David Thomson’s objectives in this big, ambitious book are nothing short of Promethean, for he aims to deliver both a comprehensive history of the movies and a Marshall McLuhan-style examination of the mentalités produced by watching films and television. The second part of his project barely gets off the ground and is limited to a few gnomic and questionable utterances. The first part is aided by Thomson’s undoubtedly encyclopaedic knowledge of films but, alas, quantity does not transmute into quality. True, Thomson scores a few hits. He is quite right to be sceptical of Howard Hawks’s iconic status in the pantheon of directors and to assert that the portrayal of heterosexual relations in Hawks’s films is false, phoney and fantastic. All Hawks’s heroines are what Jack London called ‘man mates’ – women who are tough-talking and cynical but prepared to follow the hero into whatever jungle he fancies. In contrast to John Ford, there is not a single Hawks film in which a female protagonist is seen with children or in a family context. It is also good to see Thomson recanting on some of the more far-fetched pronouncements in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. This time around proper respect is shown for the massive talents of Hitchcock, Ford and Kurosawa.
Yet in general, Thomson’s volume is a mess. There is uncertainty about the target readership: at times Thomson addresses his readers as if they were still in primary school, but at others presupposes a knowledge of Marxism and F R Leavis. He has a perverse talent for omitting key films