U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historians and History-at-the-Movies

As an historian interested in film history, I’ve often been frustrated with the ways in which historians have tended to use history films in the classroom and to discuss them in the public sphere. 

I tend to use movies in the classroom as primary source materials, e.g., I show films made in the 1930s to teach about the 1930s.  Films can be wonderful when used this way.  Students tend to already be more sophisticated consumers of motion pictures than they are of most other kinds of primary source material.  A well-chosen film can teach us both about its subject and about the way films themselves were made and consumed at the time of its creation. Using films in this way is, of course, a luxury available to those of us who teach courses about the last 120 years or so.

Most historians, however, teach about earlier periods.  And if they use films in the classroom, it’s usually as secondary sources, e.g. screening a film like Black Robe to teach about French interactions with Native Americans in the 17th century.  Films used as secondary sources in the classroom share one big feature with films used as primary sources in the classroom: students by and large prefer viewing motion pictures to reading books. But many of the things that recommend primary-source classroom films make secondary-source classroom films problematic.  For example, Black Robe is a pretty complicated and interesting portrait of Native American life, especially for a mainstream narrative film. But as a product of the early 1990s, it no doubt bares the marks both of that era of filmmaking and that era (or possibly earlier eras) of historiography.  And, of course, Black Robe wasn’t filmed to be used as a textbook manqué, but rather to be a piece of narrative entertainment. Reading Black Robe in its cultural context is thus necessary, but doing so takes us far away from 17th-century Quebec.

Perhaps this latter use of films in the classroom helps explain the dominant way in which (non film-) historians have tended to write for the general public about history films.  When dealing with films about the past, historians have tended, first and foremost, to fact-check them. Indeed, volumes and websites have been dedicated to separating “reel history” from “real history” (a pun that ought to be retired, btw). 

I have long felt that such an approach to history films was problematic because of its unwillingness to seriously grapple with history films as a filmic genre.  And, especially in the last two decades, historians interested in studying film have taken more sophisticated approaches to studying history films.

But recent discussions of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Oliver Stone’s Showtime documentary series, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, have highlighted another weakness of historians’ fact-checking approach to movies: it does a terrible job conveying to the public what it means to do history.*

Spielberg and Stone have devoted much of their careers to putting American history on film. And though both have (often ostentatiously) employed professional historians to validate their films’ take on the past, they have positioned themselves rather differently in relation to the historical mainstream. By and large, Spielberg’s history films have tended to reflect the mainstream scholarly consensus about the past; Stone’s have tended to be openly iconoclastic and revisionist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, academic historians have tended to prefer Spielberg’s films (at least as works of history) to Stone’s.

Lincoln, as far as I can tell from reading about the film, fact-checks well. But as any historian would tell you, getting the facts right, while necessary for doing good history, is not sufficient. It is perfectly possible to construct an historical narrative which is accurate, but misleading.  Historians are responsible not only for getting the facts right, but for selecting which facts are significant and constructing explanations for why things happened as they did.  Non-historians are often unaware of–or even downright hostile to–this aspect of the historical craft.**

While a number of historians have praised Lincoln, which focuses on the passage of the 13th Amendment, others have objected to the way it frames the story of emancipation entirely through the actions of European Americans, while reducing African Americans to the status of onlookers.  Prof. Kate Masur, of Northwestern University, published an editorial in the New York Times on November 12 that made this case.  And academic bloggers (and friends of this blog) Corey Robin and Aaron Bady have launched similar criticisms of the film.  All are well worth reading (as are most other things written by Robin and Bady).  But I was particularly struck by the comment thread on Corey’s post on Crooked Timber.

As most readers of this blog know, Crooked Timber is an eclectic academic blog that reaches an audience that extends well beyond the academy.***   What’s interesting about the comment thread on Corey’s post is how many respondents don’t quite get why some historians (and historically-oriented social scientists like Robin) object to Lincoln.

Some examples:

EMS:  “I’m astonished, though, and rather disgusted that any would criticize this film because there weren’t enough blacks in it, or that black agency in their own emancipation seems to have been omitted. This reminds me of a huge fight I had with my wife over “Tell ‘Em Willie Boy was Here” when she accused Polonsky of anti-feminism, despite the fact the film took place way the hell before there was any such thing as Feminism (except in a few small Eastern precincts). It’s about Lincoln and the 13th amendment. Why the hell should any blacks be in it at all? One could, probably with some force, argue that Spielberg and Kushner are guilty of tokenism. I’d argue it’s just bad film-making. Does every film have to be judged by the inclusion or exclusion of blacks? How about The Red Badge of Courage? Ya wanna make that one all black? One can dislike the choices Spielberg makes, but he’s about emotion more than historical accuracy. What he’s not is a profound thinker. What he is, usually, anyway, is a superior craftsman.”

Bloix: “I know all about history from the bottom up, but I believe that there are great people whose acts turned the course of history. Lincoln, Gandhi, King, and Mandela. Their stories are great stories that deserve to be told over and over again, in every era, in every form of art.”

Dave: “It may not be the constraints of history or genre driving Spielberg’s choices, but presumably culture as it is presently configured and the master-narrative of the period preclude the possibility of Spielberg telling the kind of story Corey would like. At least, it’s as likely as ‘Spielberg’s blinkered vision.’ There is no pop culture artifact anywhere telling that story; why be outraged at Spielberg for failing to account for an academic history when no one else does?”

Mark Field: “I saw the movie yesterday and thought it was excellent. I’m not much impressed by this criticism. There are thousands of stories that could be told about the war and about emancipation. There are stories of Thaddeus Stevens, of Frederick Douglas, of millions of unidentified slaves, of Union generals, etc. No movie can easily incorporate them all. And it’s not as if Lincoln was peripheral to the story, not then and not in historical memory.
“The fact that Spielberg chose to tell one of these stories — one which fits well the nature of film — doesn’t strike me as anything worth criticizing. It just means there are lots more (good) movies to make.”

Harold:  “Masur is silly (not for the first time). Tony Kushner made a decision to restrict the story to a time period of two months in the interest of narrative economy, and it worked.”

Two thoughts about these (and many other similar) comments:

One repeated trope among Lincoln‘s defenders in the CT commentariat is the contrast between the requirements of a movie and the requirements of history (or, more specifically, academic history).   This line of reasoning is correct…so far as it goes. To the extent that historians expect or want historical dramas to look exactly like academic history, we are bound to be disappointed. And, as I’ve said above, in the past, many of us have not been careful enough about distinguishing the requirements of one from the requirements of the other.  But the fact that a Hollywood historical drama is not a work of academic history does not–and should not–shield it from criticism from the perspective of academic history. Though those of us who seek to criticize a work like Lincoln need to bear in mind what those differences are…and perhaps even foreground them in our criticisms.

This leads to my second thought about these comments: just as, in the past, historians have not always been very sophisticated in the way we treat Hollywood’s attempts at telling historical stories, we have also not been very effective at explaining to the public what it is we do and what we expect from works of public history (broadly understood).  The crude role of fact-checker nicely fits the public’s conception of us as nothing more or less than fonts of knowledge about what happened in the past.  But it is in our capacity as interpreters of the past that we have the most interesting things to say about Hollywood’s historical fictions.  If we don’t understand the rather complicated, shifting generic expectations of the historical film, and the various tasks it performs beyond informing its audience about its historical subject, we will not be able to grapple with historical films successfully as interpretations of the past. And if the public doesn’t understand what it means to interpret the past, or even that any historical narrative necessarily entails a series of interpretations, our public interventions are likely to be misunderstood or dismissed.

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* I’m not addressing my own opinions on Lincoln or Untold History in this post for a very simple reason: I haven’t seen either of them yet.  Most of this post concerns reactions to Lincoln, but for a good example of a take on Untold History that takes an unsubtle approach to Stone’s take on history, see this piece from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

** Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) at the 1995 Senate hearings into the Smithsonian’s proposed Enola Gay exhibit:  “[I]s it really the role to interpret history, rather than just simply to put forward historical facts…? …I was a history major. In the days when I studied the text… was essentially a recitation of fact, leaving the reader to draw their own analysis…”

*** Like Spinal Tap’s, our appeal is more selective.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I am reminded of the conversation between Eric Foner and John Sayles in which Foner said, “A word is worth a thousand pictures.” Or to phrase it differently, whenever anybody told me that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was an accurate depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus’s life, I asked if the movie was 12 hours long. When told no, I asked how it could be accurate.

    We cannot and should not expect films (and I would even include documentaries) to tell the whole, complete story of a historical event or moment any more than I would expect a book to tell the whole, complete story. What movies and documentaries can do is convey some of the information but, better still, provide a sense of the scene or the atmosphere. For example, I think “The Godfather” films–the first two, anyway–do an excellent job of conveying what a lot of that life was like, but of course the history is inexact.

  2. Lots to think about here, Ben,

    Of course, the primary/secondary distinction is relative to use. As someone who uses Black Robe and Mary Silliman’s War in my early US survey, I never really thought of them as secondary sources invested with all the omniscience and omnicompetence that “secondary sources” implies. I just use them to “flesh out” class readings (respectively, Nash’s Red, White, and Black and Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers) and lectures (derived from James Axtel and Daniel Richter and whoever wrote Cultivating a Landscape of Peace). I guess questions of how to categorize and utilize historical film overlap with the equally thorny question of historical fiction?

  3. Excellent post, Ben. I too immediately began retreading debates over other historically based films that have given historians fits. My biggest criticism of the division between those who dissect or defend films such as Lincoln is that we often take the film at face value, meaning that we often reject it as history (which it is not) or love it as a simply a film (which it is but we know that it functions as something more).

