Why the 70s Were the Best in Film-Making: Part One.

Louise Ward
5 min readAug 26, 2023

The 70s — the era of Hollywood Blockbusters

The 1970s marked a distinctive era in Hollywood, defined by its larger-than-life productions. Despite a slight dip in weekly cinema-goers compared to the preceding decades, the era boasted a peculiar phenomenon: when a truly anticipated film hit the cinema, the turnout shattered records.

In a landscape where film output dwindled, a handful of titles etched themselves into history — think William Friedkin’s spine-chilling “The Exorcist” and George Roy Hill’s con artist caper “The Sting,” both leaving an indelible mark in 1973.

The following years saw Steven Spielberg’s iconic predator flick, “Jaws,” in 1975, and George Lucas’ space saga, “Star Wars,” in 1977 — all emerging as bona fide blockbusters.

“Star Wars” was not just a film, but a cultural comet. Its box office might, amassing over $164 million in its first two years in the US, was just the launchpad. It ignited the era of movie merchandising, the subsequent sale of related paraphernalia accumulating an astonishing $1.5 billion annually worldwide at the time.

These cinematic triumphs provided a financial cushion, softening the impact of box office disappointments. As global audience figures stabilized and ticket prices saw an uptick, a delicate financial equilibrium was maintained — earnings managed to keep pace with the ever-rising production costs.

Film Trends for the coming decade

At the turn of the new decade producers, nervous to predict what audiences would be looking for, started out by replicating what had been initiated in the years before.

After the huge success in 1969 of Dennis Hopper’s road movie Easy Rider and Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (less well known to today’s audiences), the market was bombarded with a spate of youth-oriented anti-heroic films.

George Lucas’s American Graffiti of 1973 was a coming-of-age movie set in 1962 in a small town which made a star of 26-year-old Richard Dreyfus in his first major role. It was one film in a number of movies in this genre which included Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces and Stuart Hagman’s The Strawberry Statement in 1970, Badlands from Terrence Malick in 1973 and the two rock music documentaries, Woodstock from Michael Wadleigh and David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s Gimme Shelter (both 1970).

A Tougher Image in Film

In the midst of a shifting cinematic landscape, while the home TV channels maintained a milder, censor-bound repertoire, the silver screen beckoned with a newfound audacity, drawing audiences towards more unapologetically rugged narratives. The roll call of this gritty wave included Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry” and Friedkin’s “The French Connection” in 1971, Roman Polanski’s enigmatic “Chinatown” in 1974, and the double bill of Robert Aldrich’s “Hustle” (1975) and “The Choirboys” (1977).

These films painted an image of unyielding, efficient protagonists — a ruggedness that coaxed the finest performances from the era’s male leads, the likes of Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, and Burt Reynolds, solidifying their status as cinematic luminaries.

Within this era, violence emerged as a recurring motif. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange” unflinchingly delved into violence’s depths, a sentiment echoed in Michael Ritchie’s “Prime Cut” and John Boorman’s visceral “Deliverance” from 1972. Tobe Hooper’s chilling “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” of 1974 etched its own horrifying mark. John Schlesinger’s taut thriller “Marathon Man” from 1976 and Alan Parker’s gripping “Midnight Express” of 1978 further etched violence into the celluloid landscape.

Sex on the screen

A new chapter unfolded in Hollywood as a forthright attitude toward sexuality took centre stage — a paradigm shift evident in Mike Nichols’ “Carnal Knowledge” of 1971. The landscape expanded further with Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo” in 1975 and Louis Malle’s inaugural foray into American cinema, “Pretty Baby,” in 1978.

The wave also swept across from Europe and beyond with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Decameron” (1971) and “Salo” (1975) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s incendiary “Last Tango in Paris” (1972). In 1973 Nicholas Roeg brought audiences the enigmatic “Don’t Look Now” and in 1975, Just Jaeckin further tantalised with “Emmanuelle”. Nagisa Oshima’s provocative “In the Realm of the Senses” of 1976 added global echoes to this narrative of screen sensuality.

Public Paranoia and Political Corruption

Amidst the echoes of the Warren Report’s aftermath, President Kennedy’s assassination and the murky waters of Watergate, the bedrock certainties underpinning the American ethos teetered on uncertainty. The fabric of the nation’s way of life bore the weight of scepticism. If those entrusted with safeguarding the nation’s interests could no longer be relied upon, then who could?

In the midst of this vacuum of assurance, the 1970s ushered in an era of unease, with these apprehensions taking tangible form in a series of conspiracy-laden cinematic tales. These films cast the individual’s integrity and vulnerability as the underdogs pitted against the juggernaut of corporate supremacy and political corruption.

This mood of palpable paranoia found its place in some remarkable cinema. Sidney Lumet’s “The Anderson Tapes” (1972), Francis Ford Coppola’s enigmatic “The Conversation” (1973), Sydney Pollack’s pulse-pounding “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), Alan J. Pakula’s penetrating “The Parallax View” (1974), and the riveting chronicle of political scandal, “All The President’s Men” (1976), which focused squarely on Watergate’s intrigue, together formed an unforgettable tapestry. The resonance extended further to James Bridges’ “The China Syndrome” (1979), amplifying society's fears surrounding nuclear energy.

From the other side of the Atlantic, Europe’s cinematic lens echoed with similar cadences. Elio Petri’s probing “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion” (1970), Costa-Gavras’ tension-soaked “State of Siege” (1973), and Francesco Rosi’s explorations into “The Mattei Affair” and “Illustrious Corpses” (both 1975) proved unequivocally that the malaise of corruption wasn’t confined to American borders.

The fallout of Vietnam is brought to film.

The haunting legacy of the Vietnam War found its canvas in American cinema, a theme that would continue well into the subsequent decade. The initial wave approached this subject head-on — works like Ted Post’s under-appreciated “Go Tell The Spartans” (1978), Sidney J. Furie’s “The Boys in Company C” (1978), and Coppola’s remarkable “Apocalypse Now” (1979), each grappled with the war’s visceral essence. Martin Scorsese’s provocative “Taxi Driver” (1976) resonated with its controversial exploration of a soldier’s lingering trauma.

The spotlight was also shone on the domestic front, painting portraits of those physically and psychologically scarred by the effects of war. In this tableau, we can include Jeremy Paul Kagan’s “Heroes” (1977) and Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home” (1978), while Michael Cimino’s seminal “The Deer Hunter” (1978), traversing the war’s timeline, emerged as perhaps the era’s magnum opus on Vietnam. A narrative punctuated by heartache and resilience, the film cast a spotlight on a young Meryl Streep who was nominated for an Oscar for her role, while solidifying Robert De Niro’s stature as one of the screen’s finest actors.



Louise Ward

Writing about books, behavioural science, advertising, communication. On a continual learning journey and exploring just about everything.