Filming Across Cultures: Cowboys, Samurai and Kung Fu Champs in the 1970s

17 May

In the 1960s and 70s, the neighborhood theater functioned as a Cinematheque of global genre films, offering Italian westerns, French crime thrillers, English horror, Soviet fantasy, Japanese samurai films and Hong Kong kung fu films, among other genres. I still marvel at the recollection of seeing such international movie icons as John Wayne, Jean Gabin and Toshiro Mifune in new movies at local theaters when I was still a teenager. I once wrote about this particular movie culture in a chapter for a proposed book on 42nd Street theaters. I’d like to share an excerpt from the chapter, after a few paragraphs of introduction.

While I’d been seeing Italian action films with American stars since childhood, e.g. GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS with Steve Reeves and WARRIORS FIVE with Jack Palance, it was the Sean Connery/James Bond films with their international casts, exotic settings and use of Asian-style martial arts that paved the way for a whole new wave of foreign genre films to make headway in the U.S. and influence action filmmakers. The fifth Bond film, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967), set in Japan, was particularly noteworthy for introducing samurai and ninja motifs to the American audience. 1967 also saw the release in the U.S. of all three films in Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” Italian western trilogy, which introduced new levels of violence and macabre humor and an emphasis on body counts. Around the same time, American filmmakers were pushing boundaries with new, provocative treatments of screen violence in films like Robert Aldrich’s THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) and Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH (1969). Eventually, our neighborhood theaters became showcases for genres built entirely around forms of action and violence that were new to much of the audience, thanks to samurai and kung fu films.

While I was still in high school, I started visiting theaters in Manhattan, where I discovered classic Japanese samurai films, starting with Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and YOJIMBO (1961), both of which I was eager to see since I’d already seen their western remakes, John Sturges’s THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) and Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS  (1964), respectively. I happened to see all four films at three theaters on one strip of Times Square real estate within the span of a year. (That space is now occupied by the Marriott Marquis Hotel.) I even found a book that year that tied these films and THE WILD BUNCH together in one paragraph. In Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964 (Museum of Modern Art, 1971), Lawrence Alloway writes:

“The Westerns made by Sergio Leone in Italy from 1964 revived the genre by the new magnitude of slaughter. Based on a mastery of the American Western, he expanded action to the high pitch of violence characteristic of Japanese Samurai films. The original The Seven Samurai, 1954, directed by Akira Kurosawa, was remade by John Sturges in Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven, 1960, but Sturges failed to catch the cruel edge of Kurosawa. Leone, however, succeeded in uniting the two forms. Only after this was Samuel Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, 1969, able to cope with violence of Italo-Japanese intensity.”

The Astor and Victoria theaters on Broadway, where I saw the Sergio Leone trilogy and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. The Bijou, which showed the samurai films, was around the corner on 45th St.

The Astor and Victoria again, from a quick shot in SHAFT (1971), filmed around the time I was attending these theaters.

A culture grew around these films that depended on informed audiences that sought out certain genres and became loyal fans and repeat viewers. And it depended on independent theater owners who were attuned to the needs and demands of this audience. I wrote about this culture in the aforementioned book chapter, which begins by surveying the kinds of films I saw at neighborhood theaters and in Times Square in the 1960s and ’70s and offered sections on James Bond, Sergio Leone, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE WILD BUNCH, DIRTY HARRY, Blaxploitation, kung fu and samurai films. What follows is the chapter’s final section where I discuss the cross-cultural currents that infused the male action film on three continents with an unprecedented burst of creativity and diversity of style and content.

How I Grew Up, Went to Times Square and Learned to Love Sergio Leone, Bruce Lee and Akira Kurosawa

“This audience welcomed the cultural mix of action films surging through neighborhood theaters at the time. There was a common sensibility shared by Hollywood’s auteur outlaw directors and the makers of Italian westerns, kung fu films, French and Italian crime thrillers, and Japanese samurai films. Overlapping cults of action fans sought out the work of directors as disparate as Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai), Henri Verneuil (The Sicilian Clan), Terence Young (Dr. No), Sergio Sollima (The Big Gundown), Sergio Corbucci (The Mercenary), Lo Wei (The Chinese Connection), Chang Cheh (Seven Blows of the Dragon), Lau Kar Leung (Master Killer), Hiroshi Inagaki (the Samurai trilogy), Kihachi Okamoto (Sword of Doom), Kenji Misumi (Lightning Swords of Death), and Kinji Fukasaku (The Yakuza Papers).

