Historically, large-scale economic changes have tended to be caused by dramatic political events—wars, revolutions, or a change of state religion. In modern times, substantial changes in a society’s ownership structure may still result from political change (think of the fall of the Soviet Union) but can also be triggered by rapid technological advances (such as the change from analog to digital in financial trading).
Screen entertainment may not directly reflect all the nuances of these two forces for change, but in our selections below, we have tried to provide examples of these multiple impetuses for economic change.
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
Peter O’Toole stars—in this role of a lifetime—as a British military observer during WWI who is sent to monitor a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Prince Faisal of the territories that later became Saudi Arabia. The “observer” soon becomes actively engaged in the conflict. This masterful retelling of a true story takes us to the roots of Middle Eastern geopolitics, showing how, at the turn of the last century, Turkish influence waned in the world arena while the British strengthened their alliance with Middle Eastern kingdoms due to the growing demand for oil and strategic locations.
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966)
This is a classic retelling of the events during Henry VIII’s reign through the tragic story of Sir Thomas More, whose opposition to Henry VIII’s divorce and establishment of a new religion cost him his life. There are two movie versions of this novel adaptation of a play—this is the earlier and more celebrated one. (See also, The Tudors, in TV Shows.)
This movie from Bernardo Bertolucci—the genius of European cinema—illustrates class struggles and societal transformations in Italy at the turn of the last century. Two men, one born a peasant and the other belonging to a family of landowners, undergo many life changes, eventually embracing two opposing movements: communism and fascism. Both ideologies have shaped modern world history and changed ownership patterns and the individual fates of millions of people all over the world.
THE LAST EMPEROR (1977)
Bernardo Bertolucci also directed this Oscar-winning saga about the fall of the Chinese empire, filming it in China as one of the first western projects after the Cultural Revolution. The movie chronicles the tragic fate of the last imperial ruler, who was put on the throne as a toddler, forced to abdicate at six, made a political pawn of both nationalists and foreign powers, and imprisoned after the communist revolution. Bertolucci paints a panorama of the modern history of China, a country that experienced seismic changes within just one lifetime of its tragic last emperor.
THE MAN OF MARBLE (1977)
This is the story of a Stalinist-era model worker whose fate is being investigated by a journalist in late 1970s communist Poland. Directed by the iconic Polish director Andrzej Wajda, it is one of the movies that exposed the social tensions that ultimately led to the birth of the Solidarity movement in 1980. The movie examines the falsehoods of the “worker’s paradise” created when the communist takeover in 1948 deprived Poland’s middle classes of any possibilities of private ownership.
Reds is the semi-true story of a pair of American liberals who travel to Russia to witness the 1917 revolution. It may not be the most accurate account of the bloody events of the Russian Revolution, but this chapter of world history is one of the most direct examples of a rapid change in ownership that affected hundreds of millions of people.
Although the French Revolution of 1789 and the subsequent Reign of Terror were some of the most traumatic events in European history, there are surprisingly few serious films that portray that period. Polish director Andrzej Wajda made one of the good ones. The movie stars Gérard Depardieu as Georges Danton, a tragic figure during a period of political upheaval that started out as a defense of human dignity and ended up as a tsunami of murder, torture, and destruction.
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Although there are hundreds of movie about the Vietnam war, Platoon still stands out as one of the earliest and most realistic depictions of this long conflict. American military interventions in Southeast Asia have perhaps not been very successful, but U.S. economic influences have contributed to many financial changes in that region.
Starring Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick, Glory is a lavishly produced movie about the American Civil War and the first all-black volunteer company of the Union army. This war ushered in major societal and political changes, such as the subsequent abolition of slavery, which in turn led to some profound changes in the country’s economic structure.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (1991)
Wong Fei-Hung was a real martial arts master whose resistance against colonial forces in Canton (Guangzhou) made him a hero and the subject of almost a hundred Chinese movies. This one is a colorful Hong Kong production starring Jet Li as the legendary 19th-century Chinese fighter in a country overrun by soldiers, missionaries, and traders from America, Russia, France, and Britain. The movie and several sequels with the same characters are classics of the martial arts genre but also good portrayals of China’s occupation by numerous colonial forces throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
BARBARIANS AT THE GATE (TV movie 1993)
This made-for-television docudrama is about a leveraged buyout. The president of a tobacco company tries to buy it out but then gets embroiled in a bidding war. It can serve as an example of ownership changes at the scale of one company. James Garner stars as F. Ross Johnson, the CEO of RJR Nabisco.
