When you think of Vietnam Era motion pictures one War movie eventually comes to mind. This is John Wayne's "The Green Berets" and its throw back to the World War 2 era films he starred in. Had this motion picture been released three years earlier there would have been no flack, or controversy over its tone and message.The problem was of course the mood in the United States by 1968 and Wayne's plea to stay in the war seemed out of touch with the sentiment then emerging in this country. Not against the Vietnamese people in the South and to some extant the North, but that we were loosing young American lives in an war we never should have gotten involved in politically. In some sense we were actually questioning the Domino Theory of the Eisenhower Era. So putting those good intentions on John Wayne's part aside toward the South Vietnamese this country as a whole was reaching critical mass as the debate spilled into the halls of Congress.
Three years after I had volunteered for active service in the Navy American's were demonstrating in the streets and even the United States Government was starting to look for a way out. Which President Richard Nixon would finally take starting one year to the date following "The Green Berets" release.
The following article is about five movies released by American International Pictures between 1966 and 1968 and one from Warner Brothers. These five films reflect on the country at the time in different ways and are mostly forgotten now either by my generation, or a younger one that has no idea they were ever made.
However, if you were living in the country at this period you were affected by them and the transition that was going on to our way of life. We were no longer the Eisenhower generation represented on television by "Ozzie and Harriet", "Leave It to Beaver", "Father Knows Best" and especially cold-war shows like Richard Carlson in "I Led Three Lives", "O.S.S." and "Secret Files, U.S.A.". American's were transitioning into the reality that all decisions made by the Government were not necessary also the right choice. A thought very rarely raised prior to the late 1960's.
Number One: THE WILD ANGELS (July 20, 1966)
|Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra|
The film was banned in the U.K. for 14 years and then when it was released still received an "X" Certificate. However, even with the rise of the "Hells Angels" motorcycle club in California and news stories around the country. There would be no major motorcycle gang film like "The Wild One" made by Hollywood until American International Pictures decided to make "The Wild Angels" with the obvious word change that viewers quickly picked up upon..
Lee Marvin as Brando's rival gang leader. A lobby card of the movie.
Released on July 26, 1966 proved the timing for "The Wild Angels" was right and what should have been an overlooked little motion picture as many other Roger Corman's films were, except for his "Poe Series", surprised both AIP and America. Unlike 1953 the counterculture of Outlaw Bikers intrigued movie goers and provided a fantasy outlet.
The story was simplicity in itself. Getting killed at the start of the motion picture is Outlaw Biker Joe "Loser" Kearns played by Bruce Dern. Kearns is more than a close friend of "Heavenly Blues" the leader of the Venice Chapter of "The Angels" " played by Peter Fonda. "Blues" as he is called decides to bury "Loser" with full "Angels" honors and a funeral procession of bikers is assembled. The story just follows the group through the burial and its aftermath as they descend upon a small mountain community.
Playing Blues' girlfriend nicknamed "Mike" is Nancy Sinatra and as "Loser's" girl friend "Gaysh" is Diane Ladd. During Ladd's career she would be nominated three times for an Oscar, win a "BAFTA" for Supporting Actress in 1975, be nominated also for three Emmy's and four Golden Globes. A far cry from this picture.
The last names of the two leading actors Fonda and Sinatra were enough to attract attention to the motion picture project. Corman and American International Pictures used that recognition as far as was possible. As Henry Fonda was objecting to the movie and his son being in it. Out of AIP's stable of unknown writers Peter Bogdanovich co-wrote the screenplay. One of the apparent slips the censors made on the film after the rape scene of Ladd was an early lesbian sequence, The movie's script was inspired by the national publicity real "The Hell's Angels" motorcycle club were receiving including a front page story in "Life Magazine".
There was a disconnect between the critics and the movie going public over the film. This was the first real sign of a generation gap caused not by age, but politics and the direction the younger audiences wanted America to go towards. This was even starting to be seen in the military as views toward the Vietnam War came forefront in reported atrocities and other actions taken.
