A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (June – Part 1)

Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams (June 5)
Clash of the Titans (June 12)
History of the World Pt. 1 (June 12)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (June 12)
The Cannonball Run (June 19)
Superman II (June 19)
Dragonslayer (June 26)
For Your Eyes Only (June 26)
The Great Muppet Caper (June 26)
Stripes (June 26)

The list of films above would have made for an incredible movie summer, but the fact it only represents one single month of the Summer of 1981’s movie releases is astounding. From action to fantasy to comedy, June 1981 brought something for everyone, and I’m hard pressed to find another movie month before or since with the same depth of quality releases. June 1981 was unmatched in box office success with five films each earning more than $50 million domestically, with Raiders of the Lost Ark at the top of the year’s domestic box office with $212 million ($289 million in the US & Canada, and $389 million worldwide). In terms of the comedy and special effects of some of these films, let’s just say they were products of their time. But while some of these films haven’t exactly aged well (Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams, Clash of the Titans), forty years later some are still consistently watched (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Stripes), while others are old favorites that continue to be revisited (Dragonslayer, The Cannonball Run, For Your Eyes Only).

Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams (June 5), directed by Tommy Chong, is a film that comes up on my radar every few years either on streaming video or back in the day when it would be part of a late night screening on cable TV with friends. Written by Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, the film begins as the title characters make their small fortune driving around L.A. in an ice cream truck selling weed disguised in ice cream wrappers. As they dream about using the money to move to Costa Rica (Cheech) and buying more guitars (Chong), they’re tailed by LAPD officers Drooler and Noodles who get a sample to take back to their precinct for testing. Stacey Keach reprises his role as Sgt. Stedenko (previously in Up In Smoke), but this time around he’s showing the effects of being a little too into the product he’s trying to get off the streets. While they treat themselves to dinner, Cheech and Chong run into Donna (Evelyn Guerrero, reprising her role from 1980’s Next Movie) and the “crazy hamburger dude” played by Paul Reubens (also from Next Movie), who gets Chong to exchange all of their cash for a bogus check. Their attempt to get their bag of cash back takes an unexpected turn (after they almost get killed by Donna’s racist, escaped convict biker boyfriend) and they find themselves trapped in a mental institution. Nice Dreams was light on plot but has more than enough gags to keep you laughing, though the humor was definitely of its time (translation: elements of the story definitely wouldn’t be filmed today). It grossed a solid $35 million, but down from Next Movie’s $41 million in 1980.

What more can be said or written about Raiders of the Lost Ark (June 12), which was the the top grossing film of 1981 ($212 million US & Canada, $354 million total worldwide) and one of the great film franchises of all time? Before the film’s release Harrison Ford was already world famous for a couple of films called Star Wars and The Empire Strike Back, but his role as Indiana Jones in this throwback blockbuster propelled him to bankable leading man (prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ford’s leading roles outside of the Star Wars franchise were in the films Hanover Street, Force 10 from Navarone and The Frisco Kid, none of which grossed $10 million in North America). Ford makes archaeology exciting and cool when Professor Indiana Jones is hired by the U.S. government in 1936 to find the location of the biblical Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do, visiting several exotic locations (Nepal, Cairo) along the way. Producer George Lucas co-wrote the original story with Philip Kaufman (The Wanderers, The Right Stuff) as a love letter to the adventure serials of the 1940’s, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill, Silverado) wrote a screenplay that incorporates the cliffhanger elements of the old movie serials and grabs the audience from the opening sequence. His script was brought to life and ingrained in our cinematic memories by director Steven Spielberg (how many times have we seen the clip of the giant stone rolling down towards Indy?) for a non-stop, action filled ride. Even after 40 years, Raiders of the Lost Ark never gets old.

Superman II (June 19) is regarded by many as the best of the Christopher Reeve Superman films. The film begins with a montage of the key scenes from 1978’s Superman: The Movie, and once the audience is back up to speed, continues with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) in Paris putting herself in harm’s way to get the world’s biggest story: a terrorist group has taken hostages on the Eiffel Tower and set up a hydrogen bomb. Clark/Superman saves her and launches the bomb into space just as it detonates, saving Paris but freeing three Kryptonian criminals (General Zod played by Terence Stamp, Ursa played by Sarah Douglas, and Non played by Jack O’Halloran – introduced in the first film’s opening trial scene on Krypton) from their exile in the Phantom Zone. Earth’s sun provides them with identical powers to Superman and they make their way to Earth with the intent of world domination (what else?). In the meantime Clark and Lois are assigned an expose in Niagara Falls, where Lois confirms that Clark is Superman. He takes her to his Fortress of Solitude where he chooses to have his powers stripped in order to be with Lois as a mortal being. But by now Zod has taken control, and Superman’s old nemesis Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) has joined the fun. Though it was filmed simultaneously with 1978’s Superman: The Movie, Superman II has a more lighthearted tone and cinematography more in tune with a comic book film due to Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers) taking over directing duties after original director Richard Donner was removed from the project. Donner reportedly shot over 70% of Superman II, and several original elements pieced from outtakes were reintroduced to the film for the release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut in 2006. Superman II earned $108 million in North America and $190 million worldwide. In my opinion Superman II doesn’t match the original film’s heart and (in honor of Richard Donner) verisimilitude, but it’s a worthy sequel with a fun plot and dynamic visuals, making it a staple for fans of the comic book film genre.

Clash of the Titans (June 12), directed by Desmond Davis and written by Beverley Cross, is a fantasy film based on Greek mythology that showcased respected actors Burgess Meredith, Maggie Smith and Laurence Olivier and the classic visual effects of the great Ray Harryhausen. The film begins with King Acrisius of Argos exiling his daughter Danae and her baby Perseus to the sea for bringing shame to the kingdom. On Mount Olympus, Zeus, who had impregnated Danae and is the father of Perseus, orders Argos destroyed by the Kraken and Danae and Perseus saved. Perseus grows into adulthood as a favorite of Zeus on Seraphos, while his other son Calibos is punished for his arrogance with transformation to an abomination with horns and hooves. Calibos’s mother Thetis (played by Maggie Smith), angered by Zeus’s treatment of her son, transports Perseus (now an adult played by Harry Hamlin) from Seraphos to the island of Joppa where he is befriended by an old poet/actor named Ammon (Burgess Meredith) and begins his journey to earn the right to marry Princess Andromeda and save her city from destruction by Thetis. Clash of the Titans would be Ray Harryhausen’s last film before retiring, showcasing the effects on which he built his illustrious career in films such as 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts (also written by Beverley Cross). While the effects are dated by today’s standards (and even by the 90s for that matter) it’s a film that could be an inspiration to young, aspiring visual effects wizards who with today’s available and affordable technology could recreate Harryhausen’s effects at a fraction of the time and cost. Clash of the Titans may not hold up as well forty years later, but it’s still a joy to watch not only for the nostalgia but also because it’s refreshing to see an epic story told on a simple scale, unlike most overdone epic fantasy films of the last twenty years. It earned a respectable $41 million in North America and $70 million worldwide.

In History of the World Part I (June 12), writer/director Mel Brooks takes the audience on a comedic journey through human history beginning with the dawn of man and ending with the French Revolution (with stops at the Old Testament, Imperial Rome and the Spanish Inquisition along the way). It’s a very funny film by Mel Brooks if not at the level of previous classics Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, and is remembered and enjoyed today for several classic scenes (who could forget the catchy tune about the Spanish Inquisition?) and their memorable quotes (“It’s good to be the king…”). Watching the Imperial Rome and French Revolution scenes makes you wonder what could have been had Brooks expanded these scenes into their own feature films. At a $10 million budget, Brooks puts it all on the screen with a cast that includes Madeline Kahn, Gregory Hines and the great Harvey Korman, elaborate production design and some of the best traditional matte painting work of that era by Albert Whitlock (a behind the scenes look at that process can be seen here and Mel Brooks’s reaction to Whitlock’s work on History of the World Part I is priceless). It earned $31.7 million in under 500 theaters. If only there could have been a Part II.

Director Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run (June 19) is that lighthearted, laugh a minute comedy that you just need sometimes, and is the antitheses to May’s disappointing racing film King of the Mountain. One look at the film’s poster and you know exactly what kind of ride you’re in for. Neeham (Smokey and the Bandit I & II, Hooper, Stroker Ace) with screenwriter Brock Yates (who conceived the Cannonball Run challenge and actually won it with a time of 35 hours and 54 minutes in 1971) crafted a classic example of an ensemble comedy along the lines of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but with a high octane upgrade. Racer J.J. McClure (Burt Reynolds) is focused on winning in the Cannonball Run, an illegal cross country race from Connecticut to California, with his sidekick Victor Prinzi (Dom DeLuise). They’re disguised as ambulance drivers to outsmart the smokeys, complete with a doctor of questionable qualifications (Jack Elam) and a kidnapped environmentalist as their patient (Farrah Fawcett). They’re up against racers of equally dubious tactics in former Formula 1 racer Jamie Blake (Dean Martin – whose performance makes you wonder if he really was drunk throughout this film or if he really was that good of an actor) and Morris Fenderbaum (Sammie Davis Jr.) who are driving a red Ferrari dressed as priests. The cast of cannonballers includes Jamie Farr, Roger Moore, Adrienne Barbeau, Terry Bradshaw and Jackie Chan. It’s not a perfect film, feeling a little slapdashed at times, and more than a few of the jokes wouldn’t pass today’s standards, including humor related to drinking and driving, kidnapping, cultural stereotypes, speech impediments, mental health issues and racial jokes. Ironically the tamest part of this movie is driving over the speed limit. But to its benefit, the film moves at a quick pace with a generous amount of the Burt Reynolds/Dom DeLuise comedy dynamic. This film was made to be a crowd pleaser and didn’t fail as it earned $72 million at the North American box office.

Next up, we continue our look at the films of June 1981 with four films that opened the weekend of June 26th: The Great Muppet Caper, For Your Eyes Only, Dragonslayer, and Stripes!

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