The Five Films and the Five Non-American Works of Fiction

that best explain the 20th century. Acceding to popular demand for a film list, and I'm also interested in non-US fiction. Some commenters pointed to several - The Man Without Qualities, The Tin Drum, etc. - but I would be interested in other suggestions from around the world. Apologies for tying up VC with something unserious, but I actually need to compose a list for some high schoolers.

rosetta's stones:
Riefenstahl's film work, of course.
6.5.2009 4:21pm
rosetta's stones:
...rats... not fiction, or maybe it shoulda been...
6.5.2009 4:22pm
Mike Magaletti (mail):
Non-fiction: "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" Gibbons
6.5.2009 4:23pm
Mike Magaletti (mail):
Fiction: "Das Kapital" Marx (not Groucho)
6.5.2009 4:25pm
[insert here] delenda est:
My comment from the previous thread actually belongs here, really, I didn't have any American books :)
In no particular order:
- Wolf Totem, Jiang Rong;
- Darkness at noon, Arthur Koestler;
- Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja), Mario Vargas Llosa;
- All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Remarque; and
- The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie.

(1st sub: The Spy who came in from the Cold, Le Carré).

For films, a bit harder, and I must be more American, but I tentatively suggest:
- Hiroshima mon amour;
- Lacombe Lucien and Au Revoir les Enfants (must be seen together for 20thC educative effect);
- Gran Torino;
- Slumdog Millionaire; and
- On the Waterfront.

The films are much less 'explanatory' than the books, as indeed they must if they are not to be completely didactic, but maybe they capture something useful of the mood of the century.
6.5.2009 4:26pm
M (mail):
Andrei Mikhalkov-Kontchalovsky "Siberiada", to my mind, does an excellent job of capturing a hugely important part of the 20th Century. I'm not sure high school kids will like it, and it's very long, but it's great. (The music is also great, and was used in some dance music not too long ago.) Mikhalkov-Kontchalovsky is a pretty uneven filmmaker but this is really wonderful.
6.5.2009 4:27pm
pereubu77 (mail):
The Trial, Kafka
Amerika, Kafka
Life and Fate, Grossman
1984, Orwell
Journey to the End of the Night, Celine
The Assistant, Robert Walser
Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
anything by P.G. Wodehouse
anything by Borges
6.5.2009 4:34pm
rosetta's stones:
I picked "All Quiet on the Western Front" as my top fiction novel. Seeking a counterpart to that novel in film.... hmmmmm... "Das Boot" comes to mind.

...or perhaps "Twelve O'Clock High", for mood.
6.5.2009 4:34pm
Calm Mentor:
I've never read The Satanic Verses, but Shalimar the Clown might be another Rushdie book to add.
6.5.2009 4:34pm
MarkField (mail):
Ok, 5 "most explanatory" non-American novels:

1. All Quiet on the Western Front.

2. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

3. Can I substitute a poem (which is as long as a novel)? The Wasteland.

4. Things Fall Apart.

5. A Clockwork Orange.

Ok, now films. They're going to be American because I simply don't know foreign films well enough.

1. Birth of a Nation. I'm not praising it, but it does explain a lot.

2. Chinatown.

3. Schindler's List.

4. Apocalypse Now.

5. Hotel Rwanda.

Again, these aren't necessarily the ones I'd pick as "best" or "favorite", just "most explanatory".
6.5.2009 4:37pm
bill_guest (mail):
Duck Soup (1933)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Blues Brothers (1980)
Bliss (1985)
6.5.2009 4:41pm
NowMDJD (mail):
The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk. Actually, though Wouk isn't a great wordsmith, he is wonderful at capturing the spirit of tthe periods he writes about-- he has a wonderful historical imagination. He's a goot plotsmith as well. Inside, Outside is excellent as well.
6.5.2009 4:44pm
Tucker (mail):
"Apologies for tying up VC with something unserious..." "Blegging" has a glorious history on the VC... no needs for apologies.
6.5.2009 4:45pm
NowMDJD (mail):
Oh, and also A Bend in the River, by Naipaul
6.5.2009 4:46pm
Crunchy Frog:

Apologies for tying up VC with something unserious

Yes, because we must reserve space for Sunday Song Lyrics and the Northern VA real estate market...

On to the film list!

The Longest Day
Apocalypse Now
Wall Street
Pulp Fiction
Boyz N The Hood

I intentionally stayed away from movie adaptations of books I listed in the other thread, else The Godfather Pt 2 would be on the list.

I'm not well read enough to come up with a comprehensive list of non-American 20th Century Lit - most of the Euro stuff I've read is of the Les Mis/Hunchback variety.
6.5.2009 4:50pm
statfan (mail):
I actually think China Mieville's latest novel, _The City &The City_, explains certain psychological quirks that drove the 20th century, and continue to drive the 21st.
6.5.2009 4:52pm
statfan (mail):
I actually think China Mieville's latest novel, _The City &The City_, explains certain psychological quirks that drove the 20th century, and continue to drive the 21st.
6.5.2009 4:52pm
avaimiwaype (mail):
6.5.2009 4:53pm
Brett Marston:
My film recommendations:

Modern Times

The Shower (Xizao) (1999) - economic development in contemporary China, seen in the context of a family business subject to demolition; really well done

Dr. Strangelove

The Lives of Others

Life on Earth (la vie sur terre) - a man returns from Paris to Mali on the eve of the millenium (don't miss the last scene if you're looking for the explanatory power mentioned in your original post)
6.5.2009 4:53pm

1. La Dolce Vita
2. Rio Bravo
3. Vertigo
4. Les Enfants du Paradis
5. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp


1. Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins
2. Main Currents of Marxism by Leszek Kolakowski
3. The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
4. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein
5. The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington
6.5.2009 5:03pm
one of many:
Dr. Strangelove definitely.
6.5.2009 5:04pm
non-american fiction

1. 1 of 3: grossman's "life and fate," or rybakov's "children of the arbat," or solzhenitsin's "gulag archipelago"

2. 1 of 2: alberto moravia, "il conformista," or camus, "the plague,"

3. 1 of any number of dystopian novels: orwell, "1984," or nabokov, "invitation to a beheading," or huxley, "brave new world," or zamyatin, "we" (but please no rand, "anthem")

4. musil, "man without qualities" (would that one could induce high-school students to read it)

5. kurban said, ali and nino (not as well-known as it should be, a pre-wwii account of east-meets-west)
6.5.2009 5:06pm
sk (mail):
1) Its a Wonderful Life
2) Patton
3) The Third Man/Deer Hunter/The Ugly American
4) Taxi Driver
5) Office Space

The whole trajectory of what Americans thought of America-basically a long decline from a small town sense of home, and US nobility/triumphalism in WWII, into gritty and corrupting international involvement and cynicism, to final boring absurdity.

The most important thing it neglects is the Depression-five movies can't do everything.

6.5.2009 5:10pm
[insert here] delenda est:
How many people are reading non-US fiction as non-fiction? lol.
6.5.2009 5:10pm
CheckEnclosed (mail):
Battle of Algiers
Hell in a Very Small Place (Bernard Fall)
Something by Yukio Mishima?
Too Late, the Phallarope
6.5.2009 5:23pm
Ooops--I skimmed right over the "US." I assume that should probably be non-English:

1. The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2. Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
3. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
4. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
5. Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine
6.5.2009 5:30pm
A. Zarkov (mail):

Paths of Glory. In my opinion Kubrick's best.


Dr. Stangelove-- Ok, I'm a Kubrick freak.

Chinatown-- Essentially the first time the Owens Valley story came out to the public. A breakthrough movie in that regard.

Woman in the Dunes, Hiroshi Teshigahara. A must see! But be prepared to be haunted by this film forever.

Runner up: THX-1138.

Books by non-Americans

See my other list, and add these two.

A Clockwork Orange

August 1914
6.5.2009 5:40pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
Hey guys read the question! "Non-American fiction" means fictional works by non-Americans. I'm assuming a film by anyone qualifies.
6.5.2009 5:42pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
Many people have listed "All Quiet on the Western Front", but I would like to say just why I think it is important to include it. It is, of course, an "anti-war" book about World War I, and the World learned it's lesson very well that everything possible must be done to avoid another war. And everything possible was done, thereby actually causing the worst war yet. If this book was influential, as many believe, then we must blame it -- in part -- for World War II.
6.5.2009 5:53pm
Jared Armstrong (mail):
Five Films:

Pulp Fiction
Schindler's List
A Clockwork Orange
It's A Wonderful Life
6.5.2009 5:57pm
"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe (1958).
6.5.2009 5:57pm
Battleship Potemkin
Lawrence of Arabia
Top Gun
Dr. Strangelove
6.5.2009 6:01pm
Amy Phillips (mail) (www):
All musicals:

West Side Story
6.5.2009 6:05pm
The Collapse of the Third Republic/ Wm. Shirer
6.5.2009 6:08pm
Sorry- just saw non-US fiction
6.5.2009 6:10pm
Ang Dagang Kano (mail):
I don't know non-American fiction well enough.
My five motion pictures would be:
Dr. Strangelove
La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers)
Oktyabr' (Ten Days That Shook the World)
Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will)
6.5.2009 6:15pm
Steven Zoraster (mail):

Six Movies:

The Wild Bunch
The Grapes of Wrath
The Cruel Sea
The Heat of the Night
Seven Days in May
The Shawshank Redemption
6.5.2009 6:15pm
Bob Montgomery (mail):
The Sting
The Apartment
Lawrence of Arabia
Schindler's List

This is the kind of thing that, no matter how long you spend making the list, you could spend a little bit longer and you'd change it a little bit.

When you think about the 20th century, it's really hard - you have two world wars, the depression, the holocaust, the internet, the rise of the automobile, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the civil rights movement, the landing on the moon...and that's just touching the surface, and mostly omits anything that happened outside of North America, Europe, and Asia.

