What Was the Most Influential Film in History?

A big question

Graham Roumieu

Allison Schroeder, screenwriter, Hidden Figures

Star Wars gave us Leia: a “princess” who defied the stereotype as a kick-ass rebel fighter. She changed the definition of a heroine. And as the revolutionary special effects transformed our imaginations, the story set in a galaxy far, far away reminded us of our own world’s battle between good and evil—one that never ends but must always be fought.

Anna Biller, filmmaker

Mae West’s witty dialogue, revealing gowns, purring voice, and sexual innuendos in She Done Him Wrong (1933) made her an icon of a type of frank female sexuality that would define the early 1930s and the precensorship era, and would inspire concepts of high camp and female sexual independence in cinema for decades to come.

Howard A. Rodman, president, Writers Guild of America, West

It’s hard to name a film of more expansive reach than Lang and von Harbou’s Metropolis (1927). A work of magisterial surrealism that both predicted and incarnated the rest of the 20th century, the film cast its long chiaroscuro shadow over everything from the Third Reich to cyberpunk.

Graham Roumieu

Miriam Segal, managing director and producer, Good Films

Singin’ in the Rain perfectly illustrates how an impeccable script, brilliant performances, and timeless characters combine to entertain all ages worldwide.

Ty Burr, film critic, The Boston Globe

In American history, it has to be D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915 )—the first cinematic blockbuster and a revisionist racist artifact that helped resurrect the Ku Klux Klan, led to a fresh wave of violence, bolstered myths about the antebellum South, and cemented the false image of the black male “savage” in the white cultural mainstream. One hundred years on, the movie still has far too much to answer for.

Tom McCarthy, director, Spotlight

The Great Train Robbery (1903), directed by Edwin S. Porter, was one of the first films to combine multiple story lines into a narrative structure. The film also used innovative camera and editing techniques that are still very much a part of our cinematic vocabulary today. All of that in 12 minutes—and it was commercially successful to boot!

Laura Mulvey, film and media-studies professor, Birkbeck, University of London

An Italian neorealist film from the 1940s: Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) or Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). The films were played across the world, demonstrating the power and immediacy of location shooting; they influenced the French New Wave, Brazilian Cinema Novo, and other new-film movements.

Josephine Decker, actor and filmmaker

Ingmar Bergman's Persona features the tightest blend of narrative and poetics. A nurse and her patient boil in each other’s personal histories until their two identities steam into a fog of form and formlessness. One of them never walks out of the movie, and neither do we.

Reader Responses

Nancy Wolske Lee, Marietta, Ohio

In 26.6 seconds and 486 frames, the Zapruder film brought a brutal assassination into our living rooms and the world to its knees in shock and grief.

Graham Roumieu

Tim Cox, Chicago, Ill.

Jaws—the first summer blockbuster—changed the business of filmmaking, gave us an iconic score, and continues to make us fearful of ocean swimming even though we know better.

David Baker, DeLand, Fla.

The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola’s Corleone family represents the American dream, with all of its pros and cons.

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