In the Beginning…
The first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery resulted in expanding the concept of films with sound, pictures and even explosive graphics. The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903, under the direction and photographic expertise of Edwin S. Porter. Porter was a former Thomas Edison cameraman who brought the one-reel action picture to fruition. The movie is approximately ten minutes long, boasting fourteen scenes. The action was captured along the east coast in places such as the Essex County Park in New Jersey. The Lackawanna railroad was used during the heist scenes. This pre-nickelodeon film was based on a popular stage play, written in 1896 by Scott Marble. The Great Train Robbery was the basis of further technological advances and changed the movie-filming world forever.
Southern Belles & the KKK
The Birth of a Nation is a controversial, racist and landmark melodrama that was originally released under the title, “The Clansman” in February of 1915. The release was in Los Angeles, California and after three months was premiering in New York under the new title.
The movie was based on the former North Carolina Baptist minister, Reverend Thomas Dixon Jr.’s stage play, The Clansman, which was the second part to a trilogy. With a horrible depiction of African Americans as the “bad guys,” Griffith still claims he wasn’t racist at the time he wrote the series, although the film is still shown to recruit Klan members.
The film brought about immediate controversy and criticism by the NAACP for the racist portrayal of blacks, the pro-Klan outlook and the endorsement of slavery. With this outcry, two scenes were edited from the film. Riots broke out in various major cities around the country, such as Boston and Philadelphia. The film was turned away in other cities such as Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Minneapolis. Lawsuits and picketing followed the film’s showing for years. The Birth of a Nation was re-released in 1924, 1931 and 1938.
The technical effects and innovative cinematic achievements in the film has placed this movie in the “Top 100 American Films”, rated at number 44 in the list, by the Institute. The controversy continues for some that watch this film, as to the enlistment by the Institute. The Birth of a Nation was a true hit on the big screen, in terms of making $18 million during the beginning of talkie movies.
In the presentation of the KKK shown as heroes and southern blacks as negative characters, white folks loved the appeal of the old plantation southern style. A romantic love affair by northern and southern characters gave the film a love story touch that viewers couldn’t resist. The film represented what white folks feared the most about African American people at the time, all captured using real characters, facts and truth in storytelling. Because of this, the world opened its eyes to the realistic view of the KKK and how blacks were treated during this unsettled time in history.
Frankly, My Dear, I Don’t Give a Damn
In the historical epic movie, Gone With the Wind, released in 1939, a romantic side of the War Between the States while giving a look at the American south long ago. With a racist view of slavery and of the black characters involved in the story line, the movie still managed to win eight Academy Awards. Starring Clark Gable, Leslie Howard and Olivia De Havilland, the film is the greatest, star filled historical movie of the old south during wartime. This classic tale of a love-hate romance portrays the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara as a woman searching for love during the Civil War while seeking safety for herself and her family at the plantation. Defending property and family against the Union soldiers and starvation, she finally finds the love she has been seeking with Rhett Butler. Their relationship struggles and finds her once again without love.
The world went crazy over these two characters, while the film set records in the award-giving realm. Gone With the Wind brought about a first time award for Hattie McDaniel and she was the first African American to be nominated and honored in the award ceremonies. All of this during a time when great blockbuster films were at huge heights in the release of The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye Mr. Chips and Stagecoach and yet Gone With the Wind came to the forefront in award winning cinematic splendor. This film changed the outlook of what can be done with cinematic artistry, even for the technology of 1939.
Here’s Looking at You, Kid
The classic romantic melodrama of Casablanca was released in 1942. Always on the top 10 lists of movies, this tale of a love triangle is set within a political environment. Democracy and totalitarianism are at the forefront of the anti-Nazi propaganda piece, filled with an amazing musical score, unforgettable characters and suspense. There are 34 various nationalities of people brought together in this well-written, well-crafted artistic film that takes us into a world of lost loves, honor, duty and self-sacrifice from a world filled with chaotic circumstances.
