The movies of 1970 were a ball of confusion

Fifty years ago, the ’60s were over, the ’70s were just starting, and Hollywood was stuck in the middle

George C. Scott in "Patton."
George C. Scott in "Patton."Associated Press

Maybe the best way to understand what 1970 was like at the movies is to watch the opening of “Patton.” “M*A*S*H” and “Love Story” and “Woodstock” and “Airport” and “Five Easy Pieces” and “The Conformist" also came out that crazy-quilt movie year. But nothing better captures the crazy-quiltedness than those six minutes.

The year’s fourth-highest-grossing release, “Patton” would go on to win seven Oscars, including best picture, best director, best original screenplay, and best actor, for George C. Scott. In a gesture worthy of the World War II general he played, George S. Patton, Scott rejected both nomination and award. If that sounds kind of crazy, remember, we’re talking about the beginning of the ’70s. There’s a reason the Temptations topped the charts with “Ball of Confusion.”


Back to those six minutes. An American flag fills the screen. No, that’s not quite right: It fills the screen. Patton emerges to stand in front of it and address his troops. We hear them, but don’t see them, which makes us, the audience, the troops.

What Scott delivers in his magnificent gargle-bark is equal parts pep talk, harangue, and analysand’s half of a therapy session. It’s profane. It’s over the top. It’s right-wing red meat. It’s left-wing wink at right-wing red meat. “Americans have never lost a war and never will,” Scott bellows. Gee, what then-contemporary event might that be alluding to?

The fact that the camera lingers almost erotically over Patton’s medals and rings and pearl-handled pistols — it’s like he’s doing a drag act for VFW halls — argues for left-wing wink. So does the fact that Francis Ford Coppola co-wrote the script. It’s “Apocalypse Early.”

So that opening — and it’s mesmerizing — is both ridiculously traditional and ridiculously ridiculous. That was Hollywood in 1970: the trick of having things both ways not quite mastered, but getting there.


The same studio that released “Patton,” 20th Century Fox, also released the year’s third-highest-grossing film. That, too, was a war movie — different war, very different movie — “M*A*S*H.” Robert Altman’s film still feels fresh, daring, almost dangerous, as the even more successful CBS sitcom based on it never did.

The year that the New Hollywood announced its arrival was 1967, with “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate.” It wouldn’t finally seize power, such as it was, until 1974, when four of the five Oscar nominees for best picture were “The Godfather Part II,” “Chinatown,” “The Conversation,” and “Lenny” (in a nod to the old order, the fifth was “The Towering Inferno”). In the meantime, an uneasy armistice was being observed. That unease, and dividedness, can be seen throughout 1970.

Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw in "Love Story."
Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw in "Love Story."Handout

The year’s top-grossing release was “Love Story.” It’s hard to get more three-hanky traditional than that. Yet insofar as “Love Story” is about college kids falling in love, it’s a youth movie (of sorts). That was fast becoming its own genre in 1970: “The Strawberry Statement” — college radicals; “Getting Straight” — more college radicals, and one of no fewer than four movies Elliott Gould starred in that year; “R.P.M.” — you guessed it, more college radicals, with Anthony Quinn (!) as a beleaguered college president (!!) and a script by Erich Segal, who also wrote, yes, “Love Story.”

The movies made a more overt appeal to young audiences via music. The documentaries “Woodstock” (the year’s fifth-top-grossing release), “Let It Be” (farewell to the Beatles), and “Gimme Shelter” (the Rolling Stones’s fateful concert at Altamont) all came out in 1970. For Stones fans who couldn’t get enough of Mick Jagger, he also starred in “Performance” and “Ned Kelly.”


Set in Australia, “Kelly” is a western with a twist. No genre more clearly shows the twistiness of 1970. There was reassurance in John Wayne starring in not one but two westerns, “Chisum” and “Rio Lobo” (Howard Hawks’s final directorial effort). Yet you also had “El Topo,” the western as midnight movie, and “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.” It’s Sam Peckinpah’s most lyrical film — but still Peckinpah. “Two Mules for Sister Sara,” starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine, straddles tradition and revision. Straddle is definitely not in the saddle with “Soldier Blue,” “A Man Called Horse,” or “Little Big Man” (the year’s sixth-highest-grossing film). They’re revisionist with boots and spurs on.

Dean Martin in the 1970 film "Airport," directed by George Seaton.
Dean Martin in the 1970 film "Airport," directed by George Seaton.Universal Pictures

Dividedness could take surprising forms. “Airport,” runner-up to “Love Story” at the box office, is Old Hollywood at its most forthrightly shameless: a disaster-movie melodrama based on a best-selling novel, with casting to make the jaw drop. Would you want to fly on a plane piloted by Dean Martin? But it also uses the occasional split screen — just like “Woodstock.”

Or there’s the matter of Jack Nicholson, the New Hollywood’s grinning jester-king. A year after stealing “Easy Rider” right out from Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (admittedly, not much of a challenge), he gives one of the decade’s defining performances, as the electrically self-loathing Bobby Dupea, in “Five Easy Pieces.” “Hold it between your knees"? Try to imagine Dean Martin behind the controls in that particular cockpit. But Nicholson was in a second movie that year. He plays Barbra Streisand’s sitar-playing stepbrother (yes, you did just read the words you think you did) in “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” At least Nicholson wasn’t in another 1970 musical, “Darling Lili.” It was the year’s biggest flop. Julie Andrews! Rock Hudson! Crickets!


Jack Nicholson and Karen Black in "Five Easy Pieces."
Jack Nicholson and Karen Black in "Five Easy Pieces."handout

In fairness, the New Hollywood had at least one monumental flop, too. Michelangelo Antonioni had had a Zeitgeist-grabbing international hit with his first English-language feature, “Blow-Up” (1966). That was shot in London. Now he came to America to shoot “Zabriskie Point,” in Death Valley. A youth movie. It wouldn’t have been such a disaster perhaps if filmed on a college campus? Antonioni almost had company as a foreign master with a Hollywood connection in 1970. The original plan for the Pearl Harbor epic “Tora! Tora! Tora!” was to have Akira Kurosawa shoot the Japanese scenes. That fell through, which didn’t keep it from being the year’s eighth top-grosser.

An unintended consequence of the rise of the New Hollywood would be a marked decline in interest in foreign film. You wouldn’t know it from the example of 1970, though. Luis Buñuel’s ‘70s renaissance began with “Tristana.” Vittoria De Sica’s “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” would win the best foreign picture Oscar. It was a banner year for French film: Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge,” Claude Chabrol’s “Le Boucher,” Eric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee,” and two from François Truffaut, “The Wild Child” and “Bed and Board.”


Bernardo Bertolucci also had two that year: “The Spider Stratagem” and “The Conformist.” Ah, “The Conformist” (such a not-1970 title): Any movie year that included the release of one of the greatest films ever made has to be considered a pretty good movie year.



Available on Amazon Prime, Google Player, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube


Available on Amazon Prime, Google Player, Hulu, YouTube

“Love Story”

Available on Amazon Prime, Google Player, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube


Available on Amazon Prime, Google Player, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

“Little Big Man”

Available on Amazon Prime


Available on Amazon Prime, Google Player, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

“Five Easy Pieces”

Available on Amazon Prime, Crackle, Google Player, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

“The Conformist”

Available on Amazon Prime, Google Player, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.