"Johnny Got His Gun" (1971)
As you might imagine for someone who inspired both a documentary (2007’s “Trumbo”) and an upcoming biopic starring Bryan Cranston and Helen Mirren, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo led quite a storied life: blacklisted as part of the Hollywood Ten, winning two Oscars for his fronts while being unable to work (for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One”), and penning “Spartacus” (while his unmade script “Montezuma” is currently set to be directed by Steven Spielberg). But one of his finest achievements is one that’s so often overlooked: his sole directorial effort, an adaptation of his 1939 National Book Prize-winning novel “Johnny Got His Gun,” which Trumbo had initially wanted Luis Bunuel to direct. Timothy Bottoms plays Joe Bonham, a young World War One soldier left without limbs, eyes, ears and a mouth after being hit by a shell, a prisoner in his own body. He drifts between flashback and fantasy, remembering his girl back home, his father (Jason Robards) and even imagining dialogues with Christ (Donald Sutherland) before expressing a wish to either be allowed to die, or being displayed in a freak show as a demonstration of the horrors of war, neither of which the Army bureaucracy allows him to do. The film is unrepentantly a piece of anti-war propaganda, but manages to avoid feeling like it’s bashing you over the head, instead emphasizing the human loss created by conflict. Trumbo’s direction isn’t always subtle, but the more surreal touches are inspired enough, and his facility with actors so evident, that you wish he’d been allowed behind the camera more often. As it was, the film won the Grand Prix at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, but has been generally overlooked since. Time to change that, we’d say .
“Robin And Marian” (1976)
More than most, and despite his later blockbuster work on the likes of “The Three Musketeers” and “Superman II,” Richard Lester is associated inextricably with the 1960s — Lester practically invented, or at least captured, the Swinging Sixties thanks to directing “A Hard Day’s Night,” “The Help,” “The Knack or How To Get It” and “Petulia.” But one of his finest and most mature films came slap-bang in the middle of the 1970s, in the shape of “Robin And Marian.” The film is the kind of expansion of a pre-existing property or legend that’s pure multiplex fodder these days, but this is a much more melancholy take, closer to Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes” (another under-sung 70s classic) than to, say, Ridley Scott’s more recent version of the tale. Set many years after the prime of Robin Hood (Sean Connery), it sees the bandit returning to England after the death of Richard the Lionheart, and reuniting with Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn, in her return to the screen after eight years away), only to come into contact with King John (Ian Holm) and the Sheriff Of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) once again. There’s a certain amount of derring-do involved, with some satisfying action that sees Lester importing his skills from the ‘Musketeers’ films that preceded this, but what lingers is the autumnal, elegiac tone of the film (which ends with a suicide pact between the title characters). And among a very fine cast also including Denholm Elliott, Nicol Williamson and Ronnie Barker, Connery and Hepburn give arguably the best performances of their careers. It might not be as restlessly inventive as the best of Lester’s 60s output, but it’s just as memorable.
"Fat City" (1972)
John Huston was a true legend of the medium, a filmmaker who made classics from his first film (1941’s “The Maltese Falcon”) to the last (1987’s “The Dead”), with plenty of classics in between, as well as plenty of stinkers. Aside from the glorious “The Man Who Would Be King,” his 1970s work isn’t especially highly regarded, but that ignores the two terrific films he made in 1972: “The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean” and, most importantly for our purposes here, “Fat City,” a sober, downbeat drama that stacks up among Huston’s very best films, even if it’s not really remembered as such these days. It pairs up Stacy Keach and a just post-“The Last Picture Show” Jeff Bridges as respectively, a burnt-out aging boxer and his young protege, but the film resists straying anywhere near a sports-movie narrative: this is a delve into the grittier, more desperate side of life, full of broken dreams and getting the tar beaten out of you for $100 a bout. The film has a careful, slow energy which is a real testament to the way that Huston kept evolving as an artist through his career (it’s much closer to the New Hollywood films that were its contemporaries than you’d imagine for a man of his vintage), is gorgeously shot by the great Conrad Hall, and features two titanic performances from the brash, jockish Bridges, and especially, the pathetic (in the truest sense) Keach. In an alternative, better world, this, and not “Rocky,” is the seminal boxing film of the 1970s.
Honorable Mentions: Honestly, we could do this all day, but we've all got homes to go to. But if this is whetted your appetite, there's plenty more where these came from. We wrote about some under-sung 1970s thrillers last year, including Sidney Lumet's "The Offence," the Walter Matthau-starring "The Laughing Policeman," Robert Aldrich's bonkers "Twilight's Last Gleaming," while an earlier similar piece showcased the great "The Friends Of Eddie Coyle," Dustin Hoffman vehicle "Straight Time," Michael Ritchie's "Prime Cut" and great cop movie "The Seven-Ups."
And among the other films from the era that are worth a mention, there's James William Guerico's "Electra Glide In Blue," Peter Hyams' "Busting," Ingmar Bergman's "The Touch," Alan Arkin's "Little Murders," Arthur Penn's "Night Moves," Hal Ashby's "The Landlord," Stephen Frears' "Gumshoe," Elaine May's "Mikey & Nicky" and "A New Leaf," Jerry Schatzberg's "Scarecrow," Robert Altman's "California Split," Martin Ritt's "The Front," Sidney Pollack's "The Yakuza," Don Siegel's "Charley Varrick," James Toback's "Fingers," Mike Hodges' "Pulp," John Schlesigner's "Day Of The Locust," Paul Schrader's "Hardcore," Arthur Hiller's "The Hospital," Robert Benton's "The Late Show" and Jonathan Demme's "Handle With Care." Any others we've missed? Let us know below. — Oli Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez