Action and adventure have long been established features of American and other national cinemas. Associated with narratives of quest and discovery, and spectacular scenes of combat, violence and pursuit, action and adventure films are not restricted to any particular historical or geographic setting. Indeed, the basic elements of conflict, chase, and challenge can be inflected in any number of different directions. As such, action and adventure as cinematic forms are constantly in the process of reinvention, manifesting themselves in a multiplicity of different genres and sub-genres over time. It is nonetheless useful to distinguish between the two terms and the kind of cinema to which they refer, since "action," "adventure," and "action-adventure" are all descriptors with difference valences. With this in mind, a rudimentary distinction can be made between action sequences and adventure narratives . Action is associated with a particular kind of scene or spectacle (explosions, chases, combat); adventure, by contrast, implies a story (typically, though not always, the quest narrative) often located within a fantasy or exoticized setting, for example, the search for mythical objects or treasure in such films as King Solomon's Mines (1950) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Despite their generic diversity, all action and adventure films focus on some form of conflict. Alone or as part of a group, the heroes face some figure, force, or element that challenges them physically and mentally. They may face an opponent of enormous size, strength ( The Terminator , 1984) or intelligence ( The Matrix trilogy, 1999, 2003, 2003), alien or supernatural forces (the monstrous creature in the Alien series, 1979, 1986, 1992, 1997; the invading alien ships in Independence Day , 1996), an unjust system (the British in Captain Blood , 1935; imperial power in the Star Wars series, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1999, 2002, 2005), mechanical malfunctions (runaway trains in The Hazards of Helen , 1914; the booby-trapped bus in Speed , 1994), a natural disaster ( Volcano , 1997), or simply a harsh natural environment (the deserts of Lawrence of Arabia , 1962). Of course, many action and adventure films often call on several of these elements in combination: thus, in The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Ahmed (Douglas Fairbanks) faces physical humiliation at the hands of palace guards before traversing a series of challenging environments and defeating a variety of monsters and treacherous human opponents in order to claim his prize (marriage to the princess). In all these circumstances, the action or adventure hero is called upon to demonstrate courage, initiative and physical endurance, ultimately triumphing over what are typically cast as impossible odds.