- Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film
The original versions of the essays that constitute this book were presented during the fortieth annual Walter Prescott Webb Memorial Lectures at the University of Texas at Arlington. A prospective reader should keep in mind that they are occasional pieces, meant for initial oral presentation, and thus not likely to get involved in complex and nuanced theoretical issues, nor, on a [End Page 491] more positive note, to sink into unintelligible jargon. Second, the authors come at their subject primarily as teachers of history and literature; only Geoff Pingree and Peter Rollins (who wrote the volume introduction) are full-fledged film and media scholars. Third, those expecting the trashing of the historical film frequently launched by academic historians will find here a spirited defense of even the most inaccurate cinematic depictions of historical persons and events, primarily based on the pedagogical value of using films to teach history. Rollins in his introduction notes that the essays share a concern with distinguishing "accuracy" from "truth," and insists that it is the latter that distinguishes a useful cinematic portrayal of history. He moreover makes the pedagogical argument quite eloquently: "By treating historical films as works of art, we can appreciate the productions as we keep alert to the interpretations imposed by cinematic artists. In doing so, we become visually literate and better able to understand our past—and therefore our responsibilities to the present. Students can be reached in this way, and they are our future" (9).
The volume's culminating essay by Robert Brent Toplin, "In Defense of the Filmmakers," lays out the ideological ground clearly. Toplin values cinematic representations of history first and foremost because he sees the medium as uniquely able "to provide an emotional hook that pulls audience interest toward a study of the subject" (126). Even distorted histories at least get non-historians to become aware of forgotten people and events and to appreciate the significance of those that are vaguely familiar but not grasped in personal terms. (He cites Schindler's List and the television miniseries Holocaust for making abstract conceptions of atrocity painfully, viscerally present to viewers.) Furthermore, he does not worry that the inaccuracies and oversimplifications of popular movies may potentially mislead and misinform audiences, because he views them primarily from his perspective as a teacher who can use the fi lms as a starting point, not an ending point, for the discussion of the historical events they portray.
Toplin also generously makes the opposing case, and gets close to making it too well. He devotes four pages to five principal shortcomings of historical movies: they hew to the "great person" model of historiography; they depict events rather than explore or analyze what led to them; they do not offer comprehensive portrayals of the past; they present one-sided views of the issues; and they deal disproportionately with stories about war. Moreover, he freely admits that historical films' ability to get viewers interested in history can boomerang, as in the case of The Birth of a Nation leading to a revival of the Ku Klux Klan, or Patton influencing Richard Nixon to bomb Cambodia. A reader could not be blamed for seeing pedagogical utility as a poor counter-balance to such disastrous consequences. [End Page 492]
The remaining essays offer case studies that illuminate the points made by Rollins and Toplin. Richard Francaviglia's careful and balanced survey of films about the Middle East, with particular attention to the limited number of those which deal with the Crusades, highlights the possibility of historical films failing to open minds but rather to close them, becoming fodder to perpetuate existing dangerous ideologies: "It is easy to see why films about conflicts between religions may employ this principle to vilify others and ennoble themselves. Thus, by plumbing moral extremes, screenwriters can fuel intercultural and interfaith hostility" (89).
Daniel A. Nathan, Peter Berg, and Erin Klemyk provide a nuanced examination of the accuracy vs...