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10 Movies Millennials Must See to Understand the 1970s

The era of devils, divorces and disasters, captured on film.

Kathy Shaidle


June 27, 2014 - 9:00 am
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I knew things were bad when, a few years ago, I actually found myself missing the Seventies.

Many, many American movies made during the Seventies share one overarching theme:

America is falling apart!

Tim Dirks’ must-read, 6-part overview of the films of this era begins with this highly-concentrated, perfectly observed paragraph:

Motion picture art seemed to flourish at the same time that the defeat in the Vietnam War, the Kent State Massacre, the Watergate scandal, President Nixon’s fall, the Munich Olympics shoot-out, increasing drug use, and a growing energy crisis showed tremendous disillusion, a questioning politicized spirit among the public and a lack of faith in institutions — a comment upon the lunacy of war and the dark side of the American Dream.

Our own Ed Driscoll has done yeoman’s work chronicling that decade’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” leftwing auteur boom: the death of the studio system, and the rise of hot young directors – Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese — whose visions still inform American film, and the culture at large.

(See also A Decade Under the Influence and Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange.)

Most recently, Kyle Smith proffered his “10 Best Films of the 1970s.”

My list is different than Smith’s because the “best” films of that era (and I agree with many of his selections) don’t necessarily capture the mood of the times as well as lesser movies.

What follows is a guide for millennials who are forever hearing about “the Seventies,” are living with that decade’s toxic cultural fallout, and who wonder what life during this tumultuous time (although, aren’t they all…?) was really like.

That’s why I’ve neglected to mention anachronistic or overly escapist fare: all the bloated feel-good musicals; anything by Disney, Mel Brooks or Cubby Broccoli; all but one of Woody Allen’s “early funny ones”; sweeping pseudo-period Oscar bait like Barry Lyndon, The Way We Were, New York, New York, The Sting and Funny Lady; and time-less blockbusters like Star Wars, Halloween and Rocky.

(Incidentally: most movies about the Vietnam War were made in the 1980s.)

However, I have included movies about the Seventies that were made later, if they accurately evoke the time period. Note: There are a LOT of these.

Ideally, curious readers should get hold of the ten movies I’ve chosen as exemplars of my ten different themes, then temporarily get rid of their computers and phones (because it’s 1972, and “Ma Bell” still hasn’t shown up to activate your line). Next put on some thick polyester clothing, and eat nothing but Cheesies and Orange Crush for the duration. (The Seventies were VERY orange.)

Close all your curtains to help mimic the sinister, suffocating atmosphere we marinated in.

And press “play.”

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Top Rated Comments   
Monthy Python and the Holy Grail, Blazing Saddles and Rocky Horror Picture Show. I don't know about you, but I laughed a lot in the 70's.
35 weeks ago
35 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, in tepid defense this isn't a list of "Best", but what films best described the Zeitgeist.

Yeah, I went there and used the word “zeitgeist”…I didn’t spend $8.99 for this “William F. Buckley Jr. Word of the Day Calendar” just to have a good time.
35 weeks ago
35 weeks ago Link To Comment
That list is a good reminder of how much of Seventies America I missed. I lived in Atlanta from '71 to '74, just married, kid born in '71, just starting out in the world of Watergate, Draft Protests, the first Whole Earth Catalog, impossible credit requirements for anything but car loans, and sky high interest rates. Even with "good" jobs nobody my age was even thinking of buying a house, but a nice two BR townhouse with a gate, a clubhouse, and a pool was a whopping $250/mth. But the "City Too Busy to Hate" was busy hating and had the highest murder rate in the Country. By '74 I had a tourism dependent business and the Oil Embargo killed tourism. I sold out and moved out - North to the Future with then-wife, kid, and dog in a Toyota LandCruiser. I heard the announcement of Nixon's resignation somewhere in the northern Plains. Got rid of the pistols from which I'd been inseparable in Atlanta at the Pay 'n Pak in Seattle and bought a 30.06 and a 12 gauge. Crossed the border into Canada on I-5 and caught the AlCan at Watson Lake, Yukon Territory. In '74, the AlCan was still dirt from a few miles out of Watson Lake to the Alaska Border except for about 40 miles around Whitehorse, YT. By late August, early September in that part of the world it was seriously Fall, and Fall means rain and rain mixed with snow. I spent most of the time in 4WD and it cost $20 at the quarter car wash in Tok, AK to even tell what color the vehicle was. I learned that pavement wasn't much of an improvement when the road was built on permafrost and was badly frost-heaved. Fairbanks had some modern amenities but was still very much the last outpost before the true frontier. It's 367 miles (IIRC) from FAI to Anchorage, the Parks Highway was still under construction in places, there were almost no crossroads, no traffic lights, and the intersection of the Parks and Glenn Highways near Wasilla was just a flat intersection with a stop sign on the Parks side. Now it is a huge freeway-style cloverleaf intersection.

