Why should I write a list of the most influential films of all time? The Internet is full of them. They generally contain Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunrise, The Third Man, and so on. All considered masterpieces (and all on my own A+ list).
But there’s a difference between great art and influence. The most influential movies were influential not because they were brilliant. They became influential because they were both unique and extremely successful at the box office. The real changes happened when studio heads opened their eyes and said “We have to make movies like that!” Never forget that cinema is an industry first, an art second.
Here are four films that massively changed the movie industry. Some are forgotten. Some are still loved. Half of them are repulsive to 21st-century beliefs. I’m listing them chronologically because, for all except the first one, none would exist if the one before it had never been made.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Much as we would like to, we can’t ignore or underestimate D.W. Griffith’s deeply offensive masterpiece. Even the best films made before 1915 were static and crude by comparison. Birth was fluid, dramatic, and stirring, and kept it up for three hours. It was longer than any previous film I know about. And at a time when a successful movie would bring in thousands of dollars, Birth made six million for its investors and may have made ten times that at the box office.
The newly created studios realized what to do.
But we can’t ignore that Birth is also likely the most racist American movie ever made. How racist? The Ku Klux Klan rides in to save the day.
The Jazz Singer (1927)
By the fall of 1927, only a handful of features had recorded soundtracks, but only with music and occasional sound effects. So, when Al Jolson sang and, even more so, improvised some dialog, cinema changed like never before. By the end of 1928, no one wanted to watch silent movies anymore.
This was not a particularly well-made film, except in the five scenes when Al Jolson sang or talked. Most of the film is mediocre. Racism raises its head here, too. Jolson wears blackface twice in the film, but compared to Birth, that seems almost woke.
There’s no obvious racism in the rest of these movies. They avoided it by never, ever showing a non-white face.
This is Cinerama (1952)
Before the 1950s, movie screens were almost squarish – about 25% wider than they were tall. Then Lowell Thomas proclaimed “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cinerama” as the curtain opened to a huge, curved screen that pulled you into the picture. Within two years, no Hollywood studio would shoot a film in that old, square shape again.
The Cinerama format was extremely difficult to deal with, so only seven films were made in it. But other, more practicable widescreen formats popped up, including CinemaScope, VistaVision, and Todd-AO. This is Cinerama itself is largely forgotten. It’s a dull travelogue that cares more about the camera than what’s being photographed.
Star Wars (AKA A New Hope, 1977)
The day before this movie opened, everyone assumed that 2001: A Space Odyssey, then a nine-year-old film, would never be surpassed in special effects. The next day was entirely different. Star Wars made filmgoers want big action, science fiction and fantasy, and special effects that were better than last year’s. And that’s been true for the last 44 years.
Star Wars is only one of these blockbusters that are warmly remembered today. And, in my opinion, the best of these four. But the sad part is that Star Wars no longer exists in its original form (at least legally). George Lucas, the creator of the series, is also the near destroyer of it. Over the decades, he has digitally fiddled with the movie, adding new effects, and significantly changing a gun fight. The originals no longer exist. Read my revisit the original Star Wars trilogy.
If you want to read about great films instead of influential ones, go here. Note: I added this paragraph a few minutes after I launched this article.