The same is probably true for every century, I suppose.
6.5.2009 6:22pm
LessinSF (mail):
Behind The Green Door
6.5.2009 6:23pm
PeterWimsey (mail):
It seems to me that if you want to explain the 20th Century, it would first make sense to figure out what parts of the 20th Century should be covered. Off the top of my head, I can think of:

The Great Depression
The Cold War
Vietnam/The 60's

For WWI, I can't do better than All's Quiet on the Western Front. For WWI movies, maybe HH's Hell's Angels.

Even though the Great Depression was a worldwide phenomenon, I can't think of a non-US book that gets at it very well, probably because Europe was more focused on Nazism and Communism. For movies, maybe the Grapes of Wrath.

I'm kind of at a loss for WWII; the best single book for American HS students is probably "The Rise and Fall of the 3d Reich," but Shirer was an American. Albert Speer's "Memoirs," perhaps, although they are kind of dry.

For Communism, "Ivan Denisovich" is a good choice, although I might recommend "How the Steel Was Tempered," (Ostrovsky), a '30's socialist-realist novel, to get a different perspective.
[Ostrovsky is very easy to read in translation, but the book is long]

For the cold war, maybe "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold."
Dr. Strangelove would be a good movie.

Smiley's people is good, too, but probably kind of difficult for high schoolers.

I'm at a loss for 60's/Vietnam - the best I can come up with is a double feature of "Woodstock" and "We Were Soldiers Once."

I can't think of anything good for colonialism.
6.5.2009 6:26pm
ChrisTS (mail):
Non-American fiction:
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer‎ - Siegfried Sassoon
The Autumn of the Patriarch – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell
Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman
The Good Terrorist – Doris Lessing
Cancer Ward - Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Cry, The Beloved Country - Alan Patton

Seems like an impossibly broad task.
6.5.2009 6:45pm
Jim Copland (www):
Lots of good suggestions.

My picks for film:
Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick (have to include WWI; the film version of All Quiet on the Western Front is an alternative)
Doctor Zhivago, David Lean (could be others to depict Soviet Russia, but I quite like this)
Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg (not the only option for the Nazis either, but a good one)
Farewell to My Concubine, Chen Kaige (hard to imagine a better take on the transformation of China through the century)
Hiroshima Mon Amour, Alain Resnais (Dr. Strangelove might fulfill a similar role, but with more satire than historicity)

My list is consciously non-U.S.-centric. Plenty of options to capture America, from lots of angles.

My list also unfortunately omits India, though I'm not sure which of the above I'd exclude for Gandhi, Richard Attenborough (there are of course other excellent options for India, too, though none that have Gandhi's historic sweep).
6.5.2009 6:50pm
MarkField (mail):

I'm at a loss for 60's/Vietnam - the best I can come up with is a double feature of "Woodstock" and "We Were Soldiers Once."

A very good "small" Vietnam war film is "Go Tell the Spartans" with Burt Lancaster.

I can't believe I left Battle of Algiers off my list.
6.5.2009 7:05pm
surprised nobody mentioned rocky.
6.5.2009 7:07pm
pedro (mail):
1. "Sobre Héroes y Tumbas" ("On Heroes and Tombs") by Ernesto Sábato.

2. "Disgrace" by J. M. Coetzee.

3. "The Trial" by Franz Kafka.

4. "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" by Milan Kundera.

5. "Shalimar, the Clown" by Salman Rushdie.

6. "Death and the King´s Horseman" (a play) by Wole Soyinka.



1. "Das Leben der Anderen" ("The Lives of Others")

2. "La Vie Revee des Anges" ("Dreamlife of Angels")

3. "Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie" ("The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie")

4. "Un Lugar en el Mundo" ("A Place in the World")

5. "Bila Jednom Jedna Zemlja" ("Underground")
6.5.2009 7:19pm
pedro (mail):
Death and Margarita seems like a good choice.

On the other hand, "anything by Borges" seems terribly sloppy. Borges is as removed from the realities of his century as he is brilliant.
6.5.2009 7:22pm
"Explain" is an awfully high hurdle, I can't think of anything. I can think of five films that give excellent insight or commentary:
The Savage Innocents
Bridge on the River Kwai
Dark Star
Das Boot

I can't think novels of novels with genuine explanatory value. I'd say White Noise "captures" the late 20th century best. There's a class of books that are too embedded in it to explain much, but serve as good commentary. Foucault's Pendulum, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and the retarded The Da Vinci Code fit in this category; Dan Brown's book's success is a nearly-perfect, accidental proof of the absurdity of attempting to craft a linearized understanding of modern man. Maybe the best comment on the late 20th century from the edges of literary world is a long line of people at Border's buying "The Davinci Code", "The South Beach Diet", and the box set of "Wings."
6.5.2009 7:26pm
ChrisTS (mail):
Some book additions:

2 by H. G. Wells: Tono Bungay and The Holy Terror

The Squatter's Tale - Ike Oguine
6.5.2009 7:27pm
Two other films critical to understanding the 20th century: Being John Malkovich and Airplane 2
6.5.2009 7:30pm
Jim Copland (www):
My picks for non-American fiction:
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
A Passage to India, E.M. Forster (making up for omitting India above)
The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass
The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The Way the Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald (Canadian, effectively captures Nazis, Cold War, Space Age, pop culture)
6.5.2009 7:32pm
New Pseudonym:
It's certainly good to read Alles Still am Westen, (I have not), but as a movie from the same era and in the same mood, I think The Grand Illusion is superior to All Quiet on the Western Front.

