Black Sunday (1977)

The years from 1965 to 1977 constitute a moment in Hollywood history when artistically ambitious and politically progressive films were economically viable. Examples of this brief counter-cultural movement include Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1971), and Taxi Driver (1976). Most scholars mark the end of this period between the releases of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), as these inaugurated the summer blockbuster.

John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday serves as something of a transition between the bleak, paranoid films of “New Hollywood,” and the more uplifting, conservative, spectacular films that came later. Too old to be a part of the “movie brat” generation of Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, and too established to work on his filmic chops with Roger Corman at American International Pictures, as did Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, John Sayles, and Dennis Hopper, Frankenheimer does not easily fit into any of the categories that define this brief period. Yet, he anticipated the era’s thematic interests in paranoia, political corruption, and existential angst even in his early works, like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964), that his younger, more famous colleagues would eventually address in their own films.

Paranoia, in particular, links Black Sunday with the films of Frankenheimer’s younger contemporaries. Paranoia about foreigners, the United States government, women, war, capitalism: you name it, and Black Sunday is paranoid about it. But because it is paranoid about so many conflicting issues, it offers useful insights into how paranoia operates. That said, a simple plot synopsis makes it sound as if Black Sunday is focused on xenophobic paranoia: a Palestinian terrorist organization plans on killing thousands of people at the Super Bowl to force the U.S. to cease its pro-Israeli policies.

The film’s conservatism is visible in its contrasts between the just F.B.I. and the morally questionable Russian operative, Major David Kabakov (Robert Shaw). In one scene, when Kabakov threatens a Japanese boat captain to solicit information, an F.B.I. agent stops him, claiming that he must follow proper procedures. But later, these very guidelines appear to incapacitate the government, so it is unable to identify and stop terrorist organizations in the States (anticipating debates over the Patriot Act). Ultimately, Black Sunday simultaneously supports Kabakov’s vigilante justice (since his methods actually prevent the massacre at the Super Bowl), while maintaining that the U.S. can preserve democratic ideals (such roundabout rationalizing is familiar from vigilante movies like Dirty Harry [1971] and Death Wish [1974], though these films also reveal the costs of such aggression).

More interestingly, Black Sunday also sympathizes with the terrorists, at least to an extent. One of them is a former U.S. soldier. Captain Michael J. Lander (Bruce Dern) was a POW of the North Vietnamese Army for six years. After his return, his wife divorced him, the Air Force disbarred him, and the public wanted to erase the Vietnam War from its collective memory. When he feels that his nation disavows all that he has fought for, Lander teams up with Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller), a member of the Black September Movement, and engineers the Super Bowl plan.

Lander sees the Super Bowl as an emblem of the public’s infidelity, a distraction designed for their amusement. Dressed in full military regalia, he asserts, “They love the big game, and they cheer court-martials, and they love the big event because it makes them feel big, and I was going to give it to them big. They would be talking about that goddamn game for the next 5000 years!” Lander not only desires revenge, but also to use this most spectacular American event to expose the violence and pain that result from turning war into spectacle. He is Frankenheimer’s Travis Bickle.

Black Sunday also shares The Godfather (1972) and Jaws‘ anxieties about the loss of male traditions that accompanied feminism’s rise. Dahlia leads Lander to implement his terrorist fantasies, her calm voice and stoic demeanor contrasting with his whiny tone and manic depression: she “wears the pants.” Kabakov is also powerless before her; as he tells one of his partners, “Doubt has entered [my mind],” since his past murders have led to “the same world, the same results.”

Though Kabakov dismisses himself as an ineffectual “old dog,” his tactics and traditions still help him keep America safe. The film’s spectacular final hour — Kabakov chases the terrorists on foot, by car, by helicopter, and even by grappling hook — is a visual glorification of his resourcefulness. The enemy is eventually defeated. But Black Sunday does not celebrate this “victory,” as its final image of Kabakov swinging wildly from a helicopter implies his own precarious position: a covert agent useful when times are dire but never officially acknowledged. The film’s finale combines blockbuster action bravado and “New Hollywood” existential angst.

Kabakov’s partner, Robert (Steven Keats), explains why Kabakov can’t kill any more: “The trouble is, Dave, you’ve come to see both sides of the question.” Indeed, as the film shows motives for both sides, it daringly suggests that they are not all that different from one another. Likewise, the film doesn’t “take sides,” instead exposing multiple links between both groups and preventing viewers from applying simplistic labels of “good” or “evil” to either one.

Black Sunday identifies political allegiances, personal history, national sovereignty, and “free market” capitalism, as these determine policy decisions and global conflicts, underlining that contemporary U.S. debates on terrorism and foreign policy lack a similar complexity. By situating Frankenheimer within “New Hollywood,” we not only gain a more sophisticated understanding of the films emerging from this period, but we are also are reminded of a moment when viewers were encouraged to see international politics as more than the workings of an “Axis of Evil.”