Leonard Maltin wrote that "The Wild Angels" was:
OK after about 24 beersThe box office seemed to prove Maltin and other critics wrong. As Roger Corman's gamble with both the counter culture subject matter and that "almost" lesbian scene payed off for American International Pictures. The budget given him by AIP was $360,000 and the film's initial gross was 5.5 million, That figure made "The Wild Angels" the number 16th film in 1966 and by April 12, 2012 the gross revenue on the motion picture would reach $15,541,070.
The catchy top seller on the Billboard Charts sound track was by an unknown composer Mike Curb. Curb would go on to become the Lt. Governor of California from 1979 to 1983 during Jerry Brown's second term in office. What helped to make the dynamics interesting during that term: Jerry Brown was a Democrat and Mike Curb a Republican. However, they worked very well together.
When "The Wild Angels" came out. Like many of my fellow sailors I had a crush on Nancy Sinatra and wrote American International Pictures for a photograph. They sent me the press book and a small stack of photos from the movie. The inside of the door to my 2 X 2 locker on the U,S,S, Shangri-la CVA-38 was covered with them,
This link will take you to the complete motion picture.
"The Wild Angels" inspired an outlaw biker film craze, unlike "The Wild Ones" with just leather jackets, that lasted four years . American International Pictures would make three more movies themselves as follow-ups. The first was "The Devil's Angels", July 1967, again with a great Mike Curb best selling sound track. Once more the story line is simplistic as a biker gang hears about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and its leader decides to find there own "Hole in the Wall" hideout without police.
Playing the gang's leader was actor and independent director John Cassavetes. The movie grossed four million dollars on a budget smaller than the previous years film..
The "Devils Angels" would be followed by "The Glory Stompers" released during 1967.The film starred Dennis Hopper as Chino with a sound track by associate producer Mike Curb.
IMDb described the plot as:
Chino is the tough leader of a motorcycle gang who starts off a war when he abducts and mistreats the leader of the enemy biker gang, Darryl, and his girlfriend Chris. Things get violent when Darryl comes back for revenge.
The third film released was "The Born Losers", but this is also the third film I want to talk about and will hold my comments at this point in the article.
Other film companies got in on the Outlaw biker craze. One such film starring the young Jack Nicholson as "Poet" had the title "Hell Angels on Wheels", The ads for the motion picture mentioned the film featured Ralph "Sonny" Barger who was the president of the Oakland Chapter of the real "Hell's Angels" and its founder. The scene was quick and Barger had no spoken lines, but this gimmick was enough to make the film extremely popular at the time. Another strange bike film was "Werewolves on Wheels" where the girlfriend and leader of a bike gang are turned into werewolves.
Additional titles included "The Savage 7", "The Sidehackers", "Angel's Wild Women", "Hell Ride", "Hell's Angels 69" and "Angels Hard as the Come" and many, many more.
For those Jack Nicholson fans out there. This link takes you to "Hell's Angels on Wheels"
Number Two: RIOT ON THE SUNSET STRIP (March 18, 1967)
The movie isn't great, but its what the movie uses as a backdrop that makes it so important. The "Riot" of its title did actually happen and the film cleverly uses news footage interwoven with its story. So you have a sort of Docudrama.
The "Riots" aka: "The Hippie Riots" actually took place between 1966 and 1970 and were clashes between "The Hippie Culture" in Hollywood and the Los Angeles Police Department. Walk down Hollywood Boulevard, or the Sunset Boulevard "Strip" area during those years and you saw the Hippie counter culture of flower children in full bloom. There had to be a confrontation at some point and that came on Saturday November 12, 1966 when that famous riot took place.
The local businesses had the L.A. City Council pass an ordinance setting up a 10 PM curfew and no loitering law. The LAPD was enforcing it with a little to much gusto which was not only against the point of view of "the hippies", but youthful music patrons of the clubs all along both streets that were p[en until 2 AM. Something had to give.
Prior to the night in question Rock Music Fans started complaining that the law infringed on their civil rights. A local radio station started playing it up. The station announced that a rally would be held at "Pandora's Box" one of the popular clubs located at the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset Boulevard. It is estimated that 1,000 young people showed up to demonstrate including celebrities. Two such celebrities were Peter Fonda and his friend Jack Nicholson. The two were photographed being hand cuffed and led away. This then became the movies background.
