Gamera, Frankenstein, Sabata and Zatoichi: The Genre Films of 1970

30 Dec

50 years ago, in 1970, neighborhood theaters offered quite a varied landscape of cinematic fare, although it took me some time to find it all. I managed to see lots of 1970 releases in theaters in the years 1970-72. (Films sometimes took months or years to reach my local theaters.) Most of these were Hollywood films of varied genres or American independents. I would see everything from PATTON to M*A*S*H, KELLY’S HEROES to ZABRISKIE POINT, FIVE EASY PIECES to LOVE STORY and RIO LOBO to WATERMELON MAN, sometimes on double features! It would take years of TV watching, visits to revival theaters and, much later, cable TV and home video, before I caught up with all the great foreign genre films released in 1970, including England’s Hammer horror, Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. martial arts adventures, French crime thrillers, Japanese samurai, Japanese kaiju, and Italian westerns. One of my favorites from the year is one I first saw in 2018. So there are always new ones to be discovered or rediscovered after decades.

It was a year that gave us two distinct Italian western characters, Sabata and Sartana, and, from Japan, a blind swordsman (Zatoichi) and a blind swordswoman (Crimson Bat). Not to mention a giant turtle (Gamera) and a giant squid (Yog). It gave us the first true kung fu film, THE CHINESE BOXER, and in the U.S., the first Blaxploitation film, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM. It also gave us at least nine new films with Ennio Morricone scores, from varying years of production, which all turned up in U.S. theaters that year.

Rather than lump them together in their various categories, I’d like to pick and choose ten of my favorites from four different countries and five different genres. Even though I only saw one of these ten in theaters, most of them did reach the U.S. in some form, either in 1970 or in the years afterward.

I’ll start with THE CHINESE BOXER (Shaw Bros./Hong Kong), starring, written and directed by Jimmy Wang Yu, which has long been considered by most aficionados, including me, to be the first real kung fu film. Earlier films had dabbled in hand-to-hand “Chinese boxing,” as it was frequently called before Bruce Lee popularized kung fu in the later 1960s, but this film is the first to focus on kung fu itself in great detail, including its training, techniques and effectiveness against other martial arts, including karate and kendo, both brought to China in this film by Japanese experts recruited to defeat the venerable Master Li (Fang Mien) and his various students. After a disastrous attack on the school, Jimmy Wang Yu, as one of the students, goes into hiding with his fiancée (Wang Ping) to practice Iron Palm and Light Leaping techniques before determining that he’s mastered them well enough to take on the villain’s imported Japanese fighters in a series of masterful fight scenes, including one indoors against dozens of Chinese henchmen, one in the snow between Wang Yu and two Japanese swordsmen, and then on a roadside with three karate experts, all played by established HK kung fu actors led by Lo Lieh (FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH).  The film was released in the U.S. in 1973 as THE HAMMER OF GOD.

FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (Hammer Films/England) was the fifth film in Hammer’s series of color Frankenstein films starring Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, which began with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957). Cushing’s Baron, living in hiding incognito in a boarding house in an unidentified European town, remains singlemindedly devoted to his work, this time the transplantation of brains and finding the means of preserving a brain taken out of a body. He’s a cold-blooded murderer who kills when he needs a body and ruthlessly manipulates a young doctor and his fiancée (Simon Ward, Veronica Carlson) into assisting him after Frankenstein has found a packet of drugs smuggled out of the insane asylum where the doctor works. They, too, eventually become complicit in murder. Frankenstein manages to come very close to his goal until the subject, Dr. Brandt, his onetime collaborator, whose brain has been moved by Frankenstein into another doctor’s body and his insanity cured by brain surgery, rebels and wants out in a fiery finale.

It’s got all the rich trappings of the best Hammer productions with lavish period sets and costumes; vivid colors; sharp, concise direction by Terence Fisher, arguably the best director working at Hammer during its peak period; a literate script by Bert Batt; and a colorful supporting cast of top-ranked English character actors. It’s also quite gory and gruesome at times. The sound of a saw applied to a man’s skull was enough to make me look away.  I was most unsettled when I almost found myself rooting for the sociopathic Dr. Frankenstein, particularly when his eloquent advocacy of scientific progress falls on deaf ears among his fellow roomers at a boarding house. Cushing makes the character so compelling and commanding and so able to overcome rough situations that he has to go very far to finally turn us against him, starting with his brutal rape of his young partner’s fiancée and the horrible deception he exercises on poor Mrs. Brandt, who just wants her husband back. The greatest horrors result from human monsters and not the supernatural.

MACHIBUSE (aka INCIDENT AT BLOOD PASS, Toho Pictures/Japan), the final film directed by Hiroshi Inagaki (the SAMURAI Trilogy), offers a plot device I’m always drawn to in films of suspense. A motley crew of characters has assembled at an inn in a remote snow-shrouded mountain pass in Edo-era Japan, several with their own hidden agendas, and find themselves held hostage by a group of criminals bent on robbing a coming Shogunate convoy escorting a cargo of gold. Toshiro Mifune stars as a ronin-for-hire who gives his name only as “Yojimbo” (bodyguard), a name familiar from other prominent Mifune films, and has been told by his employer to sit and wait till something happens and his role in it becomes clear. (I wrote about this film five years ago when I covered a group of films that had possibly influenced Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT, 2015.) Shintaro Katsu, star of the Zatoichi series, plays a secretive ex-doctor already living at the inn when the others arrive. As the would-be robbers menace and harass the few innocent souls present (two young women and an old man), sides are taken, fights are fought, and Yojimbo must negotiate for the safety of the three without jeopardizing his own mission. I’m not satisfied with the film’s ending, but I enjoy the build-up so much that I’ve watched the film several times in the 20 years since I first purchased my AnimEigo VHS copy, see cover below, so far yet to be upgraded.

HAVE A GOOD FUNERAL, MY FRIEND…SARTANA WILL PAY (Italy) stars Gianni Garko in the fourth of five films he’d make as the Sartana character, a mysterious gunman clad in black who rides the range (as found in Spain) to right various wrongs and make a little money in the process. (He seems to be patterned after Lee Van Cleef’s bounty hunter, Col. Douglas Mortimer, from Sergio Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, 1965.) Here he’s out to find out who killed a friend of his whose land is coveted by all the power brokers in town, who are now out to get Sartana and the dead man’s beautiful niece (Daniela Giordano). What I most liked about this film was the fact that it delivered on the promise of its title. Sartana only kills those who try to kill him, either hired guns or outlaws seeking revenge, and he pays for every one of their funerals, eleven in all. “I executed them, so I had to bury them. I have an old habit of doing that.” (I don’t recall anyone in other Sartana movies praying for their deaths or trading their pistols for coffins, as suggested by their titles.)

There’s a Chinese gambling proprietor (George Wang) who is also seeking the land and engages in a kung fu style fight with Sartana in the gambling house at the end, an indication of how different genres across the borders influenced each other. It’s directed by Giuliano Carmineo (under the pseudonym Anthony Ascott), who may not have been as stylish as the three Sergios (Leone, Corbucci, Sollima), but he knew how to put together a good Sartana movie. The lively score is by Bruno Nicolai, a frequent collaborator with Ennio Morricone and arguably the best composer of Italian western scores outside of Morricone.

GAMERA VS. JIGER (Daiei/Japan) is the sixth of eight films made from 1965-1980 featuring the giant fire-breathing, flying turtle Gamera, all of them directed by Noriaki Yuasa. This is the third of four Gamera films to feature a team of Japanese and American children as the stars. In this case, we have Hiroshi (Tsutomu Takakuwa), the son of an engineer (Kon Omura) working on a small submersible to be featured in Expo ’70, and Tommy and Susan Williams (Kelly Varis, Katherine Murphy), the son and daughter of Dr. Williams (Franz Gruber) who is excavating a giant statue from “Wester Island” in the South Pacific and taking it to Expo ’70 in Osaka. When the removal of the statue releases Jiger, a long-buried prehistoric monster who follows the statue to Japan, Gamera, the giant turtle and friend of all the children, flies into action to battle Jiger against the backdrop of Expo ’70, accompanied by a children’s chorus singing the complete Gamera theme song.

