1967: Action Cinema’s Greatest Year

23 Sep

45 years ago this month, I went to see the fifth James Bond movie, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967), when it finally came to the Fairmount, one of my neighborhood theaters. It was a single feature, very unusual for this theater, but interest was so high they didn’t have to book a second film (although other theaters in the neighborhood ran it with second features). They’d even raised the prices for this showing so I wound up paying kids’ price even though I was 14 (I was short enough for my age to get away with it) and sat with my 12-year-old sister Claire in the children’s section, presided over by a matron in a white dress and white gloves and wielding a flashlight. This film marked the first time American audiences got to see ninja action in a mainstream studio film. We’d never even heard of ninjas before this film. It was also the first time most kids got to see people fight with samurai swords in an action scene in a big-budget feature film. When the climactic assault by Bond and the ninjas on SPECTRE’s volcano rocket base began, the crowd in the theater went completely nuts. We’d never seen anything like this before and kids were roaring and applauding and cheering and jumping up and down like I’d never seen an audience react before. (Two little wise guys behind me simply exclaimed “Ooooh!” in unison every time something happened.)

 YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, which is set and partly shot in Japan, was really the beginning of my interest in all things Japanese. After seeing the movie, I even read the book by Ian Fleming, which had little to do with the movie but had a lot more Japanese background material in it. I’d already been psyched to see the film because it was a Bond film, but I’d been even more excited about it after seeing the giant billboards for the film atop the Astor Theater in Times Square. The ads featured three illustrations: Bond (in improbable tux) defying gravity by walking along the inside of the volcano rocket base; Bond being bathed by semi-nude Japanese girls; and Bond flying in Little Nellie, a one-man copter armed with all manner of lethal artillery.

Directed by Lewis Gilbert with second unit direction by Peter Hunt, this film had more action than any previous Bond film (and possibly more than any previous film I’d seen). Not only did it have the spectacular ninja-vs.-SPECTRE battle in the finale, as Bond seeks to stop a SPECTRE rocket from disrupting an orbiting American space capsule and making it look like a Soviet operation, but it had plenty of chase and fight scenes in the build-up to it, including a fight between Bond and an assassin in a Japanese industrialist’s office suite using all manner of office furniture; a fight at the waterfront with an army of dockworkers; a chase involving a sports car (equipped with a television broadcasting live footage of the chase—surely a first for action films), aided by a helicopter with a giant magnet; an aerial battle between Little Nellie and four attacking copters; and, most significantly, a series of training scenes at the ninja academy operated by Japanese Secret Service head Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba).

YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE was one of a large number of pioneering action films to be released in 1967. When I began a historical survey of action films (for a future book project) I was astounded at all the great ones that came out that year. When you expand the definition of action film to include, simply, films of violence, i.e. films like LE SAMOURAI or SAMURAI REBELLION that culminate in violent confrontations after a long dramatic buildup, the result is a great lineup of films that year by some of the best action directors in history. And while there are traditional westerns and samurai films in the mix, many of the others offered innovative new styles of action filmmaking that influenced filmmakers and genre conventions for years to come. And more than a few, like the Bond film, emphasized training scenes to prepare the protagonists for combat. In addition to YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, we got the following:

THE DIRTY DOZEN, directed by Robert Aldrich and starring a once-in-a-lifetime action cast including Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, Ralph Meeker, George Kennedy, John Cassavetes, Clint Walker and Donald Sutherland. This wasn’t the first film to posit the notion of recruiting prisoners as soldiers (Peckinpah’s MAJOR DUNDEE did something similar two years earlier and Gordon Douglas’ CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER did it in 1953), but it’s the one that made the concept stand out and inspired numerous lower-budgeted versions over the years, including Italian versions (both westerns and war movies) and Hong Kong films. It also focused on the practice of training for a mission and putting its men through grueling paces that establish their qualifications for the mission.