The actual motion picture reflected the hardness of youth orientated films that was developing at the time and American International Pictures who had brought us Annette Funicello, late of the Mickey Mouse Club and still under contract to Walt Disney, and clean cut singer Frankie Avalon in the "Beach Party" movies. Had switched from teen wholesomeness starting with "The Wild Angels" to pushing the envelope with the censors by focusing on the youth counter cultures of the period. Actually a sound money making decision on their part.
The motion picture focuses on an LAPD Officer and his daughter as they are both affected by the riots. They already have a troubled relationship because of the parents divorce and the girl gets involved with LSD and is gang raped. Not the normal family movie, but the subject matter that appealed to the youth audience it was aimed at. Another indication that the movie industry was starting to change, if only on the fringe because of Vietnam. A change that would become more prominent during the 1970's and the introduction of a wide range of young filmmakers and also a series of Blaxploitation films such as "Shaft" and "Blacula",
As to the actual riots they influenced some song writers starting with "The Standells" garage punk title hit "Riot on the Sunset Strip". Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" which is still confused as being an anti-protest song, "Plastic People" by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, "Daily Nights" by the Monkees and "Open Up the Box Pandora" by the Jigsaw Seen.
Number Three: THE BORN LOSERS (July 12, 1967)
Made for $400,000 the film would gross 36 million dollars and introduce an anti-hero to the world known as "Billy Jack". The film's creation and the two major sequels that followed where all the dream of actor Tom Laughlin and went back to 1954.To understand the film one has to know the writer, director and actor.
While a student at the University of South Dakota Laughlin wrote the screenplay for a film titled "Billy Jack" about the plight of Native American's. He could not find any backers. Also at this time he met his future wife Delores Taylor who would appear with him in many of his own produced films. Laughlin worked in several movies including director William Wellman's remembrances of his life in the French Air Corps during World War One "Lafayette Escadrille", Sandra Dee's first film "Gidget" and the musical "South Pacific".
Laughlin and his wife, both actives for Indian rights and other causes, left the motion picture business in 1959 and established a Montessori preschool in Santa Monica, California. However, by 1965 the school went bankrupt and Tom Laughlin was looking for acting work once more.
When the biker craze created by "The Wild Angels" broke he found the means to make his 1954 screenplay in a round about way. Laughlin's plan was to first introduce the character of "Billy Jack" by writing a typical biker film "The Born Losers".The story revolves around a biker gang that takes over the fictional California town of Big Rock. Living in the area of the town is a half-Indian ex-Vietnam Vet his character Billy Jack. The idea was a big gamble.
The plot of "The Born Losers".
Billy Jack drives into town and witnesses the biker gang "The Born Losers" beating up somebody and no one stepping in to help. He gets his rifle and breaks it up. The police arrive and arrest Billy Jack and not the gang members, because it turns out the person they were beating up insulted one of them and started the incident. Billy Jack on the other hand was arrested for discharging a rife within the town's limits.
Eventually the gang rapes four girls one of which is the daughter of a mother played by Jane Russell. It is sad to see Russell in this part as she comes across as an actress just trying to stay in the business.
One young girl Vicky Barrington who has befriended Billy Jack is twice abducted by the gang and on the second incident they also capture the Vietnam Vet. Vicky offers herself to be the "biker's mama", if they will let Billy Jack go. They do and when Billy Jack cannot get help from either the police, or the town's residents to rescue the girl he goes it alone.
The ending of the film keeps it's anti-authority statement intact as after the gang is in police custody Billy Jack takes one of the gang's bikes to leave and return to his home. An over zealous sheriff's deputy mistakes him for one of "The Born Losers" and shoots him in the back.
He is located near a stream and the movie ends with Billy Jack being airlifted for medical care as Vicky and the Sheriff give him a salute. Very strong stuff even for 1967.
The critics panned the film and the public loved it. It is reported, but not supported, that film critic Leonard Maltin criticized Tom Laughlin for using violence as an indictment of violence.