While there were evident cultural differences between the American, British, French, Italian, Japanese, and Hong Kong directors, their works all tended to focus on male relationships, codes of honor, and male behavior. All sought to portray violence in a stylized, often exaggerated, manner, expanding on the ritualistic aspect of action sequences in such films. All displayed a sensibility which struck a chord with the poor, disenfranchised youth of the South Bronx (and other inner cities) at a time of urban riots, political assassinations and the Vietnam War.

The stars of these films generally brought an emotional truth to the ritual, even when they were portraying larger-than-life, often mythic characters. They all managed to convey, through the simplest expressions and gestures, the conflicts inherent in being a man of action in a corrupt and frequently unjust society. They knew pain, were occasionally morally ambiguous, and often had to be pressured into doing the right thing. They were generally loners who took the risks that others, with stronger ties to the community, couldn’t take.

This unique, once-in-a-lifetime international collection of stars included Hollywood actors like Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Lee Van Cleef, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, James Coburn, and Lee Marvin; stars of Italian westerns Gian Maria Volonte, Tomas Milian, Franco Nero, and George Hilton; French tough guys Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Gabin and Lino Ventura; kung fu stars Bruce Lee, Jimmy Wang Yu, Ti Lung, Gordon Liu, and Alexander Fu Sheng; and Japanese stars Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Ken Takakura and Sonny Chiba.

Certain actors passed back and forth between directors, genres and countries. Charles Bronson was a favorite of Robert Aldrich and also worked for Sam Fuller, Phil Karlson, and John Sturges before turning up in a host of Italian and French films, beginning with Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, all of which made him a major international star before he settled into a series of modern-dress formula potboilers from transplanted British directors Michael Winner (the Death Wish series) and J. Lee Thompson (The Evil that Men Do, Ten to Midnight, Kinjite).

Thanks to Bronson’s presence in them, we got to see a number of interesting French and Italian thrillers at neighborhood theaters, including Rene Clement’s clever cat-and-mouse tale Rider on the Rain and Sergio Sollima’s stylish New Orleans-filmed thriller The Family (aka Citta Violenta/Violent City, 1970), which reunited Bronson with his Dirty Dozen co-star Telly Savalas and featured one of Ennio Morricone’s most notable scores from the period. The 1974 release of the latter in the wake of Death Wish prompted a film school classmate’s succinct response, “It’s Bronson season.”

Terence Young’s international western Red Sun (1971) co-starred Bronson, Toshiro Mifune and Alain Delon and marked the only time a member of the original Magnificent Seven, Bronson, and a member of the original Seven Samurai, Mifune, worked together in a film. (There were two later Hollywood films with Mifune and cast members from The Magnificent Seven, but the actors didn’t share any scenes in either one.)

Numerous American stars worked in Italy in the 1960s and ’70s, including many tough-guy actors (Jack Palance, Cameron Mitchell, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Rod Steiger, John Ireland) who’d worked for John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Sam Fuller, and Nicholas Ray. Lee Van Cleef, a favorite heavy in ’50s westerns who had worked for Ford, Mann, Fuller, Karlson, Sturges, Roger Corman and others, became a major international star after Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, appearing afterwards primarily in Italian westerns and other Italian genre films (Mean Frank and Crazy Tony). He later starred in a ninja-themed TV series, “The Master” (1980).

The cross-cultural connections went in all directions. Van Cleef co-starred with Hong Kong kung fu star Lo Lieh (Five Fingers of Death) in the hybrid Italian western The Stranger and the Gunfighter.

Lesser-known American actor Richard Harrison made Italian westerns before Clint Eastwood did and turned up in a handful of Hong Kong kung fu films, including a stint as Marco Polo (!) in Chang Cheh’s The Four Assassins (aka Marco Polo). I first saw Harrison in Gladiators Seven, an Italian mini-epic inspired by The Magnificent Seven and shown at a neighborhood theater with West Side Story and a program of Three Stooges shorts.

Japanese actor Tetsuro Tanba, a star of several notable samurai films (Hara-Kiri, Goyokin), and known to U.S. audiences from You Only Live Twice, was also in the Italian western The Five Man Army, and the Hong Kong film Seven Blows of the Dragon (aka The Water Margin), before later joining Sonny Chiba and American star Vic Morrow in the Japanese Star Wars-inspired Message from Space.

Sonny Chiba, Vic Morrow in MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978)

Tatsuya Nakadai, Japanese star of Sword of Doom and co-star of Yojimbo, turned up in the Italian western Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die (scripted by future horror director Dario Argento), and, years later, in the Hong Kong sci-fi thriller Wicked City, produced by Tsui Hark. Hong Kong star Jimmy Wang Yu reprised one of his most famous roles when he turned up in one of Japan’s most popular swordplay series in Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman.

American actor Tony Anthony based his Italian western Blindman on Japan’s Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman series. He also made a western set in Japan called The Silent Stranger. Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack) remade Hideo Gosha’s samurai drama Goyokin as The Master Gunfighter. (Goyokin played in the U.S. in 1974 in an English-dubbed version retitled The Steel Edge of Revenge.) Britain’s Hammer Films and Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. teamed up to make Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, in which kung fu star David Chiang joined Peter Cushing (reprising his Dr. Van Helsing role from the Hammer Dracula films) in fighting vampires.

Robert Mitchum went to Japan to co-star in The Yakuza (1974) with Ken Takakura, a star of yakuza (gangster) films who had already been seen in the U.S. in Robert Aldrich’s war drama Too Late the Hero, which I saw at a Times Square theater, and would later co-star with Michael Douglas in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain.

Ken Takakura, Robert Mitchum in THE YAKUZA (1974)

Italian movie mogul Dino de Laurentiis set up operations in the U.S. in the 1970s and brought over a couple of Italian directors to make thrillers here. Crazy Joe, shot in New York, starred Peter Boyle as mafioso Crazy Joe Gallo and was directed by Carlo Lizzani. Three Tough Guys, shot in Chicago, was directed by Italian western veteran Duccio Tessari and starred French tough guy Lino Ventura as a two-fisted priest along with Isaac Hayes (composer of the music for Shaft) and blaxploitation great Fred Williamson.

Neighborhood audiences got to see a number of superior European and Japanese action films including two excellent French thrillers from director Henri Verneuil, The Sicilian Clan, starring Alain Delon, Jean Gabin, and Lino Ventura, and The Burglars, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Omar Sharif, both adorned with scores by Ennio Morricone. (I still marvel at the recollection of seeing veteran star Gabin, the French Bogart, in a neighborhood theater.)

Alain Delon, Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura in THE SICILIAN CLAN (1969)

From Japan came a series of martial arts thrillers starring karate star Sonny Chiba as The Streetfighter, as well as other Chiba vehicles including The Killing Machine, about a Japanese kung fu expert who runs afoul of American authorities in postwar Japan.

England gave us the Hammer Studio horror films starring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein, as well as Five Million Years to Earth (known in Britain as Quatermass and the Pit), an imaginative science fiction film about the discovery of an ancient spaceship excavated from a London subway tunnel and found to contain the corpses of extraterrestrial insect pilots. It was not uncommon at this time to see Italian westerns and kung fu films and black exploitation films and British horror films in various double and triple features as well as frequent revivals of the James Bond films, the Sergio Leone westerns, and such individual favorites as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

All of these films fed the sense of discovery that accompanied one’s trips to neighborhood theaters or 42nd Street, where one could see something new, different and unexpected. We felt a sense of participation in a far-flung, global underground culture that flourished under the Hollywood radar, unmediated by American corporate-dominated mass media. Eastwood, Van Cleef, Bronson, and Bruce Lee, among others, became stars by virtue of their fans’ enthusiasm—worldwide—and not by the machinations of the major studios. Neighborhood theater owners were allowed to pick and choose from a variety of available offerings based on a finely-tuned sense of what their patrons would respond to. As late as 1976, the 1969 private eye thriller Marlowe, already seen on TV, could be paired with a current black-themed sex-and-slavery potboiler Drum, at a South Bronx theater solely because Bruce Lee was in it (pictured below with James Garner as Marlowe).

