December 2, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Best five movies of 1981

6 min read
1981 was a great year for movies and TV historian Tony McMahon picks out the best five and why he thinks you should view them

What were the best five movies of 1981? Well, it was a year when the 1980s blockbuster truly announced its presence. It was the end of a period in film making sometimes called ‘New Hollywood’ or the ‘American New Wave’ when movies had been more experimental and directors more powerful at the expense of the studios. Big loss makers like the previous year’s giant dud Heaven’s Gate put the money men back in the saddle. However, amazingly talented directors who had emerged in the 1970s and honed their craft in a free-spirited environment, now rose to dominance: Stephen Spielberg, Ridley Scott, George Lucas, Wes Craven and others.

So, for my best five movies of 1981, I want to start with the adventure movie only rivalled by Star Wars for thrills and spills: Raiders of the Lost Ark. The movie that introduced us to the fictional character of Indiana Jones.

Steven Spielberg directed this adventure movie based on a screenplay by George Lucas of Star Wars fame. Lucas wanted to revive the ‘serial movies’ of the early 20th century. These were movies played out in half-hour chapters each week forming a series like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers – the 1930s versions. Normally for children’s matinees or ‘Saturday Morning Pictures’ as we used to have in the 1970s. They’d fit into a cinematic menu of cartoons, news and other features. All of this transferred from the big screen of cinema to the little screen of TV after the Second World War.

At the time it’s worth noting that Lucas was the darling of Hollywood having delivered a thumping global success in the form of Star Wars. Spielberg was viewed with less warmth. However, this movie would cement his reputation. Indiana Jones was originally going to be called Indiana Smith. He might have ended up being played by Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase or Steve Martin who were all reportedly considered for the role but mercifully turned down. Harrison Ford was chosen on the proviso that he could re-write dialogue, as he had done in Star Wars to great comedic effect.

Ford’s costume was partly based on that of Humphrey Bogart in the 1948 classic movie, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And it helped establish the iconic image of Indiana Jones that would endure for the sequels. Lucky Harrison Ford got to star in both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series and with a share of profits came out laughing.

An American Werewolf in London took the horror genre and mixed it with goofball comedy and gross-out special effects. Not surprising that it came out in the same year that Evil Dead hit the cinema screens. It was in marked contrast to the dark and rather Victorian-feeling Hammer Horror films. Instead of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing chewing the carpet, there was a young and brash cast. The sort of people you might meet down the pub. Which makes the sudden transformation of fictional American backpacker David Kessler (played by actor David Naughton) all the more shocking.

That infamous scene gripped cinema audiences at the time. These were special effects taken to the next level. The wolf’s teeth emerging. Snout protruding. Eyes going bloodshot. Hair growing all over David’s naked body. If it all looks a bit familiar, then that’s because the movie’s director John Landis was then asked by Michael Jackson to use more or less the same effects two years later on the video for his hit single, Thriller.

The movie was a box office hit but has divided critics ever since. Some recognised that Landis had moved the genre forward and this style would become a signature of 1980s horror movies. Others complained that plot and character had been sacrificed to special effects. Little did those critics realise that they were fighting a losing battle. Top film critic Roger Ebert hated the intersection of comedy and horror but again, that was very much a sign of things to come.

Clash of the Titans was almost a throwback or the last gasp of the ‘sword and sandals’ films that audiences loved in the first decades of cinema up until the 1960s. And then ancient Romans and Greeks went out of fashion. Not really returning as box office subject matter until Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000. From then, we’ve had a never ending slew of movies featuring Greek, Roman, Viking and medieval gods and characters.

It was the last movie in which Ray Harryhausen would provide the stop motion model animation that had thrilled cinema-goers in older movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Although the effects can look a little clunky now, they were a massive influence on the likes of George Lucas and even Tim Burton. Harryhausen’s monsters battling or threatening humans is still compelling viewing.

Harry Hamlin played the lead as Perseus – very much a 1970s idea of a hunk. Laurence Olivier was drafted in to provide gravitas as Zeus while a young Maggie Smith pops up as Thetis. Si├ón Phillips, who had only recently divorced the actor Peter O’Toole, was brilliant as Cassiopeia.

This isn’t my favourite film of the era by a long chalk but it’s one of those movies you have to acknowledge. Chariots of Fire is an unashamedly nostalgic movie about two British athletes winning at the 1924 Olympics. One is the son of Scottish missionaries and the other from a Jewish family. They encounter prejudice based on class and religion. Each must triumph over adversity. Hugh Hudson was faultless as the director; Colin Welland penned a perfect script and the late Vangelis composed a music score that is hard to forget.

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Chariots of Fire, to my mind, foreshadowed the Merchant Ivory films, and imitators, that would become a staple of Thatcher era cinema in Britain. These include period dramas like Howard’s End and the biopic Ghandi. On one level, they mired audiences in the British Empire, whether in Britain or the Indian Raj. But on another level, they explored the colonial legacy and the damaging buttoned-up emotions of people in the past. At the time, many found these movies cloying, backward-looking and reactionary. Especially with a Prime Minister in the shape of Margaret Thatcher playing on old-fashioned patriotism. But these movies have been reappraised in recent years.

If you’re going to tell the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table then embrace the magic and sorcery. And that’s exactly what Excalibur did in 1981. Very trippy and hallucinogenic in feel which perfectly suits the Arthurian legends written by the medieval chroniclers. It’s all barking mad stuff so run with it. The director, John Boorman, had been itching to make Excalibur since the 1960s and that might explain the rather psychedelic feel to the whole thing.

It’s a delicious though at times completely over the top experience to watch. Film critic Roger Ebert called Excalibur “a mess”. It undoubtedly is. The scripting and characterisation were quite cartoonish but as with An American Werewolf in London, I think that was quite prescient. Watch any Marvel franchise movie today and it ain’t Shakespeare.

And frankly, who needs social realism with King Arthur anyway. If you want to see how badly that approach can end, watch the lumbering turkey that is King Arthur, released in 2004. That movie ditched every shred of magic from the medieval legends to give us a leaden account of a Roman soldier (the ‘real’ Arthur) fighting all kinds of barbarians in late Roman Britain – yawn. No Holy Grail. No wizardry from Merlin. No Round Table. I mean seriously – what was the point?

Strangely – despite its otherworldliness – you probably learn more about the medieval mindset from 1981’s Excalibur than you will from the 2004 King Arthur. Users of Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing this seem to agree.

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