Like it or not, movies are the art form of our age, incomparably important in shaping our view of the world. In the 20th century they performed the same role as Homer and Virgil in the classical time, the Scriptures in the Middle Ages, and great novelists and poets in the 19th century. Whether this will be true for the 21st century, with all its new forms of communication, remains to be seen. We may be entering the age of the Tweet.
No one can possibly master the immense body of film that has been produced. The writers of Reckonin.com will provide in this series some guidance by describing the movies that have been most important to them in the course of a lifetime of viewing.
Myself, I am the most moved by what may be called “poetic realism,” films that do not avoid the raw tragic reality of our existence but that also convey a sense of the triumphant human spirit---the eternal verities described in Faulkner’s Nobel Address. In Southern literature, beautiful examples of “poetic realism” can be found in the works of Elizabeth Madox Roberts and George Garrett.
In my view, the French are the greatest filmmakers, the Germans, who cannot entirely escape the nihilism of their national character, are the worst. The French make movies for grown-ups, the Germans for disturbed adolescents. I cannot share in the current hysterical hatred of Russia and Iran when I remember the beautiful films that they have produced. The Brits were great, at least until recent times. Little Norway and Korea have produced some gems and Italy, Japan, and China in their best films show they have real cultures.
My dozen best:
1. A Sunday in the Country (French, Un dimanche a` la champagne, 1984). This quiet masterpiece recounts the joys and sorrows of everyday life, the most important things in our human experience, and the centrality of family to that experience. (I cannot find a U.S. playable DVD of this film, only a VHS and an absurdly over-priced Blu-Ray. It may be downloadable, however.)
2. Pathfinder (Norwegian, Veiviseren, 1987, not to be confused with a number of other movies with the same title in English). The heroic resistance of the Sami people to a brutal Viking invasion. (As with A Sunday in the Country, I can find no U.S. playable DVD.)
3. The Winter War (Finnish, Talvisoto, 1989). As a Southerner I cannot help being sympathetic to the struggle of small countries against foreign conquest. This portrays soldiers in little Finland’s heroic stand against the Soviet Union in 1939-1940.
4. Ballad of a Soldier (Russian, 1959). The tragic human experience of war and Communism, softened by young love.
5. Heartland (U.S., 1979 ). A calmly realistic portrayal of the hardships of American pioneers in Wyoming in the late 19th century and a “feminist” classic in the true sense of that term.
6. Zulu (British, 1964). Dramatisation of the true story of a company of British (mostly Welsh) soldiers who defeated a massive Zulu attack at Rorke’s Drift in South Africa in 1879. Zulu Dawn is a prequel.
7. La Scorta (Italian, 1993). An honest judge and his bodyguard attempt to fight the Mafia despite the interference of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. (Politicians and bureaucrats seldom avoid corruption in all times and places.)
8. For Whom the Bell Tolls (U.S., 1943). Hemingway’s moving story of people caught in the Spanish Civil War. Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman were never better.
9. 55 Days at Peking (U.S./British, 1963). Europeans defend themselves against the murderous Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, a heroic chapter in the white man’s burden that brought civilisation to half a planet. Charlton Heston as the U.S. Marine colonel, David Niven as the British ambassador, and Ava Gardner as Russian nobility turned angel of mercy are perfection.
10. The Way Home (Korean, 2002). What happens when a surly city-bred boy is left with his rural grandmother.
11. The Cruel Sea (British, 1953). Perhaps the best of a number of British films which portray the devastating naval warfare in the North Atlantic in WW II. I can hardly decide between The Cruel Sea and other examples: Sink the Bismarck!, In Which We Serve, and The Sea Shall Not Have Them. The greatness of these films is that they realistically show serious men at war without the technicolour explosions and wisecracking sailors from Brooklyn that Hollywood requires.
12. Apocalypto (U.S., 2006). Among the numerous movies directed and produced by Mel Gibson, this amazing one seems to have been overlooked. A family of remote peaceful Indians resist death at the hands of the barbarous Mayan “civilisation.” Truly stunning and uplifting in regard to those eternal verities.
I have dealt with individual movies. However, there are Television series that have meant a lot to me: Danger UXB: British soldiers charged with dismantling unexploded bombs in WW II; The Flame Trees of Thicka: British settlers in Kenya in the early 20th century; Tenko: British and Dutch women in Japanese prison camps; Sharpe: Napoleonic War adventures; and A Year in Provence: an English couple copes with life in Southern France. I would also add A French Village: French lives during the Nazi occupation.
Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews