When Hollywood Makes History


UNION PACIFIC (1939) The rivalry between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad was the subject of this sprawling Cecil B. DeMille production. It’s an all-American story: you’d never know that thousands of Chinese laborers helped lay the tracks.


THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941) Director Raoul Walsh’s biographical account of the life of Gen. George Armstrong Ouster, portrayed by Errol Flynn, is lively and utterly preposterous.


THE EMIGRANTS (1972) The Swedish director Jan Troell filmed this handsome pictorial drama about a couple (Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow) who leave their farm in Sweden and bring their family to America; the family’s life on the Minnesota frontier is detailed in The New Land, the sequel of the same year.


THE GOLD RUSH (1925) One of Charlie Chaplin’s most famous comedies, it presented the Little Tramp as a prospector in the Yukon who is oppressed by the elements and a bully (Mack Swain).


CALAMITY JANE (1953) A musical-comedy look at the romance between Calamity Jane (Doris Day) and Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel). The lush fantasy is a long way from the Westerns of William Hart.


THE IRON HORSE (1924) A regiment of U.S. cavalry and some eight hundred Indians served as extras for this John Ford classic about the building of the first transcontinental railroad. The scenes are authentic enough that today stills occasionally crop up identified as 1869 photos of the real thing.


THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) George S. Barnes firing his gun at the audience at the finale of this historic onereeler is one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. Not only did the film initiate the Western film genre, it was so accurate in detail that in the 1960s CBS News used it to show what happened in the famous British train robbery.

TURN OF THE CENTURY “I’m a Yankee Doodle dandy A Yankee Doodle do or die A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam’s Born on the Fourth of July.” — George M. Cohan, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY


YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942) One of the greatest of all screen musicals begins with George M. Cohan receiving a medal from Franklin Roosevelt but spends most of its time on the vaudeville stages of the century’s turn. James Cagney won an Academy Award for his energetic portrayal of Cohan.


THE FIRST AUTO (1927) The great Barney Oldfield played himself in this comedy-drama about an old fogy (Russell Simpson) who doesn’t want his son (Charles Emmett Mack) to become a race driver. Oldfield first appeared on screen in 1912 in Mack Sennett’s Barney Oldfield’s Race for Life.


EDISON THE MAN (1940) As Thomas Alva Edison, who is shown on screen inventing the Universal printer, the phonograph, and the incandescent lamp, Spencer Tracy gave a strong performance. The same year, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer also issued Young Tom Edison with Mickey Rooney as the youthful inventor.


THE STORY OF ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL (1939) The film was so effective that for years people joked that Don Ameche had invented the telephone, and for a while even said things such as, “You’re wanted on the Ameche.”


RAGTIME (1981) Promenaders walk along the beach in a film that—though full of such pretty turn-of-the-century scenes—was basically overblown and empty.


AMERICA, AMERICA (1963) Ela Kazan directed and wrote this saga, based on his 1962 novel, about a Greek youth (Stathis Giallelis) who flees Turkish oppression to come to America in 1896.

WORLD WAR I “Folks back home used to say I could shoot a rifle before I was weaned, but they was exaggerating some.” —Alvin York, SERGEANT YORK