The movie was filmed during the US ties with Vichy France when President Roosevelt facilitated a pro-Vichy or pro-Gaullist support system. It was pushed into release three weeks after the Allied landing in the North African city of Casablanca. Eisenhower’s forces had moved into the city and because of this action, the Warner Brothers Studios were helped tremendously by the free publicity. Americans were familiar with the city’s name as the film was released. A pre-release was held on Thanksgiving, 1942 at the Hollywood Theater in New York City. The film brought into the spotlight the involvement of Eisenhower forces in Casablanca, while presenting a romantic fairy-tale style film creation.
Each Time a Bell Rings, An Angel Gets Its Wings
Released in 1946 and a flop at the box office, It’s A Wonderful Life was the favorite film of both actor James Stewart who played the lead role and Frank Capra, director. It changed the world’s view on Christmas classics in 1970, when it was played repeatedly during the holiday season on television.
The copyright slipped into the public domain due to time passed so TV stations could televise the film free of charge. The copyright was regained again in 1993 by Republic Pictures, claiming exclusive rights once again. Today, the movie can only be seen on NBC and the distribution rights are the exclusive property of Paramount Pictures. Even while shown on only one television network, this classic is still a traditional holiday movie.
Pulitzer Prize Winner
To Kill a Mockingbird was released in 1962 as a progressive film about racism, prejudice, morality and courage. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning (and first and only) novel by Harper Lee, Horton Foote wrote it into a screenplay.
Through the eyes of a six-year-old tomboy, Scout, and her ten-year-old brother, Jem, we follow the widower attorney father, Atticus, as he fights for the rights of a black man named Tom Robinson who has been wrongly accused of raping a southern white woman. A reclusive neighbor saves the children from an attack by a prejudiced adult’s attack. Boo Radley comes to their rescue, once again reiterating the idea that we cannot judge a book by its cover. The world’s outlook on racism and morals were in the spotlight through the adventures of the lovable family that stood up for what was right, no matter the cost.
Where No Man Has Gone Before
In the year 1968, this landmark science fiction film on the big screen gave the world a journey into the unknown. The space race between the United States and the USSR was in full bloom as the movie was released around the country. Computers, a relatively new concept in ’68, were pulled to the front as well, showing how they could have such a huge impact in our lives, whether bad or good.
2001: A Space Odyssey sent the minds of American’s reeling. Spectacular imagery gave us a concept of what space could look like, while the meaning of the film was left to the viewer. The graphics, accompanied by the symphonic works of such greats as Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss and Ligeti and Khatchaturian of the Gayane Ballet Suite, the journey into space and time gave us a visually poetic movie about the discovery of aliens years before another amazing science fiction masterpiece in Star Wars. The world talked of aliens, space and time travel and of worlds beyond our own as this blockbuster hit the theaters.
America went on a wild ride with two drug-induced, longhaired, counter-culture characters in the 1969 release of Easy Rider. It was a time of violence across the country: those wanting peace picketed and fought against the war; those fearing the peace-loving “hippies” displayed violence to show the other side they didn’t want “their kind.” The movement was strong on both sides and was the perfect backdrop for this film.
Woodstock would take place this same year, along with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War was at its peak and with Nixon being elected, this film tied it all together in a trip that led to the bigotry, violence and paranoia the country was going through. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda portrayed counter-culture “long-hairs” in search of freedom from rules of the establishment. They found a hippie commune, graveyard with prostitutes, along with many that didn’t want “their kind” in town. The original title in which the movie was to be released with was The Loners.
The world watched as these two personalities fought against cruel treatment because of the differences they held dear in long hair, drugs and wanting freedom against all that was the “norm.” However, they lost their freedom and their lives as they met an early demise by those that hated what they stood for. The film was not anything spectacular in terms of graphics or writing, per se, although the message came through loud and clear.
