In 1970, the movie industry was in big trouble. The moguls who built the industry and guided it through its golden era of the 1930s through the 1950s were dying off; older audiences were feeling alienated by the industry’s current product, and the industry’s fortunes suffered dramatically. There was a group of young Turks who were working their way through the industry, but it would be a few years before they fully established themselves — and their most lasting contribution, via George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, would be to return Hollywood to its tradition of big budget family friendly entertainment, ironically enough.
But in the late ‘60s, outside the walls of the studio, the country was in turmoil. LBJ had declined a second term, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were dead. Vietnam was in the headlines constantly — and frequently being misreported.
Add to it all the industry’s schizophrenia regarding Richard Nixon — the old guard generally liked him; the young Turks hated him with the white hot force of a thousand exploding suns — and you had an industry that was deeply confused.
We remember films from that period such as hippie favorite Easy Rider, and 20th Century Fox’s bipolar trilogy of war films — Patton, Tora, Tora, Tora, and Robert Altman’s countercultural anti-Vietnam parable M*A*S*H – but most of Hollywood’s product from 1970 dated very quickly.
Which is why I felt more than a little like the crew of the “Satellite of Love” on Mystery Science Theater 3000 this past weekend, as I watched a pair of cinematic bombs from 1970 that summed up the year perfectly. These were two films that I had read about years ago in Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, but never caught on the late show, or purchased on laser disc in the late 1980s, during my obsessive NYU film days, so I felt obligated to see what I had missed. Don’t everyone thank me for taking one — actually two — for the team, all at once.
Workin’ in a Coalmine
My first trip back to 1970 was via the Molly Maguires, which had recently gone up on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris, and directed by Martin Ritt, the film was about the group of Luddite-ish 1870s-era coal miners, who fought back against the poor working conditions and low wages of their employers by sabotaging equipment and blowing up mines and trains.
Paramount sunk ten million dollars into the film — which was a very big budget for the era; about equal to the final bill Stanley Kubrick handed MGM for his epic 2001 two years earlier. Given the production values and stars, Paramount was convinced they were about to mine box office gold. Connery was just coming off his initial retirement from the James Bond series, and Harris from 1967’s smash Camelot. The film’s director, Martin Ritt, had overcome ’50s-era blacklisting to score a big hit in 1965 with another British superstar, Richard Burton, in another morally ambiguous film, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
But the first half of the Molly Maguires is largely set in a coal mine in 1870s Pennsylvania, and the oppressive blackness of the mine creates a remarkably claustrophobic atmosphere. It’s both a testament to the film’s production designer and its cinematographer, the great James Wong Howe, that the filmmakers were able to create such a realistic atmosphere. Particularly given that while the exteriors were filmed in the coal mining town of Eckley, Pennsylvania, the subterranean coal was filmed on a set in Hollywood, both for lighting and particularly for safety reasons. Obviously, “CONNERY DIES IN MINE COLLAPSE WHILE SHOOTING PARAMOUNT PRODUCTION” was not a headline the studio wanted to see on the front page of Daily Variety that year.