Jiger (pronounced like “tiger”) may look like a clunky dinosaur quadruped, but it’s got some amazing hidden powers. It can leap long distances, it shoots spikes from an organ in its face, and has a poisonous needled-shaped bone that it can eject from its tale. It also shoots a heat ray that incinerates everything in a target area. In one imaginative scene, after Gamera has been immobilized, the two boys, Hiroshi and Tommy, take the mini-sub and—shades of FANTASTIC VOYAGE!–ride it inside Gamera’s inert body and get out to tackle and vanquish the baby Jiger born inside him. These boys have guts! Jiger’s design may not be as bold as that of the previous monsters Gamera fought, especially Gyaos, Viras and Guiron, but it has quite a bag of tricks and does a lot of damage in Osaka before it’s subdued by Gamera—with help from the boys. What’s always impressed me about the four films is that the Western actors recruited for the American parts, all bilingual non-professionals living in Japan, not all of them American, speak their own lines, recorded live—in Japanese! And in this film, at least, the child actors have totally caught the spirit of it. While I enjoy all the Gamera movies, I consider this a superior entry, enhanced by the fact that I’ve visited Osaka and seen the remnants of Expo ’70.

THE HEROIC ONES (Shaw Bros/Hong Kong) is a large-scale two-hour historical costume adventure set at the time of the Tang Dynasty in which the 13 sons of Tartar King Id fight on the side of the Emperor against assorted rebels. Directed by Chang Cheh, it’s less a kung fu film than a fast-paced swashbuckler with a higher body count than any similar Hollywood epic. King Id is played by Shaw Bros. mainstay Ku Feng, while his two favorite sons are played by David Chiang and Ti Lung, who would pop up as a team in several later near-epics also directed by Chang. The action centers around a campaign by the 13 sons to wipe out a rebel faction. The family is undermined, however, by treachery within the ranks when two of the sons, jealous of the 13th prince (Chiang), make a secret alliance with a court member (Chen Sing) in league with the rebels. The twists and turns which follow culminate in a tragic and bloody ending.

It’s a spectacular, fabulous-looking production with a large cast, massive sets, lots of action and bloodshed, and a compelling story. As many great films as Chang Cheh directed, only a few others, like BOXER REBELLION (1976), achieve the scale of this film. I’ve seen this many times on three different formats: VHS (both dubbed and subbed), DVD and Blu-ray. Watching it this time, I found that the finale really tried my patience, given that one of the heroes, who has demonstrated how hard it is to fool him, allows himself to be deceived and trapped by those who’ve already been shown to have betrayed the family. But up until then, it’s quite a masterwork.

VIOLENT CITY (aka CITTA VIOLENTA, aka THE FAMILY, Italy) is an Italian crime thriller with three Hollywood stars and some location shooting in New Orleans that was released in the U.S. after the surge in popularity of two of its stars, Charles Bronson, following his DEATH WISH success, and Telly Savalas, following the premiere of his hit cop show, “Kojak.” Although IMDB gives 1973 as the U.S. release date, which preceded DEATH WISH, I distinctly remember this film being released in New York in 1974 as THE FAMILY in the wake of DEATH WISH’s release, on a double bill with another Euro-Bronson movie, SOMEONE BEHIND THE DOOR. I first saw THE FAMILY a couple of years later on a local TV channel with R-rated scenes cut for family viewing. I later acquired a VHS copy of the TV print. When I finally saw the uncut version with restored scenes in Italian with subtitles, I was less enamored than I had been with the TV showing, since the film often cut to Italian-language dubbing in the middle of a scene that already existed in English in the TV print!  But that’s a frustrating story for another entry.

Bronson plays a mob hit man, Savalas plays a New Orleans crime boss, and Bronson’s then-wife, Jill Ireland, plays Savalas’ mistress, who begins an ill-fated affair with Bronson. There are some very clever sequences, including an early car chase on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands; Bronson’s shooting of a champion driver in the middle of an auto race (recalling Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING, 1956); a furious foot chase through the tourist-filled French Quarter of New Orleans; and a grimly poetic final reckoning involving a glass-walled high-rise elevator ride and a rooftop sniper perch. I like the foreboding scenes of doomed romance between Bronson and Ireland’s gloomy fashion plate of a kept woman who tries to avoid her fate as painlessly as possible to the bitter end. More importantly, however, the film offers a crackling score by Ennio Morricone, arguably one of his finest, which gives the film infinite replay value, since it is so well intertwined with the action and the dramatics.

