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The Top 10 Most Iconic Films in American History

From the very beginning, films have been one of the driving causes of bringing people together. Whether it be a family film night, a friendly debate on how Star Wars changed the cinematic universe or your particular comfort movie for rainy days. Since its creation dating back to 1888 in England, the cinematic world has impacted the global population. 

In America, specifically, there has been an argument for quite some time: what are the most iconic films of all time? Through extensive research of film legacy, direction, and commercial success, we will discuss the top 10 most iconic films in American history. Not only that, but why is it considered as such?

10. Jaws (1975)

"Jaws" movie poster. 10th most iconic film in America.
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This infamous Universal Studios picture was directed by young Steven Speilberg toward the beginning of his illustrious career. Based on Peter Benchley’s novel, the film follows a small New England town, Amity Island, where many businesses rely on tourists to get by every year. When a young woman is killed while swimming near the island, the town erupts in a frenzy of panic. 

In spite of the police chief Brody’s wishes to close the beaches, Amity Island’s mayor overrules this, afraid that without the beaches they won’t receive business from tourists. In search of individuals crazy enough to help kill the large animal, Brody finds an ichthyologist (fish biology expert), Matt Hooper, and sea captain Quint. Together and with great difficulty, the trio comes together and successfully kills the beast.

From its release in theaters back in June of ‘75, Jaws has been considered a timeless masterpiece by all who’ve witnessed it. Although considered much too scary for young people and those who fear the ocean, it received extreme success at the box office. It beat out iconic films such as The Godfather (1972) in a first-weekend showing. It was named a “true summer blockbuster.”

Additional Jaws Facts

According to experts from IMDb, this film was responsible for “setting the standard” for American films. Never before had Hollywood increased commercialization for a movie in its history. This film, as well as boosting Speilberg’s career, was the beginning of composer John Williams’s success. Composing a two-note score created an intense fear in audiences across America.

What boots this film down to the tenth slot, however, is its negative stereotypes. Although many can’t help what they’re afraid of, this film increased the fear of one of the oldest species in the world. Even before this film, sharks had always had negative connotations. However, making it the villain didn’t exactly help. In spite of this, and three unsuccessful sequels, this film remains one of the most infamous to date.

9. Singing in the Rain (1952)

Singing in the Rain. Ninth most iconic film in American history.
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Considered one of the most successful musicals in cinematic history, this film has received applause for decades to come. Along with Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly (famous for his dance moves and acting) both co-directed and maintained a lead role. 

The film takes place in 1920s California and follows the complexities of the Hollywood film industry. Now that “talkies” have taken over, silent film stars Don (Kelly) and Lina (Jean Hagen) must adjust to a new way of acting. However, Don runs into trouble when it’s revealed Lina has a terrible voice.

Seeking to replace Lina’s voice behind her back, Don appoints an amateur actress, Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), as a replacement voice. Over the course of the film, accompanied by many musical numbers, Don and Kathy fall in love. The film ends with Seldon finally receiving credit for her talent and becoming the famous actress she always dreamed of.

Singing in the Rain Misc.

Apart from the fact that actors such as Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds star in this picture, there are many reasons why this film is considered iconic. A big credit goes to the costume designer, Walter Plunkett, who also designed for pictures such as Gone with the Wind. Referring to this picture as the best work he’s ever done, many note his vision for the costume as “revolutionary.” 

A great factor that played into giving this film success was, of course, its music. Named to accompany the film, “Singing in the Rain,” sung by Gene Kelly, is considered one of the most iconic songs in the U.S. Featured in other films and commercials worldwide, it’s a title known to many.

Although this film was known to be quite difficult to finish due to demanding directors and various injuries, it still managed to land in the ninth spot overall.

8. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz. The eighth most iconic film in American history.
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It’s no secret that many individuals are familiar with this film. One of the oldest films on this list, The Wizard of Oz, was released in 1939 and was directed by Victor Fleming. Fleming based this iconic film on L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel of the same title from 1900. Starring a young Judy Garland, Jack Haley, and Margaret Hamilton, this colorful film has touched the lives of those young and old. 

The feature film follows a young farm girl, Dorothy (Garland), who seems to be unhappy with her life in the country. However, when a tornado tears through the state of Kansas, Dorothy and her dog, Toto, are sent to the magical world of Oz. Seeking to get home and escape the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy is sent on a journey down the yellow-brick road to find the Wizard of Oz.

