15 Overlooked Movies From The 1970s That Are Worth Watching

Silent Running Bruce Dern

The 1970s, was an incredibly exciting period in film making. Relaxations in censorship lead to film makers exploring subject matter which was once strictly off limits. The result of this was an explosion of challenging films, some which remain controversial to this day.

Of course, relaxed attitudes toward on screen sex and violence were not the only factors which made the 70s such a great decade for cinema. Something else was going on, something special, it was as if decades of pent up frustration were finally unleashed, giving birth to a groundswell of outrageous creativity. It is a decade where is seems as if anything were possible in the realms of cinema, and for fans of this era nothing can quite compare to it.

This list was created to bring attention to some of the more underrated films of that decade, which deserve your attention.


1. Soldier Blue (1970)

Soldier Blue (1970)

Set in 1864, Soldier Blue begins with a Cavalry detail being attacked by the Cheyenne. The two remaining survivors Honus Gent (Peter Strauss) and Cresta Lee (Candice Bergen) must stick together to survive. The problem? Cresta sympathises with and supports the cause of the Cheyenne, while naive Cavalry member Honus is loyal to the US government. As the pair travel the plains to reach Fort Reunion circumstances bring them closer together, despite extreme idealogical differences.

Why you should see it:

Soldier Blue is one of the most radical American films ever made, no other western has so spectacularly destroyed the cosy myth of the old west. It was the first film to show the events of the Sand Creek Massacre, and director Ralph Nelson pulled no punches. Controversial for its graphic violence and the portrayal of US cavalrymen as blood thirsty killers, Soldier Blue did not perform well at the US box office, reportedly causing a near riot at a New Jersey preview. It was however, a big hit in the UK and Europe.

The film was released following the revelation of the My Lai Massacre, leading to some suggesting that it was an Vietnam allegory, something the director denied. Whether it was indented or not is up for debate, but it is impossible to divorce it from the political climate of the time.

Set to a stirring theme song by Buffy Sainte-Marie, herself of Cree origin and an activist for the rights of Native Americans, Soldier Blue is an astonishing film. The harrowing final act will stay with you long after you have seen it and is a testament to the film making skill of Ralph Nelson. Add in the great performances, particularly Candice Bergen’s, and you have an excellent, and sadly forgotten 70s classic.


2. Catch-22 (1970)

Catch 22

The plot follows John Yossarian, perfectly brought to life by Alan Arkin, a bombardier in the US Air Force during world war two, as he desperately attempts to have himself declared insane so that he can return home. To make matters worse Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam) keeps increasing the number of flying missions his squadron have to undertake. Along the way we are introduced to his fellow squad members and superior officers, and much of humour comes from seeing Yossarian’s interactions with them.

Why you should see it:

Released in 1970, Catch-22 was adapted from the classic novel of the same name by Joseph Heller. Heller’s Novel was a brilliant satire of the absurdity of war and the perils of bureaucracy. The title refers to a fictional military rule which states that if insane, one can be discharged from the army, but in order to achieve this one has to apply for said discharge, and doing so demonstrates that you are not insane. The phrase Catch 22 soon entered the popular lexicon to denote any paradoxical situation an individual can not escape because of contradictory rules.

One of the stars of this film is the dialogue, the script by Buck Henry, while not entirely faithful to the book, perfectly captures the humour brought about by the absurdity of the situations Yossarian finds himself in. This, along with the direction of Mike Nichols, beautiful cinematography by David Watkin and an excellent supporting cast including Martin Sheen, Charles Grodin, Anthony Perkins, Jon Voight and Orson Welles makes for an incredibly entertaining and thought provoking film.

At the time, Catch-22 was considered a critical and commercial failure, partly due to it being overshadowed by Robert Altman’s MASH. Unfairly pushed aside at the time, Catch-22 has since become a cult favourite, but remains under appreciated in the mainstream.


3. The Light at the Edge of the World (1971)

The Light at the Edge of the World (1971)

This little known adventure film was adapted from Jules Verne’s 1905 Novel Le Phare du Bout du Monde. It stars Kirk Douglas as Will Denton, a man tortured by heartache and escaping punishment for a murder committed during a gun fight. He, along with two others, look after an Isolated Light House on a Rocky Island in the Atlantic Ocean.

However, Will’s new found peace is destroyed when a vicious group of Pirates, lead by Jonathan Kongre (Yul Brynner) arrives. Their intention: to take out the light house in order to wreck ships so that they can loot the cargo. Will Takes to the cliffs and along with a ship wreck survivor launches a guerilla war against the pirates.

Why you should see it:

Yul Brynner has rarely been better as the Sadistic pirate leader and Kirk Douglas creates a hero you can really root for. The cinematography captures both the beauty and the harshness of the unforgiving landscape. The rocky Island setting is taken full advantage of as our hero hides in caves whilst setting traps for the unsuspecting Pirates.

