Residue of the 1960s gave the screenwriters material. And while many Americans were trying to crawl back into their isolation and forget about the decade that just happened, moviemakers were there to remind them that the problems had not just gone away. Viet Nam would still go on until 1975 and political scandal would bring down almost an entire Presidential administration. News of the killing fields (taking place in at least two continents and probably more) was spreading, though most Americans remained oblivious to it. There was also dissent in Hollywood. George C. Scott stayed home to watch his son’s hockey game on television rather than show up to receive the Oscar for Best Actor because he thought the award was meaningless. Marlon Brando, when he received the award two years later, sent an American Indian woman up to pick up the statue as a gesture against the mistreatment of the Native American people. Jane Fonda attacked the Oscar committee in 1978 when The Deer Hunter won the Oscar for Best Picture over Coming Home. Fonda felt that The Deer Hunter sought to absolve America of any wrong doing during the Viet Nam War.
The most important movie of the decade was either The Godfather or Apocalypse Now. One was stylistically made and the other seemed to fall together only out of chaotic circumstances. Both of these very different movies were directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
About any of the movies below could have been my favorite movie of the decade at one time or another. And unfortunately, I will have neglected to mention certain movies in favor of others. Having said that, here in order are my favorite movies of the 1970s*:
(1) Patton (1970): This is the most powerful biography of any character in a movie. George C. Scott proves why he is such a tremendous actor because there is never a moment in this movie that you don’t understand exactly how he feels – whether he’s playing joy, sorrow, anger or disgust. (Unfortunately, most people only remember Scott for this role when he did such a tremendous job in playing so many other characters.) When watching this movie, one gets a good idea about the connection between greatness and fanaticism interposed in one single person.
(2) The Man Who Would Be King (1975): John Huston’s intuitive understanding of the Kipling story made this one of the most impressive adventure movies ever shown. Michael Caine and Sean Connery are perfectly cast as the two scoundrels who also happened to be two largely courageous men. Two English wanderers in an unexplored and mountainous land where superstition abound only add to the mystery and magic.
But the casting of the natives of Kafiristan (the land adjoining Afghanistan that the two leads hoped to topple) was even better. The character of the High Priest was in real life a one hundred year old shepherd, and the bewitching Roxanne was Michael Caine’s actual wife.
(3) The Last Detail (1973): The initiation into manhood of a young enlisted man by two veteran naval noncoms is poignant because the youth in question is about to spend eight years in the stockade for steeling forty dollars from a charity. The dialogue between the three starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid (as the soon to be prisoner) is funny and profane. The two older men’s attempt at decency is not appreciated by the marine officer to whom they deliver the prisoner. All the comedy makes the movie that much sadder when we see the young man delivered into his cell. This movie has been undeservedly forgotten, which is surprising since it both stars Nicholson and Quaid in their early roles.
(4) The Great White Hope (1970): This is a thinly disguised biography of Heavyweight Champion, Jack Johnson. Anyone who knows the story of Johnson also knows that he was probably the most controversial boxer to ever put on the gloves. This movie does not give the subject matter kid treatment. The film neither romanticizes nor downplays the qualities that made Johnson such a compelling fighter. What white society attempts and sometimes successfully accomplishes to do to denigrate the great champion make the viewer angry. What the champion sometimes does to himself can be even worse. The boxing scenes in this movie are for once (and maybe the only time in any movie) realistic, and James Earl Jones does an adept job of playing the fighter. Though racism is the theme, this movie is also about an unbroken spirit that nevertheless is wounded and in turn wounds everyone around him.
(5) Apocalypse Now (1979): The murkiest war movie ever made, this film tries to leave nothing unsaid about America’s involvement in Viet Nam. More nightmare than cinematography, the strange assembly of characters on one screen would almost have been too much for any director to manage. Coppola’s insane efforts make it possible.
(6) The Godfather (1972): One of the most famous epics ever filmed of a family held together by a twisted sense of honor as exemplified by Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and that eventually transforms and poisons its most decent member, Michael (Al Pacino). The memorable characters and in particular the memorable faces of the Italian Mafioso alone make this probably the best-crafted movie ever.
(7) Mr. Majestyk (1974): Never highly acclaimed, this movie based on an Elmore Leonard novel is one of the most undervalued movies filmed. Charles Bronson as Majestyk is an ex-con turned melon farmer who offends a mafia hit man (whom the melon farmer despises) played by Al Lettieri - putting Majestyk’s life in danger. Fortunately, life circumstances have made the amiable laborer and entrepreneur tough and able to outlast his extremely heartless adversary. Majestyk’s understanding of the surrounding country and the qualities that make a worthwhile person aid him in this endeavor. That it is achieved with incredible understatement does not make his victory any less spectacular.
(8) The French Connection (1971): An NYC police detective named Popey Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner (Roy Scheider) who break up a gigantic drug ring is only a small part of this story. This movie presents the degradation and class differences of a great city with more subtlety than can ever be noticed at a casual glance. Doyle’s standing out in the cold and eating a cold piece of pizza while the drug kingpin is inside an expensive restaurant eating lobster and drinking expensive wine is just one example. It’s Doyle’s resentment of what’s going on around him (shown in almost every movement and gesture of Hackman) that drives him on – almost to the point of insanity. Obviously, this movie will always be remembered for the car chase.
(9) Who’ll Stop the Rain? (1978): Graphic story of a Viet Nam vet (Nick Nolte) who gets tangled up in a drug running scheme that ends up involving heroin instead of marijuana due to the stupidity of an acquaintance (Michael Moriarty). Only the discipline of the soldier prevents the acquaintance, the acquaintance’s wife (Tuesday Weld) and their child from being tortured and killed by some very sadistic and corrupt federal agents. Nolte gets killed while saving them, but not without first teaching the couple a real lesson about life and true dignity. Based on Robert Stone’s almost unreadable novel, Dog Soldiers, the movie makes the plot almost understandable because of the superb acting job of Nolte and the rest of the cast.
(10) (Tie) The Driver (1978): Another unappreciated movie. Ryan O’Neal plays the getaway driver who is the very best at what he does, and Bruce Dern plays the cop who is the best at what he does as well. The Driver’s secret to success is to only stay focused on what one actually knows and to thus not be concerned with what anybody else thinks. The same O’Neal who played such a sap in Love Story acts out almost the opposite role here by being tightlipped, elusive and tough. Concise storytelling, crisp dialogue and a small budget prevent this movie from becoming overlong or pretentious.
(10) (Tie) The Deer Hunter (1978): Michael Cimino’s stark war movie produced howls of protest from the left for its depiction of the Viet Cong. The method in which the American soldiers are tortured is certainly unique among movie archives. However, the director was not guilty of jingoism. The three young steel workers from Pennsylvania, happy in their own drunken escapades, were betrayed by the nation in the entire handling of the slaughter. Robert De Niro is the least interesting of the three friends as John Savage and especially Christopher Walken suffer in their own form of hell.
The honorable mentions include Chinatown, North Dallas Forty, Slap Shot, Breaker Morant, Deliverance, Dog Day Afternoon, Little Big Man, and The Godfather, Part II. I’m undecided about A Clockwork Orange. The movie has more energy than about any other movie I’ve ever seen, but I’ve only been able to watch the whole movie straight through once. It’s important to note that most of these honorable mentions, regardless of how high or low the budget may have been, did actually have some success at the box office. I’m not usually a sucker for praising only what sells. Probably why I include most of them as honorable mentions instead of in my top ten listing is because I was too familiar with the storyline for each movie before I actually watched it.
As usual, my significant omissions include movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. However, there are not as many of this type as usual. Outside of The Sting and Kramer vs. Kramer, the winners of the award at least held my interest. Rocky was obviously a piece of crowd-pleasing commercialism, but at least Stallone is straight up about creating a popular hero.
The various political sagas that popped up in this decade (especially those starring Robert Redford) didn’t do much for me. The problem with this kind of movie is that hindsight usually proves that the director or screenwriter did not have much vision or feel for how large or small his story happened to be.
I used to like Carnal Knowledge, but it didn’t come across to me as good on a second viewing. Without the character played by Ann Margret, there’s not a lot to care about. Outside of Jaws and, perhaps, The Poseidon Adventure, there was a complete overkill in the making of long and boring disaster movies. The same is true of many of the space exploration movies. Close Encounters of the Third Kind seems to have impressed a number of people when watching it on the big screen, but I remember it mostly for how slowly it moved. And the success of Star Wars had a disastrous effect in bringing about many terrible imitations.
I’ve never seen Coming Home and I’m guessing that I would like the movie because of the role played by Jon Voight. I’d also like to see The French Connection, Part II, which I’m told was more intense than the original movie. But the movie I probably most would like to see is Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.
* I have eleven movies listed because there was a tie for 10th place among my favorites. I point this out in case the reader happens to feel that I can’t count. The Driver or The Deer Hunter would probably have made my top five for about any other decade so I couldn’t leave them as mere honorable mentions.
January 10, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007