QUEEN MARGOT (1994)
Queen Margot is the tale of a royal romance in the tumultuous world of the 16th-century religious war between Catholics and Protestants in France. The conflict culminated in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572, when hundreds of Huguenots were rounded up and killed. This was one of the defining moments in the history of France and resulted in huge changes of ownership because many of the French Protestants emigrated, often to the New World territories of today’s Canada.
ROGUE TRADER (1999)
Ewan McGregor stars in this true story of a Barings trader, whose freewheeling trades brought down this oldest and most venerated British bank. The story highlights the ease with which gigantic transfers of ownership can take place in the era of globalization, electronic trading, and the unchecked pursuit of greed by the corporate world.
PEARL HARBOR (2001)
The attack on Pearl Harbor depicted in this non-stop action movie launched a war between Japan and the U.S. and indirectly led to Japan’s post-war transformation into an industrial power. Within a few decades of its WWII defeat, a demilitarized Japan became an economic superpower.
Apocalypto illustrates the decline of the Mayan empire and the arrival of Spanish ships in America. The movie was a phenomenon in the history of cinema because it was filmed entirely in the Yucatec Mayan language and featured unknown actors in scenes of savage brutality. It still won several Academy Awards. From the point of view of transfer of ownership, the conquest of the Americas (depicted in the last scene of this movie) led to one of the most significant transfers of land in history.
JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2014)
The fifth installment in the Jack Ryan franchise, this time starring Chris Pine in the title role, is notable in this movie list thanks to a plot that centers on the ways that superpower nations can use economic tools to either prop up friendly states or, conversely, destabilize them.
MR. JONES (2019)
A biopic of a real journalist, Mr. Jones is also a movie about freedom of information long before Wikileaks was a household word. Welsh journalist Gareth Jones managed to get into Ukraine during Stalinist collectivization in 1930, and he was the first to report to the West the extent of famine and the extermination of the Ukrainian population. Unfortunately, his denouncement of Stalinism was not widely believed by Western societies and was hotly denied by the Soviet Union—dismissed as exaggeration in the same way that his earlier articles about Hitler had been. The Stalinist-period deprivations described in this movie were a direct result of the communist ideology of exclusive state-ownership.
THE TUDORS (2007-2010)
This television series chronicles Henry VIII’s marital changes as well as the political and economic implications of his decisions. Assisted by the all-scheming Cardinal Woolsey, the king maneuvers through betrayals and intrigues. His divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn requires a change of religion and allows him to take over a large portion of the wealth of the Catholic Church. (See also, A Man for All Seasons, in Feature Films.)
THE CROWN (2016-)
One of the UK’s most popular television productions, this saga of the royal house of Windsor provides a window into the post-war period in British history, when the imperial power was losing—one by one—its colonies in Asia and Africa. Within one generation, the UK experienced a transfer of power and economic base from the “invincible world power” into the hands of young states in the “developing world.”
COMMANDING HEIGHTS: THE BATTLE FOR THE WORLD ECONOMY (TV SERIES 2002)
Commanding Heights is a PBS primer on the roots and development of 21st-century globalization.
ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM (2005)
This now-classic documentary centers on the infamous corporation that was “turning real losses into fictional gains through accounting fraud.” This financial Ponzi scheme on a corporate scale has served as a cautionary tale ever since Enron’s collapse in 2001.
This documentary is about Chicago’s trading pit, where fortunes are made and lost in seconds. With the advent of electronic trading, the pitbull fight environment of in-person trading has gone away, but the ups and downs of live trading have not. Some traders were left behind by the change in technology.
THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES (2015)
A British documentary directed by Michael Winterbottom, The Emperor’s New Clothes stars Russell Brand as a narrator and agent provocateur unmasking the huge income inequalities in Britain after the 2008 financial crisis.