Growing Up on the Films of the 1960s

Compiled by Robert E. Yahnke, Professor, General College, University of Minnesota

I was in the first generation of American children to be raised by the television. In my parents’ house the television was on for the game shows and the soap operas in the morning, then on again for the soap operas in the afternoon, and then the Mickey Mouse Club when I got home from school. My brother was in love with Annette Funicello. I was in love with the younger blonde girl with freckles. Was her name Karen? Already films were making their way onto television, and I watched numerous westerns, World War II films (one part entertainment and one part propaganda) and various comedies. I never thought much about the art of any of these films. They were simply diversions or films that trumpeted values I had already been taught to endorse.
        I recall a few times when I went to movies with some of my cousins from "Up North": the first was Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), the story of boxer Rocky Graziano. And who played the title role? Why, Paul Newman – in his second film role! Another was Steve McQueen in The Blob (1958), a perfectly dreadful science-fiction film, and Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) with Debbie Reynolds playing the 1950s ideal woman – chaste, religious, tomboyish, and down-to-earth! The only other film I recall from the 1950s was Ben-Hur (1959), with Charlton Heston. Here was the penultimate film for the 1950s – a Christian story about a man whose life is redeemed by faith. Our whole family went to see this film. Remembering that experience helps me seize upon a theme for the formative years of my film viewing life, the last few years of the 1950s. The films I saw reflected my values and beliefs at that stage of life: they were melodramatic, sentimental, celebrated inspirational religious and spiritual themes, and resolved human conflicts neatly and tidily.
        But two films I saw in 1960 should have been a forewarning of things to come. The first was Inherit the Wind, starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. Here was a conflict that lacked neatness and tidiness. Here was a collision of devout faith, religious zealotry, education, common sense, academic freedom, community standards, and so on. The second film was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which I write more about in Chapter 4 covering The 1950’s – Focus on American Films. [The film is not listed on the table below because it is listed on the table in Chapter 4.] Psycho scared me and showed me a world of possibilities unlike anything I had seen before. The Blob was laughable; Psycho was real. The Blob was schlock; Psycho was art.

Growing Up on the Films of the 1960s
1960 Inherit the Wind Stanley Kramer USA
1961 Hoodlum Priest Irvin Kershner USA
1962 Lawrence of Arabia David Lean England
1962 To Kill a Mockingbird Robert Mulligan USA
1963 Hud Martin Ritt USA
1963 Lilies of the Field Ralph Nelson USA
1963 Tom Jones Tony Richardson England
1965 A Patch of Blue Guy Green USA
1965 The Spy Who Came in From the Cold Sidney Lumet USA
1965 Dr. Zhivago David Lean England
1966 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Mike Nichols USA
1967 In the Heat of the Night Norman Jewison USA
1967 The Graduate Mike Nichols USA
1967 To Sir With Love James Clavell USA
1968 The Swimmer Frank Perry USA
1969 Last Summer Frank Perry USA
1969 Easy Rider Dennis Hopper USA
1969 Z Constantin Costa-Gavras Greece

        The 1960s were my decade for growing up on film. Films from this decade helped shape my values and challenged me to think and rethink my positions on human relations, world affairs, sex, family values, and all matters pertaining to character and identity. During the decade I saw my share of adventure films and westerns, including The Guns of Navarone (1961), How the West Was Won (1963), The Flight of the Phoenix, (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and True Grit (1969).
        I also saw my share of inspirational family films (including early Disney greats) – My Fair Lady (1964), Mary Poppins (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Born Free (1966), Camelot (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and Hello, Dolly! (1969). If Julie Andrews was my ideal woman, then I suppose Sidney Poitier was my ideal man. Through his characters he promoted a strong sense of the virtue and heroism available to the individual, despite all odds. Poitier was the first African-American actor to have his work accepted in the mainstream of Hollywood films. I never gave it second thought that my hero was a black man. What mattered to me was his qualities of character: his empathy for the suffering of other people, his sense of humor, his ability to listen, his capacity for tolerance, his determination and fortitude, his capacity for love.
