Six years ago I started a column series for This Is Infamous, wherein I compared the geekdom of today to that of the early ’70s. On the cusp of a new Star Wars film, more Transformers and Planet of the Apes flicks, as well as the mighty house of Marvel. I already posted one piece from the series last week – the D&D 5th edition release. As of the writing of this, the television horror boom was only budding. I feel a follow upcoming, comparing the made for TV movies of the early ’70s and the current streaming era…
It came to my attention recently that I am the oldest staff member at This Is Infamous. Now, whether this is an honor or not remains to be seen, but it does provide me with five invaluable decades of knowledge. I’ve experienced the stuff of legend in my nearly 47 years on this planet: first-run televised STAR TREK, the release of STAR WARS, 12″ tall GI Joes, I even watched IN SEARCH OF in its first runs. With my birthday around the corner, I felt it was time to start sharing this knowledge with my readers, a Hobbit-esque way of giving you a gift. Enter my new column, TALES FROM THE ELDER. Yes, it’s a riff on a classic KISS conceptual album, but hopefully, the change in verbiage will prevent Gene Simmons from getting a nickel for every page view. It’s my goal to tell stories of the days of yore, a time before computers and computer gaming, before VCRs, before even (gasp!) cable TV; a time when syndicated television was king on the 3, 4 or 5 channels you were privy to. This won’t be “I had to walk uphill both ways to the movie theater.” It will be an exposé on how that time period influenced what you see and read and even hear today; because, whether you know it or not, the 70’s played a pinnacle role in how you watch and enjoy your favorite mediums in our modern world.
Growing up as a boy in the early 1970’s was, shall we say, cathartic, especially in regards to genre fiction on the screen. Bell bottoms, turtlenecks and plaid plagued my wardrobe but my imagination was fed by the entertainment mediums. These were the days after STAR TREK and before STAR WARS, a time one might naturally assume was a fanboy desert with nothing to offer. That assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. This was a golden age of science fiction and horror in the theaters and on the small screen. It was a time that molded me as a genre film enthusiast more than any other period. And whether you know it or not, it made a significant impact on how you watch movies and enjoy them after the fact.
Lately, everything old is new again. That seems to be the mindset in Hollywood’s current modus operandi. Sometimes it is successful, more often it is not. We are stuck in a rut in our quest to find the next hit, dredging up any earlier and successful film in the hopes that lightning will strike twice and produce profits. There’s no doubt we’ve been assaulted by a plethora of soulless re-somethings of our past. More often than not they fail to achieve the accolades of their predecessors. The end result is glossed over with a story that attempts to mimic and modernize its source material’s message. We’ve seen that fail time and time again in recent years. TOTAL RECALL. ROBOCOP. Need I go on? But when it’s done right (can you say BATTLESTAR GALACTICA?), it can be wondrous. A grand reminder of the glorious ’70s has once again reared its wonderful, simian head in the PLANET OF THE APES franchise, 20th Century Fox’s secret cash cow then, and now.
The broadcast premiere of the 1968 classic PLANET OF THE APES made its television debut in 1973. It was the first time my mom let me stay up late past my bedtime to watch TV on a school night, and I fondly recall being the “best boy ever” to watch this movie. I had seen the last installment of the PLANET OF THE APES franchise, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, at the drive-in and still remember being terrified by Governor Kolp’s mutants and cheering on for Caesar. It is a film that ultimately was marketed to the young while being a subtle anti-war propaganda film, chock full of 70’s hippy peace and love disguised as a children’s film. These children wanted more PLANET OF THE APES. By the time 1974 came, we got it in spades. Merchandising galore, along with a re-release of all of the movies in the theater, something no longer done in this modern digital age since the advent of home video.
My STAR WARS was PLANET OF THE APES, and its marketing plan was unprecedented for the day and age. I had the lunch pail. I had coloring books. I had MEGO action figures and the Ape City playset. I had comic books. Halloween costumes. I cried and whined every cent out of my Father and Mother for this merchandising. I eagerly watched each and every television broadcast of the APES franchise and played on TV they were. Constantly. PLANET OF THE APES was my life. The fall of 1974 even saw a PLANET OF THE APES television series with a further accompanying marketing campaign. People couldn’t get this stuff fast enough. Jump ahead 3 years and the same thing happened with STAR WARS, they weren’t prepared for the demand for the merchandising. Flash forward to 2014 and you can’t have a summer blockbuster without a viral marketing campaign with accompanying toys coming out months in advance. PLANET OF THE APES did it all without the internet and a lot more efficiently than Kenner and STAR WARS. It’s ironic, that the current run of revitalized PLANET OF THE APES movies doesn’t have the toys, and after watching the latest entry into the franchise, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, I think I know why. PLANET OF THE APES series is no longer targeted at children, it’s targeted at its children; the fans of yesteryear that are now adults. Old people like me. And the goal is for us to share it with the younger generation, drumming up interest in the original films once again, not to sell toys.
I’m not here to call out the new movie’s accolades or spoil any plot points. You can read that in any review of the film or go see it yourself and form your own opinion as you watch the movie unfold before your eyes. I’m happy with what Fox has done with my favorite movie franchise. The Easter eggs tying the films together are priceless. RISE paraphrased quotes and scenes from PLANET OF THE APES (“It’s a madhouse!”), while DAWN borrows from the BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES sequels (“Ape shall not kill ape!”) In fact, these first two reboots are essentially, in theory, linear remakes of ESCAPE FROM PLANET OF THE APES, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and the aforementioned BATTLE, tying in aspects and social themes utilized in those three films with a clearer vision of where the story was pointed. The first sequels were made on the fly to quickly capitalize on the success of the first film, with each proceeding budget being smaller and smaller. Thankfully, modern Hollywood recognizes this fallacy and DAWN does not suffer from poor budget constraints.
1974 was indeed a glorious year, as were the couple years leading up to and culminating with the release of STAR WARS in 1977. 1973 had seen the release of THE EXORCIST, scaring the bejeezus out of a populace tired of a war the media broadcast nightly on the 6:00 news. Vietnam was coming to a close and films were ripe with anti-war sentiment, and directors and writers instilled their movies with plenty of anti-war metaphor. They had a message and good science fiction is science fiction with something to say, something to point a finger at. STAR WARS was WWII (or, as some say, the Vietnam War)for example. Genre movies today are too often piles of pretty shit with no message, ala TRANSFORMERS. Michael Bay doesn’t care about the story, he cares about explosions. Last year saw one of the most disappointing summer movie seasons ever, with the uninspired MAN OF STEEL leading the pack alongside the underwhelming PACIFIC RIM with STAR TREK IN DARKNESS tugging on Superman’s cape and denying it. Jump ahead to 2014, and we get CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, GODZILLA, EDGE OF TOMORROW, SNOWPIERCER and DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Five genre films that surpass anything to come out in 2013 and all with 40 some year old foundations built-in movies produced between 1973 and 1975.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER borrows the political thriller mold from films like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR and DAY OF THE DOLPHIN and infuses a healthy dose of 70’s James Bond from LIVE AND LET DIE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN. Taking its politics from the front page of USA Today and CNN modernized the plot to make it topical and relevant. GODZILLA did the same thing, mashing up the fun of the giant monsters fighting with a message about the ecology and nature’s destructive forces, this is similarly mirrored in SNOWPIERCER, albeit the endgame isn’t quite the same. SNOWPIERCER borrows elements and themes about caste, overpopulation and global warming present in classics such as A BOY AND HIS DOG, SOYLENT GREEN and even LOGAN’S RUN. EDGE OF TOMORROW is unique and original, yet still applying the tested and true time travel mind-fuck present in SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE with a military twist.
Genre TV was also starting to come into its own, the seeds were planted by THE TWILIGHT ZONE and LOST IN SPACE and grew, as evident by not only the aforementioned TV adaptation of PLANET OF THE APES, but the multitude of other short-lived shows that arose. If a genre show made it past it’s first 12 or 13 episodes, it was probably going to be around for a while. The legendary KOLJACK: THE NIGHT STALKER, for example, was short-lived but has gone on to retain a cult status. Genre shows seem to be the top of the crop of our age, this Platinum Era of television we live in. GAME OF THRONES, THE WALKING DEAD, HANNIBAL. They all hold their roots in the genre shows of the ’70s. Shows like SPACE: 1999 and KUNG FU that stuck around with the best of the bunch, my personal favorite being about a reluctant American James Bond with a secret advantage: the gadgets were built into him. The success of the ABC Movie of the Week SIX-MILLION DOLLAR MAN franchise spun off into a weekly series, a science fiction adventure spy drama encapsulating 70’s pop culture like non-other. Steve Austin, and in turn actor Lee Majors, became a 70’s pop icon on a show that took its storylines from fringe pop culture.
The Bionic Bigfoot episodes featuring popular wrestler Andre the Giant as a robotic Sasquatch still ring in my memories, tying into the birth of cryptozoology in the wake of the Bigfoot craze created by the infamous Patterson Film in 1967 and subsequent sightings in the years since. Look on your television today and bigfoot remains a pseudo-reality icon. Thanks to the early ’70s. Take the ancient alien pseudo-science craze, another bit of subject matter in the SIX-MILLION DOLLAR MAN, it all started with Erich Von Daniken’s 1968 book, but it was the adapted 1970 documentary that won an Oscar for best documentary and laid the format for television shows of that nature. Most notably in this category was the 1976 gem IN SEARCH OF, and in turn, the History Channel’s long-running show of the same name, further solidifying that everything old is new again.
This column is dedicated to my father, Jack Clark. It was this former radar tech in the US Navy that fed my voracious appetite for genre fiction and without whom the man known as Token Tom wouldn’t exist today. LIVE AND LET DIE is the first movie I remember going to the theater with just him for a father and son bonding day. It left a lasting impact on me. Thank you, Dad.