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American film: Culture, society, identity

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This course will explore American culture, society and identity through popular American film. 

By watching, discussing, critically analysing and writing about these films, it will examine how film creates a window into modern American culture and society.

Students will learn how to read American films as cultural texts that help us better understand history and culture. The main aim of the module is to position contemporary American cinema in its broader historical and cultural contexts.

Learning and teaching

This course is taught in 10, two-hour sessions, delivered on a weekly basis.

Classes will be taught through a variety of lectures, workshops, discussion exercises and group work. Students will be issued with handouts and a reading list, allowing them to read up on relevant topics, as well as allowing them to develop their own interests and identify the key questions which they need to answer in their assessments.

Indicative content:

Week 1

  • Conflict, Politics, and Propaganda: America at War
  • Saving Private Ryan. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Paramount Pictures, 1998
  • The Best Years of Our Lives. Dir. William Wyler. MGM, 1946

Week 2

  • Horse operas: the Western and American identity
  • The Searchers. Dir. John Ford. Warner Bros, 1956
  • Dances with Wolves. Dir. Kevin Costner. Orion Pictures, 1990

Week 3

  • The Gangster in American popular culture
  • Angels with Dirty Faces. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Warner Bros, 1938
  • Goodfellas. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros, 1990

Week 4

  • Youth culture in American film
  • Breakfast Club. Dir. John Hughes. Universal Pictures, 1985
  • Rebel without a cause. Dir. Nicholas Ray. Warner Bros, 1955

Week 5

  • The 1950s: a time of consumerism and contentment or conformism?
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dir. Don Siegel. Walter Wanger, 1956
  • Pleasantville. Dir. Gary Ross. New Line Cinema, 1998

Week 6

  • Exploring racial identity in American cinema
  • To Kill a Mockingbird. Dir. Robert Mulligan. Universal, 1962
  • Mississippi Burning. Dir. Alan Parker. Orion Pictures, 1988

Week 7

  • The 1960s: Vietnam and the counter-culture
  • Easy Rider. Dir. Dennis Hopper. Columbia Pictures, 1969
  • Platoon. Dir. Oliver Stone. Hemdale Film, 1986

Week 8

  • Take me out to the ballpark: Sports and American film
  • Field of Dreams. Dir. Phil Alden Robinson. Gordon Company, 1989
  • Slapshot. Dir. George Roy Hill. Kings Road Entertainment, 1977

Week 9

  • Representations of Women in American Cinema
  • Mildred Pierce. Dir. Michael Curtiz. Warner Bros, 1945
  • Thelma & Louise. Dir. Ridley Scott. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1991

Week 10

  • Back to the Future: Sci-fi and America re-imagined
  • Sleeper. Dir. Woody Allen. Rollins-Joffe, 1973
  • Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Bros, 1982

Coursework and assessment

Students will complete either three 500-word film reviews or a 1500 word essay.

Reading suggestions

Essential text

  • Leonard Quart & Albert Auster, American Film and Society since 1945. Praeger; 4 edition (2011)

Recommended texts

  • John Belton, American Cinema/American Culture, 4th edition (2012)
  • Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies, 2nd edition (2009)
  • Barry Keith Grant (ed.), American Cinema of the 1960s: Themes and Variations (2008)
  • Martin Halliwell, American Culture in the 1950s (2007)
  • Jon Lewis, American Film: A History (2008)
  • Mark Rawlinson, American Visual Culture (2009)
  • Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (1975)

Library and computing facilities

As a student on this course you are entitled to join and use the University’s library and computing facilities. Find out more about using these facilities.


Our aim is access for all. We aim to provide a confidential advice and support service for any student with a long term medical condition, disability or specific learning difficulty. We are able to offer one-to-one advice about disability, pre-enrolment visits, liaison with tutors and co-ordinating lecturers, material in alternative formats, arrangements for accessible courses, assessment arrangements, loan equipment and dyslexia screening.