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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Rise & Fall of the Action Hero Part 2

The western is the lifeline of action cinema. Having strands in other styles of action films, you can find the western structure in war pictures, martial arts movies, or even some horror movies. The oater has had its ups and downs over the years, but it's the one style of moviemaking that has a symbiotic relationship with American heritage. One man has maintained global identification with these tales of the prairie for over 70 years running.

"The Duke" John Wayne (Marion Robert Morrison) is arguably the single most iconic western action hero of all time; and one of, if not the single most influential on the industry even to this day. THE SEARCHERS (1956), for example, had an indelible impact on a number of Hollywood's biggest filmmakers including Spielberg and Scorsese. Like him or not, when westerns are mentioned, the name John Wayne is bound to be brought up. There had been other western heroes, singing cowboys and such, but Wayne is, and was, synonymous with the oater; and without him, the genre might of turned into a veritable ghost town. Referred to as the model 'everyman', Wayne's stature in these films grew to legendary proportions. He was the living, breathing essence of the traditional sagebrush saga. The good guys and the bad guys were clearly defined in Wayne's movies. The good guys were hard working, honest, strong men who adhered to rugged individualism. The bad guys were the exact opposite--they worked in less than reputable professions, were devoutly dishonest, preferring to steal and kill for what they want. This was the classic good vs. evil template, and one that other action stars, like Chuck Norris, emulated in their own films. Christened The Duke after a pet dog he had as a kid, Wayne acted in virtually every genre, but it's the westerns he's most associated with. An Academy Award winning actor, John Wayne's career had an amazing longevity to it that few, if any, could attest.

The traditional American Hero was soon tested in the mid 1960s with the importing of a new kind of "hero" that had emerged in Italy in 1964. Germany and Italy had been doing American style westerns of their own, but it took Sergio Leone to try something uniquely different with the popular model; and using an American by the name of Clint Eastwood to do it.

Once the 60s were well underway with all the hippies, free love and drugs--the antithesis of the nuclear family era of the 1950s--Wayne's rugged image and American frontier style took a hit from a burgeoning new approach on the western formula from Italy. Over there America's defining cinema archetype was turned on its head. The characteristics of good and evil became blurred. Most of the films featured heroes who weren't all that heroic; many of them were bounty hunters, gunfighters obsessed with money, or bandits instigating, or participating in revolutions. Cynical and brutal in the extreme, there was a radical left-wing approach permeating a majority of those pictures wherein greed was the center of the narrative and criminality was celebrated. The "hero" often didn't care about causes, just himself. And money. Women were also treated with a surprising degree of apathy by Italy's interpretation of the western protagonist (if you could call them protagonists). Women in American westerns were stereotypically of the homemaking variety. Occasionally an Annie Oakley type would seep in; but in Italian westerns they were often little more than a disposable character to make clear who you weren't supposed to root for. In the eyes of such Italian filmmakers as Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima, and Damiano Damiani, it was no longer solely Wayne's West, but one occupied by anarchists and communists; and it wasn't just the Italian approach to the material. The 60s were fraught with change and a great deal of violence; and much of this spilled over into the entertainment industry.

The new breed of American western that took shape in the latter part of the 60s was obviously influenced by its Italian variant in how they were shot, the way the characters were presented, and most obviously in the music. Still, despite the Ameri-oaters new look, heavy dose of cynicism, and ramped up violence, John Wayne remained the symbol of the genre. If anything or anyone was responsible for putting a dent in The Duke's cinematic persona, it was Clint Eastwood; and not just with his anti-heroic turns in a trilogy of films from Sergio Leone.

Clint Eastwood had already been a familiar face on TV's RAWHIDE series, but rose to prominence doing westerns in Italy. Not only was Eastwood crucial in altering the sagebrush paradigm, but he would revolutionize the cop thriller at the start of the 1970s; a genre style that owed a lot to the western. DIRTY HARRY (1971) really is an iconic motion picture, and one that sent critics and leftists into fits of hysteria while coming to the conclusion that the film was fascist (the Italian variants got the same response). Loosely based on the Zodiac Killer murder case that began in 1968, Eastwood's no-nonsense cop struck a chord with the public that reverberated through four sequels and a slew of similar movies starring Tough Guy colleagues like John Wayne (McQ) and Charles Bronson (THE STONE KILLER). Unlike John Wayne, Clint is recognized for multiple genres. In 1978 he took his Tough Guy persona to new heights with the smash EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE. It was Eastwood's most profitable film at that time, and his first attempt at mixing action and comedy. Of course a sequel was inevitable with ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980). It remains one of the best Tough Guy movies of all time, and co-stars the Toughest Tough Guy of them all, William Smith. The versatile Action Hero, Eastwood, like Wayne and others, turned to directing his own films.

