Back in the early 90s, Steven Seagal was an up-and-coming martial arts movie star in search of his first real blockbuster – and he got it in the form of Under Siege.
With a similar premise to Die Hard except set aboard a US Navy battleship, it proved a huge hit among action fans and remains Seagal’s best-loved movie today. Here are some facts about Under Siege that you might not have known.
20. It was originally entitled Dreadnought
Under Siege casts Steven Seagal as Casey Ryback, a disgraced Navy SEAL turned cook aboard the USS Missouri. When treacherous mercenaries seize the ship and its nuclear arsenal, it’s up to Ryback to save the day. The movie began life as Dreadnought, an original script by J.F. Lawton (also the writer of Pretty Woman), for which Lawton was paid a cool $1 million.
By Lawton’s own admission, the original script would have been ludicrously expensive to produce, so he worked on rewrites to get it down to a more reasonable $35 million budget. However, no one liked the title Dreadnought, so a number of alternatives were tossed around. They briefly considered renaming it Last To Surrender, as all Seagal’s films up to that point had three-word titles – e.g. Hard to Kill, Out for Justice, before finally settling on Under Siege.
19. It was the second & last collaboration between Steven Seagal and director Andrew Davis
Under Siege was the sixth feature film to be directed by American filmmaker Andrew Davis. Davis had some history with action, having directed Chuck Norris in 1985’s Code of Silence, and Gene Hackman in 1989’s The Package. Most significantly, Davis had directed Steven Seagal’s first film, 1988’s action thriller Above the Law. While Seagal had wanted to direct Under Siege himself, Davis was hired to call the shots on what was hoped to be a major breakthrough for the rising star.
Seagal has long been reported to have been something of a control freak on all aspects of production on his films, making him difficult to work with – and Davis hasn’t necessarily refuted this. The director mentioned in a 2013 interview that former Warner Bros CEO Terry Semel lured him into working on the film by pointing out “that Seagal was only in the movie for 41 minutes.” No wonder they didn’t work together again after that.
18. It was also the second of three times Davis directed Tommy Lee Jones
Although he’s the top-billed leading man, Steven Seagal is actually on screen for less than 50% of Under Siege’s 103-minute run time. The actor with the lion’s share of the screen time is in fact Tommy Lee Jones, who plays chief bad guy William Strannix. Under Siege was the second time Jones and Davis had worked together, with the actor also appearing in the director’s earlier film The Package alongside Gene Hackman.
It seems the two men enjoyed working together, as Davis has said that getting to work with Jones again was a big part of why he signed on to direct Under Siege. Jones would collaborate with Davis for a third time the following year on The Fugitive, in which Jones portrayed US Marshal Samuel Gerard. While Jones would reprise the role of Gerard for director Stuart Baird in 1998’s US Marshals, to date he has not worked with Davis a fourth time.
17. It contains real footage of President George H.W. Bush at the 1991 Pearl Harbor memorial
Whilst Under Siege was in production in late 1991, the US marked the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. In honour of this, a memorial was hosted at the site of the attack which brought the USA into World War 2. President George Bush gave an address in the presence of many Navy battleships which served in the conflict.
Footage of this event. as well as President Bush’s actual speech, is included in the early scenes of Under Siege. It was reportedly at the suggestion of Seagal himself that the Under Siege crew recorded footage from this event and used it in the movie, mainly to take advantage of the spectacle of so many great ships assembled. Shortly after Under Siege was released in October 1992, Bush lost to Bill Clinton in the November Presidential election.
16. Though the film is set on the USS Missouri, most of it was shot on a different battleship
The battleship on which Under Siege is set, the USS Missouri (BB-63), is a real US Navy battleship with a long history. Most significantly, it was the site of Japan’s surrender on 2nd September 1945, which officially ended World War II. However, while the cast and crew were able to use the Missouri for certain scenes (including the aforementioned Pearl Harbor memorial), the ship had not yet been decommissioned when Under Siege was in production.
