The Last Golden Age of American Cinema (the American "New Wave") and the Advent of the Blockbuster Film
Film History of the 1970s
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Film History by Decade
Index | Pre-1920s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s
1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s | 2010s
As in all decades, films were developed from best-selling novels and literature: Papillon (1973) was adapted from Henri "Papillon (butterfly)" Charriere's book - an autobiographical account with Steve McQueen (with a butterfly tattooed on his chest) and Dustin Hoffman (as swindler Louis Dega) - fellow prisoners in the infamous penal colony Devil's Island in French Guyana, and the third film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1974) was the third film of Robert Redford on the top-ten list for the year. Ken Kesey's 1962 counter-cultural novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) was the basis for Milos Forman's acclaimed film about mental hospital inmates (filmed in the Oregon State Mental Institution) and a repressive Nurse - it was the first film since It Happened One Night (1934) to sweep the top five Academy Awards, giving four-time losing nominee Jack Nicholson his first Oscar win.
British and Australian Directors:
A number of British directors, such as John Schlesinger, John Boorman, and Peter Yates had migrated to Hollywood and were continuing to produce taut, critically-successful films. Following his earlier success with Midnight Cowboy (1969), one of Schlesinger's best films of the decade was the adult drama Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971) starring Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch as lovers of the same man (Murray Head) in a complex romantic triangle. He also directed The Day of the Locust (1975) - a dark view of 1930s Hollywood, and the chase-thriller Marathon Man (1976) with Laurence Olivier as a tooth-extracting Nazi.
English filmmaker John Boorman's Deliverance (1972), a rites-of-passage drama adapted from James Dickey's novel, was about a group of four civilized Atlanta businessmen (with Burt Reynolds as a macho, cross-bow-wielding member of the group named Lewis) who canoed into the Appalachian wilderness and found themselves threatened and assaulted by backwoodsmen. (Its theme song "Dueling Banjos" became a huge hit, and its tagline asked: "What Did Happen on the Cahulawassee River?")
UK director Nicolas Roeg directed some of his best films during this decade, including co-directing Performance (1970) with Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger playing a pop star who lived with a sadistic gangster (James Fox) in Swingin' 60s London. He also helmed the visually-stylized, semi-mystical and beautiful adventure film Walkabout (1971) about the contrast of aboriginal and modern culture in the Australian outback through a rites of passage journey taken by a young teenaged girl (Jenny Agutter) and an aboriginal boy. He then directed the brooding and psychological thriller Don't Look Now (1973), a haunting tale of mystery and death set in Venice and starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as a grieving couple. David Bowie starred in the title role in director Roeg's imaginative The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) as Thomas Jerome Newton ("Mr. Sussex") - an alien in search of water who became a multi-millionaire due to his advanced knowledge of engineering.
The experimental, controversial and sensational Ken Russell directed a number of films in the 1970s:
Highly-regarded British director David Lean's only film of the decade was the overlong Irish romantic melodrama Ryan's Daughter (1970). After his thrilling Bullitt (1968), Peter Yates also directed Mother, Jugs and Speed (1976), a black comedy about rival ambulance drivers named Mother (Bill Cosby), Jugs (Raquel Welch), and Speed (Harvey Keitel). His best film of the 70s was the insightful, bicycle-racing, coming-of-age youth film Breaking Away (1979).
From Australia, Gillian Armstrong created the period piece My Brilliant Career (1979) - a feminist tale in turn-of-the-century Australia. Peter Weir directed the mysterious, beautiful and moody Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and the unsettling The Last Wave (1977). And Bruce Beresford directed The Getting of Wisdom (1977) set in a Melbourne girls' boarding school, and the riveting Boer War-South Africa courtroom drama Breaker Morant (1980). Finally, Mel Gibson was propelled into stardom in George Miller's post-nuclear, action-adventure film Mad Max (1979) as a vengeful policeman whose family was attacked by a motorcycle gang.
Big-Budget, Escapist Entertainment:
A number of films of the 70s commented little about the political and social scene - they were just sheer escapist entertainment on a large scale. The trend was toward bigger, more expensive films - with no guarantee of quality. These youth-oriented films and their sequels were aimed at less discriminating and demanding younger audiences - juveniles roughly between ages 12 and 24. Amazingly, some of the record-breaking films of the 70s relied more on special effects than leading stars:
Hollywood's Disaster and Calamity Films: Famed Producer/Director Irwin Allen
A commercially-inspired subgenre of adventure films developed in the 70's to thrill audiences with mega-disaster, big-budget extravaganzas (and subsequent spoofs) filled with magnificent special effects, perilous situations, outlandish rescues, laughable gimmicks, and large star-studded casts. Disasters could be either man-made or natural. They would often receive numerous special/visual effects Oscar nominations, but were often neglected for their acting performances. See a section on disaster films for more information.
The first major disaster film was director/writer George Seaton's Airport (1970) - a Grand Hotel-type film with a suspenseful plot derived from an Arthur Hailey novel about a damaged plane (with pilot Dean Martin) and a busy snowbound Midwest airport. Helen Hayes won a supporting Oscar (her second) for her role as an old lady stowaway. [Airport was sequeled three times in the same decade: Airport 1975 (1974), Airport '77 (1977), and Airport '79: Concorde (1979).] The saturated, over-played disaster genre was vulnerable to spoofs that first began to appear in the 1980s - led by the popular comedy Airplane! (1980).
The disaster movie craze was also triggered by producer Irwin Allen's incredibly-successful The Poseidon Adventure (1972) with a gross of $93 million - an exciting tale (with many stars including Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters) about a capsized luxury liner from a tidal wave - the SS Poseidon. A sequel followed: Allen's Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979). Producer Irwin Allen also exploited the popular subgenre with The Towering Inferno (1974) about a high-rise skyscraper fire (a feature film uniquely co-created by two rival studios: 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.). From its eight Oscar nominations (including Best Picture!), it won three awards: Cinematography, Film Editing, and Song, and starred Steve McQueen as the fire-chief.
Another spectacular disaster film from director Irwin Allen was The Swarm (1978), about threatening killer bees arriving in the US from South America. Allen also produced the disaster dud When Time Ran Out... (1980) about the eruption of a resort island volcano, with Jacqueline Bisset, William Holden, and Paul Newman - it was Allen's final feature film production.
Other films followed the trend:
Science-Fiction Films of the 70s:
Besides the splashy, big-budget Spielberg-Lucas sci-films of the decade, there were other speculative, innovative, and thought-provoking examples in the genre:
The Biggest Stars of the 70s Decade:
Stars in the 1970s that continued to be popular or rose in star power included Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Elliott Gould (due to his appearance in M*A*S*H (1970)), Dustin Hoffman, Lee Marvin, Jack Lemmon, Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau, George C. Scott, Ali MacGraw, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Goldie Hawn, Ryan O'Neal, Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Charles Bronson, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Tatum O'Neal, Sylvester Stallone, Diane Keaton, Robert DeNiro, John Travolta, Richard Dreyfuss, Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Peter Sellers, Roger Moore, and Jill Clayburgh.
An Unusual Decade:
This was a most interesting decade, beginning with the sappy saccharine romance of the much-talked about Love Story (1970), directed by Arthur Hiller - a phenomenally successful film at the box office, but universally panned by critics for its manipulative, melodramatic appeal ("Love means never having to say you're sorry") between the two stars Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw. This was also the decade in which the world's first eight-plex theatres began to open - as in Atlanta in 1974, and the decade in which rock 'n roll icon Elvis Presley died -- August 16, 1977.
And the decade was filled with such surprise winners and oddities, such as:
Future star (and California governor) Arnold Schwarzenegger made his screen debut in a minor film in 1970 and later starred in Pumping Iron (1977), a documentary about professional body-building in preparation for the Mr. Universe contest.
Film Critics on Television:
Chicago Sun-Times reviewer Roger Ebert and Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel began to co-host and present their quarrelsome film reviews on public television (Chicago's local PBS station WTTW) in 1978, with a series called Sneak Previews. The hugely successful show, with "Thumbs Up" and "Thumbs Down" trademarked ratings, was immediately syndicated nationwide. It soon became the highest-rated series in the history of public broadcasting.
New Independent Studios:
In 1978, five disgruntled United Artists executives left the studio over a disagreement about lack of control, and formed Orion Pictures. (The group of executives are represented by the five stars depicted in the constellation of Orion - the new corporation's logo.) At the end of the decade in 1979, brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, first finding success as rock concert promoters in the early 70s while students at the Univ. of Buffalo, became film distributors and formed the independent studio Miramax (derived from the combination of their parents' names: Miriam and Max), after purchasing and renovating a run-down, second-run movie theater in Buffalo, N.Y., and turning it into a profitable college art house. The brothers launched Miramax in 1979 with its headquarters in Tribeca.
The first hit film distributed by the newly-launched studio was the British comedy The Secret Policeman's Other Ball (1982) directed by John Cleese. Bought at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, it was a collection of footage from benefit rock concerts in London (with comedy provided by the Monty Python Flying Circus troupe) to support the human rights organization Amnesty International. The film, including Rowan "Mr. Bean" Atkinsons hilarious headmaster skit, Billy Connelly singing country music, and Pete Townshend's acoustic versions of "Pinball Wizard" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," grossed $6 million.
[Note: Since 1993, Miramax (and Dimension, one of its subsidiaries to produce and distribute innovative genre films, that was headed by Bob Weinstein) had become a part of the Walt Disney Company. And Orion was sold to MGM in 1997.]
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6