One of cinemas most celebrated action heroes was far more popular overseas than he was in the United States.... at first. Charles Bronson had been in just about everything on television and the big screen, but didn't click with American audiences till his turn as Paul Kersey in Michael Winner's iconic DEATH WISH in 1974. This was another production, like DIRTY HARRY, that resonated with audiences. Whereas the judicial system sometimes worked against the victims while favoring the perpetrators, there was a feeling that this type of movie would incite the citizenry to become vigilantes themselves. What's funny about this is that community organizers, activists, and anarchists are praised for instigating anger and violence on a grand scale, yet a movie about a passive, law-abiding man taking that very law into his own hands to do what the law on the books will not do is setting a dangerous precedent. While some critics were outraged, audiences cheered because here was a guy acting out their aggression onscreen.

Much like John Wayne and his western heroes, Charles Bronson had solidified himself as vigilante Paul Kersey, or a similar type of character. That's all audiences wanted to see him do. Also like John Wayne, Bronson was a lead in a variety of roles ranging from westerns to comedies and dramas; yet none were as popular with audiences as his vigilante type roles. It took seven years for Kersey to pick up a gun again in DEATH WISH 2 (1981) when the Action Hero cycle really heated up. 

Another Big Gun of the Action Hero variety was Charlton Heston. Arguably the apotheosis of the Tough Guy model, Heston was blessed with headlining a heady stream of big budget extravaganzas. Many of Heston's action-adventure films were historical productions; these stood out in how varied they all are. About the only time-period Heston didn't tackle was the Stone Age. PLANET OF THE APES (1968) is about as close as he got. SECRET OF THE INCAS (1954) is one of the more influential adventure films Heston starred in. Itself a more polished version of action serials from the 30s and 40s, INCAS was a huge impact on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), one of the most important films of the modern action era. Heston's other big epics include BEN HUR (1959), EL CID (1961), 55 DAYS AT PEKING (1963) and THE WAR LORD (1965). He crossed over into SciFi with the likes of three very different movies in PLANET OF THE APES (1968), THE OMEGA MAN (1971), and SOYLENT GREEN (1973). Charlton Heston is arguably the most well-rounded Tough Guy having done pretty much everything and been successful at all of it.

In the early 70s, the anti-hero template had become the norm. Beginning in the late 60s, things changed in a big way. Movie violence was getting more vicious, and the notion that good must always triumph in the end was going out of fashion. Another Action Hero movement was stirring at this time; one that didn't rely on big budgets to tell its story, but sensationalism that painted the good vs evil dynamic in a way it'd never been seen before.

In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, there was a need and desire for strong black characters onscreen. There had been black actors in the old Hollywood days who had prospered in roles that, while they became financially comfortable for their work, had been deemed derogatory in the eyes of some. The black films of the 70s were similarly disliked for much the same reasons. As far as action stars go, it wasn't till the 1970s that guys like Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson and Bernie Casey came to prominence when the 'blaxploitation' moniker was coined. Roundtree is arguably the most iconic actor in the black action canon. When somebody says 'blaxploitation', detective John Shaft generally finds his way into the discussion. SHAFT (1971) paved the way for the tough as nails heroes that came after him. Roundtree did two more Shaft films and he was done. Contracted to a 12 picture deal with MGM, he was supposed to headline a few more SHAFT pictures, but feared typecasting and got out of the deal. Roundtree was a regular face in action pictures afterward, but didn't do another SHAFT style picture till the genre was out of style with ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO (1982) and ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (1996).

Many of this crop of big screen heroes were former football players; one in particular is one of the greatest, Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown. He began his movie career in 1965 in the western RIO CONCHOS. Brown parlayed his football career into a very successful Hollywood run with a string of beefy lead and co-starring roles in such Macho classics as THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), DARK OF THE SUN (1968), and 100 RIFLES (1969) to name a few. Brown wanted to play roles that didn't distinguish color, as opposed to a role tailored to a black man. This is evident in his early film work. When the black actioners spawned by the success of SHAFT (1971) took hold, Jim Brown was on top of things as SLAUGHTER (1972), BLACK GUNN (1972) and THREE THE HARD WAY (1974) to name a few. Jim Brown is unique among his genre colleagues in that he was already an established actor prior to the black action boom.

Fred Williamson was the most prolific of this genre style, as well as the genres most flamboyant entrepreneur. Williamson didn't do the number of big Hollywood movies that Jim Brown had done, but did a wide variety of action pictures. His flashy James Bond styled THAT MAN BOLT (1973) was essentially Williamson playing himself and getting paid for it. He eventually began producing his own pictures, formed his own production company (the aptly titled Po Boy Productions), and sold his movies around the world as a one man operation. Budgets were low, but Williamson famously claimed none lost money. About the only thing Williamson was never able to do was make his movies the way he wanted because of budgetary constraints. His lead in THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY (1972) was one of the top hits of 1972. Williamson liked westerns and would do more of them; eventually making a lot of movies in Italy where he was very popular. He's still active in the industry today.

