Ideas53:59Picturing the Past: History Movies
One genre of film is more nominated — and more decorated — than all others at the Academy Awards: the historical film. In 2023, the Oscars nominated historical films for half of the 10 slots in the Best Picture category.
History films are also the most influential and accessible form of history for the general public, coming to us through cinema, television, computer, and mobile phone screens. History — when rendered in light and sound, in motion pictures — burns into our minds and lodges there, nestling within our personal memories, to fix a new lens on the way we see the present.
Cannon fire, brandished blades, stamping boots, parents running with children in their arms: these are the images and sounds of history as movies tell it.
Filmmaker and film scholar at the University of Windsor, Kim Nelson, probes the impact of historical movies, talking to an expansive range of experts: historians, as well as scholars of film, culture studies and cognitive science.
History and truth
The relationship of history to truth is a subject of intense debate within scholarly circles because the lines between fact and fiction, history and allegory blur.
Acclaimed historian and influential thinker about onscreen representations of the past, Robert A. Rosenstone, argues that “history is our myth,” claiming that “myths are very useful things, teaching us who we are, who we belong to, what we believe.”
History in film and television has always been a powerful vehicle of political persuasion, often enlisted to promote particular kinds of myths, like ultra-nationalism. Anyone dubious that historical films can impact the real world should consider the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation — to see how the historical feature film was deployed as a powerful mode of disinformation.
The D.W. Griffith film helped usher in cinematic techniques that later became standard, like tracking shots and close-ups. But it also embodied a violently racist ideology, depicting the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as the saviour of the Old South. It resulted in both the dramatic resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
More recent films function as exercises in the myth of the hero: Braveheart (1995), Mel Gibson’s factually libertine epic about Scottish “nationalist” William Wallace that swept the Academy Awards for that year.
The pull of the historical film as a shaper of collective identities and nationalist pride isn’t limited to Hollywood. It has global allure, as seen in The Battle at Lake Changjin II (2022), the highest-grossing film in mainland China, and RRR (2022), an Indian film that broke records internationally on Netflix.
Although many dismiss historical films as mere entertainment, they have an incredible capacity to craft origin stories, taking advantage of the truth captured in George Orwell’s maxim from Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
A history lesson off-screen
Regardless of a film’s embedded message, audiences are never inert. Often a historical film serves as a catalyst for the spectator to seek out other sources of information.
Historian Alex von Tunzelmann, screenwriter of Medici (2016) and Churchill (2017), and author of the acclaimed book, Fallen Idols, notes the benefits of historical films and the way that they “draw people’s imaginations” offering a starting point that inspires audience members to learn more, or as she says, to “go to the Wikipedia page and start looking at the reality. That’s the beginning of their own research journey.”
Historian and historical consultant on historical films Helen Grieg agrees.
“We forget about what the audience does with the information afterwards and how they move on from watching to thinking about it, to asking the questions, to debating it with their friends,” said Grieg.
Another expert on the historical film, Robert Burgoyne, argues that in several specific cases, historical films may in fact offer a counter dialogue to national myths, commending Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006).
“Two films made as partners to each other, one from the American side of the invasion of the Bay of Iwo Jima, the other from the Japanese side. Both critique the myth of heroism in American culture,” said Burgoyne.
Burgoyne points out that Eastwood was in many ways following a model set by Hollywood director, Lewis Milestone, who made a film sympathetic to German soldiers in the period between the cataclysm of the 20th century’s two world wars.
That remarkable film, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), doesn’t transpose the narrative to a cast of American soldiers. Instead, it follows the model of the German novel it adapted, humanizing young German combatants and projecting a powerful and emotional plea for pacifism and peace.
As a young soldier says in the film, “It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their country. What good is it?”
Since then, filmmakers have remade All Quiet several times, the most recent being a German version nominated for Best Picture at the 2023 Oscars.
Film adaptations beat history books
The influence and reach of history in movies, television, and streaming are significant.
A recent survey of over 1,800 Americans by Pete Burkholder, professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and Dana Schaffer, deputy director of the American Historical Association, reinforces the fact that we rely on history in moving images to construct our impressions of the past. It confirms that the most popular sources of historical information are screen-based, with “documentary film/TV” and “fictional film/TV” in the top spots and with 73 per cent of respondents reporting that history is much easier to engage when it’s entertaining.
Controversy predictably swirls around the historical accuracy of history films. But Eleftheria Thanouli, a film scholar specializing in history and narratology, points out an uncomfortable truth:
“Many of the things that we read in history books have been equally fabricated [as in film]. Not because the historian wanted to lie, or wanted to make up stuff, but they came up with explanations, with causal relations.”
Historians take those causal relations drawn from the past and then “come up with connections and correlations that are purely subjective,” according to professor Thanouli.
The overpowering image
Not only is history in moving pictures the most prevalent source of history for the public, it’s also the most convincing.
Research led by Andrew C. Butler at Washington University, St. Louis, suggests that spectators are far less skeptical about the historical content they watch than what they read about. Researchers gave study participants carefully sourced historical information in written form. Then they had the subjects watch fictionalized versions of those histories as feature films.
The study found that the information gained from reading was partially or substantially washed out by the presentation of that history on screen, even in experiments in which subjects were cautioned in advance to guard against the creative liberties taken by movies.
What accounts for this dynamic? It may be attributable to film’s ability to communicate through our innate senses. We evolved to believe what we see, and we have a strong emotional response to the experiences of others. We are wired to connect.
Anyone who has jumped, screamed, laughed, cried, or hidden while watching a movie knows how strong our bodily responses can be. Professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Jeff Zacks, explains that “there is no brain area specialized for processing movies per se,” when you’re watching a film, to a large extent “your brain is just treating that experience as an experience.”
Noted scholar of film and memory studies, Alison Landsberg, maintains that what’s special about history on film is its ability to “bring images that represent the past into contact with the present in radical ways though editing, so we actually see the past and the present side-by-side” creating “a dialogue” between them.
Given the capacity of moving images to convince us, understanding the impact of historical film matters, especially in the era of the internet with its proliferating screens and the encroaching capabilities of AI.
The history genre continues to be a prestigious and beloved kind of movie, and a powerful tool of knowledge, confusion, and delight.
Guests in this episode:
Kim Nelson is an associate professor of film in the School or Creative Arts and director of the Humanities Research Group at the University of Windsor. She is also a filmmaker working in dialectical cinema and the author of the forthcoming Making History Move.
Robert Burgoyne is an expert on historical film, the author of five books and numerous essays, including Film Nation, and the former Chair in film studies at The University of St. Andrews, and professor of English and film studies at Wayne State University.
Alison Landsberg is a professor of memory studies and the director of the Center for Humanities Research at George Mason University. She is the author of several books and essays in film and memory studies, including Engaging the Past.
Alex von Tunzelmann is a historian and the author of five books, including Fallen Idols, as well as an established screenwriter for television and film. She co-hosts a podcast on historical films called History Film Club with historian Hannah Grieg.
Hannah Grieg is a historian of 18th-century Britain at the University of York, the author several books, including The Beau Monde, an established consultant to film, theatre and television, and co-host of the History Film Club podcast.
Robert A. Rosentone is an emeritus professor of history at the California Institute of Technology, and the author of several history monographs and essays, as well many about history on film, including History on Film/Film on History, currently going into its fourth edition.
*This episode was produced by Kim Nelson and Greg Kelly.