The light at the Edge of the World was a disappointment at the box office, despite a hefty budget and A list stars. This may have been down to how it was marketed, the original cut of the film was much more dark and violent, but in order to get a lower rating the film was cut.

This was an attempt to sell it as a family adventure film, even with the cuts, this film simply does not work on that level, Swiss Family Robinson this is not. The uncut version is a thrilling adventure film with some truly savage moments of violence. Perhaps, if the film were not tampered with, it would have received the praise it deserved.


4. Massacre at Central High (1976)

Massacre at Central High (1976)

David (Derrel Maury) has recently transferred to Central High, and his old friend Mark (Andew Stephens) welcomes him with open arms, but things have changed in the time they have been apart. Mark is now part of group of vicious bullies who rule the school through fear. Rebuffing Mark’s offer to join them, David resorts to extreme lengths to break their authoritarian stranglehold and free his fellow students from oppression.

Why you should see it:

Massacre at Central High could easily just have been another exploitation film, but writer director Renee Daalder took it in a much more interesting direction. Through his characters, Daalder explores issues relating to social status, class and the corrupting nature of power.

After inspiring rebellion and ousting one set of bullies, a vacuum is created and it isn’t long before David is approached by those he fought to save asking him to join them to establish a new regime. Of course, this time they assure him that it will be “different.” David has made the unfortunate discovery that revolution is does not end with the death of the old regime.

Massacre at Central High is an overlooked gem, and a triumph of low budget film making. An inspiration for 1988s Heathers, it sadly didn’t achieve the same level cult success. A truly intelligent film with some inspired moments of dark humour, Massacre at Central High is a film you need to see.


5. Joe (1970)

Joe (1970)

Bill (Dennis Patrick), a wealthy conservative has a problem, his daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon) is a hippie and her boyfriend is a drug dealer. After being informed that she has had a drug overdose Bill visits her boyfriend, a fight ensues and in the struggle, he kills him. Frightened and disoriented, Bill ends up at a bar where he meets Joe (Peter Boyle) , a racist factory worker with a particular dislike for hippies. Once Bill has revealed his guilty secret the pair become friends, with disastrous results.

Why you should see it:

Joe came at a time when the older generation where still trying to process what had happened to their children during the 60s. The backlash against the rejection of traditional American values by the youth is very well explored by screenwriter Norman Wexler and director John G. Avildsen. The result is a revealing snapshot of the era marked by cultural upheaval.

The film is worth watching alone for Peter Boyle’s all too believable performance as the hate spewing racist title character. Joe is a man who simply cannot understand what has happened to the country he grew up in, leading to some humorous and truly terrifying moments.


6. Short Eyes (1977)

Short Eyes (1977)

Clark Davis (Bruce Davidson) is placed in New York City’s Tombs Prison. He is charged with child molestation, something his fellow inmates quickly discover, which makes life very difficult for him. He finds sympathy in Juan (jose Perez) but will his influence with the other prisoners be enough to save him?

Why you should see it:

Short Eyes was written by Miguel Pinero, who penned the original play he based his screenplay off of while serving time for armed robbery. The inside knowledge he brought to the piece makes for a film that feels authentic. The observation of the inmates behaviour and the power structure they adhere to could only have come from someone who has lived it. This element of authenticity is what makes the film so compelling.

Short Eyes is a hard film to watch and Bruce Davidson’s performance as the suspected child molester is incredibly brave. His confession to Juan is a truly uncomfortable moment, but is brilliantly acted and expertly handled by director Robert M. Young.

Also of note is the appearance of Curtis Mayfield, who as well as producing some great music for the film, also turns in a brief but good performance as Pappy, one of the elder inmates.

A challenging film to watch, but essential viewing.


7. Private Parts (1972)

Private Parts (1972)

Cheryl (Ayn Ruymen) has been thrown out by her room mate after finding her in a compromising position. She now has no choice but to stay with her Aunt Martha (Lucille Benson) in her run down LA Hotel. Martha has a love of funerals, her son George (John Venantonio) is a peeping tom who is starved of human interaction and makes up for it by sleeping with a blow up doll, and the lodgers are equally strange. As Cheryl delves further into their private lives, dark secrets are revealed.

Why you should see it:

Cult director Paul Bartel’s début film is a masterpiece of off the wall cinema. Seldom are films so engagingly strange as this one. Using a hotel setting to explore the seedier side of life was an inspired choice and Bartel doesn’t disappoint. Each character has their own odd ways and part of the joy comes from seeing Cheryl discover them.

Lucille Benson’s wickedly funny performance is as the puritanical Martha is a real standout. Ayn Ruyman also impresses as the girl who has a few secrets of her own.

Private Parts does not have the appearance of a low budget exploitation film, the cinematography by Andrew Davis is excellent and adds a great deal to the mood of the film. Hugo Friedhofer’s atmospheric score builds upon this helping to make Private Parts a truly memorable film.