In fact, it’s the training scenes and a very clever war games sequence (pictured in the still above) that provide the action in the first two hours of the movie, culminating in the final section in a deadly raid on a chateau in France hosting a weekend retreat of top Nazi officers. One of the important elements in all this is the strengthening of the men’s camaraderie as they train and work together. The film was Aldrich’s biggest hit until THE LONGEST YARD (1974).

Over in Italy, Sergio Leone decided to change the look and feel of the western with his “Man with No Name” trilogy: A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, all starring Clint Eastwood (from TV’s “Rawhide”). Even though their release dates in Italy were earlier, all were released in the U.S. in 1967, so I’m including them here. As a lone gunslinger/bounty hunter, Eastwood’s character functions as an avenging angel, and operates with almost mechanical, superhuman efficiency, cleaning up the west not by bringing civilization, as John Ford heroes were wont to do, but by wiping out as many of the lawless and uncivilized as his gun can manage. (The first film in the trilogy was based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai film, YOJIMBO, which in turn was based on Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 crime novel, Red Harvest, so there’s quite a trail of action antecedents in play here.)  Leone’s baroque style, encompassing tight closeups and panoramic showdowns, was enhanced by Ennio Morricone’s music scores, which used all manner of instruments and percussive arrangements, often backed by wordless vocals, to give a unique feel to the proceedings. Leone, like Aldrich, infused his films with frequent doses of black humor. Leone had worked for Aldrich as a second unit director on SODOM AND GOMORRAH (1962) and his westerns owe a stylistic debt to Aldrich’s 1954 western, VERA CRUZ, which featured future Leone star Charles Bronson.

While Leone was transforming the western genre for all time, one of its great Hollywood traditionalists was still turning out exemplary old-school westerns. EL DORADO, directed by Howard Hawks, was a reworking of elements from Hawks’ RIO BRAVO made eight years earlier with the same star, John Wayne. This film isn’t as rich in character or relationships as the earlier film, and relies too much on formula, but it’s so well-played by Wayne and his co-lead, Robert Mitchum, and a cast of old favorites (Arthur Hunnicutt, R.G. Armstrong) and new (James Caan, Christopher George), that it never fails to entertain. The plot has to do with a war over water between a longtime ranching family and a greedy land-grabbing interloper (Ed Asner) and the involvement of a gunslinger  (Wayne) who sides with the sheriff (Mitchum) against the land baron and his growing army of gunmen. There are plenty of confrontations and shootouts throughout, all staged with the kind of flair an old hand like Hawks could bring to it.

The fact that this style of western was gradually fading out, to be replaced by the likes of Leone and Peckinpah, is acknowledged in the way the two leads are portrayed, older and weaker than they’ve been in past films, slowed down by crippling wounds and personal flaws. But they make up for it with skill, craft, instincts honed by experience, and sheer nerve. RED RIVER and RIO BRAVO may be better westerns, but I’ve watched EL DORADO  more often. (As for Hawks’ legacy, this film came near the end of a career that had been thriving for 40-odd years. I would argue that Hawks established the grammar of the modern action film with SCARFACE, back in 1932.)

POINT BLANK, directed by English filmmaker John Boorman (only his second film and his first in Hollywood), gives us an existential criminal protagonist in Lee Marvin’s Walker, who is betrayed on a heist and shot by his partner who left him for dead and took all the money plus Walker’s wife. Walker’s quest for revenge and his share of the money takes him through a peculiar WASP-dominated corporate-style Los Angeles syndicate and a succession of violent encounters that provide a pretty high body count for a contemporary crime thriller. Boorman heightens the proceedings by using sound in creative ways and employing frequent flashbacks and flash-forwards, giving it an artier look than most American crime genre films of the time.

The script was based on Richard Stark’s crime novel, The Hunter, the second in a long series of novels about Parker, a professional heist artist, a background not shared by the film’s Walker, a working man who had been persuaded to do the job by the pleas of his old friend (played by John Vernon).

ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, directed by Roger Corman, is a fact-based crime film dealing with gangland activities in Prohibition-era Chicago and culminates in the title slaughter, in which Al Capone’s men shot down seven of Bugs Moran’s men—in the back—in a garage used for storing bootleg liquor on February 14, 1929. (See my April 7, 2012 entry for greater coverage of this film and two other films about Capone.) Corman’s strategy is to focus on the individuals involved—on both sides of the killings—and carefully chart their activities in the days and hours leading up to the massacre. The cast is led by Jason Robards as Capone, Ralph Meeker (THE DIRTY DOZEN) as Moran, and, in various supporting roles, George Segal, Bruce Dern, John Agar, Alex Rocco, Leo Gordon, Tom Reese, Dick Miller and Reed Hadley (TV’s “Racket Squad”).

Over in Hong Kong, a swordplay film called THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, directed by Chang Cheh, established the template for the burgeoning kung fu genre, which would kick into gear three years later when this film’s star, Jimmy Wang Yu, starred in and directed THE CHINESE BOXER. In this film, Wang Yu plays a swordsman who has a fateful encounter with his teacher’s petulant daughter who, in a fit of pique, challenges him to a fight and cuts off his arm. He flees into the countryside and takes up with an orphaned farm girl who gives him her father’s old swordfighting manual, which conveniently offers techniques suitable for a one-armed left-handed swordsman. He eventually has to return to save his old school from a set of vicious rivals against whom only his newly acquired techniques can prevail. As with YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and THE DIRTY DOZEN, the concept of training before combat is important here. Chang Cheh became a master at stories of violence, usually involving swordplay or kung fu, and directed an average of  five films a year for the rest of the 1960s and 70s, including two follow-up One-Armed Swordsman films. Many of them featured extensive training scenes. Also in 1967, he directed THE ASSASSIN and TRAIL OF THE BROKEN BLADE, two fine swordplay films also starring Jimmy Wang Yu. THE ASSASSIN is notable for being the Chang Cheh film that is most like a samurai film.

Speaking of which, over in Japan, Masaki Kobayashi (HARAKIRI) gave us a genuine samurai classic in SAMURAI REBELLION, the best film in its genre outside anything directed by Akira Kurosawa. Starring Toshiro Mifune, with Tatsuya Nakadai in a major supporting role, it offers Mifune as a clan official whose son is ordered to marry their lord’s disgraced mistress. The marriage becomes a happy one for both parties, so when the lord demands her return to the court, Mifune decides to stand up for the rights of his son and daughter-in-law, forcing him into a violent confrontation with his fellow clan members. Mifune’s position as the finest swordsman in the clan makes him a formidable opponent and leads to a high body count, culminating in a duel with Nakadai on a windswept mountain plain. Shot in beautiful black-and-white.

In France, Jean-Pierre Melville was continuing his foray into the crime genre with LE SAMOURAI, in which Alain Delon stars as a hitman who gets arrested after being spotted by witnesses following his shooting of a club owner. The police fail to pin it on him but continue their surveillance even as Delon’s employers go after him to eliminate all traces of their involvement. Delon’s celebrated Gallic stoicism has never been more beautifully captured. The whole concept of the cool, emotionless, deadpan hired killer pretty much stems from this film, which influenced many filmmakers including John Woo (THE KILLER) and Quentin Tarantino (PULP FICTION).

My least favorite of the iconic 1967 action films, but one which caused the most controversy at the time, Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE introduced a new level of violence into mainstream American films, mixing scenes of bloodshed and slaughter with elements of romantic comedy and action comedy. There’s a lot of humor in the film, as well as scenes of simple, pastoral Texas family life intended to provide poignancy. The title couple, a pair of dim-witted cold-blooded killers in real life, who were famously inept at a life of crime, is given full-blown glamorous Hollywood treatment here, decked out in an array of period fashions (that were given lots of magazine coverage at the time) and played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The final ambush of the couple, shot in slow-motion with multiple bullets puncturing them, paved the way for Sam Peckinpah’s slow-mo bloodshed in THE WILD BUNCH. Critics were divided on this one and the subsequent debate and re-release of the film led to more than one critic backtracking, especially as the film began to strike a chord and draw in long lines of young audiences, and at least one critic being fired for his intransigence (The New York Times’ longtime first-string reviewer, Bosley Crowther).

