The period from 1968 to 1974 saw the release of more great science fiction films than any time before or since. The period coincided with one of the most turbulent times in United States history, from 1968 - the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon - through Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 8, 1974. Those six years were the time of roiling protests and brutal police crackdowns, the Manson family’s murderous rampage, the Kent State massacre and escalation of the war in Vietnam. And the Watergate scandal that ended Nixon’s presidency.
The headline of this article is purposefully tongue-in-cheek, mainly because there’s little evidence that Nixon enjoyed or even saw many science fiction movies, a genre that had only recently grown past the 1950s atomic monster trend – yetI can’t think of the films of this era without thinking about them in the context of Nixon.
The essential list of films screened at the White House during Nixon’s time in office is What Nixon Saw and When He Saw It, compiled by Mark Feeney for his book, Nixon at the Movies. Pouring over the list of films screened at the White House, Camp David, San Clemente and other sites from January 1969 until the month before Nixon resigned shows that while the president liked movies and regularly screened a mix of classic and recent films for himself, his family and guests, few sci-fi movies were shown: Marooned, the 1969 film about astronauts stranded in space, Fail-Safe, the tense 1964 thriller about a president (Henry Fonda) trying to prevent nuclear war, The Omega Man, the 1971 after-the-end-of-the-world thriller starring Charlton Heston and On the Beach, the melancholy 1959 after-the-bomb film, shown at the White House about two months before Nixon was out of office.
The lack of scifi in Nixon’s taste feels funny in hindsight; I think some of the period’s science fiction films would have been Nixon favorites, had he seen them. If nothing else, *A Clockwork Orange would have reinforced his love of law and order.
Birth of a screening room
Famously, Woodrow Wilson caused the pro-Ku Klux Klan epic Birth of a Nation to be screened at the White House in 1915. Wilson might have been the first presidential film reviewer, calling the D.W. Griffith film something like “history written with lightning.” Or maybe he didn’t say any such thing. We don’t know for certain, as Wilson was notoriously averse to social media like Twitter.
Wilson might have projected the Klan-praising film on a white sheet – har har – because an actual movie theater wasn’t added to the White House until 1942, when Franklin Roosevelt had a room converted to a small theater that ultimately featured 42 seats and a rich red and gold color scheme that reflected the look of great movie palaces of the time.
By the time Nixon was elected in 1968 and took office in 1969, movies were a constant at the White House. Nixon had barely settled into the presidency before his first presidential choice – The Shoes of the Fisherman, the 1968 drama about a bishop from Ukraine who is unexpectedly chosen to be the Pope, which was screened on January 22, 1969.
I won’t list here all the films Nixon had shown, even in his first year, when at least 45 were screened. They ranged from The Sound of Music to Hello, Dolly – though you have to wonder what Nixon thought of the Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.
Other than the four films that were sci-fi or nearly sci-fi, typical of Nixon’s choices in fantastic-adjacent fare was probably the 1962 Sean Connery James Bond outing Dr. No, which screened on March 3, 1972. (It was one of several Bond films shown for Nixon that year.)
There’s precedent, by the way, for presidents loving Bond stories. Besides Nixon, who watched several film versions during his last full year in office, there was John F. Kennedy, who famously loved Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and IMDB says Dr. No was his favorite movie. Obama is on the record as loving the first two Godfather movies. George W. Bush favored Field of Dreams. Bill Clinton reportedly screened High Noon in his White House 17 times.
If Nixon would have liked A Clockwork Orange – at least the reforming/torturing former delinquents part of It – what are we to make of George H.W. Bush’s fandom for Viva Zapata! other than his enjoyment of seeing Marlon Brando playing the Mexican revolutionary?
Judging from reporting over the decades on the favorite movies of presidents since Harry Truman, there are not a lot of low-budget, low-profile films cited. Presidents liked, for the most part, the same crowd-pleasing films most of us liked.
How to account for the cinematic gold rush of great sci-fi from 1968 to 1974? Because, to put it plainly, Hollywood wasn’t catering to the presidential tastes - -yet there are some interesting theories about what sparked the period of great sci-fi films.
Great stories, big moods
Phil Hardy’s exhaustive 1984 book Science Fiction Movies covers eight decades of fantastic films and offers a year-by-year listing of all the sci-fi movies released each year. The chapter on the 1960s is titled Science Fiction Becomes Respectable and notes that after the atomic monster films of the 1950s, the sci-fi movies of the 1960s were far more diverse in their inspiration. From the pseudo-sci-fi of the James Bond films to Disney’s The Absent-Minded Professor, the movies of the 1960s offered a very different take on the genre.
Hardy singles out three seminal films of the year that kicks off the time period we’re considering here.
“The culmination of this trend (bigger budgets, bigger ideas) came in 1968 with the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes [...]Equally influential, though not as celebrated at the time, was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which created a sub-genre which would be mined throughout the 1970s in countless exploitation pictures …”
So what exactly prompted the golden age of sci-fi film?
In the beginning was the word. Film adaptations of 2001 and Apes were likely on account of filmmakers seeing the promise of box-office gold in acclaimed works of literature.
In 1948, Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story, The Sentinel, about an artifact placed on Earth’s moon by an ancient space-faring race. The story was subsequently published in several short fiction anthologies. Clarke later took that idea of an object on the moon and expanded it into the story for 2001, developing his novel at the same time as he was working with director Stanley Kubrick on the film, released in 1968. The novel didn’t inspire the film but was concurrent with it.
