Friday, December 17, 2010


Almost everything the public thought was of any consequence during the 1960s was put onto film.  This included the Kennedy/Nixon debates, the civil rights marches in the south and in Washington, D.C., the assassinations of the Kennedy’ brothers (and the shooting of Oswald), scenes from Viet Nam shown nightly on the news, rioting and protest, the moon landing and Woodstock.  Unfortunately, we didn’t always learn the right lesson or the lessons learned were somewhat muddled.  From the debates we learned that we never wanted to elect a President who was not clean-shaven.  The Zapruder film left some people thinking that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and others thinking that JFK was killed by approximately three thousand bullets.  Films of war carnage and the burning of draft cards resulted in distrust between the older and younger generations.  Rioting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago helped convince much of Middle America that Nixon needed to be in the White House.  From the moon landing arose speculation that space travel was a hoax; it also brought about a renewed interest in UFOs.  And not many years after Woodstock came the onslaught of Disco. 
On the other hand, the confused climate made interest in some excellent movies possible.  While we had some fluff with movies like My Fair Lady and Oliver, we had some truly disturbing films like Elmer Gantry or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Instead of Ozzie and Harriet for family drama, we had Long Day’s Journey into Night.  Probably the most important movie of the decade was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  This black comedy, with Peter Sellers playing three different parts, reflected the inability of leadership to deal with the kind of insanity produced by two opposing superpowers that had the technology to obliterate each other and the rest of the world.  The otherwise funny lines uttered by the characters came too close to reflecting how many people actually felt.
There doesn’t seem much need to talk in detail about the 1960s since much of its history is so well known.  However, some of the movies during this decade are so good that I’m going to dwell on them more than usual (too bad for the reader).  So here, in order, are my favorite movies of that decade:
(1) Cool Hand Luke (1967): After cutting the heads off of parking meters in a fit of drunkenness and getting himself sent to a chain gang, Paul Newman as Luke turns around and plays the most unusual sort of Christ like figure in any movie.  An irreverent, uneducated and smart talking southerner who professes to believe in no God, Luke’s inability to follow the rules of the establishment makes him a “natural born world-shaker” to the rest of the prisoners and ends up getting him killed.  Despite all of the tragedy, the dialogue of the cast (especially during the egg eating scene) is both hilarious and extremely quotable.  George Kennedy is unforgettable in playing off his character against Newman’s.  This is my favorite movie of all time.
(2) Elmer Gantry (1960): Very loosely based upon the Sinclair Lewis novel, Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster) actually ends up being the sanest character in the whole movie.  Jean Simmons is his demented Evangelical partner who literally goes down in apocalyptic flames towards the end of the movie.  Rather than a condemnation of the hucksters within the profession (like the novel), this gives a frightening glimpse into the minds of the followers.  The movie is an actual improvement upon the book.

(3) Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Peter O’Toole plays one of the most eccentric and complicated characters ever filmed in this biography.  It would be an understatement from viewing this movie to say that Lawrence did not exhibit both great and pathological qualities.  Even people who know the story about Lawrence would be intrigued by all of the surprises that occur in this movie.  At the time this movie was shown, this was only the fourth or fifth movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture that actually deserved the award.
(4) Hud (1963): Even George C. Scott, never impressed with the acting of Paul Newman (nor the acting of anybody else), thought that Newman was brilliant in the character of Hud.  Add Patricia Neal as the maid and Melvyn Douglas as the father of Hud, and you have a remarkable tale of decency and debauchery.  Using Foot and Mouth disease as the subject for a dramatic plotline makes for a unique storyline.  The cattle dying in a pit is merely a sign of the times.
(5) The Hustler (1961): Paul Newman plays the small time pool hustler with world championship talent.  Only after the person he cares for the most commits suicide does he develop the sufficient character to shoot his finest game.  Piper Laurie plays his alcoholic girlfriend, George C. Scott plays the villainous and corrupt manager, and Jackie Gleason plays the pool sharp, Minnesota Fats – and all play their roles well.

(6) The Wild Bunch (1969): Sam Peckinpah almost brought the genre of westerns to an end by upping the carnage in this strange and ultra violent movie.  The obliteration of the women’s temperance movement by gunfire towards the beginning of the movie is only outdone by the killing of the majority of the cast towards the end of the movie.  Yet only Peckinpah could turn this into a morality tale about the need for honor and loyalty among gatherings of men.
(7) Bullitt (1968): Steve McQueen as Bullitt was never better than as the tough and incorruptible cop trying to investigate a murder.  With a United States Senator trying to meddle with the doings of the investigation and other of San Francisco policemen trying to kiss up to this politician, Bullitt appears to be the only one interested in the truth.  The movie contains one of the few car chases worth watching because it actually tells us something about Bullitt and because it shows off almost every attraction in the San Francisco area.
(8) Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964): I mentioned this movie above.  I’d only add that the reasons given in the storyline for beginning the bombing of Russia (a.k.a., a General discovers that he is impotent) make about as much sense as the justifications for major conflict throughout the world over the last two hundred years.
(9) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): In many ways, this is a typical Sergio Leone spaghetti western (though all of his westerns are worth watching).  It’s Henry Fonda and his cold and lifeless blue eyes (Fonda does not hesitate to blow away a small child who has learned his identity) that make this movie one of the best.  Charles Bronson plays the tough hombre who gets his revenge in the end (and the reasons why he wants his revenge become very understandable).
(10) The Dirty Dozen (1967): My only hesitation in including this movie is that it’s been watched too much (I remember first seeing it on television when I was in sixth grade).  The incredible ruggedness of Lee Marvin and the rest of the cast make this movie pleasing to watch because the viewer does not have to worry about swallowing any syrupy dialogue.  Still, we come to actually care about some of the characters and are sad to see so many of them get killed (especially Jim Brown, who is shot while making his dash across the compound).  We also see another side of the worst kind of convicts who will do anything to get out of their cage.

Honorable mentions include Hell is for Heroes (somewhat gritty war movie that at times lags), Midnight Cowboy (our first X-rated Oscar winner that today would be rated PG-13), Cape Fear (Robert Mitchum is perfectly cast as the murderous Max Cady, but the supporting cast is dull), Judgment at Nuremberg (which is just too long), Zorba the Greek (only for the acting of Anthony Quinn) and Days of Wine and Roses (well acted depiction of alcoholism that, however, sometimes feels too tame).  For entertainment watch The Great Escape (which sticks very closely to the actual account of this escape – outside of Steve McQueen riding on his motorcycle, which was too good to leave out), The Cincinnati Kid (good role for Edward G. Robinson as the aging card player), and Planet of the Apes (fun for watching Charleston Heston become indignant over his treatment as a human being).
Significant omissions include The Sound of Music (you know going in whether you’re going to like or dislike this movie) and Bonnie and Clyde (sometimes I like the movie, but at other times I’m annoyed that the characters - played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty - could act so stupidly and still be successful at robbing banks).  And as much as I like Dustin Hoffman, I’m probably one of the few people who think that The Graduate is not the significant statement of discontent and nonconformity that it’s made out to be.  In fact, sometimes the movie seems “quaint,” and I don’t mean that as a compliment.
Movies I would still like to take a look at include the Beatles’ movies, which I’ve never seen in their entirety.  I’d also like to see Tom Jones and Alice’s Restaurant.

January 10, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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