The Sixties is not a decade noted for its tranquillity or lucidity. There is an oft quoted maxim that if you can remember the Sixties you weren’t there – or something like that.
There was the Vietnam war to bring pictures of flag covered coffins to the newscasts, the assassination of the Kennedy brothers, the Soviets pushing the world to the brink of extermination, Marilyn Monroe dying in suspicious circumstances, Dr. Spock solemnly declaring that children shouldn’t be disciplined, and the ingesting of hard drugs.
Another idea that crept in about this time, nurtured by Spock’s ideas, was the concept that the individual was subservient to the State. Before this the Englishman’s home was his castle. At first slowly, then rapidly, the politicians took over and people looked to the Government to make rules and regulations to run their lives. Which bred the ethos that you weren’t responsible for your own life – the Nanny State would take care of it. The culminations of all these factors have resulted in the present state of international financial meltdown.
The only area where there seemed to be an effort to improve, rather than destroy, what had gone before was in the film industry. The move towards more realistic and thoughtful films was started by a bunch of French film critics. They saw the screen as a powerful medium to convey and change, for the better, the life of the average citizen and by doing so the direction of the ruling powers.
Their aim was to sweep aside the Cinema du Papa and launch a New Wave. And like a celluloid tsunami it swept around the world. Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist in 1960 started the revolution although it was on the backs of several lesser talents in countries like Czechoslovakia, Italy and to some extent, Germany. And, of course, Jean Renoir. Shoot the Pianist (1960) was swiftly followed by Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes and Juan-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa Vie two years later. These films laid the template for most of the films of the Sixties and still have resonance today.
The British Film industry was not slow to pick up on the trend and Karel Reisz’s film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) hit the theatres about the same time. A year later Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey was premiered and the ‘kitchen sink’ hit the air-conditioning. 1962 saw Richardson’s name back in the director credits with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and John Schlessinger gave the new look his blessing with A Kind of Loving (1962) followed by Lindsay Anderson who supplied the cherry with This Sporting Life a year later. The new approach was so powerful that even the Soviets had a bash at it. Unfortunately it only survived as long as Khrushchev held sway. When he was ousted it was the end of the newly liberated Soviet Cinema.
Cinecitta in Rome soon hosted films by Italy’s elite directors such as Federico Fellini. Fellini’s kitchen sink was obviously kept in the bedroom. The Vatican was so scandalised by Fellini’s louche view of life in the capital that the Pope threatened to excommunicate him unless he changed his ways.
For once the American Studios were late to recognise a trend. They had been the leaders in International cinema for so long that it was hard for them to think outside what they were churning out on the studio stages. Then Roger Corman stirred the pudding with Wild Angels (1966) and was followed by Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider (1969). It was all drugs, sex, violence, motor-bikes and Rock and Roll. Those who like to analyse these things put it down to the Viet Nam war and the lack of breast-feeding.
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (1963) was a strange but powerful rant at the absurdity of America’s position in the world and the ultimate madness of letting a bunch of ambitious war-mongers take control of the Red Button. Kubrick used Space as a metaphor for the future of mankind and George Romero exploited the excesses of the living dead to point up how near to the edge civilisation was getting in Night of the Living Dead. I’m not sure where you pick up the disease but the prognosis is not good. Communities on the edge were further explored in Sam Peckinpah’s dour Western, The Wild Bunch (1969)
The cinema has always relied on the star actors to sell its goods. When the studios ruled the screens it was relatively easy to make or break a star. But the stranglehold the big producers had maintained for decades had been loosened by the arrival of new young directors and the shift from Studio-bound extravaganzas to the age of the quick cut and the hand held camera. Now the wannabe stars had to rely to a greater degree on their own resources. Producers were happy to use the leading actors name to promote their own product but once the film wrapped the actors were on their own. This produced a regiment of male and female actors who could sandbag a producer into hiring them purely on the basis of their reputation. No nonsense about nurturing talent or looking to the future.
Charlton Heston had been around for a long time when he made Ben Hur (1961) and had capitalised on his studio fostered background, but it was the action packed Hippodrome where he made the impact that would establish him as top of the heap in the years to come. Taylor and Burton met on location for Cleopatra in 1963 and 20th Century Fox overspent by nearly 100% on its original budget. It was a great boost to the Taylor/Burton brand, which they both exploited throughout a long and often stormy relationship – and career.
Julie Andrews didn’t do badly from signing up for Robert Wise’s production of The Sound Of Music. (1963). It gave her a shoo-in for practically any film she fancied doing when the studio heads lost her telephone number as they down-sized the premises after losing a packet on Dr. Dolittle talking to the animals and Andrews trying to be the legendary Gertrude Lawrence in Star! There was also the epic musical starring the beautifully fragile Audrey Hepburn, My Fair Lady. My favourite film of all. It has everything. Brilliant acting, fantastic costumes, an intelligent story (based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pymalion) and humable songs. Just wish they had left GBS ‘s final scene intact.
James Bond promoted Sean Connery from the chorus line of South Pacific to International status with Dr. No in 1962 and opened up a highly profitable francise, while Peter O’Toole notched up his household name in the desert sands with Lawrence of Arabia. The following year Albert Finney and Susannah York brought a restrained chuckle from the blue rinses in the 1/9s with Tom Jones and in 1966 Doctor Zhivago went spectacular with a detailed account of the Russian Revolution and made stars of Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay. In Italy a TV cowboy in Rawhide made a film called A Fist full of Dollars and injected new blood into the fading Western genre.
Clint Eastwood went on to invent a new line of work for himself with a string of hard-bitten characters like Dirty Harry. In 1968 he had the privilege of appearing with me in Where Eagles Dare and he never looked back. It was also the time for Steve McQueen to find his love of speed in the thriller, Bullitt (1968), and spin The Great Escape (1963) into another re-jigged piece of war history adventure.
The legacy of the Sixties, in the actors and actresses who made a cornucopia of magnificent films, is still with us. The Studios, in their original all-powerful mode, may have passed on but they still leave a lot for us to remember them by. As a swan song, for the decade it’s best not to remember, there is the last truly great Westerns starring two of Hollywood’s Greatest, Robert Redford and Paul Newman, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
To go off-theme. If you are looking for something to do next weekend, 18 & 19 October, pop into the Days Hotel in Manchester for a chat. I’m going to be there promoting the release of the film I made in New Jersey a couple of years ago. It’s called Sea of Dust. I haven’t seen it yet but I’ve heard good things and can’t wait. It’s part of the Festival of Fantastic Films. For full details log onto fantastic-films.com.
Read Ingrid’s column every Tuesday at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.