These 18 Filmmakers Changed History

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History

Larry Holzwarth - August 22, 2019

Motion Pictures as entertainment were very much an icon of the twenty-first century, beginning with silent films, and continuing through the CGI-laced pictures of today. As film evolved, and the capabilities of the genre were developed, some filmmakers pushed the envelope, creating images on celluloid which literally changed history. Characters and images were created which withstood the passage of time and remain relevant, some as part of culture, or as language, or as legend. Films became a means of communication, and in the hands of skilled entertainers and propagandists changed public perceptions and visions of the future. Long before humanity first sojourned into space it was accomplished, albeit as fictional entertainment, on film. Politicians used the popularity of film to create images, equally fictional, of utopian society.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties were controversial for their scanty attire and sexual allure. Library of Congress

Even as pure entertainment, film created perceptions which have survived since the earliest days, when full-length pictures often lasted as little as twenty minutes. There have been filmmakers in the form of actors, producers, and directors who created a fictional world which altered perceptions of the real world, and still do, a century after the flickering images first unfold before awestruck audiences. The public was educated, often subtly and without their being aware of it, through the magic of entertainment. And by subtly altering public perceptions filmmakers changed history, for better or worse. Some changes have been as minor as simply adding phrases to the language, others have had more far-reaching consequences. Here are some examples of filmmakers who changed history.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
D. W. Griffith flanked by silent film stars Dorothy (left) and Lillian Gish in 1922. Library of Congress

1. D. W. Griffith and the creation of the feature film

What became known as the feature film, that motion picture that occupied the top space on the marquee and attracted an audience to theaters, is credited to American filmmaker D. W. Griffith. Eventually, Griffith made over 500 films, but it was his rendition of 1915’s The Birth of a Nation for which he is most famous, or infamous, depending upon one’s view. In the film, he pioneered the technique known as the close-up. He was also one of the founders of the studio United Artists (along with Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks), as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the statues known as the Oscars, film’s highest prize. As with an untold number of films made since, The Birth of a Nation was based on a popular novel, 1905’s The Clansman.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
The Birth of a Nation (1915) continues to be a controversial film. LA Times.

Griffith’s film, controversial today, was equally controversial at the time of its release, and the NAACP attempted to prevent it’s being shown, though it achieved the highest total of box office earnings ever achieved up to its time. Griffith responded to the criticism over his portrayal of blacks as slaves in the Jim Crow South by protesting against censorship, and by making a film he titled Intolerance, which depicted four different periods of persecution based upon religious beliefs. Among them was the persecution of Jesus Christ. Despite his many contributions to the art of motion picture production (among them the close-up, mood lighting, dramatic camera angles rather than the presentation of action as if it were on a stage, and others) he is often villainized as a propagandist who used the medium to foster racism. Whether such an opinion is justified is still debated today.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Keystone Kops circa 1914 in a publicity shot. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is the heavyset officer on the far right. Library of Congress

2. Mack Sennett created a phrase which continues to refer to police ineptitude

In 1912, a New York filmmaker who acted, danced, produced, designed sets, and directed short films for the Biograph company (he also portrayed Sherlock Holmes, one of the earliest actors to do so on film, though in a satiric manner) moved to California and started his own studio. He named it Keystone Studios, and the short films he produced focused on visual comedy known as slapstick, a genre perfect for silent films. Among the actors who worked for him were Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, William Claude Dukenfield, who used the stage name W. C. Fields, and a young crooner named Harry Lillis Crosby, who called himself Bing. Sennett invented one of film’s longest-lived staples, the car chase, though he was always comedic in nature. He became famous for filming an old vaudeville routine known as the pie fight in his pictures.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
A depiction of Keystone Kops. Wikimedia.

Sennett created a group, or rather groups, of inept policemen in helmeted uniforms, armed with nightsticks, which were called the Keystone Kops. A lesser known (today) Sennett presentation was the Sennett Bathing Beauties, whose scanty for the time bathing suits were the subject of moral outrage by some less appreciative audiences. But it is for the Keystone Kops he is most remembered today, and they became such a fiber in the American social fabric that whenever police forces act with unfortunate errors today they are referred to with derision as the Keystone Kops. In fact, any group of authorities which acts questionably is often referred to as the Keystone Kops. Sennett died nearly penniless in 1960, having never successfully transitioned to motion pictures with audio tracks, but his Keystone Kops are a part of society around the world, a ready label for the incompetent anywhere to don in the eyes of the public.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Arthur Melbourne-Cooper pioneered the use of stop-action animation, including in A Dream of Toyland in 1908. Wikipedia

3. The earliest use of animation was to send matches to British troops

In 1899 British soldiers were far from home, fighting the Boers in southern Africa. Among the travails they faced was a lack of means to light their pipes and cigars, as well as the increasingly popular cigarettes. Matches were in short supply. A British filmmaker, Arthur Melbourne Cooper, created a 30-second film short aimed at encouraging the folks on the home front to voluntarily send matches to the troops. The short was entirely animated, using the technique which became known as “stop-action animation“. In the film, characters made from wooden matches wrote a request on a blackboard with chalk. Considering that the film was made in 1899 it was decades ahead of its time, and when it was shown at London’s Empire Theater in December audiences were enthralled.

It was the first animated movie, the first film to be used to solicit donations for the benefit of others, and the first use of the stop-action technique. The latter was noted by competitors, but the cost of filming one frame at a time was prohibitive, and following up on the technique was slow. Over the next decade or so various filmmakers expanded on the technique, using mediums such as clay and eventually human beings. By 1908 drawings were being used, pioneered by French and American film artists. The smoothly depicted motions of Mickey Mouse and other iconic animated characters were still decades away, but the power of artificial figures moving on screen was clearly demonstrated before the First World War, and filmmakers in Europe and America exploited their ability to gain an audience’s attention and motivate their behavior in the early days of the twentieth century.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Screenshot from the film The Story of the Kelly Gang, the world’s first feature-length film. National Film & Sound Archive (Australia)

4. The length of the feature film was changed by Charles Tait in 1906

Before Charles Tait discovered a means of stretching the length of a filmed presentation, filmmakers were limited by the amount of film which could be contained on a single reel. Tait produced, in 1906, a film which when completed covered over 4,000 feet of images. The completed film ran for just over one hour, and when presented to audiences live sound effects were reproduced in the theater. Since the film The Story of the Kelly Gang, followed the career of outlaws and bushrangers, the sound effects included gunshots, the clopping sounds of horses, a narrator to fill audiences in during breaks in the action, and other sounds which complemented the images seen on the screen. Ned Kelly was and still is controversial in Australia, and the reception the film received reflected his reputation. Regardless of one’s opinion of Kelly, audiences lined up to view the film.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Ned Kelly. The Vintage News.

Some locations in both Australia and New Zealand banned the film, but it continued to be seen in areas where the authorities were less close-minded for over two decades. The film also received enthusiastic audiences in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Only scraps of the original survived into the 21st century, with approximately 17 minutes of the film today restored and preserved. It was one of the earliest examples of a filmmaker being accused of glorifying criminal behavior and exploiting it for financial gain – an accusation leveled countless times against filmmakers ever since. Ned Kelly has been depicted in numerous films since, always with similar controversy over the presentation, including one in which the bushranger was portrayed by Mick Jagger in 1970. He has also been played by Heath Ledger, footballer Bob Chitty, and actor George MacKay.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
With his always silent Little Tramp, Charles Chaplin created one of the most iconic film images of all time. Library of Congress

5. Chaplin was an ascendant filmmaker in the 1920s

World War I severely crimped the European film industry. Before the war films from Germany, Italy, France, Sweden, and the United Kingdom were all universally popular, the silent era offering the advantage of no need for an audio track in another language. By the end of the war and the opening of the decade which became known as the Roaring Twenties, Charles Chaplin, an English transplant to America and known the world over as Charlie, dominated the film industry. Chaplin was the most powerful man in the emerging film capital of Hollywood, and he possessed one of the most famous faces in the world, as well as one of the most famous characters of all time, his immortal “Little Tramp“. Chaplin used the Tramp and his own personality to change film – and thus history – by adding pathos to what had been simply slapstick comedy during the decade.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Charlie Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel in his 1940 film, The Great Dictator. The Conversation

