The 1990s were a weird time, and one of the weirder films to come from the decade was The Crow. It’s a darkly gothic and tragic story about one man’s journey for vengeance. But the themes and meaning of the story go deeper than its surface-level premise. And as tragic as the story of The Crow is, it’s not nearly as the death of its star, Brandon Lee, through an on-set accident. Join us as we delve into the story, the meaning, and the tragedy of The Crow.
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In 1994, film-going audiences were introduced to The Crow. It’s a darkly, gothic superhero tragedy adapted from the 1989 comic of the same name. Its tone, visuals, and depictions of violence helped it to stand out from the typical superhero fare that had been released in recent years. And despite its status as a cult favorite, its overwhelmingly positive reviews, and its success at the box office, The Crow is most prominently remembered for the onset tragedy that took the life of its young star.
Brandon Lee, son of famed martial artist and actor Bruce Lee, was a rising action star in the early 90s. He was working to carve out a name and image of his own and landing the titular role in The Crow was a huge achievement that was posed to be the actor’s breakout performance. The film’s story is simple. An engaged couple, Eric Draven and Shelly Webster are brutally murdered. The man returns from the grave one year later to avenge their deaths. Vengeance and retribution play pivotal roles in the lore of most comic book characters. Marvel’s The Punisher wages a war on street crime following the death of his wife and children. DC’s Batman does the same after witnessing his parents’ murder in a back alley.
But what makes this one unique is in the way that the film approaches the story. The first time we see Eric Draven is upon his return from the grave on the one-year anniversary of his death. We don’t actually see the murders occur upfront, though they are seen through flashbacks later on. We don’t get introduced to Eric in his human form, but instead, first meet him as an undead being with a singular purpose… to bring violence and death to the men responsible for the tragic murder of him and his fiance.
We’re told through the opening voice-over monologue that “when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead. But sometimes, something so bad happens that a terrible sadness is carried with it and the soul can’t rest. Then sometimes… just sometimes the crow can bring that soul back to put the wrong things right.” This voice-over, spoken by the young Sarah, lays just enough groundwork for the illogical premise to be accepted by audiences.
The movie is dark, not only in tone but in its visual style as well. Filmmakers made it a priority to preserve the integrity and the hard edge style of the comic book while translating the story to the big screen. Comic book writer James O’Barr says he had always envisioned the story being told in black and white with flashback sequences taking place in vibrant technicolor. He made that vision a reality with the comic and, for the most part, the film stays true to that vision as well. While The Crow isn’t shot in true black and white, the film utilizes filters, dim lighting, and muted color pallets to replicate the visual style of the book.
Virtually no cold colors are present. You won’t find blues or greens throughout the rain-soaked city streets or as part of its citizens’ attire. Instead, the flashbacks are portrayed with vibrant yellows and reds. Red is really the only recurring color that’s used throughout the film’s current timeline, and even it is used sparingly and intentionally. Red often symbolizes war, anger, vengeance, and even… religion.
Looking at The Crow it doesn’t exactly scream religious values, but religious themes and symbolism are weaved into the fabric of its story. Eric’s pet cat, whose white fur shines in contrast to the blackness of the dark world around it, is named Gabriel. Gabriel is a figure present in many religions with varying roles, but in the Christian Bible, Gabriel is an archangel who appears before the Virgin Mary and foretells the birth of Jesus. The parallels between Eric Draven and Jesus continue with Eric’s resurrection from the grave. Sure, Eric’s resurrection involved a lot more murder and violence, than Jesus’ did, but both resurrections are directly related to the sins of man. The murder and mayhem that have devoured the city under the rule of a madman known as Top Dollar, and his thugs have created a breeding ground for violence. They are the sin, the people of the city are mankind, and Eric’s resurrection allows them to free the people from the sin that strangles them.
Eric’s intentions are revenge. He wants retribution. That’s the reason he was brought back to this world. But his purpose goes deeper than that. We see that Eric is essentially invincible. Bullets and knives have no effect on him as he barrels on towards his mission of vengeance. This aspect of the character is unique. He has no weakness and there is nothing that can prevent him from accomplishing his mission. Even Superman has Kryptonite, but Eric has nothing. That is… until his job is done. Once Eric finishes dispatching of the thugs who directly participated in the attack on his fiance, he prepares to return to the grave and move past the purgatory that has held him for the last year. But at the last moment, he decides he can’t. And the reason he can’t is because the evil that haunts this city is still thriving, and as long as that evil thrives, the citizens.. primarily young Sarah… aren’t safe.
As he hears the screams of Sarah, Eric makes the choice to remain in this world long enough to ensure that no harm will come to her. But he must do so without the safety of invincibility. Throughout the film, Sarah represents the good in the world. Despite a city devoured by sin and darkness, Sarah is the light. In fact, virtually the only scene in the entire film that takes place during the daytime without rain is a scene of Sarah at her house eating a bowl of cereal. It’s Sarah, and the people like her, that drive Eric’s final battle against Top Dollar. Not retribution. Not vengeance… but protection.
The Crow is a Gothic superhero fable with religious undertones that has garnered a massive cult following in the years since its release. It spawned sequels and a television series and yet, it remains shrouded in the shadow of the tragic accident that took the life of Brandon Lee.
Lee’s death stemmed from a series of events and overlooked mistakes that culminated in a perfect storm. A revolver, unlike a semi-automatic handgun, uses a wheel to rotate a new round into the chamber of the weapon. As a result, the projectiles are visible on camera. Film sets utilize what are called Dummy Round for these types of scenes. A dummy round has an actual bullet projectile. This adds a level of realism when the bullet is visible to the audience. But Dummy rounds do not have gun powder or primer. Which means they can’t be fired. They are a visual prop only.
The crew of The Crow were bogged down. Swamped and overrun. They didn’t have the budget and time of a major blockbuster. So, instead of purchasing professionally manufactured dummy rounds, they made their own, by prying the projectiles off of rounds and emptying the power from the casing. Following the use of these dummy rounds, that same revolver was used for a scene that required the use of black rounds. A blank round is essentially the complete opposite of a dummy round. The Dummy round has a projectile, but now way to fire. And a Blank round has no projectile, but a casing filled with gunpowder and a primer. Blank rounds are utilized in scenes when the gun needs to be fired on camera. It generates the flash and bang of a gun discharge without launching a projectile from the weapon. What unfortunately occurred, was one of the projectiles from the Dummy round used in the earlier scene, had become lodged in the barrel of the gun and nobody knew it.
Protocol requires that the barrel of the gun be checked for obstructions prior to its use in any scene. However, the film’s weapons specialist had been sent home for the day and was no longer onset. As a result, those responsibilities fell to the prop assistant who was unaware that they needed to, or simply forgot to, check the weapon for obstructions. It was a series of one mishap after the other that culminated in a tragic and senseless loss of life.
The gun was fired utilizing a blank round as the scene played out and the lodged projectile was fired from the barrel as if it were fired from a live round. Brandon was struck in the abdomen and succumbed to his wounds.
Producers were forced to make the difficult decision whether they should finish the film or not. They ultimately decided to proceed. Most of Brandon Lee’s scenes had been filmed and the rest was accomplished through CGI, stunt doubles, and clever editing. Ironically, Brandon’s father, Bruce Lee, also died during the filming of one of his movies, Game of Death. Although Bruce Lee’s death was caused by an allergic reaction to medication and was not related to the filming of the movie.
Brandon Lee’s fiance, Eliza Hutton, said that The Crow was “A story about justice for victims who never got a chance to receive it”. The movie was dedicated to Brandon and Eliza.
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