Does one film have the potential to change people’s beliefs, ideals, actions and behaviours, and impact culture, society and politics? There is substantial evidence (see below) to assume that it does – although with certain limitations. Just as Bambi (1942) cut deer-hunting in America by 80 percent the year after its release and It Happened One Night (1934) singlehandedly stopped most American men from wearing undershirts until the USA entered World War II in 1941, the story of Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) motivated Swiss bank guard Christoph Meili to become a whistle-blower about Swiss cooperation in the Nazi looting of Jewish funds during the Second World War. [See Robert Johnston’s Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (2006), pp. 25-39 for an extended discussion on the power of film. Johnston is a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.]
D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is widely credited with easing America’s return to segregation in the early 20th century and President Richard Nixon reportedly decided to invade North Vietnam after watching George C. Scott in Patton (1970) (see Rollins 2007, p. 6).
Another example is The China Syndrome, first released in the USA on March 16, 1979. In the film, a television reporter in California visits a nuclear power plant and accidentally witnesses a potential major a accident that could “render an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable”. (The film was directed by James Bridges, with Jane Fonda starring in the role of the reporter, along with Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon.) Just twelve days later, a major nuclear accident happened at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant in Pennsylvania.
The coincidence between these two events produced significant panic and a major shift in public opinion, which Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt term the “Jane Fonda Effect”. The accident at TMI was shown live on national news networks, and included shots which were uncannily like those from The China Syndrome. Although the TMI accident did not produce any deaths or injuries, it did – coming coincidentally with the release of a major film – cause a virtual halt in the production of nuclear power plants in the USA. In this case, the eerie coincidence of the film being released at the same time as the accident enormously magnified the potential impact of the film and was instrumental in a major shift of energy policy in the USA away from nuclear with a continued emphasis on coal and other fossil fuels. As Dubner and Levitt put it: “Anyone hunting for a global-warming villain can’t help blaming those power plants – and can’t help wondering about the unintended consequences of Jane Fonda” (see Dubner and Levitt 2007).
Films are creatures of their times, and when they are released can and will play a significant role not only in their relative box office success, but in the sort of cultural (as well as political – and in the case of The China Syndrome – economic and even ecological) impact which they have.
Movies have the power to motivate great actions by individuals and groups, and reflect the spirit of our times. The Nazis knew and understood this, and were the first political regime to use film as an extensive nation-building, values creation and propaganda tool. Within one week of the Nazi takeover of power in 1933, Goebbels had established a propaganda ministry with a major focus on film (see Tegel 2007, pp. 17-19). In 1933, Goebbels described film as “one of the most modern and far-reaching media that there is for influencing the masses today” (Leiser 1975, p. 47; also see Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film).
As Robert Johnston states: “Movies are life stories that both interpret us and are being interpreted by us. The power of film can change lives and communicate truth; it can reveal and redeem” (Johnston 2006, pp. 33-34).
Boorstein, Daniel J. (1961) The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Reprinted 1987. New York: Atheneum.
Dubner, Stephen J. and Levitt, Steven D. (2007) “The Jane Fonda Effect”, New York Times Magazine, September 16, 2007. www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/magazine/16wwln-freakonomics-t.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
Gabler, Neal (1999) Life The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. New York: Alfred A Knopf.
Johnston, Robert K. (2006) Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (2nd edition). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.
Kracauer, Siefried (1947) From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Revised and expanded edition edited by Leonardo Quaresima (2004). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Leiser, Erwin (1975) Nazi Cinema, translated by Gertrud Mander and David Wilson. New York: Collier.
Marsh, Clive and Ortiz, Gaye (1997) “Introduction”, in Clive Marsh and Gaye Ortiz (editors), Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 1-6.
Martin, Joel W. And Ostwalt, Conrad E. Jr (editors) (1995) Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth and Ideology in Popular American Film. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Rollins, Peter C. (2007) “Introduction: Film and History: Our Media as a New Frontier”, in Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film, Richard Francaviglia and Jerry Rodnitzky, editors. College Station, Texas: Texas A & M University Press, pp. 1-10.
Tegel, Susan (2007) Nazis and the Cinema. London and New York: Continuum Books.
(This is an extract from my PhD thesis currently in progress.)