ZATOICHI: THE FESTIVAL OF FIRE (Daiei/Japan) may be one of the best films about the blind swordsman I’ve ever seen, or at least in the top five of the 26 that were made starring Shintaro Katsu in the role. It was directed by Kenji Misumi, the last of six Zatoichi films he’d direct, and it’s distinguished by above-average production values, including cinematography, location work, and set design, and also has the strongest supporting cast I’ve ever seen in a Zatoichi film, led by superstar Tatsuya Nakadai as a disgruntled swordsman whose jealousy of his wife has sent him on a murderous path, with Zatoichi now the prime target. Masayuki Mori, best known for playing spineless, selfish characters with failed relationships in Mikio Naruse dramas, here plays a blind yakuza boss who first shows sympathy for Zatoichi but then displays a cruelty and viciousness that would shock even his Naruse characters. Ko Nishimura, who lends solid support in a wide range of roles in many classic Japanese films, plays Mori’s chief lieutenant, who finds his own family in harm’s way thanks to Mori’s deviousness.

Reiko Ohara plays Okiyo, daughter of Nishimura’s character and a crucial element in setting up Zatoichi for a trap. The deceptively gentle, soft-spoken beauty has a change of heart, though, and tries to encourage Zatoichi to leave town, much to her peril. Kazuko Yoshiyuki plays Nakadai’s wayward wife and dies at his hand after spending the night, chastely, under an abandoned temple roof with the blind swordsman. An androgynous actor-dancer, stage-named “Peter” (as in Peter Pan), portrays a young pimp named Umeji who seeks entrance into Mori’s gang. He even flirts with Zatoichi one night, although it’s all a ploy to try to kill him. Zatoichi, who’s usually portrayed as somewhat superhuman in his ability to hear, detect and fend off attacks, has some close calls here, including a fiery climax on a platform surrounded by water, which adds to the suspense. There’s a bathhouse fight scene conducted entirely in the nude—by all the participants! There is, ultimately, a bittersweet ending following Zatoichi’s realization, “I never should’ve fallen in love.”

CRIMSON BAT – OICHI: WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE (Shochiku/Japan) is the fourth and last of the Crimson Bat movies starring Yoko Matsuyama as Oichi, a blind swordswoman and champion of the exploited and oppressed. It’s also the actress’s final film. (The first three Crimson Bat films were all made in 1969. This and WATCH OUT, CRIMSON BAT! were directed by Hirokazu Ichimura.) As portrayed by Matsuyama, Oichi is a tall, long-necked, slender woman who conveys an image of great delicacy and poise, like a figure out of a Japanese woodblock painting. She often surprises opponents with her sudden fighting skills. Ronin (unemployed samurai) with good hearts fall in love with her and young village women with few opportunities idolize her. While Zatoichi keeps his eyes virtually closed throughout most of his movies, Oichi’s eyes are open and seemingly searching. It’s a very believable portrayal. Her fight scenes often show an understandable awkwardness, especially on rocky or sandy terrain, and her attackers often make the shrewd tactical choice of using noise to distract her. She’s very capable, but not superhuman like Zatoichi, which makes these films just a tad more realistic.

Here, Oichi arrives in a fishing town on the Izu Peninsula where the local boss, Nadaman (Jun Tazaki), is bullying the fishermen to evacuate to make way for a new port and pocketing the money sent by the Shogun as compensation. Oichi intervenes on the side of the fishermen, leading to a series of fights between her and Nadaman’s thugs on one hand and a trio of hungry bounty hunters on the other. One of the bounty hunters, Sankuro (Yuki Meguro), who’s had medical training, gradually takes Oichi’s side, while a mysterious swordsman, Sagara (Tetsuro Tamba), hired by Nadaman to capture Oichi, lurks on the margins with a hidden agenda. A pretty young village girl, Ohan (Reiko Oshida), the daughter of a rival boss, eagerly comes to Oichi’s aid at key moments. I love Matsuyama’s performances and I’ve responded enthusiastically to all of the Crimson Bat films. I only wish these films would get their due and be given a legitimate home video release in the U.S.

