With the Academy Awards celebration at the end of this month, and one of the contenders for Best Picture (The King’s Speech) essentially a history movie, and Best Actor nominee Colin Firth playing an historical character, it is time to reflect upon (1) how effective historical films are in portraying the past and (2) how they can be used to teach about the past, even if their historical accuracy is considered questionable or their interpretation of the past outdated. As an Early American historian, depictions of the American Revolution have particularly intrigued me, and, in fact, I teach a course on the American Revolution on Film and have published on it (“Music, Mayhem, and Melodrama: The Portrayal of the American Revolution in Pennsylvania on Film” in Pennsylvania’s Revolution, edited by William Pencak (2010)). I also have taught a class on American Women’s History on Film and use movies when teaching History of Sports in American Society. In the past, I have shown feature films in the U.S. history survey courses (1776 and Glory in United States History to 1877, The Long Walk Home in United States History since 1877), Pennsylvania History (The Courageous Mr. Penn, Allegheny Uprising, and The Molly Maguires), and History of American Ethnicity and Immigration (Plymouth Adventure, Amistad, Gangs of New York, Far and Away, Hester Street, and My Family/Mi Familia).
Often feature films are able to convey a message that I cannot—in a sense, make history approachable and relevant. I still remember the response of my class when I showed The Birth of a Nation in Spring 1987—the stunned looks on their faces as the drama played out (and being stopped after class by a faculty member whose office was next to the classroom, wondering what I was doing in my class that resulted in 2+ hours of repetitive, annoying music—which we were unaware of, because we had been focused on the film and had tuned out the music). I get a similar reaction when I show The Long Walk Home; they are speechless (and sometimes in tears) after the climactic scene.
There seems to be a stigma attached to a history movie—it has to include some sort of love story, regardless of whether it makes sense or is historically accurate. In any cases, here is a short list of feature films that I think are extremely effective at conveying the historical moment (not in any particular order):
1) Gone With The Wind: The beginning with the picnic at Twelve Oaks (and the men’s discussion about secession) is good; after that, skip to the part after Intermission, in which the film begins addressing Reconstruction. Gone With The Wind is especially effective in showing the social and economic dislocation in the South following the Civil War and how Southerners coped with the Confederacy’s defeat.
2) 1776: Don’t get bogged down with the songs; focus on the debates. The musical is especially good at conveying the sectional tensions at the Second Continental Congress, and the song “Molasses to Rum” is the best explanation of the triangular trade that I have seen on film.
3) Drums Along the Mohawk: Even though it’s more than 70 years old and does not include the special effects of more recent films about the Revolution, such as The Patriot—or even other movies distributed in 1939 like Gone With The Wind or The Wizard of Oz—it still is the best film about the War for Independence. Small farmer, against all odds, fights against the British (and Loyalists) and their Native allies—and wins. Of course, every time I watch the movie and see Gilbert Martin (Henry Fonda) running through the woods to get help, inevitably the theme from Chariots of Fire plays in my head. But at least you don’t have people shot by cannon balls flying through the air.
4) Nicholas and Alexandra: You say you want a revolution? This movie does an outstanding job of showing what can (and has) happened when the ruling elite don’t pay attention to the unrest outside the palace wall. Again, silence at the end of the film, and you can definitely see how evil Rasputin was. Plus, the images of King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Tsar Nicholas II support my contention that World War I was basically a family squabble among Queen Victoria’s grandchildren.
5) All the President’s Men: A really good history movie is one you want to watch, even if you already know the outcome. This depiction of the Washington Post’s investigation of the Watergate break-in (and subsequent cover-up) has it all: drama, intrigue, and accuracy. I showed this film when I taught Contemporary America in Fall 1998 (yes, I’m an Early American historian, but when you are hired as a college history professor after four years of searching for a tenure-track position, you teach what you are asked). Then, only one of the students was alive when Nixon was president. Now, few of my students’ parents remember Watergate.
There certainly are more than five great “history” movies, and I am always willing to listen to suggestions for substitutions or additional films. Also, there are some great television movies or miniseries (I love George Washington with Barry Bostwick, even if it gets hokey at times). Now I would like to hear your thoughts: What should I use instead of what I have shown in the past? Just be sure to explain why—and no, I will not use History of the World Part One (although I do show Monty Python and the Holy Grail to first-year history majors). In the meantime, I get to start thinking about how the Continental soldier has been portrayed on film, an essay that will be included in the 4th edition of Ordinary Courage: The Revolutionary War Adventures of Joseph Plumb Martin.