A Decade in Film: The Seventies – 1971

A series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choosing their favourite films from each year of that decade.

This week the podcast’s Owen Hughes looks back on a year when likely Star Wars Episode VII director Matthew Vaughn was born, Walt Disney World opened in Florida, and Margaret Thatcher stole the milk of a nation’s children.

Sorry. I know this is breaking the unwritten rules slightly, but I felt like I needed to give an introduction (read: disclaimer) for this article. When I first started to draw up my list of 5 favourite films from 1971, I thought it’d be simple. I knew my top 3 at least, definitely my top film anyway, and that meant it was just a case of picking two others. Easy, right?

Well, no. Drat. Double drat! What seemed initially quite simple proved actually rather difficult. Not just because trying to find 5 films I loved was hard, but I realised quite how many classics of the year I hadn’t actually seen. The French Connection, Shaft, Get Carter, Vanishing Point… all of these films aren’t present on my list purely because I haven’t seen them yet and didn’t get a chance to before writing this article. Sorry again.

But I have left off other “classics” such as the George Lucas début in THX-1138, John Wayne’s Big Jake and Monty Python’s feature length sketch comedy And Now For Something Completely Different; that’s because I have seen them, I’m just not a fan! (Sorry.)

Doesn’t this just highlight what a quality year for film it was, though? There’s so many films people would consider classics that I haven’t even included (ooh ooh I forgot, I haven’t included Escape From The Planet of the Apes either even though I’d rate it higher than at least one of the following) and I still managed to come up with 5 favourites. Well, 6, really. I’ll explain what I mean with my first choice:

5. Countess Dracula

countess_dracula“Don’t you realise you get uglier each time you get old, and that you can’t go on killing forever?”
“Why not?”

I think from now on I’m going to start all of my birthday greeting cards with the first line of that quote.

If you can’t tell from the title and the decade the film is from, Countess Dracula is a Hammer Horror production. In my 1970 article, I included The Horror of Frankenstein. I wanted to include the Peter Cushings film Twins of Evil (my “6th favourite”) in this list – including Hammer films might be a recurring theme throughout my Decade in Film articles – but I’ll limit it to just 1 per year!

If you were to ask a group of people which historical figure is most often associated with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I think the vast majority would be able to tell you it’s Vlad “The Impaler” Dracul. Fair enough, I think. There’s lots of evidence to suggest Stoker’s now iconic character was largely inspired by the Wallachian prince. However, tales of Erzsebet (Elizabeth) Báthory (played here fantastically well by Ingrid Pitt – even if her voice was famously dubbed over) also inspired aspects of Stoker’s Dracula. The legend goes that she bathed in the blood of virgins and tortured and killed over 600 people. Quite the character, you might say. A bit of an oddball, perhaps. A downright nutter, even. Ripe for being turned into a horror film then. Especially if you already have the set from an older/abandoned film with a castle and courtyard ready to be used.

Director Peter Sasdy takes the legend of Elizabeth and adds a supernatural element to it. He keeps the crazy in her personality but tries to turn this despicable monster into a tragic, lonely widow who longs for the attention of a young man and would do anything to get it. When she discovers that the blood of virgins dramatically revitalises her youth for short periods of time, she embarks on a gruesome path of murdering her young servant girls and local gypsies until her ultimately destructive lifestyle reaches its grisly end.

Unlike a lot of other Hammer films, the horror element is just a little bit too tame in Countess Dracula. It’s secondary to the drama of the film, meaning it feels like a tragic love story with some scares rather than the opposite way around. But it’s a film that grew on me the more I thought about it. Once I got over the initial disappointment over how little it felt like a horror film, I started to appreciate how good it actually was as a romance story, and so came to the conclusion that it should make this list just ahead of Twins of Evil.

4. Duel
duel“Come on you miserable fat-head, get that fat-ass truck outta my way!”

Steven Spielberg teamed up with Richard Matheson in 1971 to make a film for TV (which later they turned into a feature film.) It was based on a short story Matheson wrote about a man driving home on one of those long American highways they have out there. Route something or other. You know the kind. It’s a straight, long, dusty road. It’s hot. It’s empty. And there’s a crazy lunatic chasing you with his massive truck. You know the sort. See it all the time.

Wait a sec, what was that last bit? A crazy lunatic in a big-rig? Sounds like the kind of paranoia-fiction that would be perfect if written by someone like Richard Mathe– oh, right, yeah.

And it is VERY Matheson. If you’ve ever read any of his works before, or seen any films based on his stories, you’d know that he is the master of paranoid science fiction. Whilst this film is science-less, it is a very tense story. It’s not like, say, Jeepers Creepers, which features a man in a truck chasing down some American kids and is only really any good until it gets all supernatural and generic. Duel is just pure terror and fear driven (‘scuse the pun) by the unwaveringly suspenseful scenario. Forget the character development, forget the hidden meaning. Wipe the sweat from your eyes, get a glass of water, and chill the fuck out, because the dread this film drudges up will make you not want to get in a car at any point in the near future (*more on this later!)

Speaking of which, this sense of dread is expertly transferred from page to screen by Spielberg. As Dennis Weaver suffers whilst he is mercilessly pursued by a terrifying, reckless, faceless truck driver across the American highway, so too does the viewer. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck whilst watching this and I felt extremely uncomfortable.

The film does have a bit of a “made-for-TV” vibe but that’s probably because it was originally a made-for-TV film! It doesn’t matter, a good story and a good film are just that regardless of budget. I watched this film for the first time the day before my driving test (*yeah, not the best idea in hindsight – although I did pass first time. Yes I am gloating.) Maybe that influenced my opinion slightly, who knows, but it is definitely a well made, tense, and scary film.

