At least fourteen of the AFI 100 "Greatest American Films of the Century" had a Latter-day Saint actor, writer, producer, or main character.
There have been many thousands of feature films released since the medium began. One hundred is a very small sampling. Most of the contributions by Latter-day Saints to these films have been minor. There are not very many truly "Mormon films" on this select list. This is because Latter-day Saint directors and screenwriters have not made that very many films that, based on their artistic merit, deserve to be on such a list. Many of Hollywood's most celebrated films have featured Mormon actors and actresses, but it is really the writers, directors and producers who imbue films with an identifiable cultural and philosophical perspective.
Of course, the AFI list was formed in 1998, before the release of God's Army; Brigham City; The Other Side of Heaven; Titan A.E. and Galaxy Quest. If the AFI made the list today, would they maybe replace Fargo with Brigham City? Probably not . . .
Jewish Films in the AFI Top 100
As has been observed many times before, there are countless really fantastic films about the Jewish people, films which display outstanding artistic merit as well as moral content. To point this out isn't to suggest that there is some kind of competition between Jews and Latter-day Saints with regards to movie-making. But it is useful to point out that Jewish filmmakers have shown that it is entirely possible to make films about a religious and cultural minority which are accessible and appreciated by a broader audience.
Some of the films on the AFI Top 100 list were not only made by Jewish filmmakers, they were actually about Jewish themes and Jewish characters:
All fifty films on the list compiled by Kathryn Bernheimer (Top 50 Greatest Jewish Movies) are artistically great films. Bernheimer's list is restricted to films which deal with Jewish themes and feature at least one recognizably Jewish character. The list is made without regard to whether the filmmakers were Jewish, but most films on the list had a Jewish writer and/or director.
How appreciated are these Jewish films? One of the lowest ranked on Bernheimer's list is Shine at #46; it was nominated for 7 Academy Awards. Four of the films (mentioned above: Schindler's List; Annie Hall; Ben-Hur; The Jazz Singer) are on the AFI Top 100 List. Other great films on the list include such classics as Fiddler on the Roof; Funny Girl; Chariots of Fire and The Diary of Anne Frank.
Catholic Films in the AFI Top 100
Although the Hollywood movie industry was essentially created by Jews (and for a long time run by Jews), Catholic filmmakers also have quite an artistic track record. According to Catholic film critic William Park, "the three best directors who ever worked in Hollywood, Frank Capra, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock, were all practicing Catholics."
Park, of course, could be accused of understandable pro-Catholic bias in his selection of the "three great directors." But Catholic filmmakers have had an undeniable impact on the medium. Richard A. Blake, discussing his book Afterimage : The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers (Loyala Press, 2000), wrote:
I selected these six directors not only because they are the most prominent directors who happen to be in some sense Catholic, but also because they are such different kinds of Catholics. John Ford came from an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Maine, and while Alfred Hitchcock's Catholicism was also Irish, by virtue of his mother, it was tempered by a Church-of-England father, a London childhood and a successful career in England before he became an American Catholic. Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma embody the breadth of the notion of Italian-American Catholic. Scorsese went from a tough Italian neighborhood in Lower Manhattan to a prep seminary and Catholic high school in the Bronx. DePalma went to Presbyterian and Quaker schools in affluent sections of Philadelphia and identifies himself as having grown up a Presbyterian. Neither overtly religious, Frank Capra and Francis Coppola absorbed a kind of ethnic Catholicism through their Italian heritage, an embarrassment to Capra and a source of great pride in Coppola. There are all kinds of ways of being Catholic in America, and Hollywood's welcoming pews provided room for all of them.
Nine of the films on William Park's list of The Fifty Best Catholic Movies of All Time are also on the AFI Top 100 List. (But it should be noted that Park's Catholic list uses less stringent criteria than Bernheimer's Jewish list: Many of the films on Park's list do NOT feature any overtly Catholic characters. Some simply were made by Catholic filmmakers and feature "Catholic themes.")
Until Dutcher, Latter-day Saint filmmaking was divided into two main camps: 1) Church-produced and independenty-produced films and videos (usually shorter length educational/instructional films, with some feature-length dramas and musicals) which feature Latter-day Saint characters and themes; and 2) mainstream/national films by Latter-day Saint filmmakers, but which did not have identifiably Latter-day Saint characters and themes. Never the twain did meet. God's Army was truly the first feature film made by and about Latter-day Saints. (Well, there's also Corianton of 1931, if it's not just a myth...)
Glen A. Larson and Richard Rich visually alluding to temple marriages in Battlestar Galactica and The Swan Princess may have provided some wonderful "extras" for Latter-day Saint viewers, but such elements didn't make their films "about" Latter-day Saints. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. Steven Spielberg never made an overtly Jewish film until Schindler's List. Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility wasn't cast with Chinese people. The many animated features made by Don Bluth have been an incomparable contribution to cinema, both in terms of artistic excellence and morally grounded storytelling. Bluth's films have been filled with Latter-day Saint themes, but have nary a pioneer, Mormon heart surgeon or missionary in sight.
Describing the dearth of feature films about Latter-day Saint characters is not meant to diminish in any way the considerable contributions to film and American culture made by Latter-day Saint filmmakers who have worked on "mainstream" topics. No doubt many Latter-day Saint filmmakers have accomplished more good for their people, and society as a whole, by avoiding explicitly Latter-day Saint themes and characters. If Lino Brocka had only tried to make Filipino analogues of "Saturday's Warrior," he probably would never have achieved the national stature he did, and would not have been able to use his films to comment on important social issues and political corruption.
Some of the criticism directed at Latter-day Saint filmmakers for their "failure" to make Latter-day Saint-themed films has been overly harsh. Who is to say that a "mainstream" film seen mostly by non-members is less worthwhile than a film seen primarily by Latter-day Saints? I'm not sure any mere mortal can weigh the relative contributions to society made by In the Company of Men versus My Turn on Earth.
It would be inadvisable to single out individual filmmakers for what they haven't done. Nevertheless, it's absolutely true that audiences (Latter-day Saints as well as general public) are hungry for more Latter-day Saint-themed films such as God's Army and Brigham City.
As for the "Latter-day Saint films" on the AFI Top 100 list, here they are. (Admittedly, the Jewish films mentioned above are more Jewish, and the Catholic films above are more Catholic):
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. By my count, there is only one film on the AFI List about a Mormon character, and it's debatable to what extent that film deals with "Latter-day Saint themes." But at least there's one. Right in the middle of the list, at #50, is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This is one of the all-time great Westerns, yet it has a still-contemporary feel that makes it quite unlike any Western made before or since. And its title character is Butch Cassidy, a.k.a., Robert Leroy Parker, one of the most famous Mormons in American history. True, Butch/Leroy might not have been the best example one can find of Latter-day Saint virtue (obviously he forgot to "honor and sustain the law"). But as train robbers go, he seemed like a relatively nice one -- at least in the move. I'll take him over the ruthlessness of the "Godfather" any day.
That's about it for examples from the AFI Top 100 films which feature Latter-day Saint characters. But there are some other Latter-day Saint contributions to look at:
Casablanca. Yes, Casablanca. Voted by the AFI as the 2nd best film of all time. And it was written by the late, great Casey Robinson, from Logan, Utah. Well, at least partially. This film's screenplay wasn't exactly a one-man show. It was actually based on a play called "Everybody Comes to Rick's", written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The screenplay was written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch and, Casey Robinson. I'm not even sure Robinson was credited on screen. Robinson was Warner Brothers' highest paid screenwriter at the time and he was called in to work on the screenplay after it was already in good shape. He made additional changes, including making Ingrid Bergman's character (the female lead) a European instead of an American. (Good call.)
