When Hollywood started to lose its way in the 1970s in the face of the onslaught of TV and cable, it opened the doors for even more voices in the industry. They weren’t interested in the good guy/bad guy storylines of times past, but the frailties of the human condition and society, and adventure films came to talk about all manner of adult and social issues.
Adventure branches out
Barely a decade prior, adventure movies had meant one thing – iron-jawed heroes with no moral grey area rescuing the pretty diner waitress from any number of nuclear-mutated animals, aliens or commie threats.
But the cinematic scope and emotional breadth of the adventure genre had wound its way into every other genre, and the 70s meant the newly rising independent class was adopting the trappings of the genre.
Auteurs from beyond Hollywood were putting productions together with little (or no) funds. They wrangled amazing visuals and profound performances from name actors to put startling visions on screens. But amidst it all, thrills and spectacle from the golden era wasn’t forgotten.
From the traditional to the avant-garde
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
One of the first notable forays into adventure films by a self funded, independent director, Aguirre: the Wrath of God marked the beginning of director Werner Herzog’s working relationship with actor Klaus Kinski, one that became known for excess, friction and even violence behind the scenes.
Frequently referenced (t appears in the book 1001 Films you Must See Before You Die and 2014’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) but little seen, it’s the story of a 16th century South American explorer who loses his mind searching for the lost city of El Dorado.
The insanity found its way behind the scenes too (monkey and fire ant attacks, the director threatening to murder the star and various other injuries and mishaps on the Peru set), and the shoestring budget and rapidly disintegrating production were a heart of darkness years before Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now.
Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)
The Steven Soderbergh remake from 2002 starring George Clooney didn’t connect, but that’s only because modern audiences bought up on Star Wars and Marvel didn’t understand the philosophical underpinnings of Tarkovsky’s pondering original.
When an astronaut orbiting the planet Solaris starts to see visions of his dead wife aboard his vessel, he worries he might be losing his mind. But it’s actually the planet itself that reads (and twists) the thoughts of any human being who comes too close.
It’s about the universe looking inward and the fragility of memory and loss, not spaceships, ray guns and creatures.
Papillon (Franklin J Schaffner, 1973)
Based on the true story of a prisoner who spends years in prison solitary confinement on a French Guiyanan penal island, Papillon (Steve McQueen), befriends a fellow inmate (Dustin Hoffman) and the two escape no less than four times, recaptured and thrown back behind bars over and over again.
Although the plot is pretty episodic, audiences at the time loved the idea of polished Hollywood star Steve McQueen doing some real acting, depicting the famous stud’s descent into weakness and insanity, babbling to the end about being free and prepared to end his life to achieve it.
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Ted Post, 1970)
We all know what happened after returned astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) realized what planet he’d really been on all that time (‘God damn you all to hell!!’), but what about after?
James Franciscus plays Brent, sole survivor of Taylor’s rescue mission who finds himself similarly lost on a planet where he’s not the top of the food chain anymore. When he follows Taylor underground, he meets a whole other race of military apes and the last few humans alive, horribly mutated and driven mad worshipping a nuclear weapon.
The Apes franchise spawned three more sequels (and a reboot that continues to this day), and its longevity into the 1970s proves any era was ready for adventure films with great ideas and thrills in equal measure.
The Land That Time Forgot (Kevin Connor, 1975)
Even as long ago as 1975 this was a nostalgia piece, a throwback to the monster movies of the 1950s with high shutter speeds recording miniature models, hammy acting and dodgy rubber puppets.
It’s World War One and a British ship sinks a U boat, taking the survivors on board and making a wrong turn into Antarctica. They enter the ice through a cave and come out in a verdant, lush forest full of dinosaurs and long-thought extinct beasts.
From there there’s not much story apart from the crew fighting monsters and trying to get away, but it’s all good clean fun. It’s also hard to believe this came only two years ahead of Star Wars, the movie that changed special effects and which still stands up today.
Zardoz (John Boorman, 1974)
Continuing the theme (along with Solaris) of adventure cinema as think piece, Zardoz makes little sense narratively. You can read any number of social strata allegories into the proceedings, but it deals with a man (Sean Connery, desperate at the time to shake the legacy of James Bond) from a race of warriors who finds himself somewhere like heaven where the young, immortal and idle rich make him part slave, part henchman to their whims.
Written and directed by John Boorman (Deliverance), it’s an example of imagination gone wild, where the adventure genre is visible everywhere from the costumes to the production design and to whatever passes for a story, and it helped signal the onset of a new direction for the genre
When the light flickered out
Film in the 1970s turned dark and morally ambiguous, and many adventure films would take up the mantle. Their storylines were more complex and their characters less idealistic, but they were aided by adventure genre visuals that continued to evolve and improve.