Every time you plan a trip to the cinema and find yourself lamenting that your only options are a CGI-laden space film, a CGI-laden robot film or a CGI-laden space robot film, know that you have the KKK to blame. Not because these films are more abhorrent to the eyes than violent racism (I’ll leave that sort of thing for people to say in comment sections every), but because they are the subject of the first ever blockbuster. In a film industry less than two decades old, D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’, released in 1915, made a fortune, remaining the highest-grossing film for a quarter of a century until the release of ‘Gone With the Wind’ (still the adjusted-for-inflation highest grossing film of all time.)
Experts differ about just how much ‘Birth of a Nation’ made, due to movie infrastructure as we know it simply not existing, but one respected film writer tallies it at up to $100 million. Many call this figure a myth, but if it is true that is a staggering $2.3 billion once adjusted for inflation. That’s Avatar or Titanic money for a film that most critics agree is a love letter to the Ku Klux Klan, with the hate group riding in to save the day during the film’s epic finale.
It is tempting to resolve the issue that a film so racist could be so popular by saying it was a different, more prejudiced time, a time where segregation was a fact of life. And yet the film was equally controversial in its own time, with some states even banning the film entirely (making its huge revenues even more astounding) and all but the most southern states seeing protests against it of some kind.
The success of this film regardless of its scandalous nature shows us some truths about film goers that still hold up today. Epic battle scenes are always popular (whether they’re incredibly racist or not). Controversy is one of the strongest marketing tools in the arsenal of a film studio – after all, people in seats are still people in seats whether they disapprove of the material or not. And thirdly, with First Lady of American Cinema Lillian Gish starring prominently in ‘Birth of a Nation’, cinemagoers began their love affair with movie stars.
All three of these facts of cinema will be explored in the series of articles I’ve titled ‘100 Years in 100 Films’. For this, I’ve chosen one film per year, from 1915’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ to 2015’s ‘Birdman, starting this year and working backwards to this first ever blockbuster. Over the next year I will be looking at 2 films per week. There will be some all-time classics, some personal favourites and some film ‘firsts’. Moving backwards, a lot will change, with movies going from digital to film, colour to black and white, sound to silence. But with every element that’s stripped away, hopefully we’ll get closer to a pure idea of what mainstream cinema is, and what it means to us as viewers.
Along the way I will come back to the three facts I wrote about regarding the Birth of a Nation, watching as the epic-controversy-stars formula adapts and changes throughout the years. Lastly, I will be countering the assertion that the questionable politics of ‘Birth of a Nation’ could not be found in modern cinema, uncovering as many of Hollywood and world cinemas’ flaws as its successes. From Meryl Streep to Mickey Mouse, Hayao Miyazaki to Hitchcock, as much of cinema varied history as possible will be covered in these 100 films.
A note before we start though: I am by no means saying that these are the 100 greatest films ever to be made. Even established critics have been terrible at making lists like these, and if they haven’t been able to do it successfully what chance do I have? Rather, then, this is a list that I feel represents both cinema history and each individual year within it in the best possible way, even if that means that bad years get the bad films they deserve.
On the subject of bad years, though, this year is actually shaping up to be a fantastic one for film (seriously watch the trailer to ‘Whiplash’ right now) so without further meanderations (coined it) let’s begin with this year’s choice, Oscar contender ‘Birdman’.
If you think there is a film essential to our list, let us know in the comments or on Twitter @s_spencerwrites