As such, the bulk of the film had to be shot aboard another retired battleship, the USS Alabama. As the USS Alabama is in fact docked in Mobile Bay, Alabama, the crew on Under Siege had to create the illusion that the ship was out at sea. To this end, a special structure was erected around the exterior of the ship, on which a vast black cloth was hung in order to block out lights from the city nearby.
15. The plot was inspired by real-life developments in America’s nuclear weapons policy
Incorporating genuine footage of the Pearl Harbor 50th anniversary memorial was not the only effort Under Siege made to be timely and current. The plot plays on the fact that the USS Missouri is on what promises to be its last mission carrying nuclear missiles, hence the bad guys racing against the clock to steal them. This was an accurate reflection of the time, as President Bush had indeed ordered the removal of nuclear weapons from US Navy surface ships in 1991.
In interviews at the time, director Andrew Davis attributed the film’s popularity to its real-world relatability. The director said in 1992, “Most people are surprised that the film is as sophisticated as it is. It appeals to people who have a point of view about nuclear weapons and the story thrusts you into an incredible situation that is not far-fetched.”
14. Steven Seagal had to cut off his signature ponytail for the role
Under Siege was Steven Seagal’s fifth movie, and came after comparatively lower budget action hits like Above The Law, Hard To Kill, Marked For Death and Out For Justice. On the strength of these hits, Seagal had established a signature look – and surely the most immediately recognisable part of this was his long ponytail. This, however, would not fly for his role as a Naval officer in Under Siege, as Navy regulations forbid long hair.
As a result, Seagal had to have his ponytail snipped off for the role of Casey Ryback. The action star’s slicked-back hair was not allowed to be any longer than four inches, as this was the most the Navy would allow. Even so, Seagal wasted no time growing it again; he would be back to full ponytail by his next film, 1994’s On Deadly Ground.
13. The name ‘Ryback’ is a tribute to Seagal’s family heritage
Seagal was keen to direct Under Siege himself, but the studio refused to sign off on it. Instead, the martial arts pro and star leading man is credited as a producer on the film. Reportedly, Seagal also made some contributions to the script but wasn’t given credit for his edits and amendments.
It seems that his character’s name Casey Ryback may have been one such contribution, in a bid to make the project a bit more personal. ‘Rybak’ is a Polish word that translates into English as Fisherman. This, it seems, was Seagal’s way of paying homage to his Eastern European heritage, as his mother’s maiden name was Fisher.
12. One cast member was a serving Naval officer at the time
As is commonplace in such films, Under Siege hired someone with Navy experience, Lt. John Rottger, as a technical adviser. Rottger was a serving officer in the Navy at the time, and Under Siege was his first film. As well as providing technical advice and doing stunt work, Rottger also had a small role as Commander Green.
This character has the distinction of being the first person killed in the film, shot by Tommy Lee Jones as his crew seize control of the Missouri. Rottger has gone on to be a prolific stunt man, with credits including Lethal Weapon 4, The Bourne Identity and Fast & Furious 7. Two other actors in Under Siege had served in the military: Patrick O’Neal who plays Captain Adams, and Troy Evans who appears in the Pentagon scenes as Granger.
11. Seagal uses a real-life Navy recruitment slogan in the film
One of Steven Seagal’s most memorable lines of dialogue comes a little past the midway mark in Under Siege. In the scene in question, the low-ranking Tackman complains that he’s not up to the task of helping save the crew. Seagal’s Ryback sarcastically intones, “you’re in the Navy, remember? It’s not a job, it’s an adventure!”
This is a slight misquote of a genuine slogan used in USN recruitment ads: ‘Navy: it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.’ This slogan was introduced in 1976 and kept in active use for a full decade, and remains well-remembered today – with its use in Under Siege doubtless helping there.
