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By Martin Keady · November 28, 2022
One of the most successful screenwriters of the late 20th century (having created Westworld, Jurassic Park, and ER), Michael Crichton, famously said in his novel Timeline: “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” That is true even of screenwriting. If screenwriters don’t know the deep roots of the cinematic storytelling that came before them, then they are, as Crichton put it, “a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree”. And their writing is likely to be correspondingly thin and unsatisfying. But how does a screenwriter, especially a beginner, go about gaining such historical knowledge of screenwriting? Well, to start with, they can check out this Script Collection that features essential movies taught in film school.
Read More: Advice for Film School Graduates from Spike Lee!
There are some caveats. It necessarily begins after the Silent Era, when so few screenplays were used (even fewer of which survive in complete form). It is also exclusively focused on English-language cinema. The hope is to produce a similar Script Collection in the future for non-English language cinema, including such masterpieces as Tōkyō Monogatari (Tokyo Story), À bout de souffle (Breathless), and l Gattopardo (The Leopard).
For now, though, the focus is on the greatest English-language screenplays ever written. And here they are, in chronological order.
Citizen Kane is a film of mythological proportions. Its eternal relevance has been proven again recently, at least twice. First, David Fincher’s marvelous Mank (2020), based on a screenplay by his late father, told its backstory, showing how Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote a thinly disguised biopic of William Randolph Hearst (and thereby committed career suicide) because of his hatred of Hearst’s wealth and power. Secondly, Confidence Man, journalist Maggie Haberman’s new biography of Donald Trump, explicitly compares Kane/Hearst and Trump, who actually achieved Kane/Hearst’s dream of becoming President.
Written just over a decade after the coming of sound, Mankiewicz’s screenplay (later rewritten by Orson Welles) was the first truly great screenplay of The Sound Age, proving that a film script could be as powerful as a novel. That is entirely fitting, given that one of Mankiewicz’s major sources of inspiration, especially when it came to the retrospective (or “flashback”) structure of the screenplay, was The Great Gatsby, probably the finest American novel.
Written just a year after Citizen Kane, Casablanca may be even more historically important (if not cinematically important) than Kane, as its classic love story set against the backdrop of WW2 helped to persuade a previously isolationist America to join the war against global fascism, although, of course, Pearl Harbor was by far the most effective recruiting sergeant of all.
Only Bruce Robinson’s equally brilliant Withnail & I can match Casablanca for sheer quotability, with seemingly every single line in both screenplays working both within the script itself but also being capable of being “extracted” from it and extrapolated to other situations and even other films. A classic example is Woody Allen’s comic homage to Casablanca, Play It Again Sam (1972), even if, ironically, its title does not actually appear in the screenplay for Casablanca.
Plus, it contains one of the most iconic movie scenes of all time!
Some Like It Hot is almost universally regarded as the greatest screen comedy ever, which, given the largely subjective nature of comedy, is quite an achievement. However, it is also deserving of another accolade that is rarely bestowed upon it, which is “The Greatest Film Ever Made That Is Rarely, If Ever, Considered The Greatest Film Ever Made”.
The general bias in cinema against comedy, regarding it as somehow inferior to drama, means that Some Like It Hot is rarely considered alongside Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, and all the other usual suspects for the title of cinematic GOAT. And yet it should be, because its cross-dressing comedy and subsequent exploration of sexual identity remain hilarious and, in our own age of increasing sexual fluidity, are arguably more relevant than ever.
In a collection of just 10 screenplays that purports to be a history of screenwriting (or at least an introduction to it), it might seem excessive to include two screenplays by the same screenwriter or pair of screenwriters. However, if any screenwriting team deserves such recognition, it is Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.
Some Like It Hot and The Apartment constitute the greatest double-bill in cinematic history because no one else has ever made two such complete but completely different masterpieces back to back as Wilder and Diamond did in 1959-60. If Some Like It Hot is cinema’s greatest comedy, then The Apartment is cinema’s greatest comedy-drama, as the ultimate nebbish (nobody) becomes the ultimate mensch (man) after he stops sub-letting his apartment to his bosses for extramarital affairs when he falls in love with the big boss’s mistress. Together, Hot and The Apartment mark the end of the first Golden Age of Hollywood. American film, including American screenwriting, would not be as animated or as inventive again for more than a decade.
In any historical assessment of screenwriting, it is impossible not to include at least one great non-American screenplay. And if any one screenplay can represent the greatness of so much non-American English screenwriting, it would probably be Lawrence of Arabia, even if one of its credited writers, Michael Wilson, was himself American.
In his biography of David Lean, the director of Lawrence of Arabia, film historian and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow goes into great detail to show how closely Lean worked with all his screenwriters, but Robert Bolt became his “go-to” writer, scripting Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970) as well. It was Bolt who provided the lightning that transformed Wilson’s first draft into the greatest epic ever written. For example, it was Bolt who came up with the film’s most famous cut, from the striking of a match to the blazing of the desert sun, which summed up so much of the film in a single edit.
For much of the 1960s, Hollywood attempted (in vain) to fend off the inevitable advance of TV, principally with big-budget and increasingly vacuous musicals. Consequently, the greatest American films of the decade were made not in America at all but in Britain, to which Stanley Kubrick had decamped after shooting Lolita there in 1962. It was the three films that followed – Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964), 2001 (1968), and A Clockwork Orange (1971), which collectively constitute his examination of man’s capacity for madness – that were his crowning glory. And first among those mighty equals is 2001.
It might seem strange to include 2001 in this list because so much of it is either silent (particularly the opening section set in prehistory) or purely visual (particularly the final “Stargate” sequence”). And yet 2001, like all films, began on the page. Originally, Kubrick commissioned Arthur C. Clarke, one of the greatest science fiction writers of the day, to write a novel, but Kubrick rewrote Clarke to create a script that takes the reader from prehistory to the edge of the universe, via an exceedingly polite but none the less homicidal computer.
Just as Wilder and Diamond mark the end of Hollywood’s first Golden Age, so Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo mark the start of its second Golden Age, in the 1970s. That was when American cinema experienced what might be called, to quote Jim Morrison, an “endarkenment”, such that a Mafia boss could be the subject of an epic biopic.
Coppola included Puzo’s name on the credits for The Godfather screenplay not simply because the film was based on Puzo’s novel. Even more importantly, Coppola stuck so closely to the novel’s plot that he felt a co-writing credit with Puzo was a necessity.
However, in celebrating Puzo Coppola possibly downplayed his own contribution to The Godfather (Parts I and II). That is because he was the greatest screenwriter of the 1970s, writing (or at least co-writing) the two Godfather films and the two other films he directed in that decade, The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979), as well as writing two more classic screenplays: Patton (1970); and The Great Gatsby 1974), which is the great film adaptation of the great American novel.
The Godfather Part II is, of course, both a sequel and prequel to The Godfather, simultaneously showing how Vito Corleone’s war-hero son, Michael, takes over the running of his father’s crime family and how Vito himself arrived in America after escaping a Sicilian mobster who had killed his family. Seemingly all of 20th-century American history is somehow refracted through this dazzling story structure to create the only sequel to a great film that is even greater than the original.
The other film, besides The Godfather Part II, that makes 1974 arguably the greatest year ever for screenwriting is Chinatown. Sam Wasson’s seminal book, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, argues that director Roman Polanski rewrote much of Robert Towne’s original screenplay, filtering it through his own experience of tragedy in LA after his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, had been slaughtered by Charles Manson’s psychopathic “family”. Nevertheless, the original vision of a city stealing water from its surrounding countryside to survive, and then killing again to cover up its crime, was Towne’s, and for that, he still deserves enormous (if not quite sole) credit.
The finest screenplay of the 21st century so far is, fittingly, for the finest film of the 21st century so far, Arrival. A realistic depiction of what “first contact” with aliens would actually be like, Arrival demonstrates that the wonders of digital filmmaking can be deployed to make something much more cinematic and emotionally powerful than a mere superhero movie. Arrival is also either the anti-2001 or its spiritual sequel, showing how a female linguist tries, first, to communicate with aliens and then to avert global catastrophe when communication proves difficult, if not impossible.