Every culture has deeply embedded myths, and cinema has often been the medium through which America’s myths have been transmitted. Here are twelve films that have reflected America back to itself through the decades, for better and worse.
1. Birth of a Nation (1915, silent)
The first blockbuster, D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was both celebrated as a great artistic achievement and denounced as racist for its vicious depiction of African Americans and homage to the KKK. President Woodrow Wilson’s praise of the spectacle as “history written with lightning” served to dignify the film, despite the fact that Wilson may never have said it.
2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Can one man stand against a world of lies? Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), a former Boy Rangers leader, appears to be in over his head in the corrupt world of congressional politics, but that won’t stop him from filibustering a bill that would reward graft. Denounced as anti-American upon its release (but banned in fascist and Communist countries), Frank Capra’s fable came to canonize the lone voice that speaks truth to power regardless of the odds.
3. High Noon (1952)
Will Kane (Gary Cooper) thinks he has laid down his marshal’s badge until he learns that a gunslinger he put in jail is out and headed to town. Rather than abandon his community, Kane decides to stay and fight—only no one wants him to: neither his Quaker wife (Grace Kelly) nor the cowardly and spiteful townsfolk. So Kane must stand alone against injustice. Written by a former Communist Party member who had refused to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, High Noon is generally read as a parable of the McCarthy era. (Ironically, the film was banned in the USSR for its celebration of “individualism.”)
4. The Searchers (1956)
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is a Civil War vet with a secret who returns home to Texas only to set out on a hunt for his niece (Natalie Wood) kidnapped by Comanche. The true motivation for Ethan’s relentless pursuit—racism, revenge, or both—has had critics arguing for decades. Is Ethan an American soldier of unflagging integrity or as disruptive to community as any Indian raid? Some see him as a distant relative to such ’70s antiheroes as Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver).
5. The Graduate (1967)
Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has a new college degree and no ambition. Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a family friend, offers to help stimulate him, but the ensuing affair proves a dark business. Only when his clueless parents and the equally unaware Mr. Robinson push Benjamin into a relationship with the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), does he finally see the light—to Mrs. Robinson’s horror. Benjamin must now decide what, if anything, is worth fighting for. Director Mike Nichols’s final two-shot of Elaine and Benjamin, freed from their plastic world, has elicited the same question for decades: Freed to do what?
6. The Godfather (1972)
A poor Italian immigrant comes to a powerful patron for justice when the American legal system fails him. Is Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) an empathetic savior, a symbol of American capitalism serving a distinct clientele—or just a thug with Old World manners? Francis Ford Coppola’s film single-handedly elevated the B movie gangster flick to a work of art.
7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Doing time for statutory rape, R. P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) plays crazy to get moved to the state mental hospital for an easy ride. But he soon finds himself superintended by the forbidding Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who demands docility. So the anarchic McMurphy plots mutiny with his fellow “inmates.” Based on Ken Kesey’s much-banned book, Cuckoo’s Nest is a Polaroid of a generation that refused to play by the rules of a “rigged game”—but that could not foresee the unintended consequences of making everything up as it went along.
8. Network (1976)
A seasoned TV newsman (William Holden) watches as an obsessed producer (Faye Dunaway) and ruthless exec (Robert Duvall) turn the UBS network into a funhouse of live crime scenes, astrological folderol, and jeremiads by a mad prophet of mass-entertainment doom (Peter Finch). The Oscar-winning screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, considered edgy in the ’70s, underestimated the reality-TV depths to which the tube would ultimately sink.
9. The Right Stuff (1983)
"I for one, don’t intend to go to sleep by the light of a Communist moon,” says LBJ in this adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s history of the early years of the Space Race. The United States, determined to beat the Soviets into orbit, puts would-be astronauts through humiliating fitness drills as the pilots fight to be more than just space monkeys. But the best flier of them all—Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), the man who broke the sound barrier—is never even considered because he lacks a college degree. Are PR and a manufactured image of the “ideal American” more important than courage and skill?
10. Malcolm X (1992)
Watch Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington), a small-time hoodlum, transform into Malcolm X, herald of the Nation of Islam’s black nationalism. Then watch Malcolm X become disillusioned as his mentor, Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr., in a remarkable performance), proves to be less than divine. A trip to Mecca leads the controversial civil rights icon to broaden his vision of race relations—and invoke the ire of his former coreligionists. This Spike Lee “joint” gave Washington his first lead actor Oscar nomination for bringing to life the man who, in very American fashion, crafted a unique identity by any means necessary.
11. Team America: World Police (2004)
Who better to illustrate America’s role in the war on terror than the guys who brought you South Park? Trey Parker and Matt Stone manage to both mock and celebrate the United States as world policeman as they take on jihadists, North Korean dictators, and Hollywood leftists. Conservative, anarchist, or just plain adolescent, Team America captures the more extreme aspects of Bush-era USA in puppet-populated amber.
12. The Dark Knight (2008)
Is Batman (Christian Bale) a Christ-like figure willing to endure public scorn to save his people or a vigilante with a messiah complex who spies on his fellow citizens 24/7, telling himself it’s for their own good? The film made a bid for all-time box office champ, demonstrating Americans’ love of supermen—and craving for security.
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of the Intercollegiate Review.
Complement with Anthony Sacramone's review of Hail, Caesar!, Jane Clark Scharl on understanding The Man in the High Castle, and James R. Harrigan on why superheroes are becoming enemies of federal government.