A while back Men's Journal surveyed its readers for the top action movies of all time. They recently conducted another survey to add 25 more actions movies to their list. I'm not going to discuss their lists here, although I don't entirely agree with them. What I do want to discuss is the fact that I was born in the midst of what I consider the Golden Age of the Action Movie. In both the UK and the United States, some of the greatest action movies of all time were made in the late Fifties into the Sixties. I grew up watching many of these movies on television. Indeed, most of them are still aired regularly on local stations and cable channels alike.
I have no idea what the first action movie I ever saw was, but I suspect that the odds are good that it was one of the films I discuss below. Indeed, I know that I saw The Great Escape when I was very young. Indeed, the film was released the year that I was born--1963. It was one of a number of all star action films made in the Sixties, featuring a cast that included Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and many others. Directed by action films master John Sturges, the film was based on the many real life escapes from Nazi prisoner of war camps that took place during World War II. In many ways it is the perfect action movie. Technical advisor Wally Flood insured that The Great Escape had an authenticity that few World War II films have had before or since. The film was shot on location in Europe, adding to its authenticity. All of the characters are well developed and the movie features some of the best performances ever seen in an action movie. The movie also benefited from a great premise--a mass escape from a POW camp to tax Germany's resources as much as possible. The Great Escape moved at a great pace, with some of the best excecuted action sequences ever created on film. Indeed, Captain Hits' (Steve McQueen) ride on the motorcycle is hard to forget.
Another great World War II film from the same era is The Dirty Dozen. Released in 1967, The Dirty Dozen had a premise that was then starkly original--a squad of hardcases are brought together under the command of Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin)with the goal of sending them on a suicide mission against the Nazis. The Dirty Dozen was another all star affair, starring Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, and others. The Dirty Dozen unfolds perfectly, taking the dozen misfits through their training through their mission. In doing so, we get to see most of the convicts evolve from misfits into men with their own sense of honour (the psychopathic Archer J. Maggott, played by Telly Savalas being the exception). While less authentic than The Great Escape and other World War II films, The Dirty Dozen makes up for this with some of the best action sequences of its time. Indeed, director Robert Aldrich, coming off What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, was still at the top of his game.
Of course, as good a job as Aldrich did with The Dirty Dozen, John Sturges is arguably the great action director of the era. Prior to The Great Escape he directed another great action film, the Western The Magnificent Seven. The Magnificent Seven was Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, and it does fall short of that film's greatness, but that does not make the film any less a classic. Like The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven features an all star cast, with Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn in key roles. The plot is more or less the same as Seven Samurai--a helpless village at the mercy of bandits hire seven warriors to help them fight back. Like both Seven Samurai and The Great Escape, character development is key to this movie. Each character has his reasons for helping the villagers and some even have their own demons with which they must deal. The movie features some of the best performances in any action film or any Western. The climax is among the best of any action film or Western. While it does fall short of the original Seven Samurai (and what film could hope to match it, short of Citizen Kane?), it is still very much a classic.
While many think of the action movie as a Hollywood phenomenon, it was a British film that started the Golden Age of Action Movies in my mind. The Bridge on the River Kwai was based on the novel by Pierre Boule (who also wrote Planet of the Apes) and directed by British director David Lean. Its cast included such worthies as William Holden, Alec Guiness, and Sessue Hayakawa. The Bridge on the River Kwai is not a typical action film by any means, being more a battle of wits than a battle of guns. During World War II Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa)of the Japanese military has been ordered to build a bridge over the river Kwai. To do so he uses prisoners of war, a situation not particularly to Colonel Nicholson's (Alec Guinness) liking. As Nicholson eventually develops an obsession with building the bridge, a group of commandos led by British Maj. Warden (Jack Hawkins) and guided by the American Shears (William Holden) are set to stop the bridge from being built at all costs. The Bridge on the River Kwai has less action than many of its succssors, but it has just as much suspense and excitement, largely due to the great performances of the actors. It set the standard for many of the action movies to come.
I really can't say when the Golden Age of Action Movies ended. It seems to me that it lost momentum throughout the Sixties, just as Hollywood lost ground to independent films. I am thinking, then, that 1969 might be the point at which the Golden Age ended. At any rate, the films made during this era would be remembered. Many of them (such as The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven) were aired once a year on network television when I was young. And it is with good reason that these films are remembered. They did not simply offer action and excitement. They were about more than the thrill of violence. These were films that featured men who became heroes, even though they may have been something much less in the beginning. The Magnificent Seven grow to admire and the love the villagers and find honour in defending them against an impressive foe. The men of The Great Escape realise that they may well be recaptured or even killed, but they go through with their escape out of a sense of duty, a sense of patriotism, anda sense of honour rarely seen in movies today. It is not so much the exciting action scenes that draw viewers back to these films again and again, but the heroism they portray.