The most beautiful and innovative wuxia of this period were directed by King Hu, who combined Japanese samurai films, Chinese philosophy, and Western film techniques, creating elegant masterpieces like A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn. Hu’s films featured gravity-defying fight scenes and strong female protagonists, and his unique style in films like Legend of the Mountain and The Fate of Lee Khan, would be a major influence on later directors.
As we continue our walk thru Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film, we’ve now reached the 1970’s, one of the defining decades in cinema history. As we saw in the last column, an influx of talent from television, film schools and independent filmmaking had led to the birth of the “New Hollywood” movement in America. At the same time, major filmmakers continued to emerge from other countries, creating new and even more challenging cinema, with a group of maverick directors arising from West Germany and the New German Cinema movement.
Perhaps the two most well-known members of the New German Cinema movement would be the directors Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. Wenders would first find acclaim with his Road Trilogy, which introduced his preoccupation with characters on often aimless journeys. Later films, such as Wings of Desire and the documentary Buena Vista Social Club, would solidify Wenders’ reputation. Werner Herzog’s films, often focusing on flawed protagonists with impossible dreams, would also find world acclaim. A prolific director of both fiction and documentary films, pictures like Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Heart of Glass, and Grizzly Man, would give Herzog a reputation as an accomplished, and somewhat eccentric, director.
As we’ve seen in The Story of Film, while American cinema had been at the forefront of filmmaking for many years, over time, Hollywood’s movies had begun growing stagnant. The Production Code Administration still restricted what could be said, done, or shown in American movies. But by the early 1960’s, the PCA was losing its hold on the industry. The success of foreign films, which weren’t subject to PCA oversight, plus the studio’s new willingness to challenge the Code, led to the adoption of a movie ratings system in 1968. And the unprecedented success of independent film Easy Rider, actor Dennis Hopper’s directorial debut, encouraged studios to take a chance on new directors, many of whom would make their mark on cinema history.
One of those new directors had locked horns with the PCA and emerged unscathed, successfully negotiating with the MPAA for his film’s release virtually intact. That film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was the first directed by Mike Nichols, and Nichols’ next picture, The Graduate, would be an even bigger box office success. Nichols would follow up that film’s dissection of youthful, suburban ennui with the star-studded war satire Catch 22 and the science fiction thriller, Day of the Dolphin, among others.
Continuing our journey through The Story of Film, we move further abroad as a new wave of filmmakers emerges across the world. With the French New wave in full flower and major new filmmakers from Italy and Sweden, cinema was in an exciting period of growth, with new directors emerging from countries whose voices had yet to be heard from.
The death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 had begun a political “thaw” in Communist bloc countries, which in turn began a blossoming of film culture within them. In Poland, the emergence of the Polish Film School, influenced by the Italian neo-realist film movement, would produce several influential directors including Andrzej Wajda, whose work focused on the social and political evolution of Poland and her people. Wajda’s War Trilogy of films (Pokolenie, Kanal, Ashes & Diamonds) focused on the Polish experience during World War 2 and its aftermath, with characters struggling to survive and resist their country’s occupiers.
From the same milieu came director Roman Polanski, who had worked as an actor in two of Wadja’s films. Polanski’s first feature, Knife In the Water, was an international success about the psychological games played between a married couple and a young hitchhiker. Polanski would quickly leave Poland, choosing to work in Great Britain and America, where he would direct the critically acclaimed films Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown.