Five Movies That Changed History

Movies have been a dominant – maybe even the MOST dominant – form of entertainment for more than a century.  Even today, people may spend more time in front of the TV set than they do at the cinema, but films still have a grip on the public imagination.  The number of people who watch the Academy Awards far outstrips the viewership for the Emmys, for example, and the most ambitious young actors still aspire to be movie stars, not TV personalities.

As important and influential as films are as entertainment vehicles and cultural touchstones, however, it’s not surprising that some of them have changed history in the real world.  Sad to say, many of these movies have not always changed history for the better.  In fact, usually when a movie makes a big social impact, it actually has a deleterious effect.  Consider my nominees for the five most consequential movies (again, not the “most important” or “best” movies, simply the ones with the biggest social impact)  The world would arguably been a better place if none of them had ever been made:

1. The Birth of a Nation 

“The Birth of a Nation” (1915) is probably the most important movie in cinematic history.  Until director D.W. Griffith created this three-hour epic of the Reconstruction era in the American South, most movies were short and basically as interchangeable as Saturday morning cartoons.  But Griffith showed that film could portray long complex narratives and that audiences could actually sit through a long film.

“The Birth of a Nation” is not on this list because of its cinematic importance but because of its role in reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan.  The original Klan had been a short-lived group of night-riders who terrorized freed slaves and so-called carpetbaggers in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.  The movement had largely petered out by the beginning of the 20th Century, until Griffith depicted the Klan as the heroes of his masterpiece, busily protecting the flower of Southern womenhood from the threat of rape and miscegenation.

According to Wyn Craig Wade’s The Fiery Cross, “The Birth of a Nation” led to the Klan’s resurgence and essentially invented some of the group’s most distinctive features, including the burning cross. In just a few years after the movie premiered, the KKK had millions of members and was back to terrorizing its opponents.  And of course the Klan was massive force for repression for decades after that.  That’s some legacy for a single movie.

2. The China Syndrome

It’s one of the quirks of history that the best movie about dangers of nuclear power came out just twelve days before the worst nuclear accident on American soil.  “The China Syndrome” premiered on March 16, 1979, to the fury of the nuclear power industry, which saw it as anti-nuclear propaganda.   But right on cue, in a coincidence that only a Hollywood publicist could hope for, the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania malfunctioned and the nation waited for days to see whether it would blow up.  Of course the facility was never in danger of a Chernobyl-style accident but the movie had softened up the public to fear that possibility. (The title of the movie refers to a fictional scenario in which a nuclear meltdown could burn a hole through the earth all the way to China.)

Let’s face it. Any movie starring liberal activists Jane Fonda, Jack Lemon and Michael Douglas is bound to be propaganda.  But to give “The China Syndrome” its due, it’s an exciting action thriller that scares the snot out of you.  The effect of the movie was basically to kill the nuclear power industry.  Before 1979, electric companies were moving away from coal-fired to nuclear plants but after “The China Syndrome” the public so feared nuclear disaster that it became nearly impossible to bring any new facilities on line.  Depending on your point of view, this may or may not be a bad thing.  It is interesting to note, though, that many environmentalists have been rethinking their opposition to nuclear power, recognizing that burning carbon (especially coal, but also other fossil fuels)  to create power has contributed much more dramatically to global warming than nuclear would have..

3. Jaws

“Jaws” was Stephen Spielberg’s first big hit and it had an impact in two areas.  First it touched off an anti-shark frenzy that more or less persists today.  Of course people have always feared sharks, just as they’ve been scared of wolves, but “Jaws” ramped up that fear to new heights.

But more important is what “Jaws,” as the first major summer blockbuster, did to warm weather entertainment.  There was a time in the living memory of many Americans when movies aimed at sophisticated adult audiences were released year-round, sometimes even in the summer.  But “Jaws” made mountains of money, with young people returning again and again for the sheer thrill factor.  Same when “Star Wars” come out two years later.  Ka-Ching!  This changed the way studios approach the scheduling strategy.  “Jaws” is the reason that summer is full of superhero, alien invasion and other blockbuster movies.  Anyone who wants to see an Oscar-quality movie these days can take the first nine months of the year off.

4. Deep Throat

Ever wonder about the pornification of American culture?  A lot of the credit or blame can go to the movie “Deep Throat.” It’s hard to remember now but in the mid-1960s movies could not show nudity or sex acts.  These standards took a battering in the late 1960’s but nothing knocked them down like “Deep Throat,” an explicit porno movie that somehow achieved a patina of respectability among sophisticated audiences. At 61 minutes, it was relatively long, had higher production values and was played tongue-in-cheek (ha ha, pun not intended.)

Instead of being ashamed about attending the movie, quite a few celebrities including Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Truman Capote, Jack Nicholson, Johnny Carson and Barbara Walters, bragged about it.  It was even reviewed in The New York Times. This seal of approval from the cultural elites opened the floodgates for the middle classes and unleashed a porn chic that has never quite gone away.

Given the impact that this movie had in the early 1970’s, it’s ironic that the movie itself is largely forgotten, thanks to the Watergate drama “All The Presdent’s Men,” which reconceived the term “deep throat” as a synonym for a secret inside source.  Live by the sword, die by the sword.

5. JFK

Despite conclusive proof that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing President John F. Kennedy, a majority of Americans believe he was either part of a conspiracy or an outright scapegoat.  And Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “JFK” has done a lot to sustain that belief. “JFK” examines the events leading to the assassination and purported subsequent cover-up through the eyes of former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison.

Oliver Stone is an immensely talented directed but he comes out of a persistently paranoid strain of American culture.  It’s bad enough that “JFK” convinced so many people that a cabal killed Kennedy; what’s worse is that it has contributed to the perception that everything that goes wrong in the world is part of a conspiracy.  The Birthers and Truthers are the direct descendants of the “JFK” conspiracy-promoters.  Thanks a lot.


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