a list of the defining movies of each decade of the 20th Century is
a dangerous proposition, because there are so many movies that have
influenced and impacted 20th Century culture, such as BATTLESHIP
POTEMKIN, Akira Kurosawaís epic movie SEVEN SAMURAI, which
re-invigorated Japan after its World War II defeat, and Frederico
Falliniís LA DOLCE VITA, which exploded on the cultural scene,
figuratively and literally. Therefore, I have focused on popular
American movies, but I could make a case for many others.
In 1908, Pathe produced the first three-reel movie
in color called THE LIFE OF CHRIST. Audiences stood in line for
blocks to see this full-length feature film. Its success told
Nickelodeon operators that people would sit through longer films,
and so it ushered in the age of the grand theater. More than all
that, the movie told the life of Christ.
During the 1910s, two films shaped the nation. The
first was BIRTH OF A NATION, which produced such a public outcry
that D.W. Griffith followed this ground-breaking movie with
INTOLERANCE to complain about the intolerance of people who reviled
BIRTH OF A NATION. The heart of INTOLERANCE was the section about
Jesus Christ forgiving the woman at the well. It is a powerful
example of love and forgiveness, and the story of law vs. grace.
In the 1920s, H.B. Warner played Jesus in Cecil B.
DeMilleís THE KING OF KINGS in 1926. This is still the classic of
all religious motion pictures, with the most vivid resurrection
scene. Many people throughout the world came to Jesus Christ because
of KING OF KINGS.
In 1939, GONE WITH THE WIND became the American
epic expressing all the tensions as well as the worst and the best
In 1946, the most beloved movie of all time,
ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE, was released to lackluster public response.
When I speak at film schools like USC, so-called cutting-edge
students still say ITíS A WONDERFUL LIFE is their favorite movie.
Clips from the movie still show up in modern movies as a kind of
homage to small-town American values.
In 1956, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, perhaps not the
best movie but the biggest, the brashest and the most often cited.
However, in the same category, Iíd like to mention QUO VADIS
(1951), a movie that helped raise the issues of faith in a powerful
way. Both of these movies led a new wave of Biblical epics in the
late 1950s and 1960s.
In the 60s, the movie that demolished the Motion
Picture Code was WHO IS AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966). Filmmaking
was never the same after Elizabeth Taylorís tirade of obscenities,
profanities and sexual games.
In the 1970s, the first of the STAR WARS movies
moved science fiction fantasy from the B-movie to the mythic dream
In the 1980s, CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981) beat out
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and several other big movies for the Best
Picture Academy Award and told the entertainment industry that there
was still room for powerful personal stories of redemption.
In the 1990s, NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994) made
heroes out of killers and elevated killing to artistic expression
and a heroic activity. On the more positive side, the success of
Disneyís BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE LION KING led a wave of
family-oriented animated movies, culminating in 1998ís THE PRINCE
OF EGYPT and 1999ís TOY STORY 2.