The world became more aware of the counter-culture’s aspect of wanting nothing but freedom, peace and non-violent lives. Deep down, those that fought against everything the movement desired the same elements of their lives. Where the counter-culture feared the establishment, the establishment feared the counter-culture. What we fear, we don’t understand and the results are usually violence.
Luke, I Am Your Father
Through special-effects technology, writer George Lucas brought the award-winning film Star Wars to the big screen, surprising immediate fans with what a movie should be. Way ahead of its time in the successful use of special effects, Star Wars went on to become such an amazing success that viewers couldn’t get enough. Action figures, posters, lunch pails, and clothing immediately hit the shelves, boasting the new element of our lexicon, “May the force be with you.” The world had never envisioned such detail, color and effects put into one film, changing ideals on what movies should be. The plot was suspenseful with twists and turns that only the next episode could calm the tension. The trilogy became and one of the most powerfully popular film series of all time.
The battle between good and evil continued later, with another trilogy that explained the time prior to the original Star Wars battle. However, none could fill the shoes of the first three.
He Shall Be Kunta Kinte
While shown as a mini-series instead of a big screen production, Alex Haley’s Roots delivered a nine Emmy award winning film that inspired the nation and changed us forever. The tale of Haley’s family from one ancestor’s enslavement to another’s liberation, Roots is a powerful piece of art that captured the attention of all who watched. The film follows the racist history of the United States through a family’s historical tale of torture, enslavement and violent treatment solely due to skin color, to the slowly gained respect of future generations. An all-star cast, brilliant acting and an amazing script brought home our violent, racist past and the awakening for the changes needed to make the world a better place.
A second movie by story writer, producer and director Michael Cimino, the 1978 blockbuster film, The Deer Hunter, led us into the destruction and horror of the Vietnam War through three blue-collar, Russian-American comrades that worked in a small steel mill town together.
This movie received nine Academy Award Nominations and won five Oscars. The raw outlook of the war has begun many controversies, both political and emotional. While thought of as excessive by its critics, the movie is filled with richly detailed scenes. The nation was introduced to a full-blown example of what the war was truly like in terms of scenery, emotional distraught and the horror of what war holds for those who “hunt” enemies that hunt them in return.
Watch Out, She’s Gonna Blow!
Led by an all-star cast, the 1979 awakening to nuclear plant dangers came in the form of The China Syndrome. Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas star in this world-changing experience in which we were informed of what could happen if a nuclear plant was to overheat. As a reporter, Jane Fonda takes us inside a nuclear plant facility, where she and cameraman Michael Douglas fall into a lockdown as plant operator Jack Lemmon struggles to keep the plant from exploding. The tension is thick as the three work out ways to stop the disaster in an eye-opening look into the other options of providing electricity to the nation’s people.
Vietnam in Technicolor
The Deer Hunter gave us our first look into the Vietnam War, but Platoon dug the horrors into our souls. Oliver Stone brought gasps to those who watched in terror as the men of a platoon entered into and fought in the Vietnam War. Nothing held back, Stone made us realize, as a world, just how illogical war is. Fighting the enemy but fighting each other as well, as the bitter nastiness of war creates animalistic killing machines out of young boys who are simply trying to survive. Platoon brought to the screen our deepest, darkest fears and secrets of how war changes those involved. The world watched as Stone brought forth the true guts of the battlefield.
Due to racism, history had forgotten to tell a story of the 54th regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry who fought alongside fellow Civil War soldiers in their courageous battlefield turmoil. While not receiving the same privileges and amenities the white soldiers received, this volunteer fighting group was all black, except their leader, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick) who was the son of an abolitionist and were finally placed in the spotlight for their courageous war heroics in Glory.
Given the most menial tasks, the group became highly involved in the war and charged a fort, manned by at least 1,000 Confederates to fight for their lives and their freedom. Glory allowed the world to entertain the idea of just how many black folks fought in the war beside white soldiers, without the recognition they deserve, when most viewers weren’t even aware of an all-black Infantry that volunteered to fight among the rest. In this 1989 movie, screenwriter Kevin Jarre credits the infantry and their leader.
