to the original hits (including Des`Ree’s Kissing You) with a fantastic cast that includes Leo DiCaprio again, Claire Danes, Paul Rudd, Brian Dennehy and Paul Sorvino, with Pete Postlethwaite and Miriam Margolyes from Dear Old Blighty.

We all know the result of the feud between the play's two warring families, the Montagues, and the Capulets, but this film still manages to have you sitting on the edge of your seat as the tragedy unfolds.

Tombstone (1993) Disney +, Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Another oft-told tale, the events of the famed Gunfight at the OK Corral are brought to life in George Pan Cosmatos’ (Escape to Athena) star-packed western.

Val Kilmer, who made a memorable Doc Holliday, credited star Kurt Russell (Wyatt Earp) with the movie’s box office success, effectively acting as a co-director and line producer.

The feud between the Earps and their lawless enemies the ‘Cowboys’ and Clantons proceeds at a fair clip with some great set-pieces, passing the time far more engagingly than the sleep-inducing Kevin Costner starrer Wyatt Earp, released six months later.

At 130 minutes, Tombstone was verging on the overlong, but Earp’s 3 hour+ running time and snail’s pace was too much for this viewer, despite strong performances from cast members.

The Commissioner (1998)

This enjoyable adaptation of Stanley Johnson's thriller about a cabinet minister shafted by the PM will probably provoke a feeling of déjà vu amongst the British political classes.

The late John Hurt stars as the unfortunate minister – the philandering James Morton, shipped out to Brussels to fill a vacant commissioner’s seat and get him out of the PM’s (Julian Wadham) hair.

Once there, Morton investigates a case of dangerous industrial waste and discovers a route back to power in London.

Dutch director George Sluizer (The Vanishing) does an efficient job, although the picture does have the air of a TV production in terms of onscreen budget and is impaired by an intrusively raucous soundtrack.

The supporting cast numbers such notables as Alice Krige, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and David Morrissey.

Malcolm X (1992) ICON, Amazon Buy

Spike Lee chose a relatively traditional approach for this biopic of iconic African American activist Malcolm X (Denzel Washington).

Born Malcolm Little, he lives a life of poverty, racism and petty crime until a lengthy prison sentence introduces him to the work of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam.

Little meets Muhammed and discards his ‘slave name’ to become Malcolm X.

X rises high in the organisation, but after he visits Mecca and then learns that his mentor strayed from his own teachings, he quits the Nation of Islam, and founds the Organization of Afro-American Unity, teaching tolerance rather than the separation of the races.

The stage is set for Malcolm X’s violent end at the hand of his former comrades.

Miller's Crossing (1990) Disney +, Amazon Rent/Buy

The Coen Brothers play it comparatively straight in their magnificent Prohibition era gangster flick.

Wheels within wheels, as Gabriel Byrne’s cerebral mob consigliere Tom Reagan finds himself on the outs with boss/pal Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) when he gets frisky with his dame, the duplicitous Verna Bernbaum (Marcia Gay Harden).

Between frequent brutal beatings from rival gang members and one from an understandably disgruntled Leo, Reagan pulls a Yojimbo (1961) and sets the city's criminals against each other, eventually earning his boss’s forgiveness when restores him to head honcho.