- Fraught Relationship
When Titanic was released, many complained that Leonardo DiCaprio sounded too modern and that his romance with Kate Winslet, a young woman from a higher class, was unbelievable. Did this make it a bad movie? Or should other factors be taken into account when assessing a film based on historical events and characters? Any time a film is set in the past, there are usually objections from critics, historians, and other viewers to the film’s presentation of history. They charge that events are altered, that characters seem too contemporary, that the landscape or costuming or technology is inaccurate—the list is endless.
This fraught relationship between history and film was explored in the fortieth Walter Prescott Webb Memorial Lectures, given at the University of Texas at Arlington, in 2005. Lights, Camera, History is a collection of these lectures, all of which discuss, more or less successfully, the ways in which film presents and reflects on history. In his introductory essay, film historian Peter C. Rollins sees the problems connected with any presentation of other times and places as “the underlying issue about writing history—accuracy vs. truth.”
The five essays included in this volume confront a wide variety of historical films, ranging from The Birth of a Nation (1915) through Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Robert Brent Toplin’s essay, “In Defense of the Filmmakers,” meets the criticism of [End Page 94] historical films head on as he discusses whether films that present controversial events and people—such as Gandhi, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan—influence how audiences view the past. He reviews both negative and positive uses of historical films, and, although he discusses in detail five shortcomings of cinematic history, he concludes with the positives, that these films can be “considered useful aids for raising questions and launching informed and insightful discussions about the past.” A fine example of how one film can construct the past is in the essay “The Truth Wrapped in a Package of Lies: Hollywood, History, and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York,” by Daniel A. Nathan, Peter Berg, and Erin Klemayk. They discuss not only the multiple contexts in which the film is embedded but also how it is part of Scorsese’s career-long filmic construction of New York. Scorsese’s presentation of the Draft Riots has been accused of being excessively violent, but the authors’ investigation of the time period points toward the film creating “a coherent…narrative out of a historically complex moment.”
Geoff Pingree, in “History Is What Remains: Cinema’s Challenge to Ideas about the Past,” also focuses on a single film, Human Remains. Less well-known than the ones above, Human Remains uses archival materials to present five twentieth-century dictators: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, and Mao. This short film, a pastiche of conventional interview documentaries, presents these men as though they were actually being interviewed. The fabricated questions and answers often focus on banal topics, showing how