10. Gary Busey says he came up with the idea of appearing in drag
Under Siege has both Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Busey on antagonist duty, with Colm Meaney backing them up. Under Siege’s villains often feel less like they’re doing battle with Seagal’s hero than they are with one another, to see who can be the most larger-than-life bad guy. Case in point: after being introduced as the straight-laced Commander Krill, Gary Busey proceeds to steal the show in several pivotal scenes, notably including the murder of the captain, whilst dressed as a woman.
Busey, notorious for being even more of a character in real life than he is on film, says that doing these scenes in drag was his own suggestion, inspired by real-life tales of similar tomfoolery aboard the USS Missouri. Busey recalls, “I had a 44DD stuffed, I had a Tina Turner wig and nothing was going to stop me… I did the scene twice, once as Commander Krill, the male, and once as Nancy, the female.” The actor added: “after the scene Tommy Lee Jones started laughing so hard he couldn’t stand up. I didn’t ask him why, but I knew it had something to do with me.”
9. The film’s violence was censored in several countries
Seagal’s Casey Ryback kills around 30 people in Under Siege, so it’s hardly surprising that the film had the censors on alert. In the United Kingdom, Under Siege’s initial cinema release was passed uncut with a 15 certificate, but cuts were imposed on home video and DVD. These include a workshop fight in which Ryback pushes a man into a band saw, and another moment when he tears out an opponent’s larynx.
Also censored was a bloody eye gouge in the final fight between Ryback and Tommy Lee Jones’s Strannix. The 15-rated British DVD of Under Siege remains censored, although British viewers can find the film uncut in some 18-rated Steven Seagal box set collections. Similar cuts were made to the German and Finnish releases of the violent action thriller.
8. Seagal can’t quite seem to get his story straight regarding the character of Jordan Tate
To a degree, Under Siege plays out a bit like a buddy movie, with Seagal’s ex-SEAL Ryback teamed up with exotic dancer and centrefold model Jordan Tate, played by Erika Eleniak. However, Steven Seagal’s position on Eleniak’s role in the film varies according to which interviews you read. At the time of the film’s release, Seagal said he was initially put off making Under Siege because of the Jordan character.
The gruff action man said he disliked the idea of his character teaming up with “a bimbo jumping out of a cake.” Seagal then claimed that he was appeased by rewrites which made the character of Jordan more intelligent. However, in other more recent interviews, Seagal has claimed that it was his own idea to have a stripper sidekick in Under Siege, in order to give the film a bit of humour.
7. Erika Eleniak really was Playboy’s Miss July 1989
Erika Eleniak’s casting in Under Siege caused a bit of excitement for the movie’s young male viewers. The actress, aged 22 at the time, was already a huge TV star and sex symbol thanks to her role on the hit show Baywatch. In Under Siege, her character Jordan Tate is revealed to have been Playboy magazine’s ‘Miss July ’89’ – which is in fact very close to the truth.
Eleniak herself had indeed posed for the July 1989 issue of Playboy, only two months before Baywatch first aired on the NBC network. Bonus trivia: that July 1989 issue of Playboy is the very same one that Kevin finds in Buzz’s bedroom in Home Alone. Eleniak would go on to grace the pages of Playboy a further three times: in August 1990, December 1993 and as part of a Baywatch special in June 1998.
6. Pamela Anderson claims she lost out on the Jordan role after rejecting Seagal’s advances
When Erika Eleniak left Baywatch after the first three seasons, her place on the popular TV show was filled by Pamela Anderson. However, Anderson has in recent years claimed that she was also a contender for Eleniak’s role in Under Siege. Alarmingly, Anderson says she didn’t get the part because she found herself in a “casting couch” scenario with Seagal, and spurned his advances.
The actress said in 2018, “I remember (Seagal) saying to me, ‘If you don’t do it, then that girl across the hall will do it, and she’ll get the job’… And I said, ‘Well, good, goodbye.’” Numerous other actresses, including Jenny McCarthy and Portia de Rossi, have accused Seagal of similar behaviour. However, Erika Eleniak has insisted Seagal was never improper with her – although Gary Busey (who described Seagal as “insecure”) claims the star “was looking to add in a love scene (into the film) so he could really get down and dirty” with the actress.
