Thousands of new feature films are produced ever year, with India’s Bollywood leading the way with well over a 1200 glittering cinematic spectaculars released annually. Add to that the vast amount of independent and short films created and, by some estimates, you reach an astounding 50 000. But how many actually made a difference to the way we live, the way we think, the way the world is?
Movie making is more than a hundred years old, yet in all that time only a handful of films have really shook the world. Think spectacle. Controversy. Conscience. Science and politics use logic – but cinematic art gets a grip on your emotions. Then doesn’t let go. The following films have made the world think differently, argue and ultimately, change:
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Often been cited as one of the finest propaganda films ever made and considered amongst the greatest films of all time, Battleship Potemkin Director Eisenstein was something of a contradiction, wanting to make films for the ‘common man’ but also loving intellectual concepts. His use of montage was greatly inspired by his knowledge of Japanese and love of haiku.
Legacy: His experimentation worked so well that even Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, called Potemkin “a marvelous film without equal in the cinema … anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film”
The Jazz Singer (1927)
Director: Alan Crosland
Edison had already shown us the technology so it was only a matter of time before the first commercial talkie appeared. Yet there was no guarantee of success. However, applause followed each of Al Jolson’s songs and when Jolson and Eugenie Besserer began their dialogue scene, “the audience became hysterical.”
Legacy: The Jazz Singer netted a $3.5 million profit (the film cost $500,000), made Warner Brothers the dominant voice in cinema it still is today and changed filmmaking forever.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Director: Lewis Milestone
Hitler’s henchman Goebbels hated this anti-war classic and had burned the novel that inspired it – yet a print version of the film was later found in his private collection. The NY Herald Tribune described it as ‘courageously bitter.’
Legacy: With All Quiet on the Western Front, author Remarque emerged as an eloquent spokesperson for a generation that had been, in his own words, “destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells.” The film reinforced this perception and still today is consider one of the greatest ever anti-war movies.
Gandhi’s first interview (1931)
In this tiny piece of film, Gandhi talked about being ‘…prepared to return to jail’ but not wearing ‘artificial’ European clothes to meet the King. When asked ‘Would you be prepared to die for India’s independence?’ he said quietly: ‘It is a bad question.’
Legacy: The interview introduced Gandhi’s to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide and helped his cause for Indian Independence gain countless new supporters in the US.
Triumph des Willens (The Triumph of the Will) 1935
Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Riefenstahl was a slippery interviewee, claiming her Nuremberg rally film as too artistic for audiences. In reality, it was shown widely in schools and local halls and used manipulative emotive telephoto lens technology. Goebbels denied propaganda but called it a ‘Grand vision of our Fuhrer.’
Legacy: By showcasing the Nazi party in such a spectacular fashion it helped their popularity surge.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
Director: Stanley Kramer
Once insulted by a director in an audition, who told him that he was ‘just a dishwasher’ – Sidney Poitier became more determined to succeed. Morgan Freeman, who considered him a role model, called the handsome dignified star a ‘bright light.’
Legacy: The film was a box-office hit in 1968 throughout the United States, including in southern states where it was traditionally assumed that few white filmgoers would want to see any film with black main characters. This paved the way for more black actors in more roles.
The China Syndrome (1979)
Director: James Bridges
Soon after the film’s release, there was a real accident at Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. When once challenged if she was anti-nuclear, Jane Fonda simply said she was ‘… interested in the alternatives.’
Legacy: The film highlighted the potential dangers of nuclear power to a public, which had previously considered the fuel of the future.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Director: Rob Epstein
This documentary followed the successful career and assassination of San Francisco’s first elected gay councilor. Epstein stated that Milk ‘… understood his place in history.’ Milk’s killer Dan White was convicted of manslaughter and the term ‘Twinkie defense’ was born – referring to White’s consumption of junk food as evidence of his depression.
Legacy: Highlighted the history of prejudice faced by the gay community during a time when AIDS was once again causing them to face discrimination.
Director: Luc Dardenne
Written and directed by the Dardenne brothers, Rosetta is about a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother and who does all she can to get a job to escape her situation. Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewing for Chicago Reader considered it “the most visceral filmgoing experience of the past year, including all of Hollywood’s explosions and special-effects extravaganzas”.
Legacy: Rosetta prompted the Belgian Government to change the law to award teenage workers minimum wage.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Al Gore bluntly told interviewers that George Bush had not wanted to see the film and that’s why he wrote the book that prompted it in the first place. He also aptly described political will as a renewable resource.
Legacy: Brought the plight of the planet to a whole new generation of environmentalists.
We think every one of these deserve a mention for making a real difference to people’s lives. But, there’s doubtless more worthy of the accolade.
Joel Willans is the founder of Ink Tank and author of the short story collection, SPELLBOUND: Stories of Women’s Magic over Men. His prize-winning fiction has been broadcast on BBC radio and published in dozens of magazines and anthologies worldwide. You can find him on Twitter and Ello.