Throughout history, cinema has reflected, echoed and even preempted societal shifts that occur through the ages, and that’s where our Decade Definers series comes in. We’ll take a look at the world, decade by decade, and discuss how the films of that era represented the attitudes, fears, desires and innovations of our society.
With the close of the Swinging Sixties, the 1970s came along like the much deserved hangover after a period of such hedonism and optimism. The 1970s was a decade of turmoil across the world. The Vietnam War, the Watergate Scandal and the death of Elvis shook the USA, while the UK dealt with Bloody Sunday, decimalisation, miners strikes and the election of Margaret Thatcher. The 1970s were desperately difficult times, both politically and economically but, as is often the way in times of hardship, this led to a period of rapid change. Some incredible art came from the period, from the rise of punk and disco to feminist and conceptual art, while cinema was not far behind in terms of pushing boundaries
Star Wars (1977)
Thanks to Stanley Kubrick and his Space Odyssey, the idea of the universe around us became a thrilling and exciting setting for film going forward. No film encapsulates this sense of adventure and eagerness to explore galaxies far, far away, than ‘Star Wars’. A franchise which today is going from strength to strength, an unstoppable movie machine, the inception of this epic saga in 1977 changed the sci-fi landscape forever. Taking us across breathtaking worlds, introducing us to iconic characters from a multitude of species and handing us the most legendary weapon in film history, George Lucas’ space opera perfectly reflected mankind’s relentless desire to learn about and journey through our universe. (JLB)
Alien (1979) – Sci-fi Horror on the Rise
Following on from the success of sci-fi family favourite Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece put science fiction back on a distinctly adult footing in what became one of the most influential films of all time. The “haunted house in space” film took a familiar theme but took it to revolutionary places. The casting of Sigourney Weaver as the lead character Ripley was hugely unusual, so much so that a conversation between Ripley and Lambert (played by Veronica Cartwright, who was originally signed up to play the role of Ripley) served as the inspiration for the much quoted Bechdel test; the simple test for a female positive film, which simply looks at whether it features at least two women, who talk about something other than a man.
HR Giger’s design of the Xenomorph was revolutionary at the time and remains iconic, bringing together the natural and seemingly mechanical into one gloriously terrifying creature, a mash-up of man, machine and the unknown.
The design of the ship, the Nostromo proved hugely influential too, with it’s worn industrial feel influencing the design of future sci-fi productions away from simply white and shiny, recognising that these craft had to be lived in and used.
The rest of the crew on Ripley’s ship weren’t highly educated scientists or soldiers, but rather blue collar workers, picking up on one of the 70’s big themes, the disenfranchised working class. (AE)
Who would’ve thought that a mechanical shark would change cinema forever? But that’s exactly what Steven Spielberg and his aquatic beast, Bruce the shark, did in 1975. Before ‘Jaws’, a night at the cinema was a means to enjoy and appreciate an art form. Now, it was a blockbuster event, and your summers would never be the same again – for a start, a trip to the beach was off the cards unless you were feeling super brave. But most importantly, there was now better things to do. Now, you could bet your bottom dollar that every year there would be a huge, mass-appeal, blockbuster movie release that you just couldn’t miss out on. (JLB)
The Exorcist (1973) and Halloween (1978) – The Birth of Mainstream Horror
The 1970’s saw the birth of truly mainstream horror, with the grim backdrop of the political landscape providing a plethora of psychological hang-ups to plunder.
William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece,The Exorcist was voted the scariest movie of all time by Total Film in 1999 and rightly so. Tapping in to one of the key horror themes of the 1960’s and 70s- fear of children- the film brought horror out of the realm of the schlocky B movie stable and made horror accessible to the masses.
Ironically this break into the mainstream was fuelled by it’s initial shock value.Originally banned by the BBFC on it’s release in June 1971 it was recut and finally released with an X rating in the UK in 1974.
Audiences were horrified by the tale of teenager Regan (Linda Blair), who has become wracked by convulsions, which after medical examinations prove fruitless are judged to be demonic possession, leading to meeting with Father Merrin (the Exorcist of the title).
Newspapers at the time of its release reported audience members fainting in horror or shock at the sight of this young girl screaming obscenities, vomiting profusely and masturbating with a crucifix.
Combined with themes around the guilt of women moving into the workplace, usurping masculine roles, Regan and her mother can be seen of emblematic of the fear of the rapid changes happening in the 1970s.
Despite the outcry around some of the scenes in The Exorcist it is important to recognise that the horror all takes place in a very domestic setting, the home. This mixture of the familiar and the unknown proved to be a hit with audiences, buoyed by its reputation as banned film it raked in over $400million at the box office, proving to studios that horror could be a money spinner.
1978’s Halloween was made on a budget of just $325,000, going on to gross over $60million worldwide, a record for independent film at the time. John Carpenter’s deft use of music and ability to build tension elevated Halloween above it’s B-movie counterparts. Another home-based horror, Carpenter took the seemingly safe setting of suburban America and turned it into a source of terror. The initial idea of a psychotic killer stalking baby-sitters came from producer Irwin Yablans, an idea which was then woven together into a thrilling narrative by Carpenter and Debra Hill.
Largely seen from the point of view of teenager Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) we watch as the disturbed killer (and now horror icon) Michael Myers stalks and murders the teenage residents of Haddonfield. Notably Myers is known as ‘The Shape’ in the credits for Halloween, a big pointer to how Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey made his presence seem so intimidating.
