History vs. Hollywood

I love watching historical movies.  Some of my all time favorites are Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964), Gandhi (1982) and Cry Freedom (1987) by Richard Attenborough, and Thirteen Days (2000), directed by Roger Donaldson and based on Robert F. Kennedy’s memoir of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.  My home video library also includes Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990) and Michael Mann’s 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye.  His performances as Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (2002) and the lead role in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic Lincoln are equally riveting.

Full-length feature films set in historical periods can be instructive, but at some point I decided as a history teacher to exclude them from use in my classes. My reasons?  For one, they use up too much classroom time, particularly some of the more spectacular historical epics.  Most include content that is irrelevant to teaching state content standards and therefore do not merit district approval.  Anything rated above PG requires signed parental permission forms. Many are not covered under fair use copyright law.

But the main reason I excluded them from my history lessons is that feature films are art.  They are entertainment.  But the only history they contribute to is the history of film. The films themselves make no claim to be documents of scholarly historical nonfiction. Many are based on novels or short stories, and most carry a disclaimer in the credits dissociating the film from actual historical personages or events. Even the best Oscar-winning performances are still just that, an actor portraying an historical figure.

My point? Hollywood is about art, but it is also about business.  As such, film studios are as profit-driven as any other commercial enterprise.  While some directors and producers make intentional efforts to honor pivotal figures or events in history (recent films on Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez come to mind), the main goal is to sell theater tickets or online subscriptions.  This is not necessarily an example of callous avarice; quite the opposite.  But in the end, if no one pays to see the movie, then it will be next to impossible to raise enough money to make another one.

So if the context of a story is historical, the details of that context will be presented to enhance the plot of the movie.  An accurate portrayal of historical events takes a secondary role.  To take a personal favorite, Edward Zwick’s 1989 film Glory focuses on Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commanding officer of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the American Civil War. The film features Matthew Broderick as Shaw, who is portrayed as an idealistic Boston abolitionist who gives his life willingly for his men in the assault on Battery Wagner in South Carolina.

The real Shaw was initially more reluctant to accept command of the 54th and had to be persuaded by his staunchly abolitionist parents (Shaw was also a blond, unlike the dark-haired Broderick). And despite outstanding performances by Denzel Washington (who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the film) and Morgan Freeman, both of whom portray fictitious former slaves, the 54th Massachusetts was a regiment of mostly free men recruited from across the northern states and Canada.

Frederick Douglass himself spoke at recruitment rallies and convinced his own sons to enlist.  And the film does not even mention the real hero of the Battle of Fort Wagner, Sergeant William Carney.  Carney charged up the parapet next to Colonel Shaw and later saved the colors despite sustaining numerous life threatening wounds.  For his valor, he became the first African American soldier in U.S. history to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, although he had to wait decades before Congress overcame their racial prejudice enough to award it to him.

To be sure, Glory is a great movie and well worth watching. Many historical movies are both inspiring and entertaining and do have some educational value.  I always enjoy watching them and highly recommend them.  But if you want to learn about history through film, stick with documentaries.  Producing documentary films is also a business, to be sure, but they are usually funded through non-profit corporations and include archival footage and interviews with professional historians and actual participants.  Compared to feature films, they are much closer to the real thing.

Many agree that the films of Ken Burns are the gold standard.  His award-winning series on The Civil War (1990) transformed the nature of documentary film making and remains the most viewed program in PBS history.  I have used portions of it in class, as well as parts of his equally outstanding films Brooklyn Bridge (1981), Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997), Prohibition (2011), The Dust Bowl (2012), The War (his 2007 series on America in World War II), and The Vietnam War (2017).  His landmark multi-episode films on baseball, jazz, and the national parks are likewise captivating.

PBS has aired many more excellent programs that I have also used in class over the years.  I used the first and last episodes of the impressive 1997 six-part series on Liberty!  The American Revolution in the first unit of my U.S. history class.  The American Experience series is uniformly outstanding, as are the American Masters documentaries on famous artists and the recent Independent Lens films. The PBS website has additional resources on all their films that can help you in your research on a particular topic.  Most of these programs can also be viewed free of charge online (download the PBS phone app) for a short time after their premiere on television.

The History Channel has good programs as well, particularly those produced during the 1990s (Modern Marvels and Civil War Journal were among my favorites).  In 1999, they broadcast what I think is the best overall series on modern American history:  the fifteen episodes of The Century: America’s Time, hosted by former ABC news anchorman Peter Jennings.  You can find it now for viewing on YouTube or for purchase on Amazon.  Each deals with a different decade of the 20th century and includes interviews with people who lived through them.  I wrote study guides to accompany each episode and used it at both the high school and community college levels as a framework upon which to structure my U.S. history course for the entire year. 

The BBC and other British channels have also produced exemplary film series.  Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (2000-2002) is an excellent 15-part drama that covers much of the timeline of world history. The World at War (1973) has 26 episodes narrated by Laurence Olivier and remains one of the best programs on the Second World War.  The Channel 4 series on The First World War (2003), based on the book by Hew Strachan and narrated and produced by Jonathan Lewis, is another wonderful resource with its digital maps and first-hand accounts.

YouTube and other internet sites offer a myriad of great programs.  I just finished watching four years of The Great War channel, which chronicled the events of World War I every week exactly a century after they occurred.  It was produced by Mediakraft and hosted by YouTube history personality Indy Neidell, who has since moved on to a new series on World War II (late 2019 postscript: an outstanding new channel on the Cold War just made its debut). Discerning viewership is required on social media sites like YouTube, of course, as there are also many amateur programs of poor quality and questionable scholarship.  It might take some time to find the good stuff, but at least it is all at your fingertips, and most documentary programming on YouTube can be accessed for free.

I am a huge movie fan, particularly historical movies, and I certainly encourage you to watch them.  But remember that feature films are part of the visual arts, and movie studios are business enterprises.  Even documentaries have their directorial and editorial slant.  Do your research, compare your sources, and enjoy watching.

Copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.  All rights reserved.

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