A clearer novel-to-film path was set by Apes, which began life in 1963, when French author Pierre Boulle published a novel whose title is variously translated as Monkey Planet and Planet of the Apes. The 1968 film story was altered and the adaptation, starring sci-fi specialist Charlton Heston (Soylent Green, The Omega Man and more) was a hit sufficient to lead to four sequels and a TV series. The Omega Man was likewise based on a novel, this one by Richard Matheson.
If it worked for TV, why not movies? By the mid-1960s, sci-fi series like Star Trek and Lost in Space were hits that, while often modest in viewer ratings, had a huge cultural impact. Movie studios had been making cheap science fiction movies for decades, so why not appeal to what they believed could be a newly-discovered taste for upscale sci-fi at the movies? The box-office “homage” worked both ways, of course: The original Battlestar: Galactica series, which debuted in 1978, was a reaction to the success of Star Wars in 1977.
Changing of the guard – slowly. Changes among Hollywood’s creative elite probably prompted more risk-taking among movie productions that got the green light. The late 1960s was a transitional time for Hollywood, with the vestiges of the old studio system still in power but new, young mavericks rising. Behind the camera, Francis Ford Coppola had been steadily working throughout the 1960s, accumulating the successes that allowed him to make The Godfather by 1972.
In the studio executive suites, among the ranks of low-budget Hollywood, director Roger Corman came up from 1950s monster movies to direct and produce acclaimed films in the 1960s and 1970s that introduced actors and directors like Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and many more. Robert Evans became a film producer and achieved the status of chief of Paramount Pictures in 1967, when he was 37. Paramount wouldn’t make a big-screen Star Trek for more than 10 years, but Evans’ time at the studio saw the release of not only The Godfather and Rosemary’s Baby but one film Nixon did screen: the gritty cop drama Serpico.
Hollywood became more open-minded about sci-fi and genre movies – as long as they made money. While Nixon was in office, directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made their debuts. They initially directed edgy fare but ultimately hit the big time with films with mass appeal.
Moviegoers – and there were a lot of them – wanted the fantastic and a good time. One of the most interesting explanations for why movies became hits in this era came from the book Hollywood and the Baby Boom: A Social History, by James Russell and Jim Whalley. The Baby Boom generation was huge and was prone to moviegoing anyway. But why? Young people saw movies as a social, rather than cultural activity. It was fun to go to movies with a group of friends, and what better movie to see than Zardoz, a 1974 sci-fi epic with Sean Connery in a codpiece and suspenders?
Perhaps most plausibly: We were still processing our feelings. It’s true that for the most part the “giant monster mutated by radiation” movie genre trailed off by the end of the 1950s. But once you’ve lived in ongoing, low-level anxiety about the end of the world, that fear never really goes away. In his 1981 autobiography Danse Macabre, Stephen King told a story about being in a movie theater in October 1957 when the theater manager stopped the projector to announce that the Russians had successfully placed Sputnik, the first satellite, in orbit. By the late 1960s, giant ants were out of fashion, but looking at the future through a cracked glass was not.
2001 was about the triumph and terrors of technology that ultimately showed us how little control we have over our universe. Charly – another film taken from a book, Flowers for Algernon – gave us the tragedy of losing one’s mind. Planet of the Apes was about the tragedy of losing one’s planet, as was No Blade of Grass. The Andromeda Strain, with its killer germ from outer space, showed us how small we are on this planet without ever leaving the planet.
Lucas’s THX-1138 showed us a subtle variation on the dangers of giving up our humanity. Silent Running taught us that no matter how far away we travel, we’ll always bring our worst selves along. And Soylent Green is people! Sorry for the spoiler for a nearly half-century-old movie.
The perspective of just a few years after the groundbreaking run of films that began in 1968 is fascinating, even if it doesn’t cite Nixon or the events of the time. In his 1978 book Future Tense, author John Brosnan notes the revolutionary period of films that, at the time of the publication of his book, had come just 10 years before.
“By the second half of the 1960s, the Vietnam War had become a dark shadow over most aspects of American life,” Brosnan wrote in the chapter, We Are the Martians. “Yet there is no reflection of this in any of the science fiction films of the period and Hollywood as a whole did its best to ignore the war.”
I think Brosnan undercuts his argument in the pages that follow, however. He cites films that reflect the unease and incendiary films – some of them all but forgotten now – that screened in cinemas from 1968 to 1974.
Besides the hits, from 2001 to Soylent Green to the Apes films, there were smaller movies that showed how unsettled and anxious society was. In 1968, the same year as 2001, Wild in the Streets posited a rock musician campaigning to make it legal for 18 year olds – and even younger – to vote. From 1970, Colossus: The Forbin Project hit a sinister theme more than a decade before The Terminator: A computer system that wants to take over the world.
Did we fear the military minds that sent our soldiers to Vietnam? Then maybe we saw The Crazies, George Romero’s little-seen 1972 follow-up to Night of the Living Dead. A government-created virus makes people turn homicidal, but when soldiers show up to help, the Army itself is feared by the people who haven’t been infected yet. “The film ends with everyone in the town either dead or insane and the army commander on his way to another town where a plague outbreak has also been reported,” Brosnan wrote.
Maybe Richard Nixon’s cinematic sci-fi legacy isn’t these low-budget dystopian visions any more than it is the glossy but sterile future of 2001. Maybe Nixon doesn’t have a cinematic sci-fi legacy, but the era he was in the White House is undoubtedly marked as a high point in the genre.