During recent decades it has been customary for film critics to scatter movie genres willy-nilly, e.g., “Buddy Movies,” “Disaster Films, “Epics,” “Biopics.” But aren’t these really subgenres or components of already existing genres? Buddy movies are usually Comedy or contained in the Crime, Mystery & Suspense genre. Disaster movies are encompassed within Adventure & Historical; or Drama; or Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Epics come under Adventure & Historical or Western, maybe War. (Think The Devil at 4 O’Clock, How the West Was Won, The Longest Day). Biopics are about real people but can take place in any time period, and the person in question could be a western lawman (Wyatt Earp), a medieval world conqueror (Genghis Khan), or a scientist (Louis Pasteur). Biopics do not constitute a genre. They are Drama—unless they are Western, like Wyatt Earp. Or Adventure & Historical, like Alexander the Great. Or Musical, like The Great Ziegfeld. A biography of a singer or dancer is a Musical—as long as there is singing and dancing.
So what makes a film genre? Writer Neil Gaiman contends that subject matter does not a genre make, but perhaps he’s applying this only to literature. For the cinema, the number of movies made on a certain subject seems entirely appropriate to genre definition. In other words, if hundreds or thousands of movies deal with, say, the winning of the west, the Western becomes a genre.
For in-depth, highfalutin analysis of film genre, see Film Genre Reader (1986) edited by Barry Keith Grant. This investigates classification, the auteur, conventions, and so on. In “Chapter 9. Genre Film: A Classical Experience,” Thomas Sobchack refers to An Illustrated Glossary of Film Terms in which Harry M. Geduld and Ronald Gottesman “define genre as a ‘category, kind, or form of film distinguished by subject matter, theme, or techniques’.” For those authors there are 75 film genres!
The minimalist, while not denying overlap, recognizes only 8 authentic film genres:
Adventure & Historical
Crime, Mystery & Suspense
Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror
Let’s look at each.
Adventure & Historical.
Sometimes action is equated with adventure and the genre called Action Adventure, but action is not a genre because it can permeate such other genres as Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror; War; and Western. Even Adventure, which might be defined broadly as a perilous journey where the characters overcome natural and/or man-made obstacles, is compromised on occasion by films in which the protagonists do not move. For instance, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) takes place in King John’s castle and nearby Sherwood Forest. Garden of Evil (1954) is a Western first although it involves the perilous trek. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is certainly Science Fiction yet it meets the criteria for Adventure: again, a perilous trek. Pirate movies fit here, don’t they? But what about Pirates of the Caribbean? Voodoo, ghost crews, and various oceanic monstrosities must relegate this franchise to the Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror genre. Strictly speaking, Raiders of the Lost Ark is not Adventure. A major supernatural element inhabits each Indiana Jones outing.
What about using true events to signify Adventure? That ties it strongly to Historical. What of The Last Valley (1970), which takes place during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) but is based on a novel? Ditto A Tale of Two Cities (1935), which uses the French Revolution as backdrop but Dickens’ fictional characters in the prime roles. Alexander the Great (1956) certainly covers a lot of geographic territory, so it’s Adventure and Historical.
“Costumers” is old lingo for historical flicks and is almost an insult in that such films may have little or no action. Think Forever Amber (1945).
If one wants to be truly minimalist, everything is either Comedy or Drama although Musical would subsume them both. Many modern films are touted by the studios as comedies but are in fact in the crossover realm, Comedy-Drama. See, for example, The Apartment; The Courtship of Eddie’s Father; Soldier in the Rain; The World of Henry Orient; Goodbye, Columbus; Crossing Delancey; Manny & Lo; The Family Stone. The Comedy-Drama is hard to balance. The Landlord (1970) begins amusingly but descends toward a gloomy denouement.
Comedy is rife with subgenres:
Black/dark comedy (The Loved One, Eating Raoul, Harold and Maude)
Comedy-western (Along Came Jones, The Paleface, Cat Ballou, Texas Across the River, The Hallelujah Trail)
Romantic comedy (It Happened One Night, When Harry Met Sally, Notting Hill)
Satirical comedy (Dr. Strangelove, Being There, The King of Comedy)
Screwball comedy (Bringing Up Baby, The Devil and Miss Jones, The Lady Eve)
Service comedy (Operation Mad Ball, Imitation General, Don’t Go Near the Water, The Last Time I Saw Archie)
Sophisticated comedy (Trouble in Paradise, The Philadelphia Story, The Palm Beach Story)
Spy comedy (Our Man Flint, The Silencers, The Last of the Secret Agents?)
Question: Is Being John Malkovich a Comedy or is it Drama? Science Fiction? Fantasy?
Crime, Mystery & Suspense.
It’s all about murder. Other than comedic spoofs like Our Man Flint and The Silencers, espionage films fall here. Trial films are properly in Drama because the crime itself is tangential to the story and usually not seen, e.g., 12 Angry Men, Anatomy of a Murder. Film noir is not a genre, it is a style. Terror movies without supernatural elements go here, e.g., Psycho; Die! Die! My Darling; Manhunter; The Silence of the Lambs.
Subgenres include heist (The Asphalt Jungle, Five Against the House) and prison (Brute Force, Riot in Cell Block 11) films. Should prison films that do not feature riots and whose plots are not predicated on murder (Caged, Chained Heat) be designated Drama?
We know it when we see it, presumably. Definitive dramas include The Good Earth, Kings Row, Gentleman’s Agreement, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, Executive Suite, The Rose Tattoo, The View from Pompey’s Head, Sweet Smell of Success, Look Back in Anger, David and Lisa, The Sterile Cuckoo, Love Story, Play It As It Lays, The Paper Chase, Norma Rae.
Modern age biopics fit here, e.g., A Beautiful Mind.
The musical genre is easiest to identify. If there’s singing and dancing, it’s Musical. Musical subsumes into its bailiwick all other subjects. Thus The Wizard of Oz is Musical first, Fantasy second.
Tricky: is a musical biography in which there is little or no singing a Musical or Biography, thus Drama, e.g., The Glenn Miller Story, The Eddy Duchin Story?
Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror.
Horror here is Supernatural horror, not merely “terror,” e.g., Psycho, Homicidal, The Silence of the Lambs. Those fit into Crime, Mystery & Suspense.
Science Fiction and Horror often overlap. Frankenstein is generally considered Horror, but the good doctor uses scientific means to create the monster. Fantasy, too, may have elements of supernatural horror. The Thing from Another World (1951) is about a UFO and its dangerous passenger found in the ice, but the occupant acts like the Frankenstein monster—or Dracula, as it grows offspring using human blood.
For the minimalist, War is the modern combat film, the hard helmet school as it were, thus beginning with World War I. Films dealing with pre-WW I battle belong in Adventure & Historical, e.g., The Crusades, Spartacus, Waterloo, Zulu, Kingdom of Heaven.
Subgenres include aerial dogfight (The Dawn Patrol, The Blue Max), submarine (The Enemy Below, Run Silent, Run Deep), POW escape (The Colditz Story, The Great Escape), wartime planning (Command Decision, The Man Who Never Was), and wartime espionage (Pimpernel Smith, The Man Who Never Was, The Counterfeit Traitor). Casablanca probably goes here even though there’s no real espionage going on. People are fleeing the Nazis, not spying on them or waging a guerilla war, at least during the time of the film itself. Should War be divided into Combat and Non-Combat? From Here to Eternity is, except for the attack on Pearl Harbor finale, a Drama of pre-World War II army life.
The Western, a distinctly U.S. genre, can be defined by geography and/or time period. A Western should take place in North America, i.e., the United States, Canada or Mexico. South America and Australia might deserve some consideration. See 1955’s The Americano with Glenn Ford and 1990‘s Quigley Down Under with Tom Selleck.
The time period is more problematic. Is The Alamo Western or Adventure & Historical? The actual siege took place in 1836 in Texas. What about films set in the Colonial period? Northwest Passage or The Last of the Mohicans, for instance? There are Native Americans in these films. But they are more properly Historical (based on a novel based on a good deal of fact). One often sees Civil War films classified as Western, but they are really Historical. However, there is a subgenre of movies in which Yanks and Rebs join forces to track (Major Dundee) or fight off the indigenous tribes (Under Two Flags).
Does the presence of Native Americans automatically make a film a Western? If so, the Floridian-set Distant Drums and Seminole are Westerns.
It is difficult to designate a starting time for Westerns. One might use the Civil War’s conclusion and the rapid expansion into the interior, but that was already underway almost as soon as Europeans entered the Continent, and the Oregon Trail became a way west for settlers in 1836. (Trappers and traders had been out there for many years.) Bad Company (1972) takes place during the Civil War, when the Union is rounding up young men in the hinterland and on the frontier for the army. The protagonists, played by Barry Brown and Jeff Bridges, fleeing conscription, hightail it across the Mississippi and into the West. The end of the Western? Purists scoff at the notion that films set in the West and feature automatic weapons and cars (Big Jake) are to be included, but who can deny The Wild Bunch (1969) a honored place in any discussion of great westerns? Or The Professionals (1966)?
Musical-Comedy. What predominates? Musical. Again, if there’s singing, it’s a Musical.
To recap, biographical films cross genres, from Musical (The I Don’t Care Girl, The Eddy Duchin Story, The Rose) to Adventure & Historical (Alexander the Great, The Last Emperor, Lincoln). Therefore Biography is not a distinct genre.
The Princess Bride is Adventure and Comedy, or, perhaps, amusement. Adventure wins out. Or does it? There’s a perilous trek. However….how about Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror with an emphasis on Fantasy?
Comedy-western or western-comedy? For the minimalist, comedy takes precedence.
Where does King Kong (1933) fit? The title character is a giant ape. Are his nemeses, dinosaurs, which once lived, science fiction? Is the film fantasy? Maybe the genre of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror can encompass it. Placing it in Adventure might not be out of bounds. The Historical part sounds wrong, though. It’s not based on fact.
Is Mark of the Vampire (1935) Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror? In the end it is revealed that there were no supernatural blood-suckers. So does it belong in Crime, Mystery & Suspense? There is a murder. Others of this disreputable ilk include Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956), Macabre (1958) and I Bury the Living (1958).
How many songs must a film have to be a Musical? Are a half dozen enough?
Elvis Presley’s Follow That Dream (1962) features songs but is otherwise a cute comedy with darker elements (gangsters). So it remains Musical, right? Or Comedy-Drama with music that makes it Musical-Comedy? It boggles the mind.
What is Apollo 13 (1995)? It’s fact-based, therefore not Science Fiction. It’s a prime candidate for the Adventure & Historical genre.
Does a jungle setting relegate a movie to Adventure? Not necessarily. The Naked Jungle (1953) mostly takes place on a plantation. Only the army ants are going anywhere.
As this analysis demonstrates, most films fit without undue pressure into one of eight specific genres. Others are more intractable. Perhaps what is needed is a very large chalkboard on which, like mathematicians and theoretical physicists, film aficionados draw arrows and other symbols to establish relationships between genres. Nevertheless, the nagging suspicion is that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey, there is no final answer.
Written by Kim Holston