    So I appreciate the critiques from Robin and Bady, but think Foner is the one to listen to as he has done more on the ostensible subject of the film than anybody else. He told Jon Weiner that, basically, the film looks good and is well-made but of course shouldn’t be understood as a sophisticated argument about its subject. Read Foner’s book instead. But those who defend the filmmaking and the historical accuracy should consider Foner’s comments as well–he basically argues that this is elementary school history dressed up by a very accomplished filmmaker.

    So I have a question for you: which films do you use that are both accurate (to some extent) AND demonstrate some understanding of the historical method?

    You know I love Memento for illustrating the creation of historical memory and I use precisely because it has nothing to do with a historical event.

  4. Valid criticism about the lack of African Americans.

    But as a writer I still say: this is the best writing on a public topic that we’ve seen since West Wing.

  5. The film Matewan made in 1987 is based on a set of historical events surrounding a strike in a coal mining town in West Virginia in 1920. I don’t know much about its accuracy but it is a very good film.

  6. Not directly related to the film, but there’s an interesting question here on how to incorporate detailed political maneuvering into larger historical narratives. Arguably, up-close-and-personal political narrative used to serve the function that many would like synthesis to serve today, but it was never quite synthesis in the way we understand that now. That is, synthesis as a way of bringing together a wide range of scholarship, operating on a variety of scales and employing a variety of methods.

    But now that we have these broader interpretations of the past, what happens to things like the legislative history of the 13th Amendment? Is it just a detail? It’s clearly important that it passed, but how much does it matter how it was passed? I don’t really have any answers, but as someone who’s done a bit of close-up Congressional history research,* it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

    It’s also not really a new problem, I guess. Braudel’s Mediterranean moves away from traditional political narrative for the first 2/3 of the book but then doesn’t really succeed in integrating the political narrative he presents in the final third of the book back into the rest of the work.

    *In one case one of the people whose letters I was reading attributed the failure of a bill he lobbied for to the fact that one of the legislators speaking in its favor gave a speech so long that it annoyed the hell out of everyone and enough voted against him out of spite to kill the bill. It was a special land grant, so it didn’t raise many broader ideological issues. I would not, as a historian, be comfortable making that my explanation for the bill’s failure, and in a larger history of railroad-building, this story probably doesn’t get told at all.

  7. I’m loving this post and the comments. I’m working on a paper right now on a particular film as a window into the history of the 1970s — that’s all the spoiler I care to post. I hope I can get an article out of it — my prof was really encouraging, but the proof is in the pudding, and I’m not cooking with gas yet on this thing.

    As I mentioned in a footnote to my last post, I saw “Lincoln” over Thanksgving break. And I have to admit that I was somewhat bothered by the (non) portrayal of African-Americans in the film — they were there as symbols, as placeholders, when other people were characters.

    Nevertheless, I was truly impressed by Spielberg’s willingness to even attempt to address some of the complexity of that historical moment. The ability to make legislative wrangling not just interesting but compelling should not be underestimated. The film succeeded admirably here.

    Yes, this dramatic moment belongs to basic U.S. history. But for the vast majority of moviegoers, who haven’t read Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, and who — if we believe the annual jeremiads about how uneducated most American high schoolers are — retain little if nothing of their slog through the U.S. history survey, “Lincoln” might have been truly eye-opening.

    And, as far as filmic quality goes, if Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t win best supporting actor, I will pitch a fit and fall in sideways. And nobody wants to see that. So I hope the Academy does the sensible thing.

    But to be honest, if you have a choice between seeing “Lincoln” or “The Life of Pi” in the theater, by all means go see “The Life of Pi.” You can see “Lincoln” on a small screen if you have to. But there’s not a screen big enough for “The Life of Pi.” It’s beyond wonderful.

  8. Since you quoted me, I guess I should expand on my point a bit. I do understand the nature of the criticism; I just disagree with it. There are a couple of problems with Corey’s criticisms IMO.

    One is the implied insistence that artists have some obligation to tell particular stories. I’m pretty skeptical of that. In general, artists tell the stories they choose to tell; the fact that I think the artist should have told a different story is neither here nor there.

    This segues into the point I made at CT: that there are too many stories to tell about the end of slavery. No matter what focus a filmmaker chose to give, something would be left out and someone would complain. It’s good that historians try to reach the general public and to increase understanding, but no filmmaker can win this argument.

    Ultimately, the argument against Spielberg boils down to this: the story he told was incomplete (and therefore misleading). All stories are incomplete; that’s not an argument.* And if they’re incomplete, they’re going to be “misleading” in some broad sense of that word. But Spielberg’s film doesn’t tell a “bad” story or a morally objectionable one — making Lincoln a hero doesn’t put it in the same category as Death of a Nation. All of us, including me, might wish it had told a better one. But the artist’s job is to tell a compelling story and he did.

    *It reminds me that a few years ago some right wingers in FL sued a high school in order to force removal of a book about Cuba. They insisted that it was “incomplete” because it failed to criticize Castro enough. The proper suit would, of course, have demanded the removal of Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica.

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