All this would change in a very short time. The success of The Exorcist, Jaws and Star Wars signaled to the studios and distributors that blockbusters aimed at mass audiences made more business sense than quirky action films aimed at niche audiences.  Everybody went to see Jaws and Star Wars, while only certain elements of the audience went to kung fu movies. Star Wars, in fact, engaged in wholesale appropriation of motifs from westerns, war and samurai movies, glossing them over and polishing their rough edges for a mass audience.

In a few short years, the neighborhood theaters and revival houses closed down and the large downtown theaters were either divided into multiplexes or torn down for redevelopment, all victims of competition with gentrification, home video and cable TV. In New York, 42nd Street would continue to show films into the early 1990s, although the many theaters along that fabled strip began to close up one by one in the late 1980s.

The RKO Warner on 47th St. and Broadway being demolished in 1987. Photo by Brian Camp

Photo by Brian Camp, 1987

Photo by Brian Camp, 1987

In the next chapter, we’ll look at what happened to the action genres that had flourished on 42nd Street, and how the programming fare shifted in the early ’80s to low-budget slasher/gore films (Friday the 13th, Evil Dead); Italian-made cannibal films (Zombie, Cannibal Holocaust) derived from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead; and the spate of Italian-made Escape from New York– and Mad Max-style futuristic thrillers, exemplified by 1990: The Bronx Warriors, starring onetime Bronx resident Vic Morrow, but released after his death-by-copter-blade on the set of The Twilight Zone. We’ll also look at the fate of male-oriented action films, as the era of Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, and Lee Van Cleef and the theme of outcasts opposed to the system transformed into that of Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, well-armed lone superheroes who endorsed and carried out a Reagan-sanctioned brand of domestic and foreign policy aimed at fighting terrorists, Latin Americans, Russians, and Vietnamese.

* * * * *

And that was the end of that chapter. An era came to an end as so many of the creators and stars of the films I revered died or saw their careers fade, replaced by a new, more impatient brand of action film motivated more by sensation, spectacle and firepower than by moral code or principle. New action stars emerged in the persons of Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme, but they constituted their own B-level genre, which did not inspire the same kind of loyal fanbase that had formed around Bronson, Van Cleef, Mifune, Chiba, Bruce Lee, et al. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy their films or frequently go see them at Times Square theaters in the 1980s and ’90s.

A film I saw at the Harris on 42nd Street

Eventually, a new fan culture, including many of us old-timers, would form around the New Wave Hong Kong action films of the 1980s and ’90s, exemplified by the films of Jackie Chan (POLICE STORY), Sammo Hung (EASTERN CONDORS), John Woo (HARD-BOILED), Tsui Hark (ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA) and Ringo Lam (CITY ON FIRE). We first had to see these films in Chinatown theaters or pick up copies on bootleg VHS tapes in dealers’ rooms at comics shows or mom-and-pop video stores in Chinatown, but eventually they moved to arthouses uptown (like the Film Forum) and Hong Kong film festivals at the Cinema Village.

John Woo was soon lured to Hollywood where his first English-language film was HARD TARGET (1993), starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, who would soon work with other HK directors, including Tsui Hark (DOUBLE TEAM) and Ringo Lam (MAXIMUM RISK). Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat, Sammo Hung, and Zhang Ziyi all came to Hollywood to make films or TV shows. Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong films, starting with RUMBLE IN THE BRONX (1995), got released to multiplexes in English-dubbed versions, as did at least one Jet Li movie, BLACK MASK (1996). Quentin Tarantino began directing films with a grindhouse sensibility and Asian action influence, culminating in KILL BILL, VOL. 1 (2003), a delirious mash-up of ’70s action genres which included in its cast Gordon Liu and Sonny Chiba (pictured below with Kenji Ohba). It wasn’t quite the cross-cultural action film renaissance of the 1970s, but for us older fans, it was a return to a time, however brief, when fans of such films had something to be enthusiastic about.

Does any comparable culture exist today or does everyone slavishly follow the same indistinguishable mega-budget superhero films that seem to come out as frequently as westerns and kung fu films once did?

Finally, another shot of the Astor and Victoria theaters on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets, where I first saw THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy:

And a shot of the same street from roughly the same angle in 2013:

Photo by Brian Camp, 2013

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