In American film, 1978 stands in the shadow of a film called Star Wars. It shook up everything in 1977. But the real effects of that shift in movie making would not be felt for a least another year when series like Alien and Star Trek first appeared on the big screen, only to be followed by an increasing wealth of genre pictures in the years to follow. But even at the Academy Awards, films like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home lack the cultural staying power of Rocky, Annie Hall, and the Godfather films; though both 1978 Oscar winning films have their admirers.
But for me, there are five important films released that year which had a lasting impact on my love of movies. None are particularly high art, but I come back to them year after year and dutifully upgrade my copies of them every time the home video industry promises me better picture quality. And while I could easily have been born in a better year for film, the fact these movies came out at the same time is, in some way, telling.
While not my earliest movie memory, the impression of Lois Lane being crushed in the Earth stuck with me – even if it was sometimes only in my nightmares – cementing a tradition of Superman films leaving a lasting impression. But that original film, directed by Richard Donner and ghost-written by an uncredited Tom Mankiewicz, became a more rewarding experience with each passing year. Its definitive treatment of Krypton, its idyllic version of a mid-50s Smallville that could never be, and the fast-talking energy of Metropolis so well realized each of the major Superman settings that every subsequent treatment must make the choice to embrace the work done here or attempt radical departures.
For me, it was my introduction to Superman well before I could read comics and a family favorite when a video store sprang up in the neighborhood. As a child, I simply loved seeing Superman in action. Flash forward a few years and my image of Superman, now under the influence of Dan Jurgens and Roger Stern, could no longer appreciate the Superman of the 70s. But then as an adult, elements I found too coarse and jokey when I was a teenager ring so true and right today; even Ned Beatty’s buffoonish henchman character, Otis.
In some ways, especially considering the effort it takes to make a Superman films these days, it is a miracle the film exists at all. It took nearly five years to make and was known, at the time, as the most expensive film ever produced. Before Donner came along, the film was intended to echo the campiness of Batman ’66; a tone which crept in following Donner’s departure. But he saw the value in treating the characters with respect and in giving the original superhero myth a straight treatment. That decision was also backed by the discovery of the only actor who could play the Man of Steel in 1978. With Christopher Reeve, Donner found an actor who could encompass the character’s warmth, authority, strength, and playfulness. While the flying can be realized today easily and credibly, no other Superman screen treatment ever offered a better take on this most cherished of origin stories.
I’m not a huge fan of horror films, but Halloween (when I finally saw it) impressed upon me the vision of one of horror’s greatest masters, John Carpenter. Instead of shocks, the film achieves a constant presence of unease, punctuated by the occasional appearance of the Other. Though he would subsequently receive a name – and a confusing and pathetic back story – in this, he is The Shape: a void of humanity spawned from a seemingly ideal suburban reality. And unlike the slashers who would follow him, he had a level of patience aiding the film’s atmosphere. While there is some underlying passion to his murders, they almost seem incidental to the true idea behind the film: evil is real, omnipresent, and random.
I suppose part of the reason the film feels so real to me is because it was shot in one of my teen-aged stomping grounds. South Pasadena, California subbed in for the fictional Haddonfield, Illinois. Laurie Strode’s home sits across the street from the library, just a short walk from the storefront in which The Shape finds his iconic mask. Nowadays, that storefront is a restaurant across the street from an unassuming chiropractors office – a house familiar to horror fans as the Meyers home. But like Superman, there is a verisimilitude to the film’s world that would exist even if I didn’t live a short drive from Haddonfield.
The Lord of the Rings
I both love and hate Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 attempt to film J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Narratively, he made a number of wise decisions in transferring the expansive world of Tolkien into screen drama: cutting most of the early chapters and emphasizing the action-adventure element Aragorn’s story offers. But at the same time, the film moves at supersonic speed in its first half, only to slow to a crawl once the fellowship brakes into three story threads. Merry and Pippin are escorted out of the film by Treebeard while Frodo becomes a guest in his own story, disappearing almost an hour before the film ends. In his place, we’re left to watch a muddy and indistinct Battle of Helm’s Deep realized with partial animation and tinted black-and-white battle footage.
Though well intentioned, Bakshi’s ambition was well beyond what he – or anyone – could achieve in the late 1970s. A believer in rotoscoping, Bakshi filmed his entire script with live actors in rough approximations of the character’s costumes. The intent was to fully animate The Lord of the Rings from this reference footage. When the money dried up, he was forced to use some of that footage in place of missing animation. The technique does not work at all. But even the finished animation undercuts Bakshi’s intent with the characters looking and moving like caricatures; a result he expressly wished to avoid.
But before I had the willpower to read Tolkien, this film offered me an early glimpse into Middle-Earth. Enchanted by the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit, I wanted to see more and a Tolkien-loving uncle soon provided me with this vision; which, if nothing else, helped make sense of all the Led Zeppelin songs constantly playing at my home. And for all its faults, it proved to me just how deep and dark the world of Tolkien could be and that animation itself could have a harder edge.
Hands down, Hooper is my favorite Burt Reynolds movie. It’s also my favorite Hal Needham flick. The Needham/Reynolds collaborations played constantly on KTLA in the 1980s, so I became quite familiar with Smokey and the Bandit, Stroker Ace, and Cannonball Run. But Hooper stands out as a favorite because it is clear Needham’s most personal film.
Stick with me here.
Sonny Hooper, like Needham, is an aging stuntman. He drinks hard, works hard and braves death for the sake of something as meaningless as a movie. As the story begins, Hooper finds himself facing a new young hotshot and an egotistical director. Once it becomes clear the film within the film will require a literal death-defying ending, Hooper learns another hard landing will leave him a quadriplegic.
Needham, a stuntman before he made his directorial debut with 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, surely felt a kinship to Hooper as he himself aged out of stuntwork. And with its bar brawls, car chances and a jump across a collapsing bridge, Hooper is in many ways a celebration of the old-time stuntman.
Like Needham’s better movies, the experience is more visceral than intellectual. And though the character’s main antagonist is a director who seems himself as an intellectual – according to legend, the director character is based on Reynolds’ interactions with New Hollywood filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich – the film is still a delight for those who like to think about their movies. Because, really, a thoughtful film can feature a Firebird racing the clock against a collapsing oil refinery.
The events of Hooper have an authenticity to them, even as they seem wildly stylized. And by the point Reynolds looks into the camera, says “fuck it” with his eyes and clocks the director, it’s impossible not to sympathize with him.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Despite my ambivalence toward horror movies, I have a fondness for the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the 1956 original. I put that down to living close to actual locations used in the films. Ask me which is the better movie and I’m forced to go with the 1978 version, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, and Brooke Adams. Like Halloween, there is a special moodiness to the piece. Where the 1956 version is a warning against the Red Menace, 1978 seems to find its fears in the newly established doubts in the American government and the New Age practices popular in Northern California at the time. By virtue of the blighted San Francisco location, it establishes a credible reality.
It also features one of the best horror casts ever assembled. The leads, like the crumbling San Francisco around them, feel lived in and real; even as one of them resembles a Vulcan. Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum round a group of people facing the terrifying notion that their friend and family are no longer the people they love.
There are a handful of shocking moments when semi-formed pod duplicates are found or any time a duplicate finds a person and unleashes a horrifying scream. But overall, the film evokes that general sense of unease in the years after Manson, Watergate, and Jim Jones.
What is your favorite film from 1978. Comment below.