President John F. Kennedy
In the 1991 hit, J.F.K., Kevin Costner plays New Orleans District Attorney, Jim Garrison, who attempts to investigate the Kennedy assassination. As the movie plays on, Garrison debunks the “Magic Bullet Theory”, providing an examination of the Zapruder film to disprove the convicted assassin Lee Harvey Oswald could have acted alone. The world received an in-depth look into the “facts” of the case as they were presented after Kennedy’s assassination, leaving disbelief and wonder as to who, what, and why.
A masterpiece by Spielberg, this 1993 film shocked and fed the world with facts about the Holocaust in a three-hour heart-breaking nightmare. Jews in Krakow were pushed out of their businesses and homes, placed in ghettos and in labor camps in Plaszow, and finally placed into concentration camps for execution. The brilliant display of the horror in concentration camps was amazingly realistic and honest, giving the world a taste of what took place in one of the most terrifying nightmares in world history.
Meet Private Ryan
Under the expert hand of Steven Spielberg’s direction, the powerful re-creation of World War II D-day invasion comes to the big screen in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, leaving us stunned, amazed, terrified and in tears. The world sat with bated breath in theaters across the globe as Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) moves his GI’s onto Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, to the devastating sight of German artillery fire. The mass slaughter of American soldiers began.
The remaining men finally find some solace in a building outside the remnants of the beach. There among the dead lies a man with a backpack that bears the name “Ryan” across the front. The group was sent to locate one of four brothers named Ryan, the last one left alive, as the other three have perished in the war during the same week. The Captain has orders to bring the brother left alive to the United States, where he will be safe from wartime death. A movie that left us at the edge of our seats, Saving Private Ryan gave us a glimpse into one of the most deadly beach invasions in history.
I’m Lovin’ It!
With the 2004 hit, Super Size Me, America learned just how obese and unhealthy we are as a country. The world’s eyes were focused on this Sundance Film Festival winner, as the documentary opens up the medical and health facts of America’s addiction to fast food restaurants and the “super-size” meals they serve. It brought to light many health issues as seen worldwide due to the fast food eating habits through one man’s experience of eating nothing but McDonald’s food for a month. The study of marketing to children was a large part of the documentary as well. Unhealthy doctor’s visits, harmful weight gain and lack of energy proved that the intake of these types of foods were not beneficial for the human body. McDonald’s changed their children’s menu after this documentary was shown, offering healthier choices for the kid’s meals. Adults were offered more salad choices and all of their foods came with listed ingredients.
Will the White House do My Laundry?
Once again, the watchful eye of Michael Moore is on politicians and the government in general, giving us a “fly on the wall” approach to how we are misled in many occurrences in our lives. Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, released in 2004, takes on the Bush administration during one of the most traumatic events in American history, the World Trade Center mass killings.
Moore questions the politicians running the country, asking those questions we would like to ask but never get the chance. Taking on the unthinkable, Moore raises plenty of uncertainty in the film as to what the facts were on that fateful day. The country began asking questions of its own after viewing Fahrenheit 9/11.
The Truth Shall Set You in a Gas Mask
An Inconvenient Truth woke the world up to the global warming process that is changing the planet’s weather and environment in general. Al Gore hosted this 2006 hit, taking us through the devastating events that occur as man poisons our planet. Gore explains melting of the ice caps, greenhouse gasses, pollution problems, extinction of animals and wrapped it all up as to what this means for us a species on the planet Earth in the future and what can be done about these issues as well. The world began its campaign on green living through the viewing of this powerful and dynamic film.