The black action films stood out from other similar films. Key to the success of these movies were a predominantly black cast, mostly white villains, an occasional white sidekick, and a strong black hero that all the women wanted. Flurries of racial epithets (like nigger, honky, spade, cracker, etc) were common staples for raw humorous effect and to make the villains even more despicable. From outrageous violence to over the top dialog to lots of nudity, these films gave audiences what a lot of other like-minded features didn't. Curiously, these films came under fire from black interest groups and critics for positing negative stereotypes; for portraying so-called demeaning images of blacks onscreen. The black action style eventually died out, with only a handful of entries in the 1980s; and a mild resurgence in recent years.

For decades Hong Kong and Japan had been doing action films that, by the 1970s, had developed their own style of heroism that was unlike anything seen anywhere else. Japan was closer to the American style. Hong Kong redefined the Tough Guy schematic that would be adopted by American filmmakers by the close of the 1990s. Largely unrecognized outside of Asia for his contribution to Macho Movies, Chang Cheh (above in middle) single-handedly brought male ruggedness to HK cinema. Prior to 1967, movies in HK were dominated by female stars. They were the headliners, and even played male roles till Chang made testosterone fashionable at the box office over there; to take things further, Chang Cheh refined stylized violence to complement this new vein of masculinity that was heretofore unseen in Hong Kong prior. His influence was felt in America, although the man was never officially recognized for it. Naturally, his films were attacked by critics for their extreme violence while his brotherhood among men was misread and misconstrued as a director artistically announcing his alleged homosexuality despite spending much of his career in opposition to the notion.

In the annals of action cinema, the kung fu films out of Hong Kong in the 1970s have always been underestimated. Their influence on popular culture has rarely ever been formally addressed. Seemingly the black sheep of action pictures, they enjoyed several years of dominance till over-saturation cheapened their value, and Hollywood blockbusters became the norm. It's the one genre that was co-opted by the likes of the western and black actioners to make those films more enticing. Eventually, instead of importing more Chinese films, producers in America and Italy got the idea of making their own martial arts films. Everybody was literally kung fu fighting in the 1970s. The fad with the longest life, one man was chiefly responsible for that...

In the late 60s, Bruce Lee was slowly making a name for himself in Hollywood, yet super stardom, while always just within reach, eluded him. It wasn't till FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1972) made a lot of noise at theaters around the world did Bruce finally gain unparalleled popularity in the US with ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), his first lead in an American production; and the first martial arts movie financed by an American company. Out of all the Action Heroes, Bruce Lee arguably remains the most folkloric of all. After his death, Bruce Lee was literally everywhere. For a guy who only starred in four complete pictures (the patchwork GAME OF DEATH features archive footage of Lee from the original, incomplete production from 1972), Lee's star has remained astonishingly bright ever since. He died well before he reached his full potential. Lee the Legend maintains the mystique surrounding Lee the Man.

With the aid of the kung fu boom and Bruce Lee's charismatic Tough Guy persona, Japan answered with a Tough Guy of their own. Shinichi 'Sonny' Chiba had already been a star since the early 1960s acting in a variety of genres and a wealth of works unsurpassed by anyone else mentioned in these articles. The need for action pictures in the style of the HK productions was provided by Toei Company, Limited, arguably Japan's most prolific filmmaking machine pumping out movies and TV programs like product on a factory conveyor belt. The answer to Kung Fu was Karate in the form of THE STREET FIGHTER (1974), a smash on the international scene. More similar fare followed with Chiba articulating himself in a variety of bone-breaking roles where instant death is doled out with vicious precision. Devoted to martial arts and athletics, Chiba created the JAC (Japan Action Club), his own training facility for aspiring actors and actresses. Chiba eventually made his way to America in a string of low budget actioners and a few big budget Hollywood films. A cult actor in America, Chiba's popularity in Japan is the equivalent of John Wayne in the USA.

Before Chiba, there had always been samurai pictures with guys like Shintaro Katsu (ZATOICHI) and his brother Wakayama Tomisaburo (SHOGUN ASSASSIN), Ichikawa Raizo (SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH), and others. The Karate films were a melding of samurai theatrics and gangster style. Chiba literally carried the Karate genre on his shoulders for several years before placing his JAC (Japan Action Club) students into the limelight. Since then, there hasn't been anyone else quite like Chiba who has done the variety of work he has.

In the late 1970s, an American star who, like Chiba, was a martial arts champion, was being groomed for stardom. Appearing in bit roles earlier in the decade, this man made his name in an epic big screen battle against Bruce Lee in 1972s WAY OF THE DRAGON. By 1980, this man would not only design and shape the look of the American martial arts picture, but would become the first of the 80s Action Heroes when the terminology became set in stone.


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