Defining The Classic Film: How We Value Cinema

by Paul Batters from Silver Screen Classics

Not too long ago, I was enjoying dinner with friends, when the subject of cinema came up. The conversation jumped back and forth between favourite films, actors and actresses, the Oscars and what was on at the cinemas. The word ‘classic’ film was thrown around – one person talked about a ‘classic’ film from the 80s, another spoke of a recent release being a ‘classic and so on. I started to think about my own personal view of what is a classic film. It differed at varied degrees with the people at the table.

So I posed the question – how do we define what is ‘classic film’?

We all paused for a moment and pondered the question. Interestingly enough, a range of responses were given:

“..films that are important to you”.

“…from the Golden Years of Hollywood…the old black and whites…”

“…like ‘classic literature’, films we call classic but have never seen”. (I liked that one)

“..movies that mean something and are special to everybody”.

There were other responses similar to the above and whilst I could connect with some of those answers, others left me in opposition to what was called a classic. Examples of classic films were also thrown around and the conversation collapsed into accusations of poor taste and lack of judgement (all in an exceedingly friendly way, of course)

Reflecting on this afterwards, it was clear that what makes a classic film is our perception of its’ value – and audiences and individuals value films in a variety of ways. Indeed, the ‘success’ of a film is valued using different measuring sticks.

Counting the dollars

The first and most obvious is monetary or financial value. Let’s face it, filmmaking is about money – we call it the ‘film industry’ or ‘the movie business’. A film goes into ‘production’. Cinema has been about making money from its’ very inception. The more money made, the more movies can be made. The term ‘blockbuster’ suggests the big movie that everyone is going to see and is making a ridiculous amount of money – some could be called ‘classics’ whereas it is debatable whether some deserve to considered as such. Judging a film to be a classic by its’ financial success is, I believe, folly. Think The Wizard Of Oz (1939), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) or even a more modern cult-classic like Bladerunner (1982). All three either made a small profit or were a financial flop. Yet, they usually end up on ‘classic film lists’. Men In Black (1996) and Rambo: First Blood Part Two (1985) were massive hits in their day and made ridiculously more money than the former three on theatrical release– but classics? Doubtful!

           gone_with_the_wind_sm    Ben_hur_1959_poster  starwars-77poster-illustrated

Yet blockbusters such as Gone With The Wind (1939), Ben Hur (1959) and Star Wars (1977) certainly made money and are considered classics. The first two would also share in a swag of Oscars, with Ben Hur (1959) holding the record for most Oscars until it was equalled by James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) – a film that this writer feels should not be mentioned in the same breath as Ben Hur. All three are still watched by millions and have their place in the pantheon of classic films for a myriad of reasons.

But Is It Art?

The critics and academics value film markedly different. They see film as art and judge a film’s value by its’ artistic merits. In some ways, the critics and academics are the gatekeepers of the intrinsic worth of a film, dissecting it to find the deeper meaning and workings of what the film-makers have created. – film technique, the work of the director, the actors and all those involved in the process are disseminated. As mere mortals, we often turn to their expertise to get the heads up on whether it’s worth our hard-earned dollars to go to the cinema (assuming of course that no-one reading this downloads illegally). As often as they are correct (Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael et al), they are equally just as mistaken. We can all name those films that the critics dumped on yet have become iconic and/or box office hits. Additionally, there are movies they hailed yet barely made a squeak with audiences.

And The Award Goes To…

How we value film is also shaped by the perception of how it is valued – it is awarded or recognised by peers through formal ceremony. For example, in both mainstream and social media, around lunch tables, at bus-stops and on trains to and from work, there is discussion over who will win the Academy Award for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director etc. Bets are placed on who will win and there is great pomp and circumstance that accompanies the ceremony. There will be discussion afterwards regarding who deserved the awards and the executive producers know that their film will now have an extra boost, even gravitas, in terms of its financial and critical value.

We perceive that if films are award winners then they must be good.

Yet awards are not necessarily the perfect gauge for what will be valued as a classic film. Films we consider as classic, in quite a number of cases, were not even nominated let alone present as contenders. In popular culture, both Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) have left their indelible mark in one way or another – can you name the films that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1931? (For the record, the winner was Cimmaron, a western – which has not held up over time, despite the critics’ high praise at the time). The Shawshank Redemption (1995) gained Oscar nominations but no awards and even some of the critics were tough on it. Yet how many people out there will rate it as a favourite? Perhaps even a classic?

Academy-Awards-19591  Oscars-redcarpet--z

And as we know, the Academy Awards, for example, have been plagued with favouritism, nepotism, financial pressures and a great deal of lobbying from powerful figures and companies. So should we rely on awards to tell us what is a classic film?

Additionally, there are endless lists of ‘100 Best Films’, compiled by a range of distinguished bodies, individuals and media. In many cases, the lists are likewise distinguished and deserve recognition – although I feel it is a difficult, even futile, exercise to rank films. In many cases, interestingly enough, the number of awards won, has not necessarily played a role in determining what films make the cut on a ‘best films list’.