Chaplin was among the first to use comedy in films as social commentary, and during a period in which Hollywood produced over 800 films annually – more than 80% of the global output – the release of his motion pictures became international events. He became the highest-paid performer in the world during a period which saw, for the first time, the emergence of a new type of celebrity, which was called the movie star. He used music to control the mood of the audiences viewing his films, which he for the most part composed himself, and his growing financial independence allowed him to ignore the critics and follow his own agenda in the face of growing controversy as the twenties and thirties lurched towards the impending catastrophe of World War II. He also became the first, though by no means the last, filmmaker to be identified with licentious behavior and an amoral personal life.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Fritz Lang relaxing at his Berlin apartment circa 1924. Wikimedia

6. Fritz Lang and Metropolis in 1927

The Weimar Republic in post-World War I Germany was the home of filmmaker Fritz Lang, who gave the world many notable films over the course of his career, including noir classics The Big Heat, While the City Sleeps, and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, all in rotation on television channels specializing in such films. But it was his vision of a dystopian society which he depicted in 1927s Metropolis which changed history. Often viewed as a prototype for an entire film genre – science fiction – and noted for its scathing social commentary, Metropolis predicted the city and life of the future, the dangers of industrial society, and the rising contempt between the working class and the intellectual elite. It was both panned and promoted by critics upon its release and has continued to generate similar reactions ever since. It was particularly well received in Germany in which the Nazi Party was on the rise.

Joseph Goebbels was enamored with the film, and exhorted party leaders, including Adolf Hitler, to view it and study its underlying message. Goebbels insisted that he and Hitler view the film together, and convinced the future Fuhrer that the message of the lengthy film was the rise of labor, the workers, over the historic oppression of the intellectuals and bankers, which in the view of the Nazis was dominated in Europe by the Jews. French critics also viewed the film along the same lines, wary of the changes which it evoked among the Germans to their east. Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, joined the Nazi Party, believing that they espoused the vision in her husband’s film, which led him to divorce her and flee to the United States to escape the Nazis, but not until after he was informed that Hitler, by then Fuhrer, wanted Lang to make films sanctioned by the German government.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Bela Lugosi made the role of Dracula on stage and film his own, becoming one of the Universal Classic Monsters in the process. Library of Congress

7. Horror came to film in 1931, via Universal Pictures

Horror films existed prior to the 1930s, with the silent era including film versions of The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and what remains to many the greatest vampire film of all, Nosferatu. But in 1931 Universal Pictures, then run by the Laemmle family and increasingly by Carl Laemmle Jr. created the gothic horror picture that led to an all-new genre that has never really run out of steam. Using lesser-known actors on contract to the studio including Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., and Claude Rains, Universal re-invented the so-called monster movie with titles such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, and a seemingly bottomless well of sequels featuring the evidently immortal main characters. All of them died in the films, usually at the hands of irate peasants, only to return within months in a new incarnation.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Universal Studios began capitalizing on the new genre of horror films such as Frankenstein. Interesting Literature.

Laemmle’s monsters, which became known as the Universal monsters, created new industries in posters, Hallowe’en costumes, plastic model kits, magazines, parodies, and more. In the 1950s and continuing into the 21st century, the films were remade with new actors and new plots. As recently as 2017 a remake of The Mummy was released, and others of the famous characters are slated for cinematic rebirth, with the supporting marketing accessories such as graphic novels and video games. Carl Laemmle’s monsters became an industry in and of themselves, which continues to influence all forms of entertainment, as well as advertising, breakfast cereals, graphic novels and comic books, and even fashion. “Driving a stake through its heart” became a phrase meaning to permanently bring anything to an end, though it never succeeded in truly killing the vampire to which it originally referred.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
1932’s Scarface gave birth to the gangster film and remains one of the most controversial such films ever made. Wikimedia

8. The Two Howards and the Birth of the Gangster film

At the same time that Hollywood and motion pictures augmented with sound, known colloquially as “talkies”, began to dominate the film industry, another American icon emerged. Prohibition led to the emergence of organized crime, and the subsequent decade of the 1930s brought about the roving criminal gangs of the American Midwest. Hollywood, led for the most part by two men named Howard, Hughes and Hawks, put them on film, creating a genre still immensely popular, and the public perception of crime and law enforcement in the United States. The gangster picture launched careers, made infamous criminals famous, and created fictional underworld figures based on real-life counterparts. One of the earliest films in the genre, 1932’s Scarface, created a fictional character named Antonio Camonte, though he was clearly depicting Alphonse Capone.

Scarface was banned by censors in several American communities for its glorification of the central character and its sympathetic presentation of his violent control of his criminal empire. The public for the most part loved the film, if box office receipts are indicative of acceptance, but a petulant Hughes pulled the film from circulation (he was also forced to change the title as Capone was known universally as Scarface). The film was presented under several titles in its original release. Hughes finally stored the print until his death, after which it was recovered from his estate, restored, and released under its original title. The genre which it largely birthed had by then dramatically bypassed it in depictions of violence and in presenting the gangster as a somewhat sympathetic hero, making the original somewhat lame in comparison.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Arguably Walt Disney’s most famous creation, Mickey Mouse, hasn’t always been happy and cheerful over the years. Wikimedia

9. Walt Disney changed the world in many ways and continues to do so today

How Walt Disney changed the world is like a Shakespearean sonnet, with the answer being “Let me count the ways”. Mickey Mouse is a term referring to something trivial. In the United Kingdom, it means fake, or of dubious quality. In college slang, it can refer to an easy passing grade, though sometimes if a course of questionable merit. A job easily accomplished, or of little significance, is a Mickey Mouse task. There are numerous other uses of the name, and it was even mentioned by Fredo in The Godfather, in reference to his own uselessness to the family. Mickey was once a character of some sophistication, prone to angry, stubborn fits of pique, and in recent years he was started to once again exhibit those traits. And that is just one character introduced by Walt Disney, whose film studios launched dozens, if not hundreds, of others.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
A portrait of Walt Disney. Wikimedia.

Disney’s minions went to war in World War II, on the screen, in comic books, and with the soldiers and sailors who went overseas. Disney created other worlds via animation, sometimes through the adaptation of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, and sometimes through original scripts. Eventually, he became far more than a filmmaker, but it was film through which he created his iconic characters, and those characters were the basis for his entertainment empire which continues to enthrall the public around the world more than fifty years after his death. Sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, and pundits worldwide continue to dissect his seminal films and work for social relevance and hidden agenda, but his work continues to entertain and influence the world. Disney both made history and changed it forever, and he continues to do so in film, television, magazines, books, video games, board games, music, theme parks, and more, all originating from an animated mouse.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
The so-called Hollywood Musical was an offshoot of the Broadway musical, starting with The Broadway Melody in 1929. Wikimedia

10. The birth of the Hollywood musical in 1929

Beginning in the 1930s and continuing to the present day, the Hollywood studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, known the world over as MGM, has been synonymous with the musical motion picture, with lavish song and dance numbers, often adapted from a Broadway production of the same name. The first, which enjoyed a success which led to the production of others, was directed by Harry Beaumont, who could be called the father of movie musicals. It was called, with somewhat little inspiration, The Broadway Melody, and it contained a Technicolor sequence as part of the original release, long since lost. It was the first sound film to win the coveted Best Picture of the Year award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, not yet known as the Oscar.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
The Broadway Melody paved the way for other musicals such as The Sound of Music. Wikimedia.

Although Beaumont never managed to replicate his triumph, he continued to make musicals for several years for MGM and other studios. Musicals became a form of film which were considered a matter of taste, though several won the Best Picture award in the years since. Among them were West Side Story; The Sound of Music; My Fair Lady; Oliver!; and Going My Way, which featured Bing Crosby, who had once polished his acting chops in silence for Mack Sennett. Animated musicals have been presented as well, some clearly targeted at juveniles with others meant for a wider distribution among audiences. Harry Beaumont is not as widely known as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, or Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, but he was the first, with the backing of MGM, to unleash a musical production in a Hollywood film, creating an entirely new entertainment genre in 1929.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Vivian Leigh as Scarlet O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With the Wind, often erroneously described as the first full-color feature film. Wikimedia

11. The development of color motion picture film changed entertainment and industry

Both 1939 films The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind are often and erroneously cited as the first feature films to be released in color (though only the sequences in Oz in the former are in color). Neither film was the first. Numerous films were released using the techniques of tinting and toning black and white films well before 1939 and continued to be into the 1950s. True color films using different types of film were produced in the early 1900s, including in documentaries as early as 1912 (With Our King and Queen in India). Regardless, color evolved slowly, in large part because many directors valued the use of black and white because it afforded the opportunity for more dramatic use of lighting and shadow in the final prints of their films. Many actors and actresses preferred it as well, believing that they photographed better in the format.

As noted, a sequence in the 1929 film The Broadway Melody was filmed in Technicolor, though the entire film was not. Another 1929 film, On With the Show, is credited as being the first feature-length film shot entirely in Technicolor, making its director, Alan Crosland, the first to make a film in the format (that is, in color) most widely accepted today. Possibly the most well-known film shot in Technicolor prior to 1939 was the preceding year’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, produced by David O. Selznick and employing several directors. Though color was a novel selling point for films at the time, and though critics gave it consistently good reviews, it lost money at the box office. The introduction of color film changed history, though it took quite some time to do so.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Few propagandists demonstrated the power of film to sway the masses with greater effect than Leni Riefenstahl, a close friend of Adolf Hitler’s. Wikimedia

12. Leni Riefenstahl created the images of the Aryan superman and woman for Adolf Hitler

German director Fritz Lang found some of his work banned by Nazi propagandists, but was nonetheless asked by Joseph Goebbels to produce films which helped spread the beliefs of the Nazi party. Lang chose instead to flee Nazi Germany. The Nazis turned instead to Leni Riefenstahl, who directed films which earned her the professional approbation of fellow filmmakers for her technical skill, Triumph of the Will, and Olympia. Adolf Hitler was closely involved with Riefenstahl both in regard to the content of her films and as a personal friend, according to German documents and the recollection of friends at the time. As time has increased the distance from the depredations of the Nazis, numerous attempts have been made to rehabilitate Riefenstahl’s reputation, but the evidence from the time, including her films and correspondence, indicates that she was an unrepentant supporter of Hitler and his Nazi ideals, including the desirability of removing the Jews from a rebuilt Germany.

Riefenstahl later attempted to deny that her work, including Triumph of the Will, was intended to champion the Nazi agenda, and in interviews claimed to have been “disgusted” by the way Goebbels and the propaganda ministry distorted her work. Riefenstahl created documentaries which besides supporting the Hitler regime changed the way such films were created, adding a dramatic quality to what was described as straightforward reporting, with the result being almost shamelessly partisan, rather than balanced. As with many former Nazis, she supported Hitler until his death, and continued to justify her work for decades after, though claiming that it was made to support the German people rather than the Nazi government, which nonetheless paid for much of her work. Triumph of the Will is still viewed as a masterpiece of documentary propaganda, which changed the genre forever.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Orson Welles was a pioneer of making films outside of the Hollywood Studio system, using his own ideas, scripts, and money. Wikimedia

13. Orson Welles changed history by using his own money to finance his films

Hollywood of its own so-called Golden Age was famous for its use of what was known as the studio system. Actors and directors were employees of the studios, giving the largest of the studios the power to decide what films were made, what views they presented, and who appeared in them. One of Hollywood’s most successful studios – United Artists – was founded by stars Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, in part because it allowed them freer artistic expression in their own films, though the studio was soon itself part of the hide-bound system of Hollywood in the era. Independent films were rare, for the simple reason that having the money to make them was rare, a situation that worsened during the years of the Great Depression.