Outlook on Bible Passages
Some Christian leaders have chosen to exclude homosexuals from participating in their churches, as well as those who support gay and lesbian rights. The 2007 film, For the Bible Tells Me So, gives us a glimpse into what certain clergy have translated passages in the bible to mean, giving them the concept of exclusion of homosexual congregation members. For the Bible Tells Me So is a documentary that examines the battle of gays and lesbians in their religious views and rights to celebrate their spirituality, without hiding their sexual preferences. Daniel Karslake, the longtime producer of PBS news and public affairs series, The Life, directed the film, which includes interviews with Bishop Desmond Tutu, V. Gene Robinson who was the first officially ordained Anglican minister and others.
The world sees inside the lives of homosexual couples and clergy who believe gays do not belong in the church because the bible scriptures “tell them so.” This documentary has fired a long time controversial issue in the time it was aired. It has also brought up the question of “how accurate is the translation from original holy texts?”
Did He Cheat?
The 2008 blockbuster hit Slumdog Millionaire opened our eyes to destitute folks in India and brought about a new cultural understanding of their lives. Through this film, we also adopted the “Bollywood” style of dance, singing and fun. Slumdog Millionaire captured our hearts and minds following the life of Jamal, an orphan surviving the hardships of living on the streets in India. When Jamal finally gets his opportunity to succeed in the game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” he is accused of cheating due to his knowledge and understanding of all the questions asked. The world watched with clinched fists to cheer on the hero, who was doing it all for his true love.
Journalist Mark Boal adapted his experiences with a bomb squad in the Iraq war into this 2009 hit. The Hurt Locker presents the story of the conflict from the point of view of a group of witnesses that could tell the story correctly – the soldiers. Dismantling IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, is one of the most difficult tasks of wartime jobs. Every second counts, as does technique, and all of the flirtations with death are well portrayed in this film. The fact-filled yet fictional tale gives us a firsthand look into the war in the Middle East and allows the world to see the death defying deeds soldiers face in day-to-day combat.
Producer Lee Daniels delves into the life of an overweight, illiterate black teen from Harlem in the 2009 movie Precious. Deciding to take an alternate path when attending classes in a new school, Clareece “Precious” Jones is due to give birth to her second child. Enter a teacher and a nurse who befriend her to show her a new start. Mo’nique displays amazing talents in the film that enables the world to witness what life is like for some poorer families. Between the triumphs, falls and child abuse the teen survives, Precious gives the world the hard truth about life in places like Harlem, where life is tough but the people are tougher. The world became more aware of child abuse issues in the poorer sections of the world through this amazing film.
In the social network business, one has to remain focused. Such is the life of Mark Zuckerberg. With the release of The Social Network in 2010, we got the chance to see just how studious Zuckerberg was to create the social giant. While college classmates were partying, Zuckerberg remained focused on his new invention - a social network for college students. Promising to team up with a campus group of two brothers working on a similar idea, Zuckerberg decided instead to venture off on his own, leading to a lawsuit. Zuckerberg continued with his remarkable network, giving the technology world the idea of a lifetime: Facebook. An inside glimpse into the invention of the social networking world of 2003, this film brought it all to life on the big screen.
- “Glory, 1989”; Flixster’s Rotten Tomatoes
- Dirks, Tim; “Casablanca 1942”; AMC Filmsite, Filmsite Movie Review
- Dirks, Tim; “Easy Rider, 1969” AMC Filmsite, Filmsite Movie Review
- “For The Bible Tells Me So - 2007”; Flixster’s Rotten Tomatoes
- “The Hurt Locker - 2009”; Flixster’s Rotten Tomatoes
- Dirks, Tim; “It’s a Wonderful Life”; AMC Filmsite, Filmsite Movie Review
- Dirks, Tim; “To Kill A Mockingbird”; AMC Filmsite, Filmsite Movie Review
- Dirks, Tim; “The Great Train Robbery”; AMC Filmsite, Filmsite Movie Review
- “Slumdog Millionaire, 2008”; Flixster’s Rotten Tomatoes
- Dirks, Tim, “Gone With the Wind”; AMC Filmsite, Filmsite Movie Review
- Dirks, Tim; “The Birth of a Nation (1915)”; AMC Filmsite, The Greatest Films