- Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood
Reel History is written by someone whom I like as a person and admire as an active publicist, but whose scholarship I have always found lacking in depth. Toplin has been tireless in promoting the subfield of history and film, in trying to show that historians cannot simply reject dramatic film as a medium for telling the past. To this end he has sponsored panels at academic meetings and conferences; served as the media editor for the American Historical Association's monthly bulletin, Perspectives; edited two volumes, one devoted to the films of Ken Burns and the other to those of Oliver Stone (to which I was a contributor); written numerous essays; and produced two books entirely on his own.
The burden of Reel History lies in the title of Chapter 1, "Cinematic History as a Genre." Drawing to some extent on the theory of genres as developed by scholars in cinema studies, he in this chapter proposes nine rules (or practices) that mark "cinematic history" (Toplin's term) as a genre. I can forgive the fact that at least five of his categories seem to derive directly from an essay that I wrote on historical film in 1988 in a forum of the American Historical Review, to which he was also a contributor, because I am well acknowledged elsewhere in the book.1 What is less forgivable is that even described at length, these categories do not advance our understanding of what film might contribute to our knowledge of the past.
The underlying problem seems to be with the notion of genre. Even if historical film were given the status of a genre, what would be gained? Unlike other genres (the Western, the Musical, the Gangster Film), the historical film ultimately refers to a discourse outside the frame. Scholars in cinema studies can study genres to analyze different patterns of meaning produced in Hollywood in various eras. Scholars could do the same with historical films, without answering the larger question that Toplin does not really address—how do such films relate to the more traditional history that we read and write? That is, how do they relate to (reflect? impact? undermine? supplement? contest?) the larger discourse of history to which they must inevitably refer? Rather, Toplin tends to back and fill, saying that a particular film is right in some particulars but wrong in others, or that a particular filmmaker got something right and other things wrong. But never does he fully face the broader theoretical issue of how historical films communicate about the past. My own answer would be that they do so not literally, but symbolically and metaphorically, but Toplin is too narrowly focused on the literal to make any such assessment.
The categories that mark the historical genre for Toplin are not sharply defined: For example, Cinematic History (CH) simplifies historical [End Page 159] evidence and excludes many details. CH offers partisan views of the past, clearly identifying heroes and villains. CH simplifies plots by featuring only a few representative characters. CH frequently injects romance into its stories. CH communicates a feeling for the past through attention to details of an earlier age. CH often communicates as powerfully through images and sounds as in words.
None of these characteristics is, exactly, wrong. But two decades after historians have begun to explore the meaning of film, they seem so obvious as hardly to need repeating. This is a problem that marks the whole volume, including later chapters on judging and studying CH. Toplin not only tends to belabor the obvious; he does so repetitively. It might not matter were there a clear and cogent proposal in the book about how historians should think about historical film, or how such film sits with regard to our current knowledge of history. Instead Toplin provides a great deal of information about, and a certain amount of insight into, the production and reception of such films as Amistad, The Hurricane, JFK, and Patton. Interesting as this material can be, it...