A galaxy of stars

Names with ‘star quality’ are often considered the markers of what makes a classic film. Indeed, Hollywood has long established this as the sure-fire audience getter. In the years of the silent era, film-makers knew that the name of the main ‘star’ was enough to secure great success – the names of Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino are still known to us. Yet there were other names just as big yet today forgotten such as Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Wallace Reid, Olive Thomas and Harold Lloyd that are less known today or forgotten yet meant serious success at the box office. Little has changed – the movie business still markets its’ films by who’s starring in it. Even directors were and are still star material, whose names insinuate a film worthy of success. The name of Cecil B De Mille above a film title would immediately suggest as such. Yet even he had his flops.

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Again, there is a great danger in assuming that a classic film is one, which has a cast of stars, a star director, star producer and a star script-writer (yes, it’s possible to have a star script-writer – well, I’m hoping so!). Again, we can all think of films that had these characteristics and failed to ignite an audience and are forgotten. There are other films that have become classics that had none of the ‘star quality’ by which we often value a film.

And there’s the rub (for the film industry at least)– for what touches our hearts and souls at their very depths and are planted there to sustain our spirits all our lives cannot be qualified by such a formula. Thankfully, the very failure of the formula as a business plan for movie making is enough proof.

Classics across genre

Films can be considered a classic within a genre – think classic Westerns or classic horror. There are ‘cult classics’ as well and even films so bad they’re good a la ‘Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1956) and our own personal ‘classics’ (we all have our guilty pleasures – taste not withstanding!). All may be worthy of a place but can they ‘break through’ genre and be universally classic for everyone? The answer from some may be – who cares? And that may necessitate further discussion at a later date. At the risk of evoking the wrath of some, I will venture to suggest that a film would have to break from being strictly a ‘horror classic’ and drop the adjective in front – to be considered a classic film in the purest sense. Evil Dead (1981) is a cult-classic and arguably a horror classic but it simply does not break through into being a universal classic and never will. High Noon (1954) is obviously on a higher plane and while technically a ‘western’, transcends into something not bound by genre and reaches us all – despite a simple plot with a greater complexity underpinning the story.

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Give it time!

 Quite often, the longevity of a film and the question whether it stands the test of time is also bandied about as a criterion for what makes a classic. On the surface, this makes perfect sense – the suggestion that a film can still be ‘watchable’ to a modern audience and that they still have something to say in a modern context.

Yet this suggestion does the innate quality and value of a film a great disservice. Whilst understandable that we will look at a film from our own context, which is unavoidable, the appreciation of an art-form must also be considered through other contexts, readings and interpretations. The inherent value of D.W Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation (1914), Intolerance (1916) and Broken Blossoms (1919) cannot be over-stated; not to mention the many other films that he made. Every director today owes so much to the great man – as it was Griffith who not only put up the canvas but expanded the palette – creating not only the camera angles that are the stock techniques of any director but showed how story could be told on film. Griffith’s work still fascinates in big part due to its’ historical value and the appreciation for his work in the formative years of cinema. And of course – as art.

D.W.-Griffith-660x330

Interestingly, Intolerance was a failure at the box office at the time of its’ release and there are numerous reasons why. Audiences and critics were not overtly thrilled. Yet time has give it the respect that it deserves. Time allows an outstanding wine, to improve with age, to develop character and depth. The classic film becomes so in the same way. The rubbish turns to vinegar and sours – no matter how much of it sells to the public.

So what makes it a classic?

The appreciation of classic film and understanding what defines it means we all need to expand our horizons and go beyond the safe harbour of what we know. If our ships do not set sail to discover the new and take risks in doing so, we learn nothing and our understanding of film is limited. It often saddens me when I hear people say, ‘I don’t like foreign films because I hate reading subtitles” or “Black and white films are boring”. To paraphrase Scorsese in his advice to film students – study the old masters and expand the canvas.

Undoubtedly, film is valued because of what it provides to us – as individuals and as a community. Film allows us to transcend the ordinary and the banal, the boring and the normal. It can even transcend our own contexts, which will always influence our connection to a film. Whilst the element of escapism is obviously present, it is more than that – we form a relationship with film. We step into history, we fight the good fight, we live out dreams and fantasises but we also reveal and bring forth our hopes. We stand with soldiers in a trench about to throw ourselves into a futile battle. We watch a lost love leave on train as the rain falls. We cry out against the injustice of a people enslaved and watch evil at its’ worst as it sends humans into the gas chamber. We absorb the victory of the individual against all odds or a people overcome adversity. And all the while we project ourselves into those places. Film tears down the barriers we construct to display raw emotions but also to provoke us to think and dwell on the human experience. In the darkened theatre or even on the lounge at home, we also share in that experience with fellow humans. There is a great power to this, not so easily achieved and even then in a narrow field of opportunity. Film provides that wonderful opportunity.

When film does provide that opportunity, when it has an impact beyond its’ own context that can be appreciated and celebrated and when as art it inspires us, then we have a classic. Though important, ‘standing the test of time’ is not enough – because sometimes we need to meet that film half-way. But film does need time and longevity to imbed itself and become part of the cultural memory. The passing of time plays its’ role in determining what makes a classic film.

In the end, the story is what will grab us and we may emerge from that viewing (no matter how many times we view it) a different person who has gained something new. If film does this for us, then it’s in that capacity that film has it’s true value – and can and should be deemed a classic.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

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4 thoughts on “Defining The Classic Film: How We Value Cinema

  1. Interesting yes many interpretations of what is a classic film. For me it’s a film that stands out through time and liked for example gone with wind Casablanca back to future psycho Gandhi note book etc

    Liked by 1 person

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