Tom Laughlin now had the money he needed to make "Billy Jack" (May 1, 1971) his 1954 script and a mega hit that would be American International's biggest money maker ever until 1979 when they released the original "The Amityville Horror".
Initially Laughlin's dream film was mishandled on its initial release and when he took over the distribution the film took off. Like his previous film "Billy Jack" cost only $800,000 to make, but would gross 40 million dollars.
Delores Taylor won the Golden Globe for Best New Actress and the motion picture the Grand Prize at the Taorminia International Film Festival in Italy for 1971. This was the first motion picture to introduce Martial Arts to mainstream America as "Billy Jack" was a hapkido master. The theme song "One Tin Soldier" became a top 40 hit that I remember well. Some critics of it pointed to the chorus:
Go ahead and hate your neighbor; go ahead and cheat a friend.
Do it in the name of heaven; you can justify it in the end.
There won't be any trumpets blowin' come the judgment day
On the bloody morning after, one tin soldier rides away
Roger Ebert wrote at the time:
I'm also somewhat disturbed by the central theme of the movie. 'Billy Jack' seems to be saying the same thing as 'Born Losers,' that a gun is better than a constitution in the enforcement of justice.In short some of the themes of the film sounded like "The Born Losers", but the main theme was racial intolerance and it resonated with young Americans attempting to find themselves and reshape American culture.
Delores Taylor runs "The Freedom School" on a hippie commune where not only Hippie Children, but Native American's attend. In one scene Indian children go into town to buy some ice cream and are verbally abused by the son of the town boss and his gang. They have replaced "The Born Losers" of the first film.
Eventually there is a major confrontation and Bill Jack is arrested and led away at the film's end. This sets up the third film in the series "The Trial of Billy Jack" (November 13, 1974).
The third installment in the tale of Green Beret Veteran Billy Jack cost 7.8 million to make and would gross 89 million and had a running time ten minutes short of three hours.This was Tom Laughlin's activist agenda film. During the "Trial" we have parallels to "The Kent State National Guard Shootings", "The Mai Lai Massacre" along with the FBI and other agencies becoming involved in bugging the phones of "The Freedom School",
While once more the film resonated with young America the film critics reflected the establishment,
"awful, pretentious film".Donald Gurasico wrote in "All Movie::
Ultimately, most viewers are likely to be baffled by The Trial of Billy Jack, and it can only be recommended to B-movie fans with a hearty constitution...it's a mess, but it's a fascinating mess.There would be a fourth movie entitled "Billy Jack Goes to Washington" released in limited engagement April 16, 1977 very loosely based on Frank Capra's 1939 classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", but Tom Laughton was neither Frank Capra or James Stewart and the film had a negative reception even at the box office by the character's fans. The film at a 155 minutes running time can be found on DVD. However, this did reflect one of Laughlin's other dreams being the President of the United States.
He first sought the Democratic nomination in 1992 and received 1,982 votes in the New Hampshire Primary. He ran again in 2004 this time as a Republican and once more as a Democrat four years later in 2008. His activism kept the mainstream politicians away from assisting him.Politicians who included some old activists themselves.
Tom Laughlin died from complications of pneumonia on December 12, 2013 in Thousand Oaks, California leaving a mark on the American scene.
Here are a couple of fan recorded clips from "The Born Losers" including one off someone's television set.
Number Four: THE TRIP (August 23, 1967)
Before he was a major player in Hollywood Jack Nicholson made small movies at American International Pictures and several for Roger Corman. In 1967 he had his chance as a screenwriter and wrote the script for "The Trip". The film would star his friend Peter Fonda and feature Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper. All members of the 60's drug counter culture. Nicholson talked Corman into both producing and directing it. Like most AIP films the budget was ridiculous at $100,000, but as with most of the films on this list the gross was stupendous at 10 million dollars.
Basically the plot of "The Trip" is an acid (LSD) trip as visualized by Nicholson and experienced on film by Fonda. End of plot summary.
