How did we get from the action movies of Errol Flynn to those of Clint Eastwood?
One of my favorite movie books is "The Great Adventure Films" by Tony Thomas, originally published in 1976. It wasn’t a very deep piece of film analysis, but it was a great listing of the great classic adventure movies, from the silent era up to 1975’s "The Man Who Would Be King."
I still love the book, but it’s in desperate need of an updated companion piece. We now have a good 50 years of modern action films to sift through and re-evaluate.
It’s pretty amazing when you consider that in just a decade we went from Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery and Charles Bronson. It’s a story of social upheaval, rebellion and radical changes in the industry, and it all revolved around sex, violence, cars and blowing stuff up.
At the start of the 1960s, the Production Code was still in effect, but it was under fire from all sides. Artists wanted freedom, manly men wanted real tough action, Playboy readers wanted something with a little more bite, and studio heads needed something to get people away from the TV set.
The 1950s had seen some improvements. War films like "Hell Is for Heroes" and Sam Fuller’s "The Steel Helmet" brought a new tough attitude to action. 1958 saw the first classic car-chase movie, "Thunder Road" with Robert Mitchum. And of course John Wayne made some of his finest action movies in this period, particularly "Rio Bravo" for director Howard Hawks.
There was always a little bit of the old, classic adventure film in most of these efforts. They were still a little bit safe. But in the '60s, four movies set the stage for what was to come.
"The Guns of Navarone" (1961): In a lot of ways this is an old-fashioned adventure pic that easily could have made it onto Tony Thomas’ book. The opening narration would make even George Lucas blush. It’s a far cry from the much tougher war films that had preceded it, such as "Hell Is for Heroes" with Steve McQueen or the great Sam Fuller war movies like "Steel Helmet," "Merrill’s Marauders" and "Fixed Bayonets."
In some ways it was a step back. But this film is important in the development of the modern action film for two reasons. First, it introduced audiences to Alistair McLean, whose books inspired two more modern action classics, "Where Eagles Dare" and "Breakheart Pass."
Secondly, it was a huge step forward in action movie special effects and pyrotechnics. "The Guns of Navarone" was very much the "Star Wars" of its day, complete with the mighty super fortress being blown to bits at the last possible moment. The destruction of the guns is still impressive today, but even before that shot, David Niven, Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn had already blown up large parts of the German army. Like the automobile, the high explosive was now a key part of the modern swashbuckler’s arsenal.
"Dr. No" (1962): Explosions the Production Code could accommodate. But there were two things the Code couldn’t abide: sex and blood. And then James Bond strutted into town. Since the 1950s, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy had been selling a particular image and lifestyle: urban, witty, glamorous; a world where making the right cocktail was a mating ritual. When Sean Connery was cast in the role of 007, he became the embodiment of that ethos. The first Bond films were about animal magnetism as much as adventure. It’s no mistake the filmmakers chose Ian Fleming’s sexiest novel to begin the series. Who can forget the shot of Ursula Andress rising out of the sea in her bikini?
"A Fistful of Dollars" (1964): Right after James Bond brought sex into the action film, the spaghetti Western arrived and gave it a shot of violence. Today "A Fistful of Dollars" seems pretty average in terms of the violence content. It features just a few dabs of the red stuff here and there. But it played havoc with the Production Code. Never before had on-screen killings been so gleefully sadistic or callous.
Check out Clint Eastwood’s first gundown of four henchmen. In previous Westerns, a hero had to be pushed and prodded before he finally drew his gun. Here the Man With No Name (OK, he’s actually named Joe in this picture) is just looking for a way to impress the two killers who run the town. His character is even more cynical than the one played by Toshiro Mifune in "Yojimbo," which inspired "Fistful of Dollars" (that movie itself inspired by the book "Red Harvest"). Also notice how we have the gun in the close foreground as it fires and the men fall dead. That was something forbidden by the Code, which Leone was unaware of. The body count is extreme compared to Hollywood Westerns of the time. But audiences ate it up.
"Bullitt" (1968): Ten years after "Thunder Road," filmmakers finally had the tools at their disposal to really put audiences behind the wheel of a high-speed chase. It was a combination of new technology, new camera techniques and a star crazy in love with cars. The result blew away 1968 audiences. This sequence sparked a genuine cinema revolution, one that’s still not appreciated.
Since "Bullitt," there have been literally hundreds of car chase movies. The '70s and '80s gave us films like "The French Connection," "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry," "The Seven Ups," "Freebie and the Bean." The trend was winding down until "The Fast and the Furious" and the Bourne series demonstrated that people still love to see fast cars zip around.
The rest of "Bullitt" is surprisingly laid-back and slow. That would be another trend. Often the car chase movie only had money for just one really good chase sequence.
After the spaghetti Westerns, the Bond films and "Bullitt" hit theaters, things changed rapidly. The Production Code was junked and the MPAA's ratings system was adopted. Overnight James Bond became the “safe” movie. If audiences wanted it, they could get their action with a lot more skin. Just check out the shootout in a brothel from "Rolling Thunder." Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah took spaghetti Western violence and pushed it even further with "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Wild Bunch." Cop shows replaced Westerns on TV so they could film more car chases. And when those cars went off the road, they exploded in fireballs as if they were Chevettes. The stage was set for the new heroes and a new kind of adventure film.
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