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The History of America in 30 Films (Part 6)

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, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

This week, we’re focusing on World War II and its aftermath.

1943-1945: Patton (1970)

Dir. Franklin J. Schnaffner


There are dozens upon dozens of World War II movies. We probably wouldn’t have any trouble making a History of World War II in 30 Films list. But since we need to tell the entire story of America, we can unfortunately only include one movie about the war itself. It’s blasphemy, I know! It was a toss-up for me between Saving Private Ryan and Patton, but alas I chose the latter, since it covers a longer period of America’s involvement in the war. Beginning in 1943, the movie covers General George S. Patton’s life through the end of the war. So, more than any other movie, Patton is probably the one most focused on the majority of America’s tenure in the conflict.

Oh, and it really doesn’t hurt that George C. Scott’s turn as Patton is won of the most iconic performances of all time. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor, which he famously declined to accept. In addition, the movie won six more Oscars. This is all to say, if you’re only going to watch one World War II movie, Patton would certainly be a pretty good choice.

1945-1946: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Dir. William Wyler


The Best Years of Our Lives may not be what you picture when you imagine a World War II movie, but I’d argue that it’s just as important a movie about the conflict as something like Patton. Sure, there aren’t any action scenes or battlefields to be found here, but in focusing on soldiers returning home from battle, The Best Years of Our Lives is a perfect portrait of the fallout of the war for normal, everyday Americans. There are many movies about the actual events of the war, but very few that so intently focus on how difficult it was for men to readjust to life after being in battle for so long.

The movie tells a fictional story, yes, but to many Americans living in the late 1940s, this is what the country would’ve looked like. It’s simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. Much like Patton, The Best Years of Our Lives cleaned up at the Academy Awards, winning seven Oscars. Simply put, it’s one of the best films of all time.

1947-1963: The Right Stuff (1983)

Dir. Philip Kaufman


The Right Stuff is basically an epic film (it runs over three hours), about America’s quest to journey into space, spanning almost twenty years and following a lot of different characters. While there are certainly dramatic liberties taken, it’s a great crash course in learning about the long history of the space program. Beginning in 1947, when pilots were attempting to break the sound barrier, the movie culminated in Project Mercury, the country’s first manned spaceflight. In highlighting the space race, The Right Stuff also functions as a good movie about the growing rivalry for power between the United States and Russia following World War II.

And it’s pretty fun, too! Rarely does a three-hour movie fly by so quickly. It’s funny, interesting, and full of great performances.

1972-1973: All the President’s Men (1976)

Dir. Alan J. Pakula


Here’s the best thing you can say about All the President’s Men: it manages to make a story that everybody knows the ending to, and makes it really, really exciting. We all know that Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s investigation into a break-in at the Watergate complex is going to eventually result in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Yet, somehow, the movie makes that feel like anything but a foregone conclusion. It can compete with even the craziest of spy films.

It’s amazing to see how one seemingly inconsequential robbery kicks off a chain of events that eventually results in the downfall of the most powerful person in the country. It’s the quintessential movie about 1970s America: a true paranoid thriller that highlights Americans’ growing distrust in their own government.

For part 7, we’ll be concluding our series when we finally move toward the present day.

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

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