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The History of America in 30 Films (Part 4)

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.

Before reading up on a transition point in American history from a post-Civil War reconstruction to the expansion of capitalism and manifest destiny, check out Part 1 for the Pre-Revolutionary history, Part 2 for the early years following the country’s formation, and Part 3 for the pre through post-Civil War period.

This week, we’re focusing on the Gilded Age and the turn of the century.

1870s: The Age of Innocence (1993)

Dir. Martin Scorsese


Daniel Day Lewis, for what seems like the millionth time, continues his rampage through all of American history. I swear I’m not actually trying to include him as much as possible; in fact, in making a list like this, it’s nearly impossible to leave him off. The guy just knows how to choose a variety of roles spanning a bunch of different time periods. And it doesn’t hurt that the movies he stars in (often by virtue of his inclusion) are pretty good.

The Age of Innocence is included here mostly for its setting. It tells a fictional story with fictional characters, but it perfectly captures the era of American history commonly known as the Gilded Age. This was a time of great economic growth, though with that also came enormous inequality. The immigrants funneling into the country in search of opportunity often lived in poverty, while the rich, maybe more than ever, led lives of luxury. The Age of Innocence focuses on the upper class. Though the story itself isn’t based on any historical figures, it provides a window into what life as a member of New York’s high society may have been like. The art direction and the costume design (for which it won an Academy Award) do a great job of showing the opulence of the period.

1881-1882: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Dir. Andrew Dominik


The Assassination of Jesse James takes place around the same time as The Age of Innocence, yet the versions of America they depict couldn’t be any more different. The refined lives of New York City’s elite stand in stark contrast to the deeds of outlaws in America’s western states. More importantly, this is perhaps one of the most beautifully shot movies of all time (and in this writer’s humble opinion, one of the best movies of the last ten years). Brad Pitt is wonderful as Jesse James, and Casey Affleck is even better as his killer, Robert Ford.

Of all the westerns that could’ve been included on this list, I chose this one not only due to its quality, but also its attention to detail. While some liberties were taken, Jesse James provides a fairly accurate look at the outskirts of America during the late 19th century. In fact, it may be one of the most faithful portrays of the American West ever put to film. It has all the excitement of your typical Western movie, with almost none of the cheesiness.

1898-mid 1910s: There Will Be Blood (2007)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson


Here it is! This is very likely the last time Daniel Day Lewis will appear in this series. Again, like The Age of Innocence this isn’t a true story. The character of Daniel Plainview, while based on the real-life Edward Doheny, is mostly fictional. But as I’ve stressed a few times already, sometime historical fact isn’t quite as important as capturing the mood of a certain era.

There Will Be Blood does a wonderful job of showing the turn of the century in America, particularly in western states such as New Mexico and California. There truly was an oil boom in Southern California as the 1800s rolled into the 1900s, and Daniel Plainview represents the many tycoons who made a fortune off that sweet, sweet substance.

Early 1900s: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Dir. Michael Curtiz


While the oil boom was happening over in California, a boom in musical theater was just beginning in New York City. This is the era when theater and entertainment (as we know it today) really sort of began. Yankee Doodle Dandy is about the life of George M. Cohan (played by James Cagney), who was otherwise known as “The Man Who Owned Broadway.” Beginning as a vaudeville performer as a child, Cohan, beginning in 1904, went on to write several dozen musicals.

Yankee Doodle Dandy may gloss over some of the less admirable details of Cohan’s life, but it gives us a nice glimpse of New York City at the turn of the century, particularly its entertainment scene. Since so much of American music and theater today springs from the innovations of this period, Yankee Doodle Dandy is a perfect film to provide some context for America’s cultural (rather than political) history.

FOR PART 5: the mid-20th Century and the rise of the US as an international economic and military superpower.

Have any other movies set in this era to add? Let us know below!

2 thoughts on “The History of America in 30 Films (Part 4) Leave a comment

  1. Dances With Wolves, Wyatt Earp, Tombstone, Titanic, Pearl Harbor, The Tuskeegee Airmen…I have really loved this series but I think you could’ve added so much more to this section…I also am not criticizing, just doing what you asked, this is a great series

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