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Defining Moments of Intellectual Rivalries in Film


From the very beginning of cinematic history, rivalry has been at the core of most of the great films. From the bumbling crooks in old Abbott and Costello films to the brilliant minds behind more modern crime organizations like SPECTRE, the silver screen has created villains we love to hate.

Whether it is a battle between good and evil as old as time itself, or whether things are not so clearly black or white, cinematic moments that define the rivalry are timeless, often the climax of a film. Let’s take a look at some of the quintessential rivalries in film and the stand-offs that defined them.

Harry Potter vs. Lord Voldemort

Throughout the 6 books and 7 films in J.K. Rowling’s successful franchise – worth $21 billion according to NME.com – there are many stand-offs, in fact at least one in each story.  Sometimes it borders on the ridiculous that an untrained child can fend off one of the most evil and talented wizards of all time, but it’s explained sufficiently to not let us down. We also accept it based on the fact that Harry is protected by his mother’s love, and Voldemort (sorry, He Who Must not be Named) is merely in sprit form still.

The true defining moment in their conflict is when Harry realizes he is the final Horcrux and must die to defeat Tom Riddle.  In a brilliant move, Harry offers himself up to Voldemort to kill, secretly protecting himself with the three deathly hallows. Having destroyed the last Horcrux without knowing it, Voldemort then kills himself with a rebounding spell.  Simply brilliant!

Amadeus vs. Salieri

The rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri is unique in that is it almost completely one-sided.  While the 1984 movie blows the ridiculousness of Mozart’s personality out of realistic proportion, it is historically known that Salieri suffered a lifetime of incredible admiration soured by unbelievable envy.

While the true cause of death remains unclear, it is generally thought that Mozart died of rheumatic fever brought on by exhaustion.  Salieri both wins and loses in the end, as he believes it is his own lifelong jealous scheming that brings on the exhaustion of the gifted yet destitute composer. After firmly deciding he caused the minstrel’s death, he loses his mind and eventually kills himself.  Not a great way to enjoy winning… but quite a memorable one, rendering Milos Forman’s film quite ingenious.

James Bond vs. Le Chiffre

Bond has faced many criminal masterminds, but none has literally cried bloody tears quite like Le Chiffre in 2006’s Casino Royal.  Unlike so many other 007 films where the rivalry comes down to fist fights and blowing things up, Le Chiffre offers Bond a truly intellectual stand-off.

Changing pace from the original baccarat game James Bond was known for playing in the past, the tensest defining moment of this film comes down to a final hand of Texas Hold’em poker. Both rivals’ poker strategy becomes aggressive as we realize that either both players believe they have the best hand or one of them is bluffing. Interestingly, the rest of the poker players at their table seem to follow what has to be “random play,” to use poker lingo, as their moves seem too uncalculated for high rollers. But they do help set up the scene for the ultimate showdown.

When Le Chiffre goes “all in,” viewers are unsure if he is going on tilt or if he indeed has the winning hand.  Bond never loses steam as he finally lays down his straight flush, showing that the only thing shaken about Bond is his martini.

Commodus vs. Maximus

This rivalry from Ridley Scott’s 2000 film is more about power than intellect, but it is played out strategically rather than aggressively. Maximus is a servant leader to the people and gains power through loyalty, honesty and devotion to what is right.  Commodus is a toxic leader who gains power through fear and destruction.

Their individual brilliance lies in how Commodus is able to divide his subjects and how Maximus brings them back together to fight to both of their deaths in the end.  Like many evil emperors before him, the more Commodus tries to control everyone, the faster things slip away from him.  Maximus plays the slow and patient role of a man lost who redefines himself and wins in the end.  Even his own death doesn’t take away from our worship of his heroic actions.

Ferris Bueller vs. Principal Rooney

Principal RooneyReally?  No, not really – let’s move on.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty

In the words of Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty is “a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker.  He has a brain of the first order.” From a fellow genius like Holmes, that is high praise indeed.  They are nothing, if not polite, and they are constantly outwitting each other. The satirical banter between Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty is memorable, exciting, frequently quoted and offers a dynamic we don’t see enough of in other franchises.

However, like many final battles, theirs is another hand-to-hand combat.  The only thing that makes it different is that we get to see how each one plays the fight out in their mind before it actually happens, showing how alike they truly think.  Only one wins; guess who it is?

Neo vs. Agent Smith

Of course this is the number one intellectual rivalry ever; it is man versus the machine. Bigger than Skynet, smarter than HAL and badder than Tron, Agent Smith leads the pack of himselves in this epic computer enslaves man franchise.

As Neo is “the One” (the greater of the two numbers in binary code) he must learn to lead those who have escaped the machine-controlled virtual reality. He finally beats the machine in the machine’s own world, but he is never as cool in his delivery as Agent Smith. And, unless you want to live out your lives in an underground rave party, perhaps we were better off? “Never send a human to do a machine’s job.”

With Jared Leto’s Joker and Benedict Cumberland’s Doctor Strange hitting the theatres this year and all the “good guys versus good guys” films coming out (Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice), films favorite intellectual arch-enemies may have a few new rivals. It’s bound to be exciting.

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