        I saw almost all of his films in the 1960s – including Lilies of the Field (1963), A Patch of Blue (1965), To Sir With Love (1967), and In the Heat of the Night (1967). The relationship between the characters played by Poitier and Rod Steiger in the latter film was subtle and revealing. Old conflicts resurfaced – the power of integrity vs. the evil of racism, the value of social justice vs. the bankrupt legacy of segregation. The quiet scene between Poitier and Steiger in the latter’s house is a great example of restrained acting and cross-cultural understanding. What would I have become without the influences of Julie Andrews and Sidney Poitier?!
        During my high school years I think my sister and I saw practically every Jerry Lewis film that came out, including The Bellboy and Cinderfella (1960), The Errand Boy and The Ladies’ Man (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963), The Patsy (1964), and Boeing, Boeing (1965). In every film Lewis played the same homely, bumbling, and ineffectual type. At the same time he was a basically gentle and caring soul – but one who never got the girl. When I saw Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor (1996), I was delighted to see that Murphy had captured the essence of the split between the gentle soul of the overweight professor and the cruel and self-absorbed Buddy Love character – just as Lewis had done so more than thirty years earlier. Murphy’s “imitation” was a sincere form of “flattering” Lewis’ comic genius.
        What I learned from the Lewis films was an important lesson about creating character in a film. The Lewis character, although always a compilation of complementary strengths and weaknesses, was beyond a stereotype. The vulnerability of his character was valid and believable. Everyone could relate to his desire for an emotional connection. Lewis’ comedy was rooted in the reality of the lonely person, the misfit, the homely stick-in-the-mud who sat in the corner at dances and watched the clever and handsome partygoers enjoying life to the fullest – and wished he could do the same.
        The first film that really struck me as having a force in my self-development was Hoodlum Priest (1961), starring Don Murray and Keir Dullea. I saw the film when I was 14 and I will never forget the scene of Keir Dullea being executed in the gas chamber. What made this film work for me was that I saw the young man’s life from the inside out – and this was a first for me. I came to understand the forces that led him to commit a robbery and then, in desperation, shoot the owner of the store who tries to apprehend him. I was led to these insights through my identification with the main character in the film, a Roman Catholic priest, who was committed to working with ex-convicts in St. Louis. The film was based upon the experiences of a real priest. The film combined a strong spiritual base (the Roman Catholic priest as social worker) with a powerful statement about justice (taking a stand against the death penalty). When I saw Dead Man Walking in 1996 I couldn’t help but think of Hoodlum Priest as the perfect companion film. Here was the first example of a film that helped shape my values.
        I had a similar response to the film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), starring Gregory Peck. Atticus Finch’s defense of an African-American suspect touched that political-and-social-justice-ethic that was at the core of my being. In three years my values had been shaped and nurtured by three films, Inherit the Wind, Hoodlum Priest, and To Kill a Mockingbird. I believed in freedom of expression, integrity, loyalty, equal justice, equality of the races. I valued the capacity of righting old wrongs, of giving someone a second chance, of commitments to social welfare and social justice. I had seen three great mentors or role models in the three main characters in the films, Clarence Darrow, Father Dismas Clark, and Atticus Finch.
        Two other films in the early 1960s represented an interlude of sorts for me. Seeing Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and The Adventures of Tom Jones (1963) were eye opening for me because they openly celebrated sexuality in ways that Tammy and the Bachelor and Mary Poppins never hinted at. I also appreciated the innovative film techniques in The Adventures of Tom Jones – especially the use of fast-motion, the episodic structure of the film, the way music perfectly complemented the humorous tone and fast-paced action, and the way the character looked directly into the camera – breaking that fourth-wall prohibition based on classical theater. This film worked to a great extent because of "how" it was made – another reminder, even to a naive film viewer, that film art was at work in the best films.
        As I got older through the 1960s, the conflicts depicted in films became more complex and troubling. From 1963-1965 I saw three films that provided advanced education for my last two high school years. The first was Hud (1963), starring Paul Newman as an amoral and self-centered rancher’s son who seems bent on self-destruction. I had not seen such a character in film before. He was nothing like Sidney Poitier! The main character in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) represented a humorous portrayal of dissolute youth. But Hud was different. He was serious. He was dangerous. His character challenged me in ways I had not been challenged before.