Schindler's List. Voted #9 on the AFI list. Ninth best film of all time. Not bad. And this film indisputably bears the mark of a Latter-day Saint filmmaker. It was none other than Jerry Molen who received the 1994 Academy Award for Best Picture as the producer of Schindler's List. Director Steven Spielberg certainly deserves the most credit for this important film, but Molen's contributions were vital.
It's a Wonderful Life. Voted #11 on the AFI list, and one of the favorite movies of all time for many people. The musical score was co-written by famed Latter-day Saint composer Leigh Harline. (Also, Charles Meakin, the character actor from Utah, had a small part in the film and the voice of Moroni Olsen can be heard in the film as an off-screen angel.)
West Side Story. Voted #41. One of the greatest Hollywood musicals ever made. Riff, the leader of the "Jets" street gang and the second most important male role, was played by Russ Tamblyn. This was one of his most memorable roles.
Snow White and Seven Dwarves. Voted #49. One of the great all time classic Disney feature films. Latter-day Saint composer Leigh Harline received an Academy Award nomination for this film's score. Harline, interestingly enough, was nominated for an Academy Award eight times, but won only twice: Best Score and Best Song for Disney's Pinocchio (1940). Another unforgettable contribution to this film was provided by Latter-day Saint actor Moroni Olsen, who provided the voice of the Magic Mirror.
Forrest Gump. Voted #71. Allen Hall (a Latter-day Saint and a BYU graduate) was the special effects supervisor for "Forrest Gump." Hall received an Academy Award for his work on the film. Al Harrington, the Latter-day Saint actor who played "Amaron" in The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd (2000), had a small part in Forrest Gump. (Very small part. He played a local anchorman.)
King Kong - AFI voted this film #43 on its list. Actress Fay Wray is primarily remembered for her role in this film -- the leading lady opposite a giant ape. The actress, who was born in Cardston, Alberta and lived in Arizona and then Utah before moving to Hollywood as a teenager. Fay Wray was indeed an ethnic Mormon, although she was never a churchgoing Latter-day Saint.
Gold Rush - Voted #77. Mack Swain, playing "Big Jim McKay", co-starred with Charlie Chaplin in this classic comedy. Swain, who had previously been one of the most popular comedic actors in the silent era in his role as the rotund "Ambrose", was born in Utah in 1876.
Those are the main ones, really. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Casablanca. Schindler's List. Star Wars. West Side Story. Gold Rush. Snow White and Seven Dwarves. American Graffiti. It's a Wonderful Life. A Latter-day Saint character, a writer, two producers, a few actors, and a composer/actor combination. Those are the only films out of the Top 100 on which I'd say there was an absolutely vital contribution by Latter-day Saints or people of Mormon ethnic background.
But I can think of a few other (smaller) Latter-day Saint contributions on a few of the other films in the Top 100:
#6. The Wizard of Oz - Latter-day Saint singer Rad Robinson, one of the King's Men quartet, provided the singing voice of the Munchkin coroner. Latter-day Saint actor/singer Delos Jewkes provided the voice of another Munchkin.
#10. Singin' in the Rain - Mormon actress Joi Lansing had a small part.
#22. 2001: A Space Odyssey - Colin Low, a Canadian Mormon from Cardston Alberta, won an Academy Award-winner for his film Universe. Stanley Kubrick said that Univese was a key influence for 2001, and he wanted to hire Low to work on the film's special effects.
#40. North by Northwest - The famous ending of this Hitchcock film takes place on the face of Mount Rushmore, which is a creation of Mormon sculptor Gutzon Borglum.
#55. The Sound of Music - Actress and singer Portia Nelson (from Brigham City, Utah) played the role of Sister Berthe.
60. Raiders of the Lost Ark - Well, Indiana Jones did live in Utah as a boy, but it would be a stretch to claim any Latter-day Saint influence on this film. (Harrison Ford is a half-Jewish supporter of Tibetan Buddhism, in case you're wondering.)
There are doubtlessly other Latter-day Saint actors and actresses who appeared in the AFI Top 100 Films, but these are all that I have information on at this time.
