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Spielberg: As a child, The Grapes of Wrath led him to discover history. / Mr. Smith Goes to Washington The Day the Earth Sto
Scorsese: Vividly recalls his first film, 1946's Duel in the Sun. He was 4.

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Whether it's at the neighborhood multiplex, on a 52-inch flat-screen TV or downloaded on an iPad, flickering film images provide much more than mere entertainment.

At their best, movies are time machines that transport us to worlds real or imagined. They provide an intimate window on lives we could never have experienced and on events we could never have witnessed.

Almost everyone has that one movie he saw as a child that left a lasting impression. Steven Spielberg vividly recalls being wowed by the CinemaScope splendor of Lawrence of Arabia, the 1962 Academy Award winner. “It brought an entire section of the world into focus for me,” says the filmmaker, who would go on to make his own war epics, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.

Now, a marquee of A-list directors, led by Martin Scorsese and including Spielberg and George Lucas, has come together to turn the magic of movies into life lessons for America's young people and, in the process, infuse a new generation with an appreciation for film.

Just as a family shares a treasured scrapbook, America shares enduring movie scenes.

Who can forget Jimmy Stewart's young senator, hoarse and exhausted, as he filibusters against corruption in 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Or when Michael Rennie's alien issues a warning against the use of atomic weapons by causing a planet-wide blackout in 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still? Or when a gallery of black townsfolk stand to honor Gregory Peck's lawyer, defeated while striking a blow against racism, as he strides out of the courtroom in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird?

This trio of films is the core of The Story of Movies, a groundbreaking middle-school curriculum that began in 2005. The movies have much in common, including a distinctive style of visual storytelling. Scorsese recalls that one feature was especially essential in the selection process: “Everyone agreed they should have children in key roles.”

Each movie has another compelling and very American similarity, Spielberg points out: “There is one person who can make a difference in all our lives, someone who is fighting on your behalf.”

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The Film Foundation wants children to embrace another cause: the preservation of older films, prone to damage and disintegration without proper storage. Mishandling has led to the loss of half the American movies made before 1950. “We want movies to be treated with the same reverence and respect that is given to literature, music, architecture and art,” Spielberg says. “I always believed that film is the American cultural narrative.”

Scorsese first realized the extent of the problem while attending screenings in Los Angeles in the 1970s. “Color prints were faded to magenta, and the black-and-white ones were deteriorating. Studios got serious about protecting their legacies once video, laser discs and, later, DVDs hit the market. But the public still had to be educated about a vital part of their culture that was vanishing.”

In the past 20 years, the foundation has restored more than 550 titles. And in five years, 8.6 million students and 37,983 teachers have participated in The Story of Movies, whose materials can be downloaded free at http://storyofmovies.org>storyofmovies.org.

The foundation is expanding the curriculum to include upper-elementary grades, where silent films and comedies would be taught, and high school, with an emphasis on animation and the technology behind it.

“Every student has access to a camera on his computer or a little Flip camera,” says Lucas, whose Star Wars franchise inspired generations to become filmmakers. “Being able to communicate by using cinema has been democratized in the same way that the printing press allowed people who weren't monks to read and write. Now everyone can learn the grammar of film.”

Says Madison Brister, 13, who studied The Day the Earth Stood Still at

Oslo Middle School in Vero Beach, Fla.: “I remember thinking, ‘This is an old movie in black and white.' I wasn't very interested. But once we pulled things apart, I noticed things differently. Before, I always wanted to see new films. Now, if I see an old one on TV, I'll watch it.”

And that could be just the beginning. As Spielberg says, “It is quite possible that a child who is taking this course will grow up and tell a great story like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Life is a story. We — all of us — are stories. Film teaches that. And if we could be like the main characters in these three movies, we would be better people.”

Cover and cover story photo illustrations by Bonnie Holland for USA WEEKEND

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