On TV in the U.S., we got the Japanese animated action classic, “Speed Racer,” in which car races were mixed with all sorts of violent confrontations with armies of bad guys and the occasional karate match. This was probably the first animated series seen by Americans to include martial arts in it.

Kung fu was introduced to American audiences in “The Green Hornet,” which had premiered on ABC in the Fall of 1966 and continued with new episodes into 1967, to fill out one season. This series, of course, co-starred Bruce Lee, who brought his own style of kung fu, jeet kune do, to the portrayal of his character, Kato, chauffeur and fighting assistant to the Green Hornet. Lee would go on to be the world’s most celebrated kung fu star, despite making only four actual movies in the genre, two of which were released after his untimely death at the age of 32 in 1973.

On TV in Japan, they got KAMEN NO NINJA AKAKAGE (aka RED SHADOW), the first color live-action ninja series, which has, unfortunately, never been released in the U.S.

Of the films listed above, I saw both YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE in theaters in 1967. I saw the others in re-release or on double bills with newer films within three or so years after release or, in the case of the foreign films, at revival theaters in the 1970s. ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN had to wait till I got a bootleg VHS of it from a Chinatown video store in the late 1990s. (It’s since come out on legit DVD in the U.S.)

Plenty of other fine action films came out in 1967.

HOUR OF THE GUN, directed by John Sturges (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), starred James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday in a film that opened with the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (the event that ended Sturges’ previous treatment of the subject, GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, 1957) and followed with its aftermath and Earp’s fictional confrontation in Mexico with an unrepentant Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan).

DEVIL’S ANGELS, directed by Daniel Haller and produced by Roger Corman, starred DIRTY DOZEN’s John Cassavetes as the leader of a Hell’s Angels-type biker gang headed into the desert region of southern California in search of a legendary hideout. It was the follow-up to the previous year’s THE WILD ANGELS, which had been directed by Corman. Other biker films to come out that year included HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS, starring Jack Nicholson, and GLORY STOMPERS, starring a pre-EASY RIDER Dennis Hopper as an antagonistic gang leader.

 DEATH RIDES A HORSE was one of a number of Italian westerns that came out in Italy in 1967, in addition to those directed by Leone. Most of them didn’t get released in the U.S. until later, though. I first saw DEATH RIDES A HORSE in its U.S. release in 1969. It starred Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law and is famous for inspiring some of the revenge motifs seen in Tarantino’s KILL BILL, VOL. 1, which also uses snippets of Ennio Morricone’s score for DEATH.

Other Italian westerns released in Italy in 1967:

ANY GUN CAN PLAY, with Edd Byrnes and Gilbert Roland

DAY OF ANGER, with Lee Van Cleef

DJANGO KILL…IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT!, with Tomas Milian

FACE TO FACE, with Tomas Milian and Gian Maria Volonte

GOD FORGIVES…I DON’T, the first Italian western with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer

THE HELLBENDERS, with Joseph Cotten

THE HILLS RUN RED, with Henry Silva and Dan Duryea

A STRANGER IN TOWN, with Tony Anthony

THIS MAN MUST DIE, with Guy Madison

THE UGLY ONES (aka THE BOUNTY KILLER), with Tomas Milian

WINCHESTER FOR HIRE (released in the U.S. as PAYMENT IN BLOOD), with Edd Byrnes and Guy Madison

I’ve seen and enjoyed most of these. THE UGLY ONES was the first Italian western I ever saw. It played on a double bill with THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S at a neighborhood theater in 1969, a few months before I saw my first Leone, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. (I’d catch up to the Man with No Name trilogy when it was re-released some months later.)

