To say the ’70s was a turbulent era is an understatement. Between Watergate, demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the rise of second wave feminism, the decade was a time of major political and social upheaval. Fortunately for filmgoers, it was arguably the most significant era in American film history. The collapse of the studio system in the late ’60s led the way for then-independent filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola to make their marks, and thanks to two specific films, the concept of summer blockbusters was born and then molded into the modern interpretations we see today.
Many of the decade’s films have stood the test of time, and its summers have included some of the biggest and most influential names in film. The list is bountiful, but these fifteen films were the best those warm months had to offer.
15. Shaft (1971)
Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song may have gotten the ball rolling for blaxploitation, but Gordon Parks’ Shaft helped the movement explode. Sure, Shaft was a more commercial film, but the righteous anger remained the same.
The film’s title character, played by Richard Roundtree, is one who lives and breathes ‘cool.’ His swagger emanates from his first moment on screen, casually walking in front of an entire row of New York yellow cabs and flipping one the bird. Such a confidence carries over into whenever he swiftly obliterates an unsuspecting group of thugs. Regardless of the film’s blaxploitation tag, Shaft has proven to be one of the lasting action heroes, spawning two sequels and a television series.
14. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Roald Dahl may have disowned the film — even though he contributed as a screenwriter — but Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka still introduced many children to a “world of pure imagination” in this adaptation of Dahl’s novel. Wilder’s performance as a whimsical, yet duplicitous Wonka was only the tip of the iceberg, with a number of memorable musical moments and a production value rivaling many technical marvels that would arrive on the screen years afterwards rounding out its notable accomplishments. Those achievements, however, wouldn’t be widely recognized until well after its release — the film was a financial failure, making only $4 million in rentals against a $3 million production.
The film may have been for children, but it still contains a number of moments some might consider traumatizing. The tunnel scene is not easily forgotten with its horrifying psychedelic imagery, and there’s something disquieting in that we never see the fates of the naughty children who just couldn’t behave. Sure, the narrative takes a few unnecessary turns, but they add to the charming strangeness matched by its title character.
13. Deliverance (1972)
Summer films are usually feel-good enterprises with little overall unpleasantness. Such cannot be said about 1972’s Deliverance, one of the more notorious films to come out of the ’70s. Starring Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight and Ned Beatty, Deliverance‘s tale of four friends looking to take in the beauty of the wilderness is one defined by contrasts. Both the unassuming opening — thanks to the famous dueling banjos scene — and the natural splendor of the film’s Tallulah Gorge and Chattooga River set locations are quickly contradicted by the film’s gritty violence and its infamous male rape scene where Beatty’s Bobby is continually told to “squeal like a pig.”
The grim overtones are balanced out by some fine performances from the main cast, some spectacular cinematography and nail-biting suspense. Unlike Wonka, the film’s brilliance was realized immediately, earning $46 million along with three Academy Award and five Golden Globe nominations. Interestingly, this film cemented Reynolds’ status as a leading man, but he often takes a back seat to the other actors, namely Voight, whose performance earned a Golden Globe nomination.
12. American Graffiti (1973)
Before granting audiences the visual pleasures of a galaxy far, far away, director George Lucas provided tender rumination on the comforts of the familiar and the frightening aspect of leaving them behind in the coming-of-age film American Graffiti. Featuring Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss, the film depicts four friends trying to make the most of their last night in town before going away to college, with some struggling with cold feet more than others.
The film plays out like a milder version of Superbad; the friends get split up into varying directions and engage in wild activities they might not have considered before, only to meet once again by the film’s conclusion having made up their minds as to the next steps in their futures. The film’s, and perhaps Lucas’s nostalgia, is best exemplified in one scene where Dreyfuss’ Curt tries to open his old high school locker, but fails; the past is firmly left behind and stubbornly remains there no matter how hard we try to cling to it. Additionally, concerning one Toad, the ending’s on-screen epilogue is a sobering reminder of the times that lay ahead for many in Vietnam.
11. Chinatown (1974)
One of the more lasting images in cinema is Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes with the bandage taped to his nose. That image, courtesy of the grim neo-noir mystery Chinatown, was a collision course between a well-established director and an actor on his way to the top. Director Roman Polanski’s reputation had been set with films such as Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, but while Nicholson had featured in films like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, his performance in Chinatown catapulted his career to stardom.