Anchorage had maybe 150K people, the four-lane started at Merrill Field, the tallest building was the Westward Hilton, and the football game on Sunday was from last Sunday. TV shows were often from weeks ago. The evening news came on at 7 in the morning - IF the Seattle plane got in, and most attempted long-distance calls ended with "I'm sorry, all circuits are busy." I joined the burgeoning ranks of twenty-something men trying to get by and high in Pipeline Era Alaska. We watched little TV and had little exposure to mainstream US popular culture. We explored, hunted, fished, camped, snow machined, and to the extent we went out at all it was to hippy-trippy places that mostly played Bluegrass. I worked in Valdez awhile making what I thought was simply impossible money; it was good while it lasted. That ended for me in '78 and I came back to town and found first wage work and then started a business and then the Seventies ended. By then I was ready to join that self-indulgent, affluent consumer economy of the Eighties and I've never looked back. Of those movies, the only one I saw at the theater was "Death Wish," and I did take my daughter to see "Star Wars." The rest of them make me glad I missed most of the Seventies in America.
35 weeks ago
35 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (68)
All Comments   (68)
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A list of best movies that capture the zeitgeist of the 1970s and no mention of "Charlie Varrick"?
31 weeks ago
31 weeks ago Link To Comment
the 70's were nothing if not strange. I began w/ some of the best rock & roll ever and ended up in disco fever. the women were just hovering between free love and radical feminism. that was a fun place to be. agreeing about feminism got one automatically back into the free love zone.

it was definitely a dynamic time. we even had a clueless prez. then too, w/ a sucky economy, just like now. he wasn't purposeful/malicious about his bad policies. he was a basically a good man w/ good intentions, the opposite of what we have now. he had his clowns too. there was bro billy peeing on the runway, on camera. but he had some smart people too, like Kissinger. gas was sometimes rationed, if you could find some after sitting in long lines.

we had some great movies - Jeremiah Johnson, the Godfather; and, John Wayne, Elvis, Mick Jagger and many other Hollywood greats were still alive. wait, Mick just looks like he's dead? oh yeah. heck I thought he was just pickled.

the people today, to their credit, treat their returning vet's much, much better than the Vietnam vet's got treated. spit on and called names in airports as they returned home.

no matter how much today's young people study, they will never understand the 70's. you really did have to live it.
31 weeks ago
31 weeks ago Link To Comment
Dick was co-written by Roger Simon's wife Sheryl Longin.
31 weeks ago
31 weeks ago Link To Comment
Um, I was born in LA in 1964. July 28th, actually. I've hit fifty like a brick wall.
31 weeks ago
31 weeks ago Link To Comment
Damn well done, Kathie.

I'm very happy to see you mention The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. It is also a realistic portrayal of gangsters, without the romanticizing. George Higgins knew how these guys talked and acted because he was an attorney in Boston. It's also one of the few movies to get the Boston Accent right [Message To filmmakers: not everyone there talks like The Kennedys, whose accent was part-Boston, part-New York, where they actually grew-up].

It shows Boston as it actually was back then.

The ending of the film is near-perfect.

Bob Mitchum's two-in-a-row performances in Coyle and The Yakuza are some of the best acting he ever did.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
We can quibble about it, but I think "Three Days of the Condor" should have made this list. Probably more than every other Seventies movie, Redford's classic does the best at explaining from a Leftie's perspective why we should fear the government. (Of course, now that the Lefties are the government, their perspective has changed.)

Totally agree with "Death Wish".

I hate to recommend any Russ Meyer flick, but... if you want to understand the unleashing of sexuality in the cinema, it's hard not to consider any one of his, uh, prurient offerings. E.g., "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." Hint: nobody liked the movie, but everybody liked Edy Williams's breasts.
35 weeks ago
35 weeks ago Link To Comment
Wolfen and Report to the Commissioner are good examples of NYC in the 1970s.
35 weeks ago
35 weeks ago Link To Comment
I actually started to READ the book from which Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" was based, written by Booth Tarkington. It was very popular in the day, and I'm sure it made some social and moral points, but it was B-O-R-I-N-G.

I got further in it than I did in "Atlas Shrugged" but that's damning with faint praise.

The movie, on the other hand, was rather entertaining, if long.
35 weeks ago
35 weeks ago Link To Comment
Maybe point 11. "The World Is About To End"

Tim Dirk's intro to '70's pessimism reminded me of something I wrote fifteen years ago as an intro to a piece on the movie Frogs (1972):

"Ah, the idyllic, carefree Early Seventies, when all right-thinking (by pop-culture standards) Americans knew the end was near. We were poisoning the environment and reminded of it daily. We were losing a war and didn't have much experience with being good losers. We lost our rapport with the world's major oil producers and started to pay double top dollar for our crude. We were damned for being capitalists because we were in a recession or had bad inflation or maybe stagflation. We were seconds away from a nuclear holocaust. We began to suspect our government was up to something, but we didn't know what. We were in a period of social examination and civil disobedience, and if you made a public stand for your beliefs, some crazy would come out of the woodwork and shoot you dead. In other words, it was hip to be a pessimist.

"During the '50's and early '60's, there were several films about the end of the world, but that was OK, because it was survivable. During the '60's and '70's, story tellers were less optimistic. It was all about to end, you won't survive it (nor do you deserve survival), and here it is, presented for your entertainment. The only question was, 'How?'"
35 weeks ago
35 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Understand the 1970's"? I'd wager that there are people who actually lived through the decade who can't understand it. No movie list is going to replace the experienced of having lived it... and to fully understand any decade, one would need to understand the decade(s) that preceded it.

The 70's counterculture can't be fully understood without also understanding the establishment it stood against- which itself would be impossible without understanding it at a time when it was the counterculture and the contemporary establishment and so on and so forth. Is there a sequence of movies that would furnish that? I think not.
35 weeks ago
35 weeks ago Link To Comment
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