Orson Welles, whether admired for his body of work or not, did not change the studio system, but he certainly challenged it, by reaching into his own pockets to produce his films in defiance of the studio systems of the day. In them, he pioneered the use of sound in ways still emulated by filmmakers, including pioneering techniques that added a third dimension to the experience of viewing and hearing motion pictures. His radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938 did not create the legendary panic so often associated with it, but Welles changed the world by insisting that it did, and in so doing he instilled his own legend in American history. Welles was an actor, director, producer, broadcaster on radio and television, entrepreneur, raconteur, and eventually a caricature of himself, remembered by a younger generation, if at all, as an obese wine advertiser solemnly intoning that he would sell “no wine before its time”.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Japan’s Akira Kurosawa was widely admired and imitated by directors of films from around the world. Wikimedia

14. Akira Kurosawa changed American film without ever making an American film

The 1960s film epic The Magnificent Seven (not its execrable remake of 2016) remains one of the most beloved and admired films ever made. Its soundtrack and theme music are iconic, its storyline remains timeless, and it has been emulated by filmmakers since it first appeared. It presents a tale believed to be American to the core, a collection of unrelated drifters with a casual regard for law and order banding together to correct an injustice, at first for profit, and later for justice’s sake. Its premise has been repeated time and again ever since, and it is widely regarded as a quintessential Western film, as well as one of the greatest of all American films. Yet it is based on a film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai, and though Kurosawa’s influence is well-known, few have seen his masterpiece, nor recognize his influence.

By changing the American West, and through his influence on other film genres, Kurosawa changed history. Few acknowledge the Japanese cultural influence on the Star Wars series of films and the universe they have created, but they were in part based on another work by Kurosawa, The Hidden Fortress. The Star Wars entry The Phantom Menace originally was envisioned by George Lucas as one very similar to that of Kurosawa’s earlier (1958) work. Kurosawa has been praised (and emulated) by directors including Frances Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski, Robert Altman, and many more, all of whom at times copied his style and techniques in their films, sharing Kurosawa’s skills and cinematic vision with the western world.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Alfred Hitchcock personalized his films with brief cameo appearances, often in a humorous moment to break the tension. Wikimedia

15. Alfred Hitchcock created an atmosphere and style which bears his name

The term Hitchcockian is applied to film, television presentations, literature, and real life circumstances, though it is a term that defies definition. Or at least it defies limitation. It can refer to atmosphere, and in doing so it can mean frightening, ironic, tongue-in cheek, terrifying, lightly humorous, dramatic, melodramatic, whimsical, preposterous, improbable, one can select whatever mood one wishes and the term can be made to apply. He made movies in his younger days in England, many of which became classics, after which he moved to the United States and remade several, turning them into classics again. Hitchcock created scenarios where the borderline between sanity and insanity became indistinct, others in which it couldn’t be more clear, and still others where it didn’t seem to matter.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
One of Hitchcock’s most Iconic films, Birds. Wikimedia.

His influence on filmmakers of later generations is immeasurable. Unlike most filmmakers, Hitchcock often chose to shoot his films by recording the scenes in the same order in which they appeared in the final edit of the movie. He was so hands-on regarding his work and its presentation that he went so far as to work with the designers creating the advertising posters for his films, his input being submitted to designers he insisted on hiring since they were among the best of the time. Hitchcock often used well-known icons as settings in his films – the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore – for example, and in the process became an icon himself, one of the world’s most recognizable figures from the late 1940s onward, including decades after his death in 1980. He is credited with creating a camera angle which bears another use of the term Hitchcockian, one in which it appears that the view of the camera is one of the audience, allowing film-viewers to become, temporarily at least, voyeurs.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur was a World War II film warning the home front of the potential of alien espionage groups. National Archives

16. World War II propaganda films included the weekly entertainment pictures

During the Second World War, two types of war propaganda films were produced by Hollywood for the consumption of American audiences, augmented with British films which also found their way into American theaters. Some became classics, such as Casablanca, and the British production Mrs. Miniver. Others were produced with a rapidity which rivalled American industrial production, and featured specific disciplines demanded by the Armed Forces, followed or preceded with a brief recruiting blurb, often featuring a major film star. Films such as Bombardier depicted the training and responsibilities of men required to drop bombs on Axis targets. Action in the North Atlantic starring Humphrey Bogart, portrayed the sacrifices of Allied merchant seamen during the war, an area of history that still takes a back seat to the combat operations of the war.

