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Half a century ago, as the final year of the Sixties unfolded, Hollywood studios looked at the youthful trends of the previous year and loaded themselves up with inexpensive campus political dramas, left-wing fare that would be ready for release in the spring and summer of 1970. “The Strawberry Statement”, “The Revolutionary”, “Revolutions Per Minute” and “Zabriskie Point” were one-sided bets on what audiences at the dawn of the Seventies would be eager to pay for—sympathetic, appealing violent dramas and coarse comedies about campus rioters who sleep around and curse a lot. To the chagrin of Hollywood planners, who were usually stuck with two-year lead times on feature film projects, they bet wrong. There will always be an audience for violent drama and coarse comedy; it was the “rioters” aspect, the anti-police violence as entertainment that proved to be an astoundingly tin-eared wrong step on Hollywood’s part. It would cause an enduring, decades-long counter-reaction that at the time was dismissed as a transient “backlash”.
The Vietnam War was still near its height as springtime ’70 brought on the protesting season, as it’s been in much of western Europe since the 1830s or thereabout. The first Earth Day was planned for April 22, and would be the most peaceful of the year’s mass demonstrations. The campuses were already primed to explode. Mine literally did in March, when a homemade bomb killed its radical builder and leveled a Greenwich Village townhouse. When President Nixon announced an incursion into Cambodia—okay, raids, an invasion, let’s not be too fussy—the semester was nearly over anyway and many campuses, although non-violent, were also non-functional. When four students were killed at Kent State University on May 4th, school ground to a halt all over the country.
On May 8, on New York’s Wall Street, a flash mob of union workers in construction and other trades attacked a peaceful high school antiwar march protesting the Kent State shooting, finally reaching, and beating up a core of college-aged kids, many of who, it turned out, rode in from Pennsylvania on a church bus. It wasn’t “fight back”; it was blue collar antifa. But at a time when all of the street violence came from the other side, even unfairly hitting the wrong target at least felt like hitting, for some people.
The Hard Hat Riots were swiftly worked into the promotion of the now forgotten “Joe”, (7/15/70) with Peter Boyle as a murderous rifleman who hated hippies. The new poster art shows Joe cradling a gun, wearing a hard hat with an American flag on it. He’s also holding a flag in one hand and a target in the other. The slogan was “Keep America Beautiful”. You could put that 1970 poster up in Brooklyn today and people would instantly claim to recognize it as depicting a Trump supporter.
Fox’s long-in-the-making “Patton” would reach theaters in rapidly changing times that, it was said, had different attitudes towards war. Fox considered retitling it “Patton: Salute to a Rebel”. The studio had next to no expectations for another of its war films, the cheaply made M.A.S.H., which became an unexpected hit that spring. A cynical, mildly dirty-mouthed Korean War service comedy whose most memorable moments are the humiliation of uptight, by-the-book characters, it became pressed into service as an anti-war movie.
In this nervous atmosphere, “Kelly’s Heroes” suffered more than most from marketing indecision. It was hastily recut to try to make it more of an anti-war satire, with an ironic, whimsical, non-heroic theme song and a new ad campaign, eschewing WWII images in favor of a sort of Peter Max-drawn hero sandwich with tank treads. “They Had a Message for the Army: Up the Brass!”
But something unexpected happened: “Patton” struck a nerve. The bold style of leading off with a giant American flag got spontaneous cheers even on jaded Broadway; I saw it myself. It not only made a ton of money but it kindled an earnest national debate about the sometime necessity of war and the need for gifted, imperfect men to lead us in it. It was touted as Richard Nixon’s favorite movie. The revised “Kelly’s Heroes” straining-to-be-hip poster art and ad campaign were hastily revised yet again for its September opening. Now it showed a conventional war movie illustration of a line of four tall tough G.I.s facing down a German tank, with the new slogan, “They Started Out to Rob a Bank…And Damn Near Won a War!”
The tumult of 1970 was deeply, lastingly counterproductive for the American Left. Everything they did boosted the poll numbers of the loathed, despised Nixon, who they felt had won 1968 on a fluke, backed by the country’s haters. They expected 1972 to be a pushover, yet they could see the country was slipping away. The angry reaction of middle class and lower class whites to pretty much everything since riots and crime started spiking in the Sixties was now too visible to ignore.
One of the first signs of it was meant to be a comedy takedown of the growing movement, “All in the Family”, first airing January 1971. Archie Bunker was the new image of the WWII-age veteran: paunchy, casually racist, crudely ignorant. A figure of fun, and of scorn. But partly because the writers did toss him a point or two, the show became a hit. The creators of the show were bemused that they’d inadvertently made Archie a hero for tens of millions. Of course, I don’t mean “hero” literally; nearly everybody knew that Archie went too far. Working class white-wise, he was closer to our id than our conscience. But we liked him for telling it like it is, no matter if our betters disapproved.
Crime in the streets and on the campus was violent and physical. It stirred anger for many years to come. Clint Eastwood made a cultish success for himself in Italian made “spaghetti westerns”, but the huge hit that would shape his image in the public mind was 1971’s “Dirty Harry”, a crowd-pleasing hero who was bracingly politically incorrect, to use a term that was still fifteen years in the future. We were tired of “Dragnet”-style polite, businesslike cops. We were ready for badasses who’d throw away the rule book to clean up the streets. The Dirty Harry character didn’t endorse vigilantes—in fact, he hunts them down—but audiences did. In time, the SWAT era would go too far. But in its day, anything that redressed the balance between police and criminals was welcome.
About those World War II guys. By 1973, Jack Lemmon’s garment industry executive in “Save the Tiger” (directed by John Avildsen, who also directed “Joe” and later, “Rocky”) was another update of the image of the WWII vet, truer in parts, more positive, still stereotyped to some degree. It was recognized that courage in wartime wasn’t easy. But there was still a lingering trace of false guilt for lack of social consciousness—”look what I’ve come to, the nice home, the wife, the business I fight to keep going. What a sellout I am”. This caricature wasn’t the fault of Baby Boomers, by the way; next to none of them had entered the industry yet.