A Personal Journey Through Documentaries About Movies

February 8, 2012 — 13 Comments

Movies are amazing. Clearly. Objectively. Also amazing is learning about movies. I love it. The history of cinema is almost as fascinating as the movies themselves. Maybe even more interesting. Take for example, Apocalypse Now. I consider it the greatest film I’ve ever seen, and likely ever made. Yet the story behind the making of Apocalypse Now is perhaps crazier, more engaging and more entertaining than even the film itself. I’m a sucker for making-of docs and informative commentaries, but I also love documentaries with a wider focus.

I just had the pleasure of watching the documentary series, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies. It’s a long title for a long series. Three parts, roughly four hours in total. There is so much information and insight in those four hours it’s almost difficult to keep up. Scorsese includes countless clips from classics and forgotten classics of studio-era Hollywood. There is only one major problem with the film: it isn’t long enough. That four hours could have been twenty-four hours and it probably wouldn’t have satisfied me.

Seeing all those clips was great, too. Scorsese often shows clips that spoil the endings of the movies, but who cares? These are great movies. They’ll stand up to spoiling the ending. Plus, how can anyone discuss the greatness of The Searchers without showing that amazing final shot? Also wonderful is the fact that I haven’t even seen most of the films Scorsese highlights. While watching I tried to keep track of all the films I hadn’t seen that looked great. Here’s that list:

  • Duel in the Sun
  • The Bad and the Beautiful
  • The Crowd
  • Shadow of a Doubt
  • The Great Train Robbery
  • The Musketeers of Pig Alley – Griffith short
  • High Sierra
  • She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
  • The Furies
  • The Naked Spur
  • The Power Play
  • The Left-Handed Gun
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
  • The Regeneration
  • The Roaring Twenties
  • I Walk Alone
  • Force of Evil
  • Point Blank
  • Gold Diggers of 1933/35
  • 42nd Street
  • Footlight Parade
  • Meet Me in St Louis
  • All That Jazz
  • The Cameraman
  • Death’s Marathon
  • Cabiria
  • Intolerance
  • Her Man
  • The Big House
  • Leave Her to Heaven
  • Johnny Guitar
  • The Robe
  • East of Eden
  • Some Came Running
  • Land of the Pharaohs
  • The Fall of the Roman Empire
  • Cat People
  • The Thing From Another World
  • I Walked With a Zombie
  • Letter From an Unknown Woman
  • Detour
  • Crime Wave
  • Outrage
  • The Renegades
  • T-Men
  • Raw Deal
  • Kiss Me Deadly
  • Silver Load
  • All That Heaven Allows
  • Forty Guns
  • Pickup on South Street
  • Two Weeks in Another Town
  • Broken Blossoms
  • I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
  • Hell’s Highway
  • The Scarlett Empress
  • On the Waterfront
  • The Man With the Golden Arm
  • One, Two, Three
  • America, America

I’m sure I missed a few. The clips seemed endless, and they all looked great. If you’d like to see the documentary, it’s on YouTube.

This got me thinking about other great expansive documentaries about film history. The first one that came to mind was the amazing 13-hour series, Hollywood: A Celebration of American Silent Film (also on YouTube). It’s ridiculously in-depth, but like Scorsese’s doc, endlessly watchable.

And then there’s the follow-up doc from the same creators, Cinema Europa: The Other Hollywood (again, also on YouTube), which covers the silent era of European film. Scorsese has his own long documentary about European cinema, specifically Italian cinema, called My Voyage to Italy.

The BBC also produces wonderful series about film history. One of my favourites is A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss (YouTube!).

And then there’s the weirdly unique documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself, which hasn’t even been released properly due to rights issues (but, of course, is on YouTube).

This is only scratching the surface of the kinds of huge documentaries available. There have been so many films about the history of film made. The Wizard of Oz Blu-ray set has a great documentary about the history of the MGM studio. Mark Cousins has a 15-hour documentary called The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which played at TIFF and which I got to see the first six hours from. It has aired on TV in the UK and will apparently be available on North American shores this year. I can’t wait to watch the rest of it.

If you’ve got a big appetite for film knowledge and film history, these documentaries are a great place to start. Literally days of material.

Do you love these docs as much as I do? Are there any huge documentaries about film I’ve neglected to mention? Let me know, I can’t wait to check them all out.


13 responses to A Personal Journey Through Documentaries About Movies


    I remembered watching some of that doc some years ago on Ovation TV. It was definitely an educational piece. Something I hope to watch in its entirety soon. Notably as who better to teach the history of film than Martin Scorsese.


      Scorsese is great. He’s so warm and engaging, and the breadth of his knowledge is remarkable. He knows everything there is to know about American and European cinema, it seems. And he talks about film in artistic terms, which is wonderful. Takes it out of the realm of purely dates and events and into something much more enjoyable and insightful.


    I saw this Scorsese doc a bunch of years back. Looking through the movies you listed from the doc, I realized I’d seen most of them. I think it was mostly due to this doc that I sought them out.

    Oh, also, I love Los Angeles Plays Itself. I’ve seen it at least five times.


    You haven’t seen Cat People, Shadow of a Doubt, 42 Street, Broken Blossoms and On the Waterfront? What have you been watching? Star Trek on loop?

    But yea, Scorsese is always a reminder of how many movies I need to see. Easily one of the world’s biggest movie buffs.


    Great list. I’m in the middel of the Scorcese one and it’s amazing to watch, despite him spoiling some movies I have not seen yet. So informative!
    Saw “The Kid Stays In the Picture” yesterday, which also is interesting as it shows the producers side of Hollywood…


    Wow … what a list. I agree … watching docs about film are almost as interesting as watching film.

    Nice piece Corey.


    I like Scorsese’s film history documentaries (both of which I actually saw on the big screen as well) far better than any of his other films. Were he to stop making fiction features and focus only on film history for the rest of his life, I’d have no complaints at all.

    Had no idea Hollywood and Cinema Europe were on YT, although given some of the other stuff I’ve found on there I shouldn’t be surprised. Thanks for those links! My VCR is busted so this looks like being my best bet for ever watching these again. If I could just find Terry Gilliam’s “The Last Machine” online, I’d be set…


    Great list, Im definitely checking these all out. If no one has mentioned them before, the real movie-doc masterpieces I’ve seen in my lifetime are Not Quite Hollywood, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, Midnight Movies from the Margin to the Mainstream, Schlock! Secret History of American Movies and of course; A Decade Under the Influence

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  1. A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) « The Movie Review Warehouse - February 9, 2012

    […] of this four hour look at film and have to admit a level of disappointment, especially after the praise it got from my friend Corey at justAtad. I’m not averse to the idea of an expansive historical […]

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