ADIOS, SABATA (United Artists/Italy-Spain) was the second in a three-film series of Italian westerns, photographed in Spain and released one a year from 1969-71. Each release was a year later in the U.S. SABATA and RETURN OF SABATA both starred Lee Van Cleef in the title role while this film starred Yul Brynner in his first western role since VILLA RIDES (1968). The character in this film was originally intended to be called Indio Black, but United Artists apparently thought it would be more popular as a Sabata film. It was directed by the same man who did the other two Sabata films, Gianfranco Parolini (billed as Frank Kramer), and co-stars Pedro Sanchez, who plays Escudo, a Falstaff-like comical sidekick in all three films. Brynner’s chief co-star is Dean Reed, a charismatic American singer who found his popularity first in South America and then in Europe, before settling down in East Germany when it was still behind the iron curtain. He appeared in a number of Italian films in the 1960s and ’70s and this is the only one I’ve seen. He plays a duplicitous character here named Ballantine who joins Sabata and his motley trio of outcasts on a quest to steal a shipment of Austrian gold from the tyrannical Colonel Skimmel (Gerard Herter) and his crack Austrian troops, then occupying Mexico for Emperor Maximilian. Ballantine constantly schemes to get the gold for himself, leaving Sabata & co. finding their patience tried, but he constantly flashes his handsome smile and uses his wits to keep getting back on Sabata’s good side. Escudo’s wily compadres are Septiembre (Sal Borgese), a mute acrobat who has small iron balls that he propels from the top of his shoes to hit various gun barrels, lit fuses and hapless opponents, and Gitano (Joseph Persaud), an Indian flamenco dancer who’s also an acrobat. At one point, the Colonel sends out a decoy shipment with bags filled with sand, a ploy that also occurs when the robber gang in the aforementioned MACHIBUSE stops the Shogun’s convoy. Watching so many Italian westerns, samurai and kung fu films back-to-back, it amazes me how much they have in common.

Brynner cuts a stylish figure as Sabata, dressed all in black—hat, fringed buckskin shirt and bell-bottom pants–striding through the landscape unscathed despite all manner of villainy he confronts, kind of like Zatoichi or Sartana. Sabata’s sole firearm is a rifle with a ten-round clip loaded from the side, holding nine bullets…and a cigar. Bruno Nicolai does the score.

I chose ten to highlight, but there were many more like them from that year that I’d like to at least mention briefly.

VENGEANCE (Shaw Bros./Hong Kong) is a revenge thriller directed by Chang Cheh and the first of many of his films to topline the star duo of David Chiang and Ti Lung. Influenced, in part, by John Boorman’s POINT BLANK (1967).

BROTHERS FIVE (Shaw Bros./Hong Kong) is an all-star swordplay adventure starring Cheng Pei-Pei, who reunites five brothers separated at birth and trains them in a special form of kung fu called “Five Tigers with One Heart,” in order to take revenge on the men who killed their father.

SHINSENGUMI: ASSASSINS OF HONOR (Toho Pictures/Japan) is a historical drama starring Toshiro Mifune and I wrote about it at length as one of the pieces commemorating Mifune’s Centennial this past April.

SPACE AMOEBA (aka YOG, MONSTER FROM SPACE, Toho Pictures/Japan) was directed by Godzilla auteur Ishiro Honda and takes us to a South Pacific island where an alien life form (dubbed Yog in the English version) has caused various forms of sea life to grow in size, including Gezora, the squid seen below.

LATITUDE ZERO (Toho Pictures/Japan) was released in Japan in 1969, but not in the U.S. until 1970, when I saw it on a double bill with the John Wayne western RIO LOBO. A science fiction film about an underwater civilization, ZERO was directed by Ishiro Honda and featured four Hollywood stars among the leads, including Joseph Cotten and Cesar Romero. I wrote about it at length here.

SABATA (United Artists/Italy) was the first Sabata film to reach U.S. theaters (in 1970) and it and its sequel, RETURN OF SABATA, were quite popular on 42nd Street and in neighborhood theaters, in the aftermath of Lee Van Cleef’s newfound stardom in several above-average Italian westerns following the success of the two Leone films with him and Eastwood.

Finally, there are the genre films I actually saw in theaters that year, including the following:

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES

KELLY’S HEROES

TOO LATE THE HERO

Plus, three titles represented in my collection of publicity stills from the era:

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM

EL CONDOR

RIO LOBO

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