Eras Of Action: The 1970s And The Birth Of The Action Hero

Posted on: April 25th, 2013

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Ok, so this is an attempt to break down the development of the modern American action film since the 1970s, into definable eras. Since The Expendables came out, it feels like there’s a resurgence in old school action films bubbling away. Maybe its just a nostalgic wave, but with Schwarzenegger and Stallone both having big screen comebacks this year, Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson truly becoming the massive stars they always threatened to be, and even straight to video action movies producing work of note, it feels like the genre may have come of age.

My name is Wil and for some reason I make a fanzine about action films called Kill You Last. It feels like a pivotal moment for films where JCVD beats people up, and as such I have attempted to produce a definitive history of the modern day action movie. Feel free to disagree with my thesis, and how I haven’t considered Blaxploitation films and Shane Black and Mel Gibson and lots of other important stuff (oh, and for the record, Star Wars doesn’t count as action film).

Note: This is meant to be classification of the mainstream Hollywood action film, focusing on the English speaking Western world. Obviously, there’s a great tradition of action movies in other nation cinemas – from Shaw Brother’s martial arts flicks to Italian Poliziotteschi movies – and those are definitely important, but for the time being, we’re just sticking to American movies, ok?


The 70′s (and Late 60′s)




Modern action movies didn’t really define themselves until the early 80s, yet definitely have their origins in the gritty crime cinema of the 70s. Strictly speaking, they didn’t actually make action films in the 70s. A film like Bullitt has one tremendous, iconic action sequence, but its the only action sequence in the film. Films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish aren’t regimentally punctuated with regular shoot-outs and fights the way a Schwarzenegger flick does. They are thrillers, and create suspense and excitement through plot and narrative, instead of punching and explosions.

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