To The Rescue


In the real world rescues sometimes succeed, but they fail as well.  Israel’s mission into Entebbe Uganda (1970) freed the hostages, as did the clever deception that spirited six Americans out of Tehran and the grasp of the Iranians.  Success also resulted from the actions of Navy Seals as they liberated Captain Richard Phillips and his crew after they were taken by Somali pirates.  But these events have to be weighed against particular failures such as the effort to free American hostages held in Iran (1980) and more recently the abortive  attempts to secure American and foreign nationals kidnapped by Isis forces.  Despite the skill and daring of American commandos and Special Forces they face long odds.  Favorable outcomes cannot be guaranteed.

But success is practically assured when one turns to rescues brought to us via the movies or in television dramas.  Last second rescues have served as a dramatic staple almost from the birth of film making.  That’s because it’s a sure fire device that rivets attention, draws audiences into the action and engages their emotions as few other events can.  Were we thinking dispassionately we’d  recognize we were being manipulated.  After all, we’ve seen it all before and almost always happy endings resulted.

But the point is that rescue scenes are designed to create enormous tension, anxiety and fear so that those watching, though not without hope, are nonetheless brought to the edge of their seats fearing the worst as a seemingly helpless “victim” is about to be dispatched by a despicable criminal or by some hellish device from which escape appears impossible.

It all might have started with the Perils of Pauline (1914), a film series in which the heroine is repeatedly rescued, escapes death at the last possible moment.  Then, too, how many films over the years featured an embattled wagon train, a besieged fort, or a stagecoach or train under attack by Indians or desperadoes; being saved by the timely arrival of “good guys” or the U.S. Cavalry?  Can there be a James Bond movie without our man and his squeeze being saved from extinction at the hands of a diabolical enemy?  What about a last minute pardon from the governor, averting the execution of an innocent man, the rescue of a kidnap victim or a well-aimed arrow that severs the rope from which our hero was about to swing?

What makes these scenes consistently compelling is the uncertainty surrounding the outcome.  And the terrible price failure will bring.  Can  the potential rescuer discover where the evil deed is to be done?  Can they arrive in time to foil the plan?  Can the victim somehow manage to buy time?

Variations on “stall” techniques are many.  There is, for example, the last request, usually for a cigarette.  That will, for the moment, put matters on hold.  Or there may be an effort to escape which unfortunately is thwarted, the situation returning to its original state.  Then there is the unraveling of the plot scenario whereby the would-be victim demonstrates, often to the surprise of his tormentor, how his cruel scheme unfolded.  This may be followed by the “bad” guy acknowledging his guilt and explaining his motives.  This delay in carrying out his dastardly act is accepted no doubt because he reckons it can only add to the agony of his intended victim.

At this point the rescuers arrive on the scene, usually with guns blazing.  That they will succeed in their mission is a foregone conclusion.  Among the audience, anxiety levels having peaked now plummet; a feeling of immense relief is palpable.  The “victim” often in tears, clearly shaken, is unshackled, untied and released.  An embrace can be expected.

Will writers and directors ever abandon the rescue scenario?  Has this plot line become hackneyed, too predictable?  There is little likelihood that will happen.  That’s because it never fails to work, to connect with our primal fears about helplessness and violent death, as well as our fantasies about escaping such a fate.  After all, don’t we always awaken just before our terrible nightmares reach their deadly conclusion?

Leave a Reply