Imagine, if you will, a movie theater that, over the course of a single month, will show films covering the entire length of American history. Each night they’ll play a movie that evokes a certain period, moving chronologically to the present day.
Over the course of several articles, I’ll pretend to be the programmer for this imaginary theater, doing my best to capture America over 30 films. Each of these movies will serve as an entry in a larger story… think of it as the American Cinematic Universe.
This week, we’re focusing on World War I and its fallout.
1914-1918: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Dir. Lewis Milestone
Though Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel isn’t actually about Americans, it’s perhaps one of the best examples of a movie that effectively captures the horrors of World War I’s trench warfare.
All Quiet on the Western Front is an American production (and the dialogue is in English), however it focuses on the German military. Since the United States didn’t enter the conflict until its waning years, the pickings are slim for World War I movies specifically about American troops. Perhaps it’s helpful, though, to watch a movie that humanizes America’s enemy during World War I, offering us a different glimpse of history. It showed (somewhat controversially at the time) that German soldiers, sometimes villainized as heartless and evil, suffered just as greatly through the absolute terror of war as anybody else. All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the earliest Best Picture winners, and its reputation as one of the greatest films of all time is very well-deserved.
1914-1918: Wings (1927)
Dir. William A. Wellman
Wings is worth seeing for it’s historical value alone — it’s the very first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture! The First World War was such an important conflict in the course of 20th century American history that it’s worth including this one in addition to All Quiet on the Western Front, especially since Wings turns its attention to American forces. And unlike All Quiet, which mostly takes places in the trenches that World War I was so well-known for, Wings (as you can probably guess) is all about aerial combat.
At the time of the movie’s release release, the aviation scenes were highly praised for both their realism and technical achievements. Director William A. Wellman actually had flying experience during World War I, so making the movie true-to-life must’ve been really important for him. Wings might be a bit of a slog for some viewers (it’s silent and runs over two hours), but for others, its influence in cinema history should be of extraordinary interest.
1921: The Immigrant (2014)
Dir. James Gray
Following the First World War, many people left their war-torn homes in Europe and set out for America in search of a better life. Such is the case for the main character of The Immigrant, who arrives at Ellis Island from Poland. Though it isn’t based on a true story, I think it’s important for this list to cover the immigrant experience, especially since America prides itself on being a “nation of immigrants.”
This one kills a few birds with one stone: it not only shows the process of arriving to the country by boat, but also captures both the squalor and glamor of the 1920s. Much like the Gilded Age (covered in our last entry), this decade marked a point in history where the poverty of the many newcomers to the United States stands in stark contrast to the fashionable picture of the “Roaring 20s.”
1930s: Bound for Glory (1976)
Dir. Hal Ashby
There are so many great movies set during the Great Depression that choosing just one is nearly impossible. Alas, when composing a list of 30 films across all of American history, we really only have room for one of them. The Grapes of Wrath, Bonnie and Clyde, Gold Diggers of 1933, or any number of movies could’ve fit here easily. But instead, I’ve picked something maybe a bit unconventional.
Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory tells the story of folk singer Woody Guthrie and his travels through America during the Great Depression. Based on Guthrie’s autobiography, the movie not only gives us a glimpse into life throughout the country in the 1930s, but also tells the story of the most American of songwriters. And while much of the film is certainly fabricated, I can’t help but include a movie that captures the struggles of workers during the Depression while simultaneously explaining how those struggles influenced the songwriting of a true American icon.
For part 5, we’ll cover probably the most depicted period in American history: World War II. It’s going to be a doozy.
Have any other movies set in this era to add? Let us know below!