Since copied by an endless slew of imitators, Halloween was the original ‘Who’s next?’ of horror films, with the killer seemingly punishing victims for their perceived transgressions. Debra Hill’s huge contribution to the script was to write dialogue for the three main women on screen which seems both realistic and relatable, raising the characters above mere stereotypes. Halloween did prove to be the original in a line of knife-wielding killers flicks, from Friday the Thirteenth and A Nightmare on Elm Street, later stumbling into the realms of the meta with films like Scream and Cabin in the Woods. Halloween’s tiny budget belied the huge impact it had on cinema. (AE)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) – The Rise of Offbeat Comedy
While the Hollywood film industry was distracted by sci-fi and big budget blockbusters, the UK film industry became obsessed with home-grown comedy. Some, such as the ‘Confessions’ series and TV spin-offs such as ‘On the Buses’ and ‘Please, Sir!’ along with the enduring Carry On film franchise did not translate well in overseas markets. Others, such as the Monty Python films found a niche around the world.
The second of the Monty Python films (following 1971’s sketch-based ‘And now for something completely different’) Holy Grail was made on a budget of £230,000, money which was raised from investors such as Pink Floyd, Genesis and Led Zeppelin. The film went on to take £5 million at the world-wide box office. Still quoted regularly today, Monty Python and the Holy Grail became a comedy classic and changed the face of British, and indeed world, comedy with it’s off-beat and irreverant humour.
While according to the credits the movie was directed by a variety of different llamas we can safely assume the real work was done by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Jones and Gilliam took on directorial roles when it became apparent the budget wouldn’t stretch to hiring anyone else in, which of course then kick-started the directorial careers of both. (AE)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The war in Vietnam will always be a dark shadow on human history, as any war is. But a war spanning 20 years, and claiming 850,000 lives, is something which cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. Many films have portrayed this conflict, in very different ways, but perhaps none more powerful and impacting than Francis Ford Coppola’s tour de force ‘Apocalypse Now’. Far from shying away from the issues, and with no concern for pandering to American interests, Coppola truly ventured into the heart of darkness, and goes all out with his brutal depictions of violence, death and evil. (JLB)
Taxi Driver (1976) and Clockwork Orange (1971)
Following on from the fallout of the Vietnam war, Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ centres around a young man fresh from military service who is on a mission to save the world. But Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is more than just a symbol of traumatised soldiers, he embodies a much larger problem – the disassociated young adults who found no place in society. This issue didn’t just resonate in America either, with Britain’s youth arguably even more affected by a feeling of being on the outside, unwelcome in their own communities. You’d be hard pressed to find a more resounding example of this, than Stanley Kubrick’s ultra violent depiction of restless, rebellious and dangerous young men, ‘A Clockwork Orange’. (JLB)
Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Quadrophenia (1979) – Working Class Struggles and the Modern Musical
1977’s Saturday Night Fever captured the grim mood of the era. In the US at the tail-end of the 70s disco was king and was providing the escapism that was needed from the drudgery of the daily grind. Based on an essay by Nik Cohn, (which was later revealed to have been a work of partial fiction, based on a British mod, not a New York disco King) we follow the fortunes of Tony Manero, a teenage Italian-American. By day Manero works a dead-end job in a hardware store, but by night he is king of the disco. Taking in hard hitting themes such as racism, abortion, rape and Catholic guilt, Saturday Night Fever is a look at the dark side of 1970’s America. Marrying together the glamour of a dance competition, the music of the Bee Gees and such dark themes is no mean feat, but John Badham’s classic manages to do just that. Despite the white suited dancehall swagger, Saturday Night Fever is not a million miles from Taxi Driver in tone, but it’s musical appeal managed to nudge it into the mainstream. Such was it’s appeal at the time that even the parody album by everyone’s favourite puppets ‘Sesame Street Fever’ went gold.
Working class alienation wasn’t reserved for the Americans however, as was shown in Franc Roddam’s tale of the tribal battle between mods and rockers in 1960’s Brighton. Loosley based on The Who’s rock opera of the same name, Quadrophenia follows the tale of Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels) who is desperate to escape his day to day life as a post room worker and find more meaning and excitement out in the big, wide world. Very much the British cousin to Saturday Night Fever, Quadrophenia is about escapism and finding glamour in a world that normally looks grim and dark. Also like it’s US cousin there is a distinctly dark underbelly to the scooters and rock music, with violence, drug-use and a gritty realism to the featured weekend of abandon. (AE)
The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather is a film that stands the test of time, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with some of cinema’s greatest feats. Yet The Godfather was not expected to reach the success that it would go on to achieve. Directed by the relatively inexperienced Coppola, starring a generally unrecognisable cast and Marlon Brando (who, at the time, was considered to be past his prime) and based on a novel that wasn’t a best-seller; The Godfather had no precedent to be the classic that it is today.
As a prolific member of the ‘movie brats’ (a group of New Hollywood filmmakers who opposed the traditional Hollywood era), Francis Ford Coppola was eager to smash the boundaries of American filmmaking, and he did so by bringing forth a film so enriched in complex themes and uncensored imagery that it would shock the cinematic world. The Godfather singlehandedly set the standard for the gangster-crime genre, a standard that would subsequently influence films such as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Brian De Palma’s Scarface. Coppola made Hollywood an offer it could not refuse. And the world thanks him for it. (CH)