The films were intended to simultaneously entertain their audiences, create interest in the needs of the services in certain disciplines, encourage sacrifice on the home front, and present the enemy in a manner in which they were irredeemably evil. The evil was in direct contrast to the heroic and straightforward good American boys, joining together as brothers in arms whether they were from the Bowery or the cornfields of Iowa. Stereotypes abounded. Southerners were unrepentant supporters of Robert E. Lee, New Yorkers loved the Dodgers and the Yankees, and at least one book-loving egghead appeared in every military unit. Other repeat characters included the hustler, the dreamer, the unfortunate recipient of a Dear John letter, and the incorrigible Army (or Navy) hater. At the end of the film, the audience was encouraged to by bonds, on sale in the lobby.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
Cecil B. DeMille created the biblical epic, often using dialogue taken from the King James Version of the Bible in his scripts. Wikimedia

17. Cecil B. DeMille brought the Bible to film and created the biblical epic as a film genre

Cecil B. DeMille is credited with creating the first feature film which was made entirely in Hollywood, and thus has claim to being both the founder of the American film industry and of the California community with which it is inextricably linked. During his long career, he produced 70 films (from 1914 – 1958), and developed a reputation as a director of films that became known as biblical epics, many of which were silent films, including 1927’s King of Kings. His silent The Ten Commandments (1923) held the record for box office revenue attained by an American film for 25 years. His link with the Bible as a source for his films is in some ways unjust, he also directed The Greatest Show on Earth, a circus epic which won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Union Pacific, a film about the drive to complete America’s Transcontinental Railroad, among many others.

But it was the biblical epic, which he created as a film genre, in which his reputation largely lies, and it was 1956’s The Ten Commandments in which he put the capstone on his career. His presentation of the Bible on film was often controversial, always lavish in production, long in running time, and expensive to produce. DeMille brought the stories of the Bible to the big screen, without editorial comment for the most part, and was one of the earliest filmmakers to present the stories of the Old Testament and the New as entertainment rather than as religious doctrine. In doing so he stuck to his source documents, such as presenting the tale of the Ten Commandments from the Book of Exodus in a manner which is supported by the biblical narrative, often with his actors speaking the lines as they are found in the King James Version (a Christian translation) of the Hebrew Bible. Nonetheless, The Ten Commandments is broadcast on American television every Passover and Paschal season.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
For many John Wayne, here with close friend and fellow actor Ward Bond, became the face and personality of America, for better or worse. Wikimedia

18. John Wayne was a producer as well as an actor

John Wayne is, beyond any doubt, an American icon instantly recognizable almost anywhere in the world where motion pictures have been shown. In his career, he portrayed Western heroes who were often respectful and solicitous of American Indians, though in real life he often spoke disparagingly of them. He portrayed heroic American soldiers, sailors, aviators, and frontiersmen, though he never served in the military. Because of these disparities and other issues, such as controversial comments in interviews regarding civil rights in America, he remains a controversial figure, idolized by some, condemned by others. Few, if any, other images portray what is indisputably American than pictures of Wayne in Western garb, the costume he wore for so many of the roles he played on the silver screen. And those portrayals changed the world, creating an international image of America, for better or worse, for the rest of the world to consider.

These 18 Filmmakers Changed History
John Wayne – Medical Bag

Wayne, along with colleagues such as director John Ford and frequent costar and friend Ward Bond, created an image of an American, and thus America, as tough physically and mentally, confident and capable, unable to abide injustice whether directed at itself or at others. The image, like the majority of creations which emanated from Hollywood and the filmmakers who created an industry there, was more myth than reality, a glossy image created through art. It was instead just one person’s perception, a picture created because it was what was believed, rather than what existed. America created John Wayne, and he created on film and in the public’s mind an image which was a reflection of the America he saw. As a filmmaker, an actor, and in a life of portraying himself, John Wayne created an image which he believed was quintessentially American and convinced most of the world to believe it was too.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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