        The second film in this two-year period was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), starring Richard Burton. The film was based on a great John Le Carre British spy novel, and everything about the film challenged me and stretched my imagination. Betrayal was at the heart of the plot. I loved the black and white cinematography, the realistic acting, the idiosyncratic characters, the complex relationships, the twists and turns in the plot. Who can I trust? Where do characters find meaning? This film pushed me beyond the melodramas of my childhood and early adolescence and dropped me into adulthood with a thud. I loved it and still remember it fondly. It was the first film I had seen directed by Sidney Lumet, a great American director who empathized with loners and had a strong sense of social justice in his films.
        The third film was Dr. Zhivago (1965), directed by David Lean. I had not seen Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in the theater (but see below), so this was the first David Lean epic film I had experienced. What Lean accomplished, I think, was to take a fairly standard soap-opera subject matter (man marries wrong woman, yearns for reunion with right woman, reunion thwarted, and the right couple forever separated) – and infuse it with the panoramic sweep of human history, geography, poetry, all wrapped up by a magnificent musical score by Maurice Jarre. Hud, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Dr. Zhivago were the first films that introduced me to the role of the “director” in making movie magic. Each film had the imprint of its director – Martin Ritt in the first two films, and David Lean in the third. I began to look forward to seeing other films by the same director – an idea that never would have occurred to me before I saw these films. Suddenly films became more than stories or star vehicles or entertainment.
        Another word on Lawrence of Arabia. My brother had seen that film in 1962, when I was fifteen. I don’t think he realized that he was watching a film classic. He expected an adventure story along the lines of The Guns of Navarone (1961) – a World-War II action film that told the story of a crew of Americans who destroyed a huge array of German cannons in a remote mountain fortress. Now that was action! The characters were stereotypes – tough, cynical, daring! When he told us about David Lean’s epic film based on the real Lawrence of Arabia, T. E. Lawrence, he laughed about the numerous shots of men riding camels through the desert, accompanied by what he considered was a repetitive sound track that bored him.
        I didn’t see Lawrence of Arabia until the 1980s. By then I was ready to appreciate the way the director portrayed the metaphoric qualities of the desert – its physical, emotional, psychological substance. The desert became a character in the film. It was felt by the Bedouins and by the Englishman who was “transformed” by his experiences with the desert peoples. The music, composed by Maurice Jarre, was the desert’s song that had thrilled Lawrence the first time he rode a camel over the dunes. The music was hypnotic, uplifting, passionate – not boring. The story of T. E. Lawrence was an epic story: about a man who reinvented himself, who became a godlike figure to the people he united, a legend. At the same time he was a man who failed to grasp the fragile nature of the union he had forged. In essence, his story was one of failure as much as it was of triumph.
        After I graduated from high school in 1965, my parents moved from the country into the city. I lived with them for two years and attended a University of Wisconsin Extension on the edge of town. The one film I most remember from that period was The Graduate (1967). My mother and my sister went with me to the film, and I will never forget the silliness that ensued when the three of us moved after sitting in front of a noisy couple. Upon relocating to a different aisle, the three of us couldn’t stop laughing for some reason.
        Finally we got ourselves under control and the film began. In an early scene the college graduate, Ben Braddock, is confronted by his neighbor (a woman married to his father’s partner) in her daughter’s bedroom. The woman, Mrs. Robinson, stands naked before Ben and propositions him. Of course, the poor guy is terrorized by her ruthlessness and only wants to escape her clutches – at least for the time being. I couldn’t stop thinking that here was a film that exposed the fantasies of an adolescent – and yet my mother was sitting next to me in the theater. What was she thinking? I can tell you that she was laughing in all the right places. We had a marvelous time, and seeing this film became an unforgettable experience for the three of us.
        The year before (1966) the three of us had seen Mike Nichols’ first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I have no idea why we saw this film. I don’t think my mother or my sister expected a film that was as metaphorically subtle and complex as this one. But the film was important for me because it was the first time I had felt overwhelmed by the characters and their motives. Why was everyone so brutal to each other? What did the title mean? Did the characters played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor really have a son who had died? This film taught me that multiple viewings are required of films – in the same way as multiple readings of a novel or multiple viewings of a play. These two films by Mike Nichols further reinforced my growing understanding that film was more aligned with art than it was with entertainment.
        Another film I viewed in the late 1960s reinforced that conclusion. I will never forget The Swimmer (1968), starring Burt Lancaster. He plays a lonely suburbanite who decides one day to swim across the neighborhood from one swimming pool to the next. Soon his behavior begins to seem more bizarre than adventurous. Each encounter with a neighbor provides clues about some traumatic event that he is struggling to resolve through this activity. Seeing this film about a man who loses what is most precious to him made sense to me. Again it reinforced the value of films as stories that challenge individuals to face what is most important in their own lives. What if I lost what was most precious to me? How would I respond? How would I go on?
        I saw two films, Last Summer and Easy Rider, as a double feature with my older brother when I visited him in Nevada in 1970. I had recently suffered a major personal loss, and I was staying with him to further my physical and emotional recovery. For some reason we decided to see a double feature on a typical hot summer afternoon. This double feature was the most memorable one I ever attended. Back in 1963 I had seen Lilies of the Field and Hud as a double feature (see above) – but this 1970 double feature (of two 1969 films) was different. Whereas Lilies of the Field provided a complementary vision of faith and values to the cynical Hud, the double feature my brother and I saw was unremitting in its portrayal of betrayal, aimlessness, and rage.
        The first film, also directed by Frank Perry (see The Swimmer above), was about four teenagers, two women and two men, who spend the summer together. One of the young women is fat and homely; the other is trim and beautiful. Jealousies and intrigues abound, as I would have expected from the dynamics of the various relationships. What I could not have expected was how all of their repressed feelings of jealousy, dependency, desire, and revenge explode in a bizarre gang rape in the climactic scene. In that scene the two young men rape the fat and homely young woman while the other young woman helps hold her down. That scene still lingers in my mind as a symbol of devastation and hopelessness.
        Then came the second feature – Easy Rider. I wasn’t ready emotionally for that film. The characters played by Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson were emotional orphans, lost and self-absorbed. Their cross-country odyssey exposed the underlying tensions in America – hatred of difference, racism, random violence, extreme distrust of democratic ideals. Everything about the film and its characters triggered ambivalence in my response. I admired their free spirits, but I was dismayed at the drug use. The key scene, for me, was the drug-ridden party scene near the end of the film, when at least one of the main characters realizes that he is emotionally at a dead-end.
        I understood the feelings of aimlessness and anxiety and longing that led to this cross-country journey on the part of the Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper characters. I was stunned and repulsed by the murders at the end of the film. The film’s ending seemed to offer little that was uplifting, affirming, or of a spiritual component I could relate to.
I was at the end of the 1960s, all right. Sidney Poitier was far down another road not taken anymore. Here I was, looking down a road of cynicism, despair, and hopelessness. I can’t say I “enjoyed” Last Summer and Easy Rider. I can say both were part of my education of life, an education I received through the medium of film.
        I saw the French thriller Z, directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras, in 1970, when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. The impact of this film was intertwined with my own individual political development. At that time I was making a 180-degree-turn from political conservative to political liberal – due in part to my disgust with the Vietnam War, but due mostly to my rejection of President Nixon’s policy of bombing of Cambodia in 1970. Becoming more politically aware of the world around me helped me respond favorably to Costa-Gavras’ incredible documentary-like film based upon the political assassination of a liberal candidate for President of Greece in the 1960s. This man was murdered at the order of fascist Generals who were afraid the candidate would open the floodgates of democracy in Greece. The pulsating score, the high-energy editing of a high-speed chase through the downtown and the later assassination, and the gradual revelation of heroic deeds by a prosecutor hand-picked by the Generals all combined to move me emotionally as a viewer. The 1960s ended, for me, as a time of great moral and political confusion. I knew I was in process as a political person, and I knew the stakes were much higher than they were when I was the naive adolescent at the beginning of the decade.
        © Robert E. Yahnke. Robert E. Yahnke, PhD, is a Professor of Film & the Arts at The University of Minnesota, College of Education & Human Development
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