In Japan, there were three 1967 releases from the Zatoichi series starring Shintaro Katsu as a blind swordsman: ZATOICHI’S CANE SWORD, ZATOICHI THE OUTLAW,  and ZATOICHI CHALLENGED, which was directed by action specialist Kenji Misumi (LONE WOLF AND CUB).

Another excellent samurai film that year was KOJIRO, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki as something of a follow-up to his celebrated SAMURAI Trilogy of the 1950s, this time focusing on Musashi Miyamoto’s somewhat less legendary opponent, Kojiro Sasaki. Over at Nikkatsu, which specialized in contemporary genre films, Takashi Nomura directed the black-and-white crime thriller, A COLT IS MY PASSPORT, with Nikkatsu icon Jo Shishido, a film that’s included in Criterion’s Nikkatsu Noir box set.

Back in Hollywood, Gordon Douglas (THEM!) directed three action films: TONY ROME, a private eye thriller with Frank Sinatra; CHUKA, a western about an army fort under siege by Indians and starring Rod Taylor and Ernest Borgnine; and IN LIKE FLINT, the second and last movie in the Derek Flint secret agent franchise starring James Coburn. Henry Levin directed the third film in another secret agent franchise, THE AMBUSHERS, with Dean Martin as Matt Helm. I saw both IN LIKE FLINT and THE AMBUSHERS in their initial release. Cornel Wilde directed and starred in a gritty World War II film, BEACH RED, which had a lot more gore than war films had displayed up to that time and dared to take a critical look at war. Tom Laughlin starred in BORN LOSERS, the very first Billy Jack movie, and also directed it under the pseudonym T.C. Frank.

In Hong Kong, the Shaw Bros. studio turned out quite a few other exemplary action films that year, in addition to ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN: the period swordplay adventures KING CAT, RAPE OF THE SWORD, THE SILENT SWORDSMAN, THE THUNDERING SWORD, and THE SWORD AND THE LUTE, while also turning out such contemporary secret agent thrillers as ASIA-POL, INTER-POL, ANGEL WITH THE IRON FISTS, and SUMMONS TO DEATH.

There are actually a lot more films from 1967 worth citing, but this has already gotten too long. I haven’t even mentioned the year’s Best Picture winner, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, a crime drama which foregrounds race relations in the south when a black homicide detective is asked by a small-town southern sheriff to help out with a case. I’m happy to have seen as many films from that year as I did in theaters and have been busily catching up to the others on television and DVD as I’ve discovered them over the years.

It would be interesting to read an analysis of the period responsible for these films that attempted to explain the explosion of so much creative violence on the screen from so many countries in such a short period. In his book, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, J. Hoberman writes about the turbulence going on in the streets of American cities and the warfare raging in Vietnam at the time and contrasts them with the way THE DIRTY DOZEN and BONNIE AND CLYDE were reviewed by indignant mainstream critics of the time. His chapter on those two films is quite detailed, but he never mentions POINT BLANK, EL DORADO or any of the other key films I cited above, except for a couple of paragraphs on Leone. Still, it’s a worthy book and I recommend it.

For the record, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE remains one of my all-time favorite films and I saw it over a dozen times on the big screen, followed by multiple viewings on TV, VHS and DVD.

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2 Responses to “1967: Action Cinema’s Greatest Year”

  1. Robert Regan September 25, 2012 at 9:49 PM #

    What a year, Brian! I saw Bonnie and Clyde again a couple years ago to see if I liked it any better than I did back then. I didn’t! Generally, I think Arthur Penn was tremendously overrated.

  2. Griff October 10, 2012 at 12:38 PM #

    Very thoughtful post, Brian. You described some of the pictures so vividly, it made me want to watch them again right away! I wish someone would write the analysis of the period that you postulate. [I found Hoberman’s book interesting, but it didn’t quite address the topic.] We agree to disagree on the merits of BONNIE AND CLYDE, however.

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