Although Apocolypse Now is mentioned most frequently as a Viet Nam movie, I believe it is behind Platoon, and both are inferior to Full Metal Jacket. The Deer Hunter is the best choice for the "home front."
6.5.2009 7:35pm
Eric Henriksen:
Films in no particular order:

Amores perros (Love's a Bitch) directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Ran directed by Akira Kurosawa

The Sweet Hereafter directed by Atom Egoyan

Full Metal Jacket directed by Stanley Kubrick

Ulysses' Gaze directed by Theodoros Angelopoulos

And honorable mention for:

Andrey Rublyov directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

My original list of novels consisted entirely of non Americans.
6.5.2009 7:39pm

1) "Seven Gothic Tales" by Isak Dinesen (Karen von Blixen-Finecke)
2) "Things Fall Apart" Chinua Achebe
3) "1984" George Orwell
4) "All Quiet on the Western Front" Erich Maria Remarque
5) "Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories" by Thomas Mann
6.5.2009 7:41pm
i agree about apocalypse now. it's a great movie, but it's really not that much about vietnam. after all, it's heart of darkness reset IN vietnam.

full metal jacket is better, i agree.
6.5.2009 7:44pm

"Das Leben der Anderen" ("The Lives of Others")

I second this one. It would go well with "Good Bye Lenin!" as a double-feature.

On the other hand, "anything by Borges" seems terribly sloppy. Borges is as removed from the realities of his century as he is brilliant.

I disagree, although it would be hard to pick something from his work as directly explanatory.
6.5.2009 7:51pm
guy in the veal calf office (mail) (www):
Fiction for High Schoolers? These are what I remember from that time, the books that have stayed with me:

Primo Levy, If This is a Man
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Albert Camus, The Stranger
George Orwell, 1984 or Animal Farm.
Kurt Vonnegut (more alien than American), Breakfast of Champions

I didn't read him back then, but VS Naipul has some great, great books about the displaced feeling of living in european societies in the 20th century. Appropriate for High School.

Films: The Battle for Algiers, Fellini's Satyricon.
6.5.2009 7:55pm
Films, American Politics:
1. All The President's Men
2. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
3. Good Night And Good Luck
4. Being There

WWI, WWII, Holocaust, Vietnam, Atom Bomb, Cold War
1. Paths of Glory
2. Lawrence of Arabia
3. Dr. Strangelove
4. Thirteen Days
5. Schindler's List
6. Full Metal Jacket
7. Apocalypse Now
8. Judgment At Nuremberg
9. The Fog of War (McNamara documentary)

Great Depression, Civil Rights, Race and Gender Relations
1. Malcolm X
2. To Kill A Mockingbird
3. Milk
4. Disclosure
5. Cinderella Man

1. Forrest Gump
2. Traffic
3. Hoosiers
4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
5. The Devil Wears Prada
6. Citizen Kane
7. Wargames
8. Goodfellas
9. Boogie Nights
10. A Christmas Story
11. Almost Famous

1. Bloody Sunday
2. JFK
3. Casablanca
4. Letters from Iwo Jima
6.5.2009 7:56pm

The Magnificent Ambersons
The Right Stuff
Plenty (The end of colonialism)
Schindler's List
To Live (China from the civil war through the Cultural Revolution.)

If Dekalog is considered as one movie, it would replace Schindler's List, since it also deals with the Holocaust, as well as computers, the family, love, and death.
6.5.2009 8:03pm
Jeff Dege (mail):
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
6.5.2009 8:34pm
Richard A. (mail):
Doesn't anyone here know that Stanley Kubrick was an American?
6.5.2009 9:28pm

1) Its a Wonderful Life
2) Patton
3) The Third Man/Deer Hunter/The Ugly American
4) Taxi Driver
5) Office Space

The whole trajectory of what Americans thought of America-basically a long decline from a small town sense of home, and US nobility/triumphalism in WWII, into gritty and corrupting international involvement and cynicism, to final boring absurdity.