Along with an equally impressive star turn from Faye Dunaway and Robert Towne’s deft, multi-faceted screenplay, Chinatown is heavily regarded as one of the genre’s and decade’s greats. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences even saw fit to give it an astounding eleven different nominations, though its only victory was Best Original Screenplay. Perhaps neo-noir is the exact tonal opposite of what a summer movie should be, but that hardly mattered in this case.
10. Nashville (1975)
Nashville‘s promotion calls the film “The damnedest thing you ever saw,” and in many respects, that statement’s accuracy is verifiable. First of all, the film features a massive ensemble cast of 24, including Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Chaplin and Henry Gibson, just to name a few. Secondly, the film uses Nashville and the country music industry as a linchpin for its satire of America’s obsession with celebrity culture. Quite often, it highlights the nefarious intermingling politics and the music industry, as well.
As was mentioned previously, the decade was a powder-keg of political and social upheaval, and Nashville is one of America’s prime examples of post-Vietnam film. When director Robert Altman’s film isn’t carefully weaving in and out of multiple story lines, it uses the unseen voice of an outsider politician to express the discontent some may have had with the political system, expertly building up to an explosive conclusion.
9. Jaws (1975)
Doesn’t it seem strange that Jaws, one of Steven Spielberg’s most heavily-revered films, was essentially a spiritual successor to a TV movie he had directed about a man being chased by a maniacal truck driver? Perhaps, but still, Jaws is immediately recognizable on its own for the contributions it made for modern cinema. Summers would never be the same because of a single shark named Bruce (the crews’ nickname for the prop shark).
For many reasons, Jaws was the prototypical summer blockbuster, and its financial reaping helped lay the foundation for the rest of modern Hollywood cinema. It has everything you could ask for in a summer movie: memorable one liners, action-packed thrills and a captivating story that envelops you in a world all its own. This film was a launching pad for Spielberg, who would immediately go onto direct Close Encounters of the Third Kind two years later, and Raiders of the Lost Ark four years after that. And yet, if anything about the film is most recognizable, it isn’t anything you see. John Williams’ ominously murky, then dangerously rising theme has helped terrify viewers before anything came on screen. Not even a clever parody of the theme from Airplane! could diminish its impact.
8. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
Indeed, Star Wars was a bit of a leap from American Graffiti, but George Lucas’s deft touch and ambitious screenplay helped redefine the then-fledgling interpretation of a ‘summer movie.’ Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz intended the film to be a space opera with a “low-budget, Roger Corman style,” but little could they realize the future fandom they were laying the foundations of.
Because at the end of the day, as culturally significant Star Wars was and became, the real story isn’t the epic scale the fantastic production design lent itself to or the just over $775 million the film has grossed in its lifetime. Rather, the film is a testament to the power of fans and characters that captivated their hearts and minds. Though honestly, let’s stop pretending whether or not Han shot first really matters.
7. Grease (1978)
In spite of its admittedly cloying sweetness, Grease remains the highest grossing musical film of all time for a reason. Its strong leads, warm nostalgia — more for the concept of young love than the period in which it’s set — and some incredibly catchy songs have made it live on through the ages.
John Travolta was still riding the waves of Saturday Night Fever the year prior, and Grease showed that he was still fully in stride. Co-star Olivia Newton-John, on the other hand, while having a highly successful music career prior to the film, had done little acting to speak of prior to the film. Cast at the behest of Travolta, she found equal comfort performing alongside her co-star. Given how poorly Grease 2 performed, it remains evident that Grease just had that magic ingredient, whatever it was, to outdo everyone’s expectations.
6. Animal House (1978)
Every high school or college comedy released in the last 15 to 20 years has been inspired by and can be traced back to one film: National Lampoon’s Animal House. These sorts of films are known for continually upping the ante with each passing gag, and John Landis’ film certainly keeps piling on the obscenity in every scene.
On its surface, Animal House is a bit of a maniacal, anarchic mess, weaving in and out of loosely assembled scenes just barely held together by a shoestring plot. And yet, that’s what makes the film so charming, along with the pitch perfect comedic exaggeration exhibited by its performers. These aren’t your father’s cardboard cutout, elitist frat stars — though they are equally juvenile — and thanks to some focused direction and sharp writing, Animal House has cemented its legacy as required viewing for every present and soon-to-be college student.
5. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Who cares if the production for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was dysfunctional? Making art is a messy thing, and between Marlon Brando showing up to the shoot overweight and unprepared, Typhoon Olga causing havoc and Martin Sheen’s heart attack, it’s safe to say that Coppola and company persevered through the unforeseen elements to deliver one of the finest war films ever made — only four years after the Vietnam War’s end, no less.
Intense, yet vividly-captured images of war and a haunting performance from Brando are only the start of this film’s greatness, but perhaps its greatest quality is its lack of a pro or anti-war stance. American involvement in Vietnam was heavily divisive, and being only four years after its end, the wounds of impotence were still fresh. Either stance can easily be interpreted in the film, and no strong commitment to either side shows a mature respect for the time and multitude of narratives.
4. Alien (1979)
One of the greatest taglines in the history of cinema is Alien‘s “In space, no one can hear you scream.” While such may have been the case for those aboard the Nostromo, God help the people sitting in the theater next to those cowering behind the hands covering their eyes.
Before James Cameron would completely reinvent the tone of the rest of the series in 1986, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic terrified audiences and critics everywhere. It’s claustrophobic single location set only heightened the tension as the now famous Xenomorph began hunting down the ship’s crew. Additionally, because of the film, Sigourney Weaver had begun to establish herself in Hollywood by introducing filmgoers to Ellen Ripley, one of the most iconic heroines in cinema.
3. Rocky II (1979)
The Rotten Tomatoes consensus for Rocky II states that it “dares you to root again for the ultimate underdog.” For the most part, the film succeeds with such gall, in spite of giving us almost the exact same movie. There’s just something inherently charming about the Italian Stallion, that big lug of man who is a man for the people rather than the flash.
Rocky II is exactly what you might expect from a sports film about a David versus Goliath scenario — is there any other kind? But for its familiarities, it succeeds with the appealing Sylvester Stallone, some surprisingly thought-provoking moments — for instance, when Apollo Creed addresses his entourage on a possible rematch and argues, “I won, but I didn’t beat him” — and a genuinely intense final fight scene which ends the only way it could have. After all, Rocky Balboa is America’s underdog, and how do you make a sequel where he loses again?
2. Meatballs (1979)
Speaking of feel good movies, let us consider the Canadian comedy Meatballs, a film about the campers and counselors of misfit Camp North Star, where love and hijinks are in the air, as well as the usual disdain for elitist Camp Mohawk. The film was Bill Murray’s first as a lead actor, and was the first in three straight comedic collaborations with director Ivan Reitman — the following two being Stripes and Ghostbusters.
This may have been Murray’s first leading role, but he seemed comfortable within that new title. The usual goofy confidence and somewhat manic personality viewers would come to expect later on was on full display in Reitman’s film, and his presence helped the movie become a comedy classic. Such cannot be said of the three sequels that soon followed, none of which were as funny or as financially successful as the original.
1. Life of Brian (1979)
Few films could use being banned in foreign nationalities as a successful marketing strategy. As any fan of Monty Python now might have expected, that’s exactly what the comedy troupe did for the successor to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian: one of the film’s taglines, as part of their Swedish advertising, read “So funny, it was banned in Norway!”
With it’s premise of a regular Jewish man living next door to Jesus Christ and being mistaken for the Messiah, there were general anxieties from those establishment politicians in the U.K. about how the film might cause some to react. While anyone could have predicted the imminent outrage soon to follow, no one could have known that Life of Brian would match, or even surpass the comedic heights set by Holy Grail. Life of Brian sees the Monty Python troupe at their sharpest and most poignant, with such memorable moments like the stoning scene and Brian’s mother exclaiming to a crowd of followers “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a naughty boy!”
Bonus: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Before someone points out that The Rocky Horror Picture Show didn’t reach the States until late September 1975, please keep in mind that it did premiere in the summer in the U.K., and for that reason, this cult classic deserves special mention in this list. Besides, where would a list about ’70s summer cinema be without this magical little film led by a sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania?
Rocky Horror is a movie beloved by normies and outcasts alike for its infectious musical numbers and loving tribute to the camp of past science fiction and horror films. For many around the world, seeing the film in full costume and belting out all the songs at the local theater is a time-honored tradition. A full-on revamp of the film is heading to Fox later this fall as a Halloween television special, with Laverne Cox taking over for Tim Curry’s famous Dr. Frank N. Furter.
Surely there are many summer titles that went unmentioned. Let us know your favorites in the comments!