History and the Movies

Today, my freshman seminar will be finishing up “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”—one of the few movies that has an historian as a character (even if he dies in the film), along with one that intentionally distorts history in order to prove a point (namely, that history is definitely NOT dull and boring).  I first saw it as an undergraduate along with a bunch of other history majors, and we cheered when the historian came onto the screen, booed when he was killed, and cheered at the end when his murderer was arrested.  In between—well, I’m not going to spill any of the plot for those of you who have not seen this classic, but there are other characters besides the historian (some of them actual historical figures).  I watched this film again this summer to prepare for seeing the musical “Spamalot,” and, I must admit, I had forgotten how funny this movie really is—and how educational it can be.

So…for those of you who dare to venture into the realm of commenting on this blog (and I hope there are a few of you out there)…do you think this film succeeds in its goal of educating and distorting history?  Why or why not?  Should it be a film that is required viewing for first-year history majors, to prepare them for the many interpretations of the past that they will learn about in their academic careers?

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About Karen

History Professor. Baseball fan. Author of two books, one of which I force my students to buy and read. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team.
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5 Responses to History and the Movies

  1. lianeone says:

    Wow KLaren ! I like this!Also I do really think you made agoos szart with your studnts showinbgt them this movie. Apart fro beeing funny it should makem your students inquistive and look up things. I did and learned even more specially about this period of history.
    In fact many a movie or TV series e.g “Dream West” got me interested in this one man Fremont and his wife or the” Iron Mask” which got me into French history. As a little trivia Richard Chamberlain (another favourite)did quite afew series to get people to follow up historical events.

    • Karen says:

      Liane,

      Thanks for being the first person who is daring enough to post here! I agree with your comment about Richard Chamberlain, especially his portrayal in “Shogun” and “Centennial” (and, to a lesser extent, “The Thorn Birds”). I hope it does inspire them to look up things–at least that’s what the assignment will be today, to write a paper commenting on the historical accuracy (and inaccuracy) in the film.

  2. Justin P says:

    If I were a freshman and my seminar professor decided to show “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” I would initially be confused at the goal of the movie. I really think it depends in what context you are showing this movie. If you introduce it as a historically distorted movie initially, then it is completely appropriate.

    I think that if you introduced the students to people like Herodotus or Heinrich Schlieman before the film to show them how historians and anthropologists alike have distorted history to make it sound better they could go in with a critical mindset.

    To answer your first question, this film is a wonderful distortion of the past. There is so much debate over King Arthur historically that it is difficult to nail down any specifics. This gives way for wild speculations and guesses about the man. Because nobody was around and nobody made any real recordings about him, historians are left to guess. (kinda like Herodotus did.)

    Now, the knights of Ni, killer rabbits, and a troll on the bridge of death may come as an obstacle for students to think about, but we can only hope that they can see through the masterful shroud of this story.

    All this being said, I believe that it is justifiable to show students this film for their UNV class. It is entertaining and can be educational/great preparation for the students. I do not think that it should be required for the professors to show the movie, but if they are showing it, the students should have to watch it.

    • Karen says:

      Justin,

      Thanks for your insightful comment! The purpose in showing the film this semester (we started watching it last Tuesday and will finish it today) is to show the students that there are different ways of looking at the past, and sometimes even an historically inaccurate film like this one can still be educational. They will have a writing assignment (they’ll find that out today) in which they have to comment on how the film portrays history and the incidents of historical inaccuracy. I was nice to them, though–I didn’t show the version in Japanese with English subtitles. Maybe next time.

  3. Karen says:

    In case anyone is wondering, here is a copy of the written assignment for the students.

    The past two weeks, we have watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the UNV 1100 class. Your written assignment is as follows:

    Write a 2-3 page paper (double-spaced, 1 inch margins, 12 point font) in which you discuss at least three ways that the film is either historically accurate or historically inaccurate. You must include at least one example of historical accuracy and at least one example of historical inaccuracy. Be sure to provide citations for your information; Internet sources are NOT acceptable.

    This assignment is due online (to be submitted to the Dropbox and verified for plagiarism) by 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 30.

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