400 Films about Higher Education (or at Least Set on Campuses): 1-50

Cultural Representations of Higher Ed, No. 8

I am working backwards through this list. Here are films 1 to 50.

The rankings are my own and in most cases somewhat arbitrary. The descriptions of the films are paraphrases of summaries found in a half-dozen print and online film guides. I compiled the list about a decade ago, and it needs some updating.


1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Burton and Taylor, boozy and still boozing; professorial ambitions, pretenses, and politics, all in unsparing black and white.

2. Wild Strawberries: Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on mortality, focusing on an elderly, former professor.

3. Madadayo: Kurosawa’s meditation on mortality, focusing on an elderly former professor.

4. Butley: Alan Bates is a middle-aged professor trying to forestall a mid-life crisis.

5. Good Will Hunting: A working-class kid from South Boston realizes his potential at M.I.T.

6. The Freshman: Matthew Broderick is the title character who is duped into a scheme to smuggle exotic animals by mob boss Marlon Brando.

7. Lucky Jim: the film adaptation of the Kingsley Amis novel that exposes the quickly entrenched hypocrisies in the new, red-brick universities of post-war Britain.

8. The Paper Chase: John Housman’s portrayal of the stern, intimidating, and relentlessly demanding Professor Kingsfield remains the most enduring aspect of a film that otherwise might seem a period piece.

9. Horse Feathers: the Marx Brothers wreak havoc on higher ed.

10. Animal House: a delightfully and sometimes brutally comic take on relentless self-abuse among fraternity low-lifes, this film remains a guilty pleasure even though it tramples almost every standard of politically correct behavior and even though it’s very bittersweet to laugh at John Belushi behaving in the manner that eventually killed him.

11. Educating Rita: Julie Walters is a very non-traditional student who tests the complacency of a British professor played by Michael Caine.

12. Breaking Away: a bicycle race helps “townies” to define their place in a college town.

13. Reuben, Reuben: Tom Conti is a drunken poet falls for Kelly McGillis, a college student whom he meets at one of his readings–a smart comedy that avoids pretentiousness.

14. The Adversary: a film by Satyajit Ray about a university student who is forced to support his family with menial work after his father dies; there is a poignant contrast between the hopefulness of his university experience and the grimness of his working life in Calcutta.

15. The Organizer: Marcello Matsroianni is a professor who organizes a strike by exploited textile workers.

16. The Freshman: a Harold Lloyd classic in which he stars as the unlikeliest of gridiron heroes.

17. The Big Chill: college friends reunite to mourn a suicide and to figure out how much or little things have changed among them.

18. The Return of the Secaucus Seven: a John Sayles film about a reunion weekend at a college.

19. The Graduate: Dustin Hoffman is a recent graduate who gets involved with his girlfriend’s mother.

20. Carnal Knowledge: the Sexual Revolution and the sexual evolution of two college friends into middle age.

21. The Group: in this film adaptation of the novel by Mary McCarthy, a group of eight women form bonds during college that persist through the years that follow, despite the very different directions that their lives take.

22. A Rumor of War: the film adaptation of the memoir by Philip Caputo, juxtaposing college life during the Vietnam era and battlefield experiences in the war itself.

23. Kent State: a superior made-for-television dramatization of the events leading up to the shooting of student protesters by the Ohio National Guard.

24. R.P.M.: Anthony Quinn portrays a sociology professor who becomes the president of a university shaken by protests and, rather than suppressing the students, attempts to understand and to accommodate their sensibilities.

25. I Never Sang for My Father: a professor tries to come to terms with his now ailing and always difficult father.

26. By Nightfall: Marcello Matsrianni is a university professor who suddenly has to share his residence with both his mother and his granddaughter.

27. Friends: a South African film about three women–representing the affluent, British liberals, the working-class, reactionary Afrikaners, and the oppressed Zulus–who meet at a university.

28. The Way We Were: provides a portrait of political activism on the college campuses of the 1930s.

29. Black Holiday: a university professor is exiled to an isolated island after rebelling against Italian fascism.

30. Soldier of Orange: Rutger Hauer stars in this treatment of the effects of World War 2 on a half-dozen students at a Dutch university.

