In an age when the adventure genre was larger than life, Hollywood studios developed and perfected many of the technologies that would become synonymous with other fantastical genres.
Adventure films were a tricky proposition in the postwar years. In Hollywood the genre has always been closely related to the disaster and sci-fi genres, so they relied heavily on many of the elements (scale, special effects) that were hard to get right with because of the film technology of the time and ran the most risk of looking stupid ten years later when technology had moved on.
It’s hard to put your finger on what makes certain classics stand up half a century later, but upon deeper reflection it’s the same thing it’s always been – the idea, the story and the characters. That’s still just as true in the over CGI-ed movie world of today.
So whether it’s in the visuals or the high mindedness of the concepts, here are a handful of early sixties classics that embody the very term ‘adventure’.
Adventure cinema inspired by myth, legend, and itself
Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
Does the lone Ronin/gunman/mercenary who comes to a small town run by rival gangs sound familiar? It should, it’s been remade by Sergio Leone in the old West in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and in the Depression era panhandle by Walter Hill in Last Man Standing (1996), among others. In a world where greed and vice are as old as commerce and society, the concept can (and has) been applied to almost any time period and region and yet the technological and cultural trappings of the time (from samurai swords and kimonos to fedoras, cheroots and Tommy guns) feel fresh.
Why? The power of the idea. The hero, a drifter, arrives in town and gets the chance to do everything audiences love heroes for. He not only brings down the bad guys single handedly, he brings down two groups of them by pitting them against each other. And he does so using the most formidable of weapons – smarts.
Hatari! (Howard Hawks, 1964)
John Wayne was never what you’d call a politically correct figure. As well as making his name killing injuns (The Searchers) and Vietnamese (The Green Berets), Hawks’ sweeping epic sees him play a big game hunter who terrifies and torments animals across the African plains to capture and sell to circuses and zoos.
His macho lifestyle is threatened when a sultry Italian wildlife photographer arrives on the scene but Hatari! is all about kinetic motion across sweeping vistas. If it reminds you of the dinosaur hunting scene in Jurassic Park: The Lost World that’s no accident, and Hatari! was also written by Leigh Brackett, who contributed to The Empire Strikes Back, so you know it has serious adventure flick bona fides. Interesting tidbit; the music by legendary composer Henry Mancini gave the world his signature tune The Baby Elephant Walk.
The Great Escape (John Sturgess, 1963)
One of those perennial TV favorites like The Sound of Music and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Great Escape was based partly on a true story about a mass breakout from a German POW camp during the Second World War.
It’s a rambunctious boy’s own adventure with a cast of then-hot personalities from Hollywood and Britain executing an audacious and finely honed prison break plot. In fact the profile the movie enjoys amongst fans seems so jovial and adventurous you’re not quite prepared for how sad and bloody it is. To say any more would be giving away too much of a spoiler, but things definitely don’t go as planned.
The Time Machine (George Pal, 1960)
Put alongside anything made in today’s era it might look cheap, but it’s the purity of the idea of time travel that counts. Long before we’d seen a flux capacitor in a DeLorean or a T-800 appear in a black bubble surrounded by static The Time Machine stood head and shoulders above anything that had come after it, and still does.
From the instant Wells (Rod Taylor) demonstrates the small prototype for his visitors, a cigarette bent into the shape of a man and the machine disappearing into thin air, you’ll be hooked by the possibilities. From that moment on the thrills, visuals and excitement build beautifully. From Wells sitting in a mountain waiting for it to erode over eons to the underground battle with the Morlocks, the themes, excitement and action get exponentially bigger and more expansive.
Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963)
Though Don Chaffey was behind the megaphone, Jason and the Argonauts cemented one name in particular in movie lore; Ray Harryhausen. His work in the stop motion animated battle as Jason holds off hordes of the skeletal undead with his sword was the centerpiece of the movie, but there are so many cool visuals and creature effects that – though definitely of their time technically – have a rough-hewn charm all too rare in modern cinema.
Adapted (loosely) from the Greek myth of hero Jason and the quest for the Golden Fleece, it takes the characters and monsters from the ancient story like the harpies, the hydra, the cyclops and the giant Talos and brings them to thrilling new life. With its scope and blend of fantasy and action it’s the very epitome of adventure films in the 60s.
Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
An interesting blend of old and new Hollywood, Spartacus has the spectacular proportions and Cecil B DeMille-esque showmanship of Cleopatra or Ben-Hur – including the sweeping score and square-jawed hero in Kirk Douglas – but Kubrick always stood apart from the mainstream when it came to narrative.
Despite the heroics there’s no nick of time victory or last minute salvation, and even amid the epic stylings of movies from the period the film doesn’t sugar-coat hero Spartacus’ ultimate fate. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is actually something of a remake, telling the story of a young man in an outlying district of the Roman Empire trapped in a life of slavery.
Like other films of the period it has the requisite amount of romance, drama and war. As Spartacus, Kirk Douglas is part hero, part cowboy, all chin and jaws, and Kubrick surrounded him with some of the greatest British thespian talent of the day including Peter Ustinov and Laurence Olivier.
Flight of the Phoenix (Robert Aldrich, 1965)
Like the best examples at the time, this film had all the hallmarks of the genre that make it a classic good time – old-Hollywood adventure – an ensemble of grizzled blue collar heroes played by some of the biggest names of the day, a battle against the odds and nothing to prove except to tell a rip-roaringly good story, the cinematic equivalent of the airport novel.
James Stewart at his drawliest leads a troupe of macho but scared plane crash survivors in an unforgiving desert after their plane goes down and they try to build a new one out of the wreckage. With starvation, thirst and the frightening locals to deal with, the clock is ticking and with just the right number of characters we have the time to invest emotionally with each of them, drawing us closer in to their plight.
King Kong vs Godzilla (1962, Ishiro Honda)
File this one along with Plan 9 From Outer Space, an unintentionally hilarious flick best watched with pizza at midnight.
The plot contrivance that results in the giant smackdown says it all. A nuclear submarine crashes into an iceberg in the Arctic, releasing Godzilla, who’s been frozen in the ice. At the same time the grasping CEO of a pharmaceutical company wants a killer promotional campaign, so he sends two of his best men to capture and bring back King Kong.
As Godzilla lands in Japan to wreak his usual rubber-suited havoc, fire-breathing and iconic roar firmly in place, the two bumbling hunters are taken prisoner by the Skull Island natives, but a quick trading of trinkets and the rescue of a village woman and a little boy from a slimy giant octopus later and they’re on their way with their yak-suited prize.
It’s hard to know what’s more fun, the low-fi production values or the zany approach. There’s a huge shift in tone away from both the original King Kong and the original Godzilla, neither of which had gags or pratfalls.
An international movement
We equate the adventure film with the big, flashy Irwin Allen-style movies Hollywood became famous for but as the above list shows, directors from all countries and styles got in on the action, and sometimes the oversized approach was in the characters rather than the action.