Watch 222 Great Films in the Public Domain: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Buster Keaton & More

Want to learn about film his­to­ry? You can take a class on the sub­ject, where you’ll like­ly need a copy of Kristin Thomp­son and David Bor­d­well’s stan­dard text Film His­to­ry: An Intro­duc­tion, and pos­si­bly the com­pan­ion book, Film Art: An Intro­duc­tion. These are phe­nom­e­nal resources writ­ten by two top-notch schol­ars who have spent their lives watch­ing and ana­lyz­ing films, and should you have the time and mon­ey to study their com­pre­hen­sive intro­duc­tions, by all means do so. But of course, there’s no sub­sti­tute for actu­al­ly watch­ing the hun­dreds of films they ref­er­ence, from the ear­ly days of the medi­um through its many re-visions and inno­va­tions in the 20th cen­tu­ry.

But why, ask Thomp­son and Bor­d­well, “should any­body care about old movies?” The obvi­ous answer is that they “offer intense artis­tic expe­ri­ences or pen­e­trat­ing visions of human life in oth­er times and places.” Anoth­er key schol­ar­ly the­sis these the­o­rists advance is that in study­ing nar­ra­tive film his­to­ry, we see the devel­op­ment of film (and lat­er, by exten­sion, tele­vi­sion, video games, and oth­er visu­al media) as an inter­na­tion­al visu­al language—one near­ly every­one on the plan­et learns to read from a very young age.

In films like The Great Train Rob­bery (1903) and the tech­ni­cal­ly ground­break­ing, if nar­ra­tive­ly deplorable, Birth of a Nation (1915), we see the cre­ation and refine­ment of cross-cut­ting as an essen­tial cin­e­mat­ic tech­nique used in every visu­al sto­ry­telling medi­um. In Georges Méliès’ bril­liant fan­tasies A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impos­si­ble Voy­age (1904), we see the joy­ful ori­gins of the spe­cial effects film. In Sergei Eisenstein’s Bat­tle­ship Potemkin (1925), we see mon­tage the­o­ry brought to life onscreen. And in the many films of Alfred Hitch­cock, we see the inge­nious cam­era and edit­ing moves that define hor­ror and sus­pense.

All of these films, and many hun­dreds more, are in the pub­lic domain and free to view online as many times as you like, whether you do so as part of a for­mal course of study or sim­ply for sheer enjoy­ment. Nathan Heigert at MUBI has com­piled a list of 222 “Pub­lic Domain Greats” that rep­re­sents a wide spec­trum of film his­to­ry, “from the silents of Grif­fith, Keaton and Chap­lin, to neglect­ed noirs and the low-bud­get bliss of Roger Cor­man, plus near­ly all of Hitchcock’s British films—all free for down­load or stream­ing (though, nat­u­ral­ly, not in Cri­te­ri­on qual­i­ty)” from the Inter­net Archive. Heigert’s item­ized list offers a tremen­dous range and breadth, and con­tains a great many of the essen­tial films ref­er­enced in most film his­to­ry texts.

Most of the films on Heigert’s list can also be found in Open Culture’s col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More. That includes 16 films above that we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured with help­ful con­text on our site. So start watch­ing!

Note: You can find a list with links to all 222 films on here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Stop-Motion Films: 39 Films, Span­ning 116 Years, Revis­it­ed in a 3‑Minute Video

Hol­ly­wood, Epic Doc­u­men­tary Chron­i­cles the Ear­ly His­to­ry of Cin­e­ma

A Trip to the Moon (and Five Oth­er Free Films) by Georges Méliès, the Father of Spe­cial Effects

The 5 Essen­tial Rules of Film Noir

Thomas Edi­son & His Trusty Kine­to­scope Cre­ate the First Movie Filmed In The US (c. 1889)

Free: British Pathé Puts Over 85,000 His­tor­i­cal Films on YouTube

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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