Friday 23 September 2022

Clash of the Cinema Titans (1972)

This blog post is the fiftteenth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.

The early 1970s saw a flourishing of SFF cinema. In 1971 alone, Jim McBride’s X-rated Glen and Randa scandalized audiences with post-apocalyptic sex scenes, and garnered critical love along the way. Boris Sagal threw Charleton Heston to the vampires in the blockbuster The Omega Man. And Josef Pinkava offered audiences a whimsical tale of children with a magical computer in The Wishing Machine. But these films were up against long odds to make the Hugo shortlist. 

The shortlist in 1972 may have provided the most star-studded Best Dramatic Presentation ballot the awards have ever seen. 

The movies on that shortlist were directed by a cavalcade of what are now household names for many: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Robert Wise, and Stanley Kubrick. Between these four people, there’s a total of 46 Academy Award nominations and $23 billion in box office receipts.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in the 1970s.
Long before they were beloved by millions of 
moviegoers, science fiction fandom embraced
the works of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
The Hugos gave each of them their first award nods
for feature films.
(Image via Reddit)

Each of these directors moved the art of moviemaking forwards and made extraordinary contributions to science fiction cinema … but to be blunt, none of them produced their best work in 1971.

Despite the Hugo ceremony taking place in downtown Los Angeles, none of the finalists made an appearance at the awards. In fact, none of them even bothered to send someone to pick up the award, with local fan Bill Warren acting as the acceptor.

Four movies made the ballot — and a second Firesign Theatre album. Only Bozos On This Bus loosely continues the story started in the previous year’s comedy album, which may make it the first instance in which a work and its sequel were both shortlisted for a Hugo. It probably would have been near the bottom of most of our ballots though. 

More interestingly, an little-remembered television movie L.A. 2017 did make the ballot.

Just 24 years old at the time, Steven Spielberg was taking short-term television gigs while trying to break into feature film work. He’d had a rocky start with poorly-received work on Rod Sterling’s Night Gallery and on Marcus Welby, M.D., when he had the opportunity to direct a one-off science fiction TV movie for an anthology show about journalists in Los Angeles. The result, L.A. 2017, is a surprising inclusion on the Hugo ballot.

Shot for a paltry $375,000, and with a script by Philip Wylie (author of When Worlds Collide and
Poster for City of Stars
The real Los Angeles of 2017 turned out to be far
more dystopian than even Steven Spielberg had
imagined in his first feature-length movie L.A. 2017.
(Image via IndieWire)
Gladiator), L.A. 2017 is an uneven work at best. The parable about a fascist future United States living underground to hide from pollution is heavy handed, most of the acting is hammy, and the ending is an appalling cop out. But having watched a number of other television movies of the time during our voyage through Hugo history, we were struck at how much livelier the directing was. It’s clear that Spielberg was head and shoulders above most of his peers directing television in the early 1970s, conveying more through effective framing and camera movement.

Although not well remembered, L.A. 2017 is of significant historical value as it opened doors for the young Spielberg. It’s also interesting to note that this nomination means that the Hugo Awards can boast of being the first major award to have shortlisted Stephen Spielberg.

Just two years older than Spielberg, George Lucas was somewhat more established in Hollywood. Fresh off filming the disastrous Altamont Music Festival for the Maysles brothers’ documentary Gimme Shelter, Lucas was given his first chance to direct a feature film through a partnership with more-established filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola.

Intended to launch a new studio, THX-1138 was shot on a modest budget of slightly under $1 million — by comparison Marooned, which was released little more than a year earlier, had cost ten times that amount. Lucas does an extraordinary amount on that small budget, creating a world that is evocative, cold, and sterile to tell a story about rebellion and a search for emotional connection.

Although this may be one of George Lucas’ most visually compelling movies, the plot (which is essentially an unacknowledged adaptation of Brave New World) is mostly unengaging. The coldness of the setting leaks into the dialogue, leaving little for an audience to engage with.
Shockingly, the guy who would go on to write 
screenplays for The Radioland Murders and
Strange Magic wrote some clunky dialogue
in the movie THX-1138.
(Image via Lucasfilm)

Interestingly, the Hugo nomination for THX-1138 was also George Lucas’ first major award nomination for a feature film (a short version of the film had received a nod at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival in 1968.)

In 1972, Robert Wise was a Hollywood icon at the height of his career. He’d won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture twice (1961 West Side Story, 1965 Sound of Music). After Universal had won the bidding war over Michael Crichton’s breakout novel The Andromeda Strain, Wise was brought onboard to bring a sense of respectability to a script that might otherwise have been seen as another cookie-cutter disaster movie. Andromeda Strain covers a four-day period after a pathogen arrives from space, and concerns itself with the scientific team attempting to contain the disease.

While it may not deliver high-octane thrills, or incisive social commentary, it’s one of the best depictions of science or scientists that science fiction cinema had seen up to this point. Notably, it's refreshing to see the inclusion of central protagonist Dr. Ruth Leavitt, a caustic, competent, and down-to-earth scientist. Her character — and the lack of objectification — makes Andromeda Strain one of the least sexist SFF movies up to this point.

That depiction stands in stark contrast to the over-the-top misogyny of A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s stylish, beguiling, and deeply unpleasant Hugo winner. Set in a near-future England that has slid into fascism, the movie follows a young man named Alex, his friend group, and their experiences with the police and prisons.
Alex in Clockwork Orange screaming as he's forced to watch awful movies.
Documentary footage of our cinema club reacting
to 1960 Hugo-finalist Men Into Space.
(Image via FilmLoverss)

Based on a novel by Anthony Burgess, the movie seems to suggest that the sexual revolution will only provide ways for men to aggressively dominate women’s bodies. Debates have raged over the past five decades over whether Clockwork Orange is a commentary on misogyny, or simply misogynistic in and of itself.

Though Kubrik won his third Hugo Award as a director (a feat only equalled by three other directors), it’s difficult to suggest that the voters got this one right. Clockwork Orange is certainly a classic of cinema, and the actual filmmaking, editing, and camera work are all meticulous. But it’s barely science fictional, and many (including about half our cinema club) find it offensive.

It’s not made by as famous a director, but perhaps the more meat-and-potatoes populist option of The Omega Man might have been a more suitable choice to honour with a Hugo in 1972?


  1. I learned about LA 2017 when I read Philip Wylie's novel FINNLEY WREN and looked him up. I had never heard of that TV piece before then. I should say that a) FINNLEY WREN is FAR more interesting than either the WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE books or GLADIATOR; and b) it includes some science fiction in the form of short pieces included in the book that are presented as stories written by Wren (I believe at least one of them was published separately.) Wylie himself was interesting in many ways (for one thing, his niece was one of the victims in the "Career Girls murder case", which led to a wrongful conviction in a key case that ended up part of the impetus to the establishment of Miranda rights.)

    As for CLOCKWORK ORANGE, while I've not seen the film, I've always felt (based more the book perhaps) that it was arguing against misogyny -- and it seems to me that its argument that the sexual revolution might lead to more oppression of women is echoed fairly often by at least some feminists, to one degree or another.

    I'm surprised THE OMEGA MAN didn't get a nomination. That was one of the (relatively few) films my Dad took us kids to see. (Other examples: 2001 (on a rerelease), ICE STATION ZERO, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (also a rerelease); PLANET OF THE APES. In retrospect -- lots of SF content there!)

  2. L.A. 2017 was an episode of The Name of the Game a newspaper series with a rotating cast, the best thing about it being Susan St. James. This episode received an Emmy nominations for musical score. I didn't know that about young Bill Warren- that's interesting! The Omega Man was quite good. It seems like at that time they could only get away with interracial relationships on SciFi films so that is a credit to the genre. Clockwork Orange is the masterpiece here. Without special effects and elaborate sets Kubrick somehow created a world that really seemed to take place in the future. I hope Rich checks it out. The Andromeda Strain is good too.