6.5.2009 9:31pm
John kmm (mail):
6.5.2009 9:44pm
I'm kind of at a loss for WWII...
One that hasn't been mentioned, but is a personal favorite on several levels:
Saving Private Ryan.
6.5.2009 9:45pm
New Pseud,

Did you mean to say Im Westen nichts Neues? I can't find anything by the German title you give.
6.5.2009 9:51pm
David Matthews (mail):
I'd try to pick some fiction off of required reading lists from around the globe (just to have some commonality with students from elsewhere in the world)

Here are a few I can think of:

1. My Memories of Old Beijing (or Peking), by Lin Haiyin
2. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
3. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
4. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (just because it's my favorite)
5. Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

The list is huge, isn't it?
6.5.2009 9:59pm
David Matthews (mail):
Oops, 20th Century. Sorry, strike Dostoyevsky....
6.5.2009 10:01pm
"Serious" western art committed suicide (hopefully temporarily) in 1914, leaving the field open for:

Non-American fiction:

"The Lord of the Rings" and associated literature, Tolkien
"The Foundation" series, Asimov
"Brave New World", Huxley
"The Dispossessed", Le Guin
"The Stars My Destination", Alfred Bester.
6.5.2009 10:12pm :
I'll add a vote for "Das Boot." Famous yet still hugely underappreciated.

Too bad Kubrick's a Yank, because "Paths of Glory" is one of the best movies ever made.
6.5.2009 10:33pm
A lot of you are mentioning Achebe, and rightly so. However, his work is more pertainant to the first half of the 20th century. For the second half, Wizard of the Crow (Ngugi wa Thiong'o) is at least worth considering.
6.5.2009 10:40pm
Bob Montgomery (mail):
I'll revisit my list (above) with some explanation:

Lawrence of Arabia - WWI, plus it gives a picture of life outside of Europe/America. And, you know, Peter O'Toole.

The Sting, a nice picture of the Depression era, and a little more fun than The Grapes of Wrath.

Schindler's List - WWII and the holocaust.

The Apartment - post-WWII life. Really captures the "company man" feel. Other good ones for the post-war era would be The Godfather, A Christmas Story.

Heat - captures the 80s/90s reasonably well: cops, drugs, guns, with Pacino and De Niro bellowing at each other. Explains or at least depicts the rise of paramilitary-style police SWAT teams.
6.5.2009 11:15pm
zuch (mail) (www):
Easy: Lars von Trier's films. In one sitting.

6.5.2009 11:19pm
ll (mail):
Gentleman's Agreement, perhaps as a double feature with To Kill a Mockingbird

Black Book (Dutch, about WW2 in the Netherlands)

Osama (Afghan, about a little girl in Talibanland)

The Best Years of Our Lives

WW2 action movies: The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far
6.5.2009 11:43pm
David Matthews (mail):

6. "Death and the King´s Horseman" (a play) by Wole Soyinka.

That's a fantastic choice.

Wizard of the Crow (Ngugi wa Thiong'o) is at least worth considering.

Also a fantastic choice.
6.5.2009 11:44pm
My five works of fiction were all non-American:

Albert Camus, The Fall.
Franz Kafka, The Trial.
George Orwell, 1984.
Erich Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front.
Sir Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children.

One Frenchman (Albert Camus); one Czech (Franz Kafka); one German (Erich Remarque); and two Englishmen (George Orwell and Sir Salman Rushdie, although Sir Salman was born in India).

I was wondering why American authors don't seem to me to so well explain the 20th century, which after all supposedly was "the American century." I think the main reason is that, most of main events chiefly took place out of the US, although the US generally took an important and influential part in them. World War I and II were largely fought in Europe and, in the latter case, Asia. The confrontation between East and West in the Cold War was most visible in Europe, divided by the Iron Curtain.

Of course, this list is inevitably subjective.
6.6.2009 12:02am
6.6.2009 12:30am
Richard A:

Doesn't anyone here know that Stanley Kubrick was an American?

It's the five films and five non-American books of fiction. The films, it seems, can be from anywhere.
6.6.2009 12:31am
PeterWimsey (mail):
Kafka's German, although he lived in Prague.
6.6.2009 12:39am

I'll only bid one movie - "Who Shot Liberty Valence?" - because it shows how the roughnecks make all possible for the intellectual class, yet receives nothing in return.

The good-hearted cowboy, John Wayne, saves the day when the naive Eastern lawyer collides with corrupt power. In exchange, the lawyer takes the girl, wins elective office and achieves fame and fortune. The cowboy, having lost his girl to the lawyer, retreats off stage.

The only unrealistic feature is the lawyer's sense of guilt. These days, the chattering class hires themselves - lawyers, reporters, academics, etc. - to accuse the roughnecks of torture or pollution or intolerance or hate crimes, but only after the cities have been built, the enemies have been crushed, the children educated, or the drugs have been developed. The accusations, of course, are periodically halted to let the roughnecks rebuild society so that the chattering class can smash it again.

'Shane' as well as 'Patton' and 'Blimp' celebrate the roughnecks, without indicting the chattering class. Many other movies, such as 'The Godfather,' 'Wall Street' and Rifenstahl's work, are chattering-class attacks on the roughneck builders.
6.6.2009 12:42am
Absolutely must include "La grande illusion" in any list of films.
6.6.2009 12:54am
American Psikhushka (mail):
Interesting mental exercise. Tried to get some that weren't mentioned already.

Five Films:

Malcolm X
The Pianist
Killing Fields

Five Non-American Works of Fiction

1984 - Orwell
Animal Farm - Orwell
Brave New World - Huxley
All Quiet on the Western Front - Remarque
King Rat - James Clavell

(Sheesh, I really haven't read much non-anglosphere fiction. Or much fiction at all recently.)
6.6.2009 2:07am
Fact Checker:
I'll add a couple films that I don't think have been mentioned, both Mel Gibson movies before he turned into a bizarre combination of a Hollywood jerk and a religious fanatic:

Gallipoli (which can be substituted for All Quiet on the Western Front)
The Year of Living Dangerously

Also Downfall

As for fiction. For post-cold war Western angst, I don't think anyone captures it better than LeCarre, The Constant Gardener or The Honuorable Schoolboy.
6.6.2009 3:47am
Reg (mail):
I bolded the ones I haven't seen yet.

I just realized that none of my favorite books are written by Americans.

1. Man who Was Thursday - Chesterton

2. Brave New World - Huxley
3. Animal Farm - Orwell
4. Hammer of God - Bo Giertz
5. Journey to the End of Night - Celine


Lawrence of Arabia
Dr. Zhivago
Schindler's List
Mississippi Burning
Star Wars
6.6.2009 4:49am
Gee, you'd think the world curled up and died in the 20th century, instead of having the greatest explosion of wealth and poverty elimination the world's ever known. Sure, there were nasty wars and plenty of awfulness, but every century had this: was WWII really that much worse than the Napoleonic Wars + the wars of the Taiping Rebellion (which killed about 25M Chinese)?

I'd have some dystopic stuff in the list, but I'd also have something hopeful as well.
6.6.2009 5:54am
Russell Dees (mail):
Lots of good suggestions, but I can't believe no one has mentioned Rules of the Game and Jules and Jim - much as I love Paths of Glory, they resonate more for the first half of the century, at any rate.
6.6.2009 6:05am
Russell Dees (mail):
Can't believe I forgot Grand Illusion.
6.6.2009 6:15am
pedro (mail):
Shoot! I was tired and sleepy last night: I meant "Master and Margarita" was an interesting choice, not "Death and Margarita."
6.6.2009 7:41am
Sarah Rolph (mail) (www):
The Best Years of Our Lives should definitely be on the movie list. For a creepy double bill, you could pair it with Coming Home. Compare and contrast (and weep).

Another cynical suggestion: Kramer vs Kramer

I also strongly agree with Casablanca.

Chinatown and Rocky both seem almost right, but perhaps a bit too universal. (Aren't corruption and ambition things that happen in every century?)
6.6.2009 8:09am
rosetta's stones:
Wow, in all our "Paths of Glory" and Orwellian gravitational bending, we've all forgotten about "The Wizard of Oz".

If you don't powerfully see yourself in that film, in multiple places, you didn't live in the 20th Century, or any other I suspect.
6.6.2009 10:00am
I, Claudius. I would recommend both the book and BBC series adaptation.
6.6.2009 10:42am

"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich"
"Atlas Shrugged"
6.6.2009 11:57am
Sarah Rolph (mail) (www):
Wizard of Oz! Indeed. The relgious text of my childhood.

Another movie suggestion: The 400 Blows, by Francois Truffaut. Pair with Catcher in the Rye. I hadn't thought of the comparison until this exercise, but both are rambling, lyrical, emotional tales that highlight the uncertainty of youth in a way that does seem highly characteristic of the 20th century. Is it true to say that our century invented adolescence? Maybe add On the Road to this discussion--we also invented the perpetual adolescent!

I guess the list will look very different depending on how much you want to look at the 20th century through the lens of the West (as I see my picks clearly do) and how much you want to make it worldwide.

I hope you'll do a follow-up letting us know what you selected and why, and how this question came into being!
6.6.2009 12:57pm
CheckEnclosed (mail):
Haven't seen Breaker Morant mentioned yet, so ...
6.6.2009 1:45pm
AlanP (mail):
Given the importance of sports in understanding American life, I'm a little surprised there are no sports movies listed.

Just a few for consideration.

Bull Durham/Slapshot (Life in the minor leagues)

Hoop Dreams (Semi Documentary) Fast Break (On the same theme but fictional)

Semi Tough

Sugar (A new movie about the new immigration to the US)

The Wrestler

I like the above because each, in its own way, shows the underside and/or struggle to succeed as opposed to the numerous Biopics i.e Pride of the Yankee, Knute Rockne, All American, Jim Thorpe, All American that portray a sanitized version of the protagonists.
6.6.2009 4:07pm
@Classmember: I just watched "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" from your recommendation—they don't make movies like that any more! Good pick.
6.6.2009 4:26pm
Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Doblin (book, although the 20+hour movie/tv series is superb).
6.6.2009 4:57pm
The River Temoc (mail):
I would suggest the following films:

Thirteen Days
Lawrence of Arabia
Der Untergang (Downfall), or possibly Judgment at Nurnberg
6.6.2009 5:07pm
The River Temoc (mail):
One more that got truncated:

Goodbye Lenin
6.6.2009 5:08pm
The River Temoc (mail):
On fiction, in the earlier thread, several people, myself included, recommended One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Another suggestion to represent the downfall of the Soviet Union, however, might be the mildly feminist work "A Week Like Any Other" (Nedelya kak Nedelya) by Natalia Baranskaya, which is not about dissidents, but about the humdrum, dreary life of middle-class Soviet citizens: endless queuing, consumer goods shortages, child care woes, etc.

