It has been 75 years since 1939, widely regarded as the greatest year for movies in history, and there has been a great deal of hullabaloo over the anniversary. Despite this there are those who would argue that 1939 was not the greatest year in film history, almost always offering up another year for that title instead. As for myself, I find it hard to argue that 1939 was not the greatest year for movies ever, especially given Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Destry Rides Again, and many other incredibly great films were released in that year. That is not to say I do not believe there are some other years that come very, very close to 1939 in terms of the sheer quantity of great films released. One of those years is 1954.
Indeed, given the number of genuine classics released in 1954, it seems curious that there has not been a large amount of hubbub over its 60th anniversary. To get an idea of how great 1954 was, one need only look at the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture that year: The Caine Mutiny, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, On the Waterfront, Three Coins in the Fountain, and The Country Girl. Of these, The Caine Mutiny, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and On the Waterfront rank among the greatest films of all time in my humble opinion. Indeed, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is my favourite musical.
In fact, there were so many great films released in 1954 that I have always had a problem with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences's nominees for Best Picture. Obviously I would have nominated The Caine Mutiny, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and On the Waterfront, but I would have given the other nominations to Rear Window and A Star is Born. What is more, I would have given the Oscar for Best Picture to The Caine Mutiny. That having been said, it is hard to fault the Academy for their choices of Best Picture nominees that year. With so many great pictures released it must have been hard to narrow it down to five.
Consider this, not only were The Caine Mutiny, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and On the Waterfront all released in 1954, but so were Rear Window, A Star is Born, Sabrina, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and Carmen Jones, among many, many others. The fact is that if I listed every single great film released by Hollywood in 1954 this would be a very long, long blog post.
Of course, while both 1939 and 1954 were truly great years, there is one thing that sets 1954 apart from 1939. The films considered among the greatest classics of all time released in 1939 were by and large released by the Hollywood studios. In contrast a number of the films considered among the greatest classics of all time released in 1954 come from countries besides the United States. In fact, what I consider the best film released in 1954 (indeed, the greatest film ever made) came out of Japan. It was Shichinin no Samurai, known in English as Seven Samurai. I don't think any other film released in 1954 comes to being as influential as Seven Samurai was. Its impact can be seen in many action films that came out of Hollywood in the Sixties, from The Magnificent Seven (a direct remake of the film) to The Dirty Dozen, and its impact is still being seen today.
Seven Samurai was not the only great film released in Japan in 1954. It was also in 1954 that Gojira was released. Those who have seen the American version, Godzilla, might scoff at this, but Gojira is a truly great film. And like its contemporary, Seven Samurai, Gojira would also have a lasting impact. Not only would the monster Gojira/Godzilla enter international pop culture, but the film itself would launch an entire series of Gojira/Godzilla films, not to mention create the entire genre of "giant monster" or kaiju films. Of course, here I have to point out that not only were Seven Samurai and Gojira released in 1954, but so too was Sansho Dayu, also known as Sansho the Bailiff. Kenji Mizoguchi's epic masterpiece brought him to the attention of Western filmmakers, critics, and cinema goers, and it would have a lasting impact on Japanese, American, British, and European film.
Nineteen fifty four would also be a good year for film in the United Kingdom, particularly with regards to comedy. David Lean's version of Hobson's Choice was released in 1954. Not only was it arguably the best adaptation of Harold Brighouse's play of the same name (it was filmed before in 1920 and 1931), but it is arguably one of the best British comedies of all time. Doctor in the House, starring Sir Dirk Bogarde, was also released in 1954. The comedy was the most successful British film at the box office in the United Kingdom for 1954. It also sparked an entire series of "Doctor" films, the first three films and the fifth one starring Dirk Bogarde as Dr. Sparrow. Although some might question whether it is a truly great film, The Belles of St Trinian's was also released in 1954. The movie would prove to be a hit and would be followed by three more films centred around St. Trinian's School, as well as a 1980 film and a new series of films in the Naughts. Personally, I've always thought the original The Belles of St Trinian's was one of the funniest films of the Fifties. Of course, comedies weren't the only great films released in the United Kingdom in 1954. The classic animated version of Animal Farm was also released that year, as was the drama The Divided Heart.
The year 1954 would also be a good year for movies for Italy. It was that year that Federico Fellini's La strada was released.Not only is it arguable that La strada is the film that placed Federico Felllini on the map, but it is also one of his very best films and a film that would prove influential as well. The year 1954 would also see the release of Luchino Visconti's Senso, an adaptation of Camillo Boito's novella of the same name, and Vittorio De Sica's L'oro di Napol.
Given the number of great films released in Hollywood and around the world, it seems to me that 1954 was truly one of the greatest years for film ever. Indeed, 1954 was such a great year that this post has barely even scratched the surface. It would take a rather large book to cover every single great film released during the year in any sort of depth. While 1939 may well be the greatest year in film history, it seems to me that 1954 could easily be a very close second.