Films that shook the World
Do movies make a difference? Aside from allowing us to while away a happy hour or two - can they also make the world a better place? Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home (technically a piece of TV) is one example of a film that had a direct effect on policy. The 1933 drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang so scandalized the public that many states abolished the chain gang system. More recently, the Errol Morris documentary The Thin Blue Line was pivotal in freeing a wrongly convicted man from Death Row (he went on to sue Morris, which is a caution to all campaigning filmmakers, I guess). But these are rare, isolated instances of films making an immediate impact; as a rule, the after-effects are far less obvious.
Back in 1922 Vladimir Ilyich Lenin decreed that cinema 'is the most important of the arts'. Great Britain, the United States, France and Germany obviously feared he was on to something; they each banned the Soviet revolutionary film Battleship Potemkin for decades ('a marvelous film… anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing it,' noted Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels admiringly).
Of course the Nazis had propaganda films of their own, most (in)famously Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1934). But propaganda rarely does more than reinforce previously held convictions - which works well enough in a totalitarian state, but not so well in a pluralistic democracy. Even a $100 million polemic like Fahrenheit 9/11 appears to have had no bearing on the Presidential election Michael Moore tried to swing. Battleship Potemkin director Sergei Eisenstein himself was a great admirer of John Ford's Young Mr Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda, and there's little doubt that in the battle for hearts and minds, Golden Age Hollywood liberalism has been the most potent cultural myth of the twentieth century.
In fact for the best part of that century Hollywood was second only to the aero industry as America's biggest exporter, and it was certainly the nation's best advertisement to the world. When Europeans dreamed of Utopia, it was in Technicolor: 'the Yankees have colonized our unconscious,' someone reflects in Wim Wenders' (black and white) Kings of the Road. When Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev visited the US at the height of the Cold War, he had two personal requests: to meet John Wayne, and to visit Disneyland.
No one (outside of Joe McCarthy) could seriously suggest that Hollywood movies have been a radical progressive force, but in reflecting the relatively cosmopolitan attitudes prevalent in New York and California, films like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and To Kill a Mockingbird have helped to drag America away from its worst racist instincts. There is an idealism at work in classic Hollywood movies - epitomized for many by Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart - that still appeals to the better part of our natures, even in sometimes corny movies like Mr Smith Goes to Washington, It's a Wonderful Life, and The Grapes of Wrath.
It is shameful that it took until the 1980s for American movies to start treating homosexuality with anything more than a snigger, but even today films like Kinsey and Brokeback Mountain are ahead of popular opinion in much of the States.
As far as we know, President Bush has given a wide berth to both. Which is a shame. In a recent blog on The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington pointed out that Dubya seems more susceptible to what he sees on TV than what he reads (he just created the world's largest marine protected area after watching a documentary made by Jean-Michel Cousteau). Huffington suggested an 'Inspire George Bush Film Festival'. Her programme included Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, Dr Strangelove, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Erin Brockovich, The Insider, Hotel Rwanda, The Killing Fields and All the President's Men (perhaps he'll feel inspired to resign).
To these we might add Three Kings (Iraq), Turtles Can Fly (Iran), Syriana (oil), Inherit the Wind (evolution), Bulworth and I Heart Huckabees (which between them cover pretty much everything else).
The opening night film has to be Al Gore's new Eco-doc An Inconvenient Truth. But sadly the closing nighter should probably be Errol Morris's The Fog of War. Why sadly? Because former US Secretary of State Robert McNamara makes a number of highly salient points about nuclear brinksmanship and US imperialism, only to conclude pessimistically that, 'rationality will not save us - you cannot change human nature.'
Take a look at more films that shook the world
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