As with a lot of films at the time the U.K. Censors had major problems with "The Trip". The film was actually refused any "Certificate" to be shown at all when it came before them in 1967, 1971, 1980 and for video release only in 1988. It wouldn't be until 2004 when the film, uncut, would finally be approved for DVD sales in the U.K.
The film was of course very popular when it came out reflecting on the experimental drug fad among the middle class. Who while condemning it for their children were experimenting themselves. Fonda plays a director of television commercials. During his "trip" as he roams Los Angeles and experiences weird imageryFonda meets a free wheeling girl. She takes him to her beach house and the two have sexual intercourse while Fonda is still tripping out. In the morning she asks him if his LSD experience was constructive?
The movie ends with him saying he'll tell her "tomorrow". As the action freezes on a close up of Fonda's face and through an animation process suddenly splits like it was made of glass the brakes--fade out.
Here is a link to the complete film.
Number Five: WILD IN THE STREETS (May 29, 1968)
This movie may seem silly to most of my readers who are younger than myself, but let me start this part of my article with the opening lyrics from a song I still have in my head and was a mantra of my generation. The song was"Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire.
The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin', bullets loadin'
You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'
You don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin'
But you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve
At the age of 18 young men across America were being drafted right out of High School into the Army to fight in Vietnam having no choice in the matter. Should they have feelings against American involvement there. A simply stated fact of the times. During the 1960's you had to be 21 years of age to vote so these 18 to 20 year old's had no say as to who was leading the country they were fighting and dying for. Then along comes American International's "Wild in the Streets".
As with the other four films on this page the movie's budget was only $700,000 and it would make a modest 4 million in 1968 dollars for AIP. The Motion Picture was based upon a magazine story "The Day It All Happened" and was expanded by the author Robert Thom to book length. American International had Thom write the screenplay about Rock Star Max Frost who after a move to lower the voting age in Congress, becomes President of the United States at 24 years of age.
For those of you who know your Latin the story was reducto ad absurdum, or reduced to the absurd. However, it was an absurd that resonated with those being drafted, the youth of America and even some adults. ALL BECAUSE OF THE TIMING.
The casting was smartly made at the time with a young actor named Christopher Jones as Max, two old pro's who were looking for a comeback medium Shelly Winters and Hal Holbrook which this film became for them, It also featured popular new comedian Richard Pryor and Diane Varsi. Varsi had been in two major movies "Peyton Place" in which she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress and "Compulsion". She had split the Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year in 1958 with Sandra Dee and Carolyn Jones.
Hollbrook plays a Kennedyesque Senate candidate who wants to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. The actual lowering of the voting age did not come until 1971 two full years after I was discharged from the Navy. Frost and his band is asked to perform at one of his functions, but when Max Frost has a chance to speak he surprises the candidate and those assembled, Here is the start of reducto ad absurdum by asking that the voting age be reduced to 14. He finishes his act with a song "Fourteen or Fight" and a call for demonstrations across the country. Of course they immediately begin.
Events transpire that enable the oldest member of the band played by Varsi to legally get elected to the Senate from her home state. She then introduces a bill to lower the legal age to run for political office to 14. Spiking the Washington, D.C. water supply with LSD the band is able to get the bill passed. Eventually leading to Max becoming President of the United States.
Max and his group want the old guard, anyone over 40, as they see it kept away. So the mandatory retirement age for the nation becomes 35. Anyone over 35 years of age is placed in Manzanar style "re-education camps" where the water is spiked with LSD to keep them calm and the 14 to 30 age group now clearly run the country.
The films ends with Varsi's young 10 year old brother talking to his friend that anyone over--------
Talk about reducto ad absurdum the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film Editing and over the years has become a cult classic of the counter culture era.
The link below is to Roger Ebert's review of the film when it came out. It is very insightful and although he rated it just two stars which kind of made sense at the time. I think he, like anyone who heard about it, had no idea how the film would actually be accepted by its target audience.
So you have read of my five forgotten films and the effects each had. I don't expect everyone to agree with the films, or some of my comments especially on the last film. However, these five reflected the pulse of the United States at a period of time when as Bob Dylan would sing:
Gather 'round people