Continued Wizard of Oz Details

Along the way, the young girl befriends a silly scarecrow, a gentle tinman, and a grumpy lion-man. Bringing them along for the journey, Dorothy assures her friends what they wish for can be granted by the wizard. Narrowly avoiding peril and defeating the Wicked Witch, the group meets the wizard. Although he turns out to be a fraud, each character receives what they want. What gives this film its magic, apart from the attention to detail, is the ending itself. Using the magic of Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, she awakes in bed surrounded by her family. 

Many audiences have speculated over the years whether the slippers worked, or perhaps if it had all been a dream. Since this film’s success, there have been many references in other works. Songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Follow The Yellowbrick Road” are still considered great works to this day. Personally, there’s not a person I know who hasn’t heard of the film!

7. Gone with the Wind (1939)

Gone with the Wind. Seventh most iconic film in American history.
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Released no later than a year after the eighth-ranked film, Gone with the Wind is certainly a film many have heard of. Directed also by Victor Fleming with a screenplay by Sidney Howard, this film was considered one of the most epic dramas of its time. Fleming based the film on the 1936 novel written by Margaret Mitchell. 

Taking place in the Civil-War era South, the story follows a stubborn “Southern belle,” Scarlett O’Hara, and her trials through war and love. Keeping her family’s plantation afloat during the tragic crumble of the South, O’Hara tangles in various love affairs and dealings with taxes. 

This lengthy film stars others like Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, and the first black actress to receive an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel. Apart from the extravagant costume design and gripping plot, much of the film’s reputation lies in the script. From O’Hara’s phrase “I will never be hungry again”, or Gables’ “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” These lines have reached such a level of significance that they are still used to this day.

Although this film is a great depiction of life in the South during the late eighteenth century, many audiences have been disappointed as to how the black community was represented. In spite of Fleming assuring audiences that enslaved characters would be represented accurately, many stereotypes were placed on them. Despite each of them playing noble roles, the controversies surrounding their characteristics are openly discussed to this day.

6. Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941). Sixth most iconic film in American history.
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Despite it being a picture not seen by quite everyone, Citizen Kane is considered one of the most open-ended mystery films in history. Described as an American drama and thriller, this film includes both direction and acting from a young actor, Orson Welles. With contributing inspiration from the original screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz, audiences were left guessing until the very end. 

The film begins after the death of a “publishing tycoon”, Charles Foster Kane (Welles.) Because of his wealth, a reporter is assigned to discover the mystery behind Kane’s final word, “rosebud.” Instead of immediately deciphering the meaning, the reporter uncovers the extremely complex life of a man whom many were unaware of. 

With help from a fellow friend and his own mistress, the group is able to uncover the true meaning behind this vague word truly meant. Following topics of innocence and corruption, this thriller touches on topics many dare not to shed light on. Listed in many articles as one of the films “you have to watch before you die,” its legacy will last lifetimes.

5. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

It's a Wonderful Life. The fifth most iconic film in American history.
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This picture is described as a “Christmas classic for the whole family,” and it certainly is. Directed by Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life is associated with various holiday films. Although the film had many original qualities, it was loosely based on a short story, The Greatest Gift, by Phillip Van Doren Stern.

Described as both a comedy and a drama, this picture follows a man named George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) and the ups and downs of life. Recounting his childhood and young adult life, a common theme is that Bailey seems to miss out on things he’d hoped to do. Generously giving his college money to his younger brother and taking over his father’s business instead of traveling, Bailey never leaves the fictional town of Bedford Falls.

After marrying, settling down, and having children, it seems, regardless of him missing out, life is going well. However, Bailey then experiences a hardship that causes him to consider suicide on Christmas Eve. Before he has the chance, a guardian angel, Clarence, is sent to convince Bailey to reconsider. Showing him how life would change for others without his good deeds, George comes to realize how wonderful his life truly is.

According to the film’s major fanbase, the main reason for the film’s popularity is due to the timeless message it portrays. In spite of the things George didn’t do and the hardships he encountered, he was still able to find out what good things were in store. That although some things don’t work out, you can always be thankful for what you have. Played on Christmas Eve by millions every year, it’s no wonder this film has touched the lives of many.

4. Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's List. The fourth most iconic film in American history.
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Over the course of cinematic history, there have been countless films recounting the horrors of the Holocaust. However, Schindler’s List is considered the film to top them all. Directed by big-time director Steven Speilberg, many praised this film for touching on a unique perspective of this dark time in history.

Following the true story of a Czech businessman, Oskar Schindler, we watch how a man seeking self-interest begins to discover the good in helping others. Aiming to earn money and success from World War II, Schindler moves to Krakow, Germany, and joins the Nazi party. Hiring many Jewish workers to staff his factory, Schindler decides to have his employees protected from Nazi inspection via a large bribe. In doing so, he saved the lives of over 1,000 people. When he is forced to leave town after his business loses money, his workers give him a signed list attesting to his heroic deeds.

Filmed in black and white, this film is yet another film most claim you need to watch before you die. Accurately showing the brutality shown to the Polish-Jewish community by the cruel Nazi soldiers, Speilberg’s work is one of the few Holocaust films to receive approval from the Jewish community.

3. Star Wars (The Trilogy)

The Star Wars trilogy. The third ranked most iconic films in American history.
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With nine films in total and several series in the making, Star Wars is a story and franchise that has gained quite a following over the years. However, through extensive research, it seems many can’t decide which film is the most iconic. One thing can be said for certain, the first three films (1977, 1980, and 1983) are considered the most memorable. Created and directed by George Lucas, these films are not only beloved by many but have gained extreme success at the box office. Earning over 10.3 billion dollars worldwide, Lucas is still pumping out series to this day.

The first three films follow young Luke Skywalker and his journey to becoming a Jedi Knight. With Skywalker and his friends, we witness chilling battles between the evil Empire, led by Darth Vadar, and the peaceful Rebellion. Between epic lightsaber duels and swoony love scenes, these films have been known to reach audiences young and old.

This is precisely why films have gained such a legacy over the years. Many agree that if a film can obtain a wide audience variety, it must have some iconic qualities. Aside from the lovable characters, detailed storylines, and countless references to other films, one of the most well-known lines in cinematic history is included. Darth Vadar’s chilling words have often been misquoted, “No, I am your father.”

2. Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca. The second most iconic film in American history.
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In spite of this film losing its shine in the age of the new film industry, Casablanca has always had a famed reputation among avid film fans. Adapted from an unproduced play written by American playwright, Murray Burnett, director Michael Curtiz put his own spin on it. 

The film takes place in the crowded city of Casablanca, Morocco. Following the start of World War II, Rick Blaine (Humprey Bogart) finds it increasingly difficult to keep the peace in his successful bar. In this city, many patiently wait in hopes of leaving. Many individuals chose Rick’s bar to meet in secret, hoping to gain papers to flee from prosecution. His world changes when his old lover, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), comes to town with her husband and rebel, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid).

Hoping to escape the German inquiry, Ilsa looks to Rick for help. Although reluctant, Rick helps them gain the papers and make travel preparations to flee the country. Through gripping scenes of love and war, many are left guessing until the very end. A big reason for the film’s legacy is due to the ending, as many have debated if Ilsa’s choice to leave was the right one.

Showing a unique perspective on the world war not including the battlefield, the cultural significance of this picture has never been forgotten. Although the film only had a strong impression on older audiences, it has kept its strong influence over the years. 

1. The Godfather (1972)

The Godfather. Considered the most iconic film in American history.
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Finally, we see the film regarded as one of the greatest of all time. Over many decades, lists have been made but this film has nearly always been at the top. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather has won countless awards and has received love from all over the globe. Based on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same title, these major film stars like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro.

The film follows the trials and tribulations of a powerful Italian-American mob family, led by Don Vito Corleone (Brando). When his youngest son, Michael (Pacino), reluctantly joins in on the family business, he is swept into lots of trouble. Violence, money, murder, and gore take Michael further from his wife and deeper into the mob.

Over the years, this film has gained a lot of respect due to not only the fair portrayal of the powerful mob but Italian-Americans in general. Coppola decided when making the film that it would be free from the typical, offensive, stereotypes placed on these people. This, and famous lines such as “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” are the reason it has gained such infamy.

Only Time Will Tell

In spite of the films that are considered the most iconic in history, there are, of course, many others up for debate. With honorable mentions such as the James Bond films, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and Rebel Without a Cause, topics such as this are generally left to one’s own opinion. What films will take over these spots in the future? Only time will tell.


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