The dissident movement had its place in the end of communism, of course, but I would suggest that ultimately the dissatisfaction of the average Soviet citizen during the era of stagnation had much more to do with it.
6.6.2009 5:09pm
Lewis Maskell (mail):

The Longest Day
2001: A Space Odyssey
Blazing Saddles

Downfall and The Longest Day should be obvious enough. 2001 and Bladerunner present two different sides of where people imagined the twentieth century might end up. Blazing Saddles tells you vital stuff about Amerca of the 60s and 70s, and about 20th century racism in general, and also about American humour.

Books of fiction by non-US authors

Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre
Captain Corelli's Mandolin, by Louis de Berniers
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh

Day in the Life should be self-explanatory, so should Trainspotting. Mandolin tells of living through, and after, a war. Tinker Tailor is about the distrust of the spy game that so dominated the Cold war. And Lord of the Rings - well, it has had such a dominant effect on Western culture (and non-Western), and is so deeply rooted in the triumphs and tragedies of the first half of this century, that to not include it seems to me to very somewhat odd.
6.6.2009 7:07pm
Harry Eagar (mail):

'Black Shack Alley' (sometimes 'Sugar Cane Alley'). Non-whites use a white-invented medium to tell their story. The 'actors' were all or almost all amateurs. Note the scene around the fire, all one take -- remarkable.

'Red Snow' Guy Madison leads capitalist Eskimos against communist Eskimos as they battle in the snow over who shall control the means of production. Made at the urging of Sen. Richard Nixon.

If serious, one of the scariest films ever made. If not, then one of the funniest. I cannot tell.

'My Dinner with Andre' In no other century would anyone have watched this.
6.6.2009 7:33pm
It's not non-American and it's not fiction, but if you're looking for the one document that explains the 20th Century that most subverts the rest of the education these students are likely to receive, try this.
6.6.2009 8:28pm
It occurs to me as the 65th anniversary of D-Day winds down that Band of Brothers probably reflects the GI's perspective on WWII -- and why we were fighting -- better than just about anything else out there. That's assuming a multi-part small-screen series counts as "film," of course.

BoB certainly captures the era from the standpoint of the citizen-soldier better than, say, Patton does (FWIW, my father, who's still alive, served under Patton in North Africa and Sicily as an 18/19-year old GI, and really hated the movie. But he wasn't terribly fond of the General either, so I'm not sure what conclusion one should draw).
6.6.2009 10:41pm
Alan K. Henderson (mail) (www):
I think Team America: World Police belongs on the film list.
6.7.2009 12:25am
Law & History Student:
For the book list:

The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann
Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe
One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
6.7.2009 1:04am
I'm pretty sure that Things Fall Apart is set in the late 19th century.
6.7.2009 9:19am
"Son of the Revolution"
It's not fiction, but it's easily the most gripping, terrifying and heart-rending story ever told about China's Cultural Revolution. That it happens to be true is no strike against it.

"No Exit" by Sartre.
Existentialism defined so much of 20th century Europe (and beyond).

"Wise Blood" by Flannery O'Connor
American, of course, but a great example of the approach to religion in the modern era and a unique look at the mid-20th century American south. Also, a defining work in the grotesque style that dominated so much art in the 20th century and today.

"Wittgenstein" by Ray Monk
Again, not fiction. But it introduces one of the most important thinkers and colorful characters of the 20th century in a (fairly) accessible and thoroughly readable way.
6.7.2009 9:56am
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West explains European history for the first 40 years or so of the 20th Century better than anything else I have read. It is long, though, and the pro-British propaganda in the ending chapters will either make you cry or laugh.

Gulag Achipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will best explain the post-WWII period. Let the high school kids see what all the trendy socialist/communist crap they will get in college created when it was tried in Russia.

Let them watch a movie titled YOL if you can find it. It is about Turkish prisoners paroled for the holidays, and gives a riveting explanation of many problems faced by the muslim countries.

Something to explain Japanese imperialism through WWII, Chinese expansionism since then, would be good, but what?
6.7.2009 10:58am
Very late to the thread, but for American politics "Meet John Doe" is a better choice than "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

All the King's Men
All the President's Men
6.7.2009 1:44pm
Michael Alexander:
I only have one thing to add to the list, "The Quiet American" by Graham Greene. Mainly b/c Graham Greene is my favorite author and I think everybody should be exposed to Greene. Besides, a high schooler would immediately seem worldly if he or she could reference Greene in a conversation.
6.7.2009 5:15pm
Randy R. (mail):
Can't believe everyone forgot Metropolis by Fritz Lang. Although the film isn't really *about* the 20th century, it is more about the fears that the new century would hold.

