Action cinema in the 1970s sat in a peculiar midway between the classic westerns of earlier decades and the explosive blockbuster spectacles of the 80s. It was a time of transition across Hollywood as studios were struggling to understand the tastes of a new generation. It allowed up-and-coming filmmakers to push the envelope on what could be displayed on-screen.
The cultural environment during the decade was such that audiences were in complete harmony with this trend, as the 70s was a time of rising crime rates and a sense of political disillusionment pervaded the air. In response to this, action cinema in the 70s would replace the archetypal western hero with a gritty, relatable one that operated in urban spaces.
Action heroes like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson moved on from their western roots to become the face of action films that were grounded in urban settings. Meanwhile, filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg wrote their own history during this decade with more fantastic works that gave audiences much-needed respite. Here’s a look at the best action movie of every single year in the 70s.
1970: Two Mules for Sister Sara
The Mexican-American production Two Mules for Sister Sara was a snug fit in the western genre with its cross-desert adventure, flirtations, and firefights aplenty. However, it saw favorable responses by audiences and critics alike, who found in the movie a balanced and entertaining narrative bolstered by its humor and plot twists.
Clint Eastwood starred in the movie as the familiar mysterious stranger-type character, who rescues a nun, played by Shirley MacLaine, from a group of bandits. The nun, who introduces herself as Sister Sara, is helping the local Mexican revolutionaries in their fight against the French occupying forces. Eastwood’s character agrees to accompany her to the Mexican camp, which is where their adventure begins.
1971: The French Connection
The year 1971 saw the release of not one, but two cop action films that would go on to influence Hollywood action in a major way. Eastwood returned with Two Mules director Don Siegel for Dirty Harry, an iconic movie that is still remembered to this day for the star’s magnetic performance and dialogues. At the same time, neo-noir action thriller The French Connection captivated its audiences by demonstrating a very different kind of mastery.
Based on the eponymous book by Robin Moore, The French Connection starred Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as two police detectives in New York on the hunt for a large shipment of narcotics. Rather than being a run-of-the-mill crime action film, however, the movie delivered a unique thrill through a documentary-like realism, something director William Friedkin went to great lengths to achieve.
Shooting prominently in real-life locations, the movie came with a series of intensely thrilling chases that serially outdid each other, with a key scene being considered one of cinema’s greatest car chases. Its gritty realism is something that has to be personally experienced, as its tone is unlike anything else that is seen in modern action cinema.
1972: Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance
1971 saw the birth of an enduring classic among Japanese samurai films, a movie that would go on to directly influence celebrated works in Hollywood. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance was based on a popular manga series of the time and introduced a new hero among the Japanese — one that would be as iconic as the Man with No Name in the west.
Tomisaburo Wakayama starred in the movie as Ogami Itto, a former samurai-turned-sword for hire, casting an unforgettable image anywhere he went with a wooden cart that held his infant son, and often hid weapons of the outlandish variety. With gritty, beautifully choreographed action sequences and gore aplenty, the movie went on to spawn an entire franchise with five more sequels.
1973: Enter the Dragon
Regularly counted among the greatest martial arts movies of all-time, Enter the Dragon was sadly the last movie of martial arts star Bruce Lee. At the same time, it proved to be his most popular. The Robert Clouse directorial took the Hong Kong martial arts genre a step further by combining it with strong elements from spy and Blaxploitation films. Lee appears in the movie as an adept martial artist who is recruited by a British intelligence agent to enter a martial arts tournament organized by a crime lord in order to gather evidence against him.
1974: Death Wish
Death Wish was a page-turner for both the Hollywood action genre and the career of its star, Charles Bronson, who appeared in the movie as a successful architect that turns to vigilantism after his wife is murdered by petty criminals. The movie found success with its overflowing displays of violence. At a time when rising crime rates were a topic of concern in urban America, it also struck a chord with its portrayal of a regular, middle-class man who decides to fight back. Critics objected to the movie for its messaging, but a new hero image was born: one of an everyday, relatable person capable of heroic feats.
Jaws may be considered more of a thriller than an outright action movie, but its impact is too big for it to not be included on this list. The Steven Spielberg classic is the original summer blockbuster, one of those important films that changed cinema in a single stroke. Spielberg was the perfect director to helm this movie, demonstrating his mastery over the foundational beats of cinematic storytelling to make a movie that stands the test of time.
Jaws isn’t remembered simply because of its three-ton sharks; some argue that its goofy practical effects would only have elicited laughs if the movie was directed by anyone else. Spielberg managed to create an iconic work of cinema by bringing the best in every single aspect, from the sound design to the way its terrors were drafted.
1976: The Enforcer
Eastwood’s Dirty Harry film series continued in 1976 with its third entry, The Enforcer. The movie polarized critics, with some commenting on its relative lack of thrill compared to the original, but it nevertheless was a hit among audiences and became one of the top 10 grossing movies of the year. It followed Harry Callahan on the trail of a dangerous terrorist group operating in the USA.
The Enforcer made interesting additions to the original Dirty Harry formula, adding a measure of humor to its proceedings that worked nicely with the action. The movie also featured actress Tyne Daly in a prominent role as Harry Callahan’s new partner, and her performance as Kate Moore was widely praised.
1977: Star Wars
The Star Wars franchise today is one of the biggest media franchises in the world. But in the beginning, creator George Lucas had a hard time convincing studios of its potential. He envisioned an elaborate fictional world and knew that bringing it to life would take special effects that had never been seen before.
Following many setbacks in production, the very first Star Wars movie released in 1977 with a leading trio that were far from household names. But Lucas’ adamance on staying true to his original vision delivered unimaginable dividends in the end, offering the perfect antidote to the post-Vietnam War era disillusionment and single-handedly reviving the science fiction genre.
The 1978 Superman movie was the very first time that the DC superhero was portrayed in a feature film, and is considered relevant to this day. Starring Christopher Reeves as the titular hero, his performance in the movie is still considered by many to be the definitive take on the character, embodying not just Superman’s comic-book look perfectly but also his persona as a gentle, inherently good hero. The movie was praised for its enjoyable telling of a classic hero story, bolstered by its groundbreaking special effects.
Dan O’Bannon and Ridley Scott created one of the most influential works of sci-fi cinema with Alien, bringing to life a unique vision that combined science fiction and horror in an extremely effective way. Utilizing the otherworldly creations of artist H.R. Giger, the movie utilized sci-fi in the best way to tell a horror story, narrating how a hostile alien organism terrorized a team of astronauts in the helpless setting of a spaceship.
The creature designs introduced in the movie are still considered to be among the greatest in cinema history, and have continued to fascinate audiences with their appearances in sequels and crossovers with the Predator movies.