Movies to Chronicle the 20th Century


By Ron Knecht and Geoffrey Lawrence

Ron’s high school freshman daughter Karyn is taking a 20th Century history and culture class that she enjoys, and she’s also decided she wants to be a film-maker. So, recently his family began a weekly movie series to chronicle the century, with an emphasis on how major events and developments affected people of each era.

They’re watching the films roughly in order of the time period each covers, starting at the beginning. This column covers the films they’ve already viewed, and we solicit your feedback on their choices and films one should include especially for the rest of the century. The movies should teach history and culture and demonstrate film craft.

First was Fiddler on the Roof, set in 1905 and one of the greatest films ever. Ron’s especially fond of it because it’s about fathers and daughters, one of the best musicals ever with many great performances – and for many other reasons. (Perhaps readers can suggest other films set before World War I.)

There’s no getting around the sadness and awfulness of war, so The Great War (as it was known then) is represented by All Quiet on the Western Front, either the 1930 original or the 1979 TV version.

Next, the first of the long-time-period masterpieces, Dr. Zhivago, running from before the war through the Russian Revolution and into the 1930s. It’s beautiful, dramatic and very historic, with great performances.

Chariots of Fire provides a very uplifting counterpoint to the foregoing films, recounting the heroic achievements of a group of British athletes after the war in the 1924 Olympics. We like ensemble films, especially those that show how differently characters in the group fare in dealing with a big event of their times.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the excesses and ultimate crash of the Roaring Twenties better than The Great Gatsby. We prefer the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow to later ones. Gatsby is ultimately a tragic figure who’s a great contrast to Tom and Daisy, who fall back into their money or carelessness or whatever lets them skate the times unscathed.

Next is Citizen Kane, the Orson Welles masterpiece rated as one of the best films ever by critics. This is one the few movies on our list that focuses mainly on one larger-than-life figure. It teaches so much about film-making, and instead of merely celebrating heroism, it examines the meaning of the life of a great tragic figure.

Following the twenties, we moved to the depravity borne of desperation in early-thirties Germany in Cabaret. Liza Minnelli and Joel Gray deliver fantastic dramatic as well song-and-dance performances. Watching the rise of the Nazis is chilling.

Perhaps no film captures a place and era like The Grapes of Wrath does the dust bowl and depression. Set aside author John Steinbeck’s foolish embrace of socialism and savor the human story he presents. This movie is special to the Knechts because Karyn’s grandmother on one side and grandfather on the other lived much of this story.

To lighten up again, the late thirties is represented by The Natural, a fine adult fairy tale. With great moral lessons. Redford and Glenn Close’s performances are exceeded only by those of two of the finest character actors ever, Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth.

Which brings us to the outbreak of World War II. The 20th Century was plagued by the violence and ugliness of some of history’s worst wars and conflicts, but we couldn’t resist starting off WWII with a heroic romance, the best film ever: Casablanca. One can’t say enough about this one, although we’ve certainly tried and will try in future columns. The best love story. The best patriotic tale. The snappy script, dialogue and pacing, etc. And with great humor.

For the reality of this war, we turned to Soldier of Orange, a Dutch movie with English subtitles. It’s an ensemble film about eight friends from a privileged life before the war. It traces their very different agonies over the next seven years, leaving only three alive -- and scarred. We decided to forego the awesome Patton because it’s the heroic story of one man, not of the times.

More of this following your feedback.

Ron Knecht is Nevada Controller. Geoffrey Lawrence is Assistant Controller.

Movie Theater by Alisha Vargas is licensed CC BY 2.0.