A film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, Roger Ebert is best known for his appearances on national television’s long-running Siskel and Ebert at the Movies (later Ebert and Roeper). Through three and a half decades, he has reviewed more than two hundred new films every year. Many of his newspaper reviews have been collected in books that have become popular film guides. The present book, however, has nothing to do with these earlier collections. Its one hundred essays are derived from more than 150 newspaper columns on films of the past that Ebert began writing in the late 1990’s. He wrote the essays to help call attention to the history of films, which he believes is badly neglected in college film courses, and makes the implicit argument that modern films suffer from a lack of historical perspective among the people who make them.
These essays contrast with Ebert’s regular film reviews in having been written after repeated viewings of the films over many years and in being freed of many of the traditional constraints of film reviewing, such as having to be careful not to reveal too much plot detail. Here, even more than in his reviews of contemporary films, Ebert’s opinions on what makes films important emerge. In general, he is more interested in moods and feelings than in facts and details and is not bothered by a lack of story. His essay on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) offers a clear example of his preferences. This World War I epic is probably best remembered for its larger-than- life characters and its dramatic battle scenes, but what Ebert most likes about it is its “quiet, empty passages, the sun rising across the desert, the intricate lines traced by the wind in the sand.”
Ebert has a particular love of black-and-white films, which account for 60 percent of the films covered in this book. Similarly, about 60 percent of the films are American-made, with the rest coming from only eight other countries—most notably France. Chronologically, the films range from Broken Blossoms (1919) to Fargo (1996), with a median year of 1959. About two-thirds of the films were made before Ebert became a film critic; this is not surprising, since his preferences tend toward older films. Nevertheless, the chronological distribution of titles is impressively even between the 1920’s and the 1970’s. Numbers for the last two decades of the twentieth century drop off significantly, however. Part of this drop-off must be due to Ebert’s generally lower regard for recent films. However, the very newness of those films also has given him little time to put them in perspective.
One of the chief pleasures of reading The Great Movies is being repeatedly challenged to consider what makes any film “great.” Ebert himself is not dogmatic on this point, as he recognizes that film viewing is such a highly personal experience that it is foolish to attempt to enumerate “the” greatest films of all time. Moreover, critical views are constantly changing. He points out that three years after The Bicycle Thief (1949) was made, an international poll of filmmakers and critics ranked it the greatest film of all time. A decade later, the film had sunk to sixth place on the list, and by the next decade it had dropped off the list altogether. In any case, Ebert’s own criteria for movie greatness vary from film to film.
No clear patterns are apparent in the book’s selection of films. Virtually every genre is represented by at least a few titles, and there are essays on about a dozen silent films, one animated film (Pinocchio, 1940), and several documentaries, including Hoop Dreams (1994), a long-term study of young basketball players. Apart from a natural preponderance of films that might be classified as “dramas,” one genre that stands out is suspense and thrillers, which account for more than a dozen titles. If any popular film genre is underrepresented, it may be Westerns, whose only representatives here are My Darling Clementine (1946), a film about Wyatt Earp; Red River(1948), the classic film about a great cattle drive; and Sam Peckinpah’s violent The Wild Bunch(1969).
Ebert does not claim that the one hundred films discussed in this book are the greatest films of all time. He sees them merely as important “landmarks” in the first century of cinema history. He is concerned with the question of which films will still be watched a century or two from now. This, in turn, raises the question of what makes some films hold up better than others over time. A first test of his selection of titles, therefore, might be how well they engage the attention of modern audiences.
(The entire section is 1934 words.)