For reference, here is the full AFI Greatest 100 Movies list:
1. Citizen Kane
3. The Godfather
4. Gone with the Wind
5. Lawrence of Arabia
6. The Wizard of Oz
7. The Graduate
8. On the Waterfront
9. Schindler's List
10. Singin' in the Rain
11. It's a Wonderful Life
12. Sunset Boulevard
13. The Bridge on the River Kwai
14. Some Like it Hot
15. Star Wars
16. All About Eve
17. The African Queen
20. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
21. The Grapes of Wrath
22. 2001: A Space Odyssey
23. The Maltese Falcon
24. Raging Bull
25. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
26. Dr. Strangelove
27. Bonnie & Clyde
28. Apocalypse Now
29. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
30. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
31. Annie Hall
32. The Godfather, Part II
33. High Noon
34. To Kill A Mockingbird
35. It Happened One Night
36. Midnight Cowboy
37. The Best Years of Our Lives
38. Double Indemnity
39. Doctor Zhivago
40. North by Northwest
41. West Side Story
42. Rear Window
43. King Kong
44. Birth of a Nation
45. A Streetcar Named Desire
46. A Clockwork Orange
47. Taxi Driver
49. Snow White and Seven Dwarves
50. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
51. The Philadelphia Story
52. From Here to Eternity
54. All Quiet on the Western Front
55. The Sound of Music
57. The Third Man
59. Rebel without a Cause
60. Raiders of the Lost Ark
64. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
65. The Silence of the Lambs
67. The Manchurian Candidate
68. An American in Paris
70. The French Connection
71. Forrest Gump
73. Wuthering Heights
74. The Gold Rush
75. Dances with Wolves
76. City Lights
77. American Graffiti
79. The Deer Hunter
80. The Wild Bunch
81. Modern Times
85. Duck Soup
86. Mutiny on the Bounty
88. Easy Rider
90. The Jazz Singer
91. My Fair Lady
92. A Place in the Sun
93. The Apartment
95. Pulp Fiction
96. The Searchers
97. Bringing up Baby
99. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
100. Yankee Doodle Dandy
Fans of Hitchcock's masterpiece thriller Vertigo (1958) will recall that Samuel Taylor was the film's main screenwriter. The film was adapted from the French novel d'Entre les Morts, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Screenwriter Alec Coppel originally worked on the adaptation, but his treatment wasn't what Hitchcock was looking for. Sam Taylor took over the job of adapting the novel for the screen, and his vision of the work was exactly what Hitchcock was looking for.
Other than Vertigo, Samuel Taylor's best known work is probably Sabrina, which has been filmed twice. (The 1954 version with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, as well as the 1995 version with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond are both wonderful films, by the way!) Taylor's other films include Topaz (1969) and Rosie! (1968).
But this Samuel Taylor is Samuel A. Taylor. He is NOT the same as Samuel W. Taylor, one of the most successful movie writers in Latter-day Saint film history. Samuel A. Taylor's birth name was "Samuel Albert Tanenbaum." He was born in Chicago in 1912. He passed away in May 2000. Samuel A. Taylor was not a Latter-day Saint. Because of the similarity in name and career, it is easy to confuse the two, which is why we suggest including their middle initial when referring to them.
Samuel W. Taylor's birth name was Samuel Woolley Taylor. He was born in Utah in 1907 and died in Provo, Utah in 1997. To movie audiences he is best known as the writer of "A Situation of Gravity", the story which Disney filmed as The Absent Minded Professor (the 4th highest grossing film of 1961), Son of Flubber (6th highest grossing film of 1963). There was also a television version in 1988, and of course the Robin Williams version in 1997 (Flubber, which grossed over $92 million).
Samuel W. Taylor also wrote the screenplay for Bait (1954), and the story for The Man Who Returned To Life (1942). Today, Samuel W. Taylor may be best known as a Latter-day Saint novelist, especially for his classic Heaven Knows Why!, which literary critics rank among the top five Latter-day Saint novels ever written. His other novels include Family Kingdom and Nightfall at Nauvoo.