I would also add the genre of the western as a whole -- the group of the best films of that era say a lot about American values of the 20th century.

Magnificant Ambersons is an inspired choice, because it shows the decline of a great family and their values of the late 19th century, and how harshly the 20th rejected those values.

Interestingly, few people mentioned any film noir, like Double Indemnity. Can't understand post WWII ennui without them.

The gangster films that started in the 30s and continue to this day: I guess I would start with White Heat and end with American Born Killers or anything by Tarantino. That whole arc slowly began to glamorize violence to the point where we have become almost completely innured to it. You can't understand America without having a good grounding the films that made a fetish of guns and violence.

Someone bemoaned the lack of films representing the good side of life, the exuberant materialism and that fact that after WWII, we could all focus on buying things we desire and wooing the one we choose. For that, I would nominate any Doris Day/Rock Hudson flick. They perfectly capture a slice of America that would soon vanish.

Surely one of the most influential films of the 60s, and critical for understanding it, Rebel without a Cause (even though it's from the 50s), and also Easy Rider. Rebel is the other bookend to the Doris Day numbers, because it says that all that materialism and striving and wanting it easy is just bunk, and that inspired the whole Baby Boomers to reject the blandness of Doris Day.

Others bemoaned the Depression, and oddly, the best films of that period actually avoided the issues, and provided escape. Once you understand the need for escape, the elegance of the Fred Astaire movies and other screwball comedies becomes clear.

But if you want to actually know about the Depression, I would nominate Miracle at Morgan Creek by Preston Sturges and most of his other films.

Citizen Kane! Not one mention? And yet its scope is the whole first half of the 20th century. It contains all the themes of innocence and optimism slowly degenerate into cynicism and corruption, while building (figuratively and actually) a new world.

I also nominate 2001: A Space Odyssy and Blade Runner as bookends to hope for the future, and the demise of that same future. Together, they say a lot about how our view of the future changed in just two decades.

Who forgot American Graffiti? It wasn't about the 50s; rather, it was about a nostagic longing for a supposedly simpler and more innocent time. Fantasy, of course, but just the sort of fantasy people wanted after the gritty realism of Easy Rider and Chinatown, and the upheavals of the 60s and early 70s.

The Last Picture Show was a look back in the opposite direction -- no nostalgia there! It was a gritty and hard look at what America was really like without the bobbie sox in the 50s. At the beginning of the 70s, American graffiti was for the dreamer, Show was for the realist.

Somewhere in between these two lies Picnic, about small town America, exposing its good and its bad side. Carousel is another, and perhaps Oklahoma! (The exclamation point is part of the title, BTW). Certainly the music of OK says a lot about how post WWII America viewed itself. But that's another topic.

To understand the 90s, let's look to all those Jane Austen adaptations. A quant look back to an even-further away time period. The Baby boomers were grown up and realizing that love and marriage isn't quite what they expected, and looked back for lessons from the master. Elegance, manners, fine china, fussy clothes -- the very opposite of what everyday life is like for Americans, and yet a yearning for all that. At least by women and gay men!

I have no idea what films could explain the 80s. I don't think anyone can. Pretty in Pink? Ugh. I think it is best summed up by Madonna actually. Too bad she never made a good film.
6.7.2009 7:24pm
Randy R. (mail):
Prof Anderson: I understand that you need to draw up a list for high schoolers. Why don't you ask THEM to draw up the list? I don't know the actual assignment, but if you are putting together a list and then having them watch five movies, why not have them research for themselves?

Let them identify what themes are common from the beginning of the 20th century and to the end. What five themese can they see? Some last only a period (Like the Depression), others, like guns and violence are virtually throughout the century. Once they have identified five themes, then they can set about finding movies that exemplify those themes. You could narrow it down to the top 20, and then let them vote on their five picks.

A lot more interesting than just handing them a list, I would gather....
6.7.2009 7:33pm
Sarah Rolph (mail) (www):
Great list, Randy R, and I like your suggestion, too! (Have the kids pick them. He could do a hybrid--give them these comments and let them figure out the list from that!)

For the 1980s, Saturday Night Fever and maybe also Working Girl.

I thought of Last Picture Show, as well. The book is even better than the movie (the movie is quite true to the book, and I think it's a great movie, but the book tells you more about how the characters think).
6.8.2009 10:21am
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (fiction, book)
El Laberinto Del Fauna (aka Pan's Laberynth, fiction, film)
Sophie Scholl's: The Last Days (non-ficiton, film)
Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, including The Hobbit (fiction, book)

The War of the Worlds (fiction, radio)
The Lost City (fiction, film)
To End All Wars (non-fiction, film)
6.8.2009 5:16pm
Oops. 20th century. Discard Vernes.
6.8.2009 5:19pm
Joyeux Noel (aka merry Christmas, non-fiction, film)
6.9.2009 10:11am
@Randy R.

I have no idea what films could explain the 80s.

River's Edge?
6.10.2009 11:51am

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