3. Johnny Got His Gun
johnny got his gun“Joe: When it comes my turn, will you want me to go [to war]?”
“Father: For democracy, any man would give his only begotten son.”

Please remove all boot laces and belts, put away any floss and bed sheets before watching this film and please make sure all chairs are bolted to the floor. Dalton Trumbo’s adaptation of his own anti-war novel (of the same name) is a very dark, very deep film about a soldier who on the very last day of the Great War has his arms, his legs and his face blown off by a grenade, leaving him with what’s known as “locked-in syndrome”. With no way to hear or see what’s going around him, no way to move, no way to talk or communicate anything, no way to even know if he’s dead or alive for a while, thought brain dead by the doctors and nurses in the hospital bed where he now permanently resides, Joe is stuck with just his own mind and memories to occupy him.

Although the film is most recognisable for the clips taken from it for the music video for the Metallica song ‘One’, it still doesn’t really prepare you for the full impact of the film as a whole.

It’s totally engrossing and although I enjoyed watching it, it’s not an experience that should be replicated frequently for fear of an ensuing crippling depression. The concept is frightening and the execution of this concept is done very well. Joe tells you his own story through flashbacks to his younger days and conversations with his dad about war, life and death. He has debates with himself about worth and quality, about faith and religion, and eventually learning to accept what has happened to him. Well, it’s less “accept” and more that he grows to realise what life he now has.

It’s a very memorable, thoroughly bleak and a severely underrated (or, rather, under-appreciated) film that raises questions you might never have asked yourself, so in that sense, it is definitely worth a watch… But you might want to have something a bit lighter to watch afterwards just to take the edge off! Maybe don’t watch it if you’re a bit sensitive, like.

2. Dirty Harry
dirty_harry“District Attorney Rothko: Where the hell does it say that you’ve got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I’m saying is that man had rights.”
“Harry Callahan: Well, I’m all broken up over that man’s rights.”

In the introduction, I mentioned some films I haven’t had time to watch in the lead up to writing this article. Dirty Harry almost became one of those films. Bit of background: back when my wife worked on Sundays, I used to have the whole day to myself. I would spend the whole day watching Sky Sports Super Sunday and film after film after film (and walking the dogs, doing housework, etc (just in case she ever reads this…)) One of those Sundays, after a particularly long day of watching terrible film after terrible film and getting a bit fed up with it all, I decided to watch Dirty Harry. I got 10 minutes into it, looked at my watch and thought “fuck this”. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, more than I wasn’t immediately grabbed by it. I was tired and I really had to pull myself out of the sofa before I became permanently glued to it.

That was some 4 or 5 years ago now. Since then, I bought the box set of all 5 Dirty Harry films on DVD. And since then (which coincidentally was also about 4 or 5 years ago) I put off attempting to re-watch Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood’s legendary film until last month, having always thought of it as “that film I didn’t like the start of and got a bit bored by”.

My, my. How wrong I was.

As I’m sure everyone is already aware, Dirty Harry is a cop who we follow as he tracks down a serial killer, and he’s just about the coolest cop you’ll ever see (well, he’s no Mr Sidney Poitier) The dialogue is a lot sharper, but also it’s much stronger too. The acting is about 10x better, with Eastwood putting in a, quite frankly, awesome performance.

The iconic scenes that I’d seen parodied or quoted many times before, but without ever seeing the originals, still kept some impact. The final scene was excellent in that regard, totally caught me off guard.

It’s just a really great cop drama. I should’ve stuck with it the first time I tried to watch it, I would’ve massively appreciated it after a long day of largely rubbish films, but that’s inconsequential now. I’ve seen it and I loved it and it’s probably the second best film of 1971.

1. A Clockwork Orange

a_clockwork_orange“But enough of words, actions speak louder than. Action now. Observe all.”

The only debate I had to have with myself about including this as my first choice was not around its merits as a film. Any of my droogy-woogs reading this who have listened to the podcast before will know I am a huge Stanley Kubrick fan. A Clockwork Orange is one of his absolute best. I love Anthony Burgess’ novel, I love this film, I love Kubrick. But the more keenly observed readers will know that A Clockwork Orange wasn’t actually released in the UK until 1972. In fact, it only just made it into a 1971 release in the US as it was released mid-way through December.

All I’ll say to that is: shut up. IMDb, Wikipedia and Letterboxd all list it as 1971, so it’s staying on this list.

The film stars Malcolm McDowell as Alex, a fan of lashings of the old ultra-violence in a dystopian vision of Britain. He’s oomny, oozhassny and downright baddiwad I should say and commits some rather vicious crimes, gets arrested, and subsequently “volunteered” for an experimental new treatment to mend him.

It has plenty of the old red red krovvy, the lovely big groodies and ultra-violence mixed in with an absolutely majestic score. Just like Kubrick’s previous film (and in my opinion, his greatest work, 2001: A Space Odyssey) the blend of classical music with ear-bleeding sounds and screeches work together to create at least a dozen mesmerising scenes. Bathing quite powerful visual scenes of really quite terrifying violence with their contrasting songs of Beethoven to Singin’ In The Rain, it’s a remarkable achievement of vision and genius.

What I think would have been Kubrick’s biggest challenge with this film was not the conversational nature of its plot and characters and getting it past the censors, but transferring the written language from the novel to screen without it seeming ridiculous. Kubrick manages to intelligently weave this into the film like the magician he was like the viewer had always been speaking in this dialect. It makes the whole film seem like poetry enacted.

Anyway, I won’t warble on about it too much more, o my brothers, just to say that it made me smeck and razdrez in equal measure. (Sorry – final time – for the lame A Clockwork Orange speak.)

See the five films Owen picked for 1970 or check out the full A Decade in Film series so far.

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