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.
- A Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)
- Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)
- M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
- D.O.A. (Rudolph Mate, 1950)
- Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922)
- Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
- Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)
- His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
- The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)
- The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)
- Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936—find many more Hitchcock films at our Hitchcock list)
- Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1915)
- The General (Buster Keaton, 1926)
- Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)
- Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman, 1960)
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 Archive.org here.