This is a short celebration of some of those great movie double bills that I remember from the 1960s. Prior to the advent of video / DVD, the only way you could watch one of your favourite movies again after their original release was to hopefully catch it on re-release at the local flea pit. If you were lucky the film might come around again as part of a double bill with another film equally as good.
For example I remember seeing Dr. No the first time on its initial release with a short black and white B movie in the Edgar Lustgarten (now there’s a name to conjure with) Scales of Justice series. The second time around the Bond film was paired with a Kirk Douglas Western called The Indian Fighter. Third time around I caught it on a double bill with From Russia With Love. I’m listing the following releases chronologically rather than by preference.
Dinosaurus! / The Mole People (1960)
I think this was the first monster double feature I ever saw. Back in the 1950s / early 1960s monster movies such as It Came From Beneath the Sea, The Giant Behemoth and Konga were usually rated as X certificate so I wouldn’t have been able to get in to see them at my age.
This bill comprised two A features which meant I could go with a parent. Luckily my dad was up for it so off we went. Dinosaurus made quite an impression on me at the time, as it really did feature what at the time could be described as spectacular dinosaur action. The climax of the film was a battle between a T-Rex and a crane operated by the hero. In fact when I saw Jurassic Park III it occurred to me that the scriptwriters of that film might have taken a sneaky look at the end of Dinosaurus for some inspiration.
There’s a cheesy sub plot with a young kid falling in with a caveman – hence the A rating I guess – who has been awoken from his primeval sleep along with the dinosaur of the title. I have to admit it doesn’t hold up to repeated viewings as far as the special effects are concerned but I was only 8 at the time, and it had dinosaurs in it so what was not to like? The Mole People however scared the living crap out of me and I had nightmares for months afterwards.
It was mainly set underground – duh – and the fact that most of the action was shot in shadow gave it a real creepy feel. I’ve not seen the film since but it obviously stayed with me so probably one worth checking out for all you horror aficionado’s out there.
A Thunder of Drums / The Colossus of Rhodes (1960)
Not exactly a classic Western but interesting to watch just the same, a Thunder of Drums features a couple of heart throbs of the time to entice the younger audiences into the cinema.
This film has a small supporting role for Richard Chamberlain, riding high on the popularity of the Dr. Kildare tv series at the time but the real surprise is seeing guitar-twanging Duane Eddy, sans guitar, as a cavalry soldier. Casting-wise I’d say that’s nearly up there with John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conquerors but maybe that’s just me (Charles Bronson’s also lurking in the background as well).
Anyway, as seems to be the case with a lot of the 60s double bill programs, it’s the second film that to me was the better of the two and the most memorable. The Colossus of Rhodes is worth a look for a number of reasons. Spectacular action sequences, including the destruction of the huge statue of the title in an earthquake, Hollywood actor desperately looking for another paycheck Rory Calhoun – he apparently replaced John Derek at the last moment – and the directing debut of a certain Serge Leone just to round things off.
I caught this film on tv in Italy a few years back and it still stands up quite well. More on Italian sword and sandal epics later.
The Pirates of Blood River / Mysterious Island (1962)
I remember quite clearly seeing this with my mum when I was about 10, partly because Mysterious Island was so much more enjoyable than the main film. It was also the first Ray Harryhausen movie I’d seen and I was hooked from that moment on.
I seem to remember the audience preferring Mysterious Island as well, particularly in the scene where one of the castaways jumps on the back of a huge animated chicken-like bird and tries to ride it like a horse. The main film was a Hammer pirate movie starring Christopher Lee with a young Oliver Reed and an even younger Dennis Waterman among the cast.
Can’t remember that much about it if I’m honest apart from a couple of the pirates getting eaten by piranha’s but definitely not as good as Mysterious Island which in my opinion should have been the main film. Apparently it was the most successful double bill release in the UK in that year. Great poster too.
Jason and the Argonauts / Siege of the Saxons (1963)
Arguably Ray Harryhausen’s finest effort – the skeleton fight towards the end still holds its own against many of the CGI efforts of today. It has a great Bernard Hermann score as well.
This bill perfectly suited the demographic I was associated with at the time – an 11 year-old schoolkid with absolutely no interest in anything other than movies. In fact, even though I saw this approximately 53 years ago at the Dreamland cinema in Margate I’m prepared to bet that apart from the ushers there was not one individual of the female persuasion in the audience.
This bill had it all. Loads of action – apparently Siege of the Saxons used a whole bunch of battle scenes from an old Alan Ladd film called The Black Knight – huge statues that came to life and snapped boats in two, flying harpies, seven headed Hydras and of course the aforementioned skeletons. I caught a separate double bill a year later released by an enterprising distributor featuring two films entitled Jason and the Golden Fleece and Invasion of the Normans.
Not half as good as the originals but you have to admire the wordplay with the film titles. Incidentally, Jason and the Argonauts was also re-released in the 70s on a bill with Mysterious Island which would have made Harryhausen fans like me think they had died and gone to heaven.
The Devil Ship Pirates / The Invincible 7 (1964)
As with A Thunder of Drums, back in the 60s a lot of films were released accompanied by a sword and sandal movie on the second half of the bill. The Devil Ship Pirates was another Hammer pirate movie, almost a sequel if you like to Pirates of Blood River – also again starring Christopher Lee – but again it was in my opinion the second film, in this case The Invincible 7 (aka The Secret 7) that was the better movie.
Bear in mind I was only about 12 at this point so my critical faculties were not engaged enough to take on board the homo-erotic subtext of many, if not all, of the Italian so-called peplum films of the time. These sword and sandal epics deserve a separate article of their own but suffice to say that to me, at the time, they were hugely enjoyable action and adventure movies, even though on occasion those tiny white kilts the characters wore tended to be rather too short, even to the mind of a young innocent school boy such as myself.
The Great Escape / 633 Squadron (mid-60s)
I must have spent all afternoon in the cinema catching this program, what with The Great Escape running at just under 3 hours on its own. I suspect 633 Squadron may have been abridged but I can’t confirm that.
Either way a perfect example of a perfect double bill, both films doing what Hollywood does best when it comes to World War 2 – casting an American actor in the main role of a film that is solely dedicated to a story in which most of the other characters are British. As with so many other WW2 films such as Objective Burma, U-571, Tobruk, Too Late the Hero and numerous others of that ilk, why let the facts of the conflict get in the way of a good story (there must be a book in this somewhere – Can We Have Our War Back Please?).
All that aside, as far as I’m concerned this double bill should have been sub-titled The Angus Lennie Story. The little Scottish actor (McQueen’s side-kick in The Great Escape) plays Cliff Robertson’s co-pilot in 633 Squadron. Their plane crashes at the end but it’s unsure if they both die then Angus turns up again as a POW of Stalag Luft III before meeting his demise on a barbed wire fence. Watch them back-to-back if you ever have a day to spare