5. Under Siege was Seagal’s biggest commercial and critical success
Much as the studio had hoped, Under Siege proved to be the biggest hit of Steven Seagal’s career. Off the back of a $35 million budget, it wound up taking $156.5 million from the global box office, which was a significant amount in the early 90s. It also went down well with critics; today it’s one of only three Seagal movies certified fresh at Rotten Tomatoes, with a 79% score.
However, Seagal’s next films where he played a leading man (On Deadly Ground, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory and The Glimmer Man) didn’t fare anywhere near as well critically or commercially. The under-performance of these films, plus increasing reports of the man himself being difficult to work with, saw Seagal rapidly fall from grace. Seagal’s only other real hit was 1996’s Executive Decision, in which he plays a supporting role alongside Kurt Russell.
4. It was the only Steven Seagal movie to receive Oscar nominations
The words ‘Steven Seagal movie’ and ‘Oscar-worthy’ never seem to appear in the same sentence. Even so, Under Siege actually got a couple of mentions in the most prestigious awards show of them all. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film’s two nominations at the 1993 Academy Awards were of a technical nature.
Donald O. Mitchell, Frank A. Montaño, Rick Hart and Scott D. Smith were nominated for Best Sound, whilst John Leveque and Bruce Stambler also got nominations for Best Sound Effects Editing. Ultimately, Under Siege lost out to The Last of the Mohicans (Best Sound) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Best Sound Effects Editing). However, director Andrew Davis’s next film,1993’s The Fugitive, proved far more popular with the Academy.
3. It convinced Harrison Ford to make The Fugitive with Andrew Davis
Andrew Davis’s work on Under Siege proved good enough that before he’d even finished work on the film, Warner Bros had signed him up to direct his next feature, 1993’s The Fugitive. However, while Davis was attached, they hadn’t yet convinced leading man Harrison Ford to sign on. After watching Under Siege, Ford was convinced that Davis was up to the job, and agreed to take the lead as Richard Kimble.
Good thing really, as The Fugitive wound up a huge hit and a multiple Oscar nominee, netting a Best Supporting Actor win for Tommy Lee Jones. Interestingly, Jones was just one of nine actors from Under Siege to work with Davis again in The Fugitive. Andrew Davis went on to direct Chain Reaction with Keanu Reeves, and Collateral Damage with Arnold Schwarzenegger; however, he has yet to work with Steven Seagal a third time.
2. Under Siege 2: Dark Territory was an early credit for The Batman director Matt Reeves
90s action sequels had a curious habit of being made from scripts that were not originally intended to be sequels, or had almost become sequels to other films. For example, Die Hard With A Vengeance started life as an original script called Simon Says, which almost became Lethal Weapon 4. Meanwhile, Speed 2: Cruise Control was originally Troubleshooter, a script almost used for the third Die Hard.
So it was that an original action-thriller script entitled Dark Territory was purchased by Warner Bros and adapted into 1995’s Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, placing Seagal’s Casey Ryback on a train taken over by terrorists. Dark Territory was co-written by Matt Reeves, who would go on to direct Cloverfield, Let Me In and the most recent Planet of the Apes films, and is currently producing The Batman.
1. Seagal says he’s written an Under Siege 3 script
Steven Seagal’s career has never again reached the heights of the early 1990s, so it’s hardly surprising that the actor would express interest in revisiting his most successful role. In June 2014, Seagal announced that he had hopes to make a third Under Siege movie – and to set it in his current home of Russia. Seagal told The Big Issue, “What I want to do is write a movie, which I’ve sort of already done, where Russian special forces and American special forces work together to combat terrorism.”
However, no official announcements have ever been made about an Under Siege 3, and director Andrew Davis has repeatedly dismissed any possible involvement. Seagal has not headlined a widely released theatrical film since 2002’s Half Past Dead; almost all his other films have been low-budget direct-to-DVD productions. His only other mainstream film role in the meantime was as the villain in 2010’s Machete.