31. The White Rose: German university students try to resist Nazi oppression but are tragically overmatched.

32. The Mortal Storm: a Jewish professor and his family confront the rise of anti-semitism in the early years of the Nazi regime; Jimmy Stewart plays the professor’s sensitive younger son and Robert Stack, in contrast with his carrer-defining portrayal of mob-buster Elliott Ness, plays a vicious Nazi.

33. Dekalog 8: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness: a Polish film in which a Polish professor of ethics and a visiting American professor lead a Socratic discussion of the nature of evil in the Holocaust.

34. Time Stands Still: Hungarian college students try to come to terms with Hungary in the post-Uprising years of the late 1950s.

35. The Decline of the American Empire: a Canadian film about the ways in which academic talk becomes personal.

36. First Love:: a sensitive South Korean film about a college student’s infatuation with her drama professor.

37. The Sterile Cuckoo: Liza Minelli stars in this story about the sexual initiation of a self-conscious college student.

38. Higher Learning: John Singleton’s exploration of racism on campus.

39. School Daze: Spike Lee’s uneven but sometimes inspired musical about homecoming weekend at an Black college.

40. Oleanna: in this film adaptation of David Mamet’s play, William H. Macy is a professor who is accused of sexually harassing one of his students.

41. Lianna: a John Sayles film about a woman who returns to college to escape a bad marriage and falls in love with a female professor.

42. The Henderson Monster: Jason Miller and Christine Lahti co-star is this issue pic about an arrogant university scientist who discovers how to create new species in his laboratory.

43. Marathon Man: Dustin Hoffman is a graduate student at Columbia who stumbles into a deadly conspiracy involving former Nazis. Very suspenseful, but a nightmare for anyone with a fear of dentists.

44. The Midnight Man: Burt Lancaster is a undercover cop posing as an ex-con who gets work as a campus security guard–all so that he can investigate the murder of a female student; a dense detective story with a mundane surface.

45. Take One False Step: William Powell is a professor who is framed for murder.

46. A Kiss before Dying: a psychopathic college student murders for money.

47. A Jolly Bad Fellow: Lee McKirn stars as an egotistical college professor who invents a poison that allows him to eliminate everyone whose presence he finds distasteful—which includes just about everyone he meets.

48. Soul Man: a college student “passes” as Black in order to get and keep a scholarship to law school.

49. The War between the Tates: Richard Crenna and Elizabeth Ashley are a professor and his wife whose marriage is turned on its ear by his affair with one of his students.

50. Been Down So Long It Looks like Up to Me: Barry Primus is a free-spirit who has trouble fitting in at a conservative college.


The first post in this series, covering films ranked 351 to 400 is available at: https://academeblog.org/2013/07/09/400-films-about-higher-education-or-at-least-set-on-campuses-351-400/

The second post in this series, covering films ranked 301-350 is available at: https://academeblog.org/2013/07/10/400-films-about-higher-education-or-at-least-set-on-campuses-301-350/

The third post in this series, covering films ranked 251 to 300 is available at: https://academeblog.org/2013/07/11/400-films-about-higher-education-or-at-least-set-on-campuses-251-300/

The fourth post in this series, covering films ranked 201 to 250 is available at: https://academeblog.org/2013/07/12/400-films-about-higher-education-or-at-least-set-on-campuses-201-250/

The fifth post in this series, covering films ranked 151 to 200 is available at: https://academeblog.org/2013/07/14/400-films-about-higher-education-or-at-least-set-on-campuses-151-200/

The sixth post in this series, covering films ranked 101 to 150 is available at: https://academeblog.org/2013/07/18/400-films-about-higher-education-or-at-least-set-on-campuses-101-150/

The seventh post in this series, covering films ranked 51 to 100 is available at: https://academeblog.org/2013/08/03/400-films-about-higher-education-or-at-least-set-on-campuses-51-100/

4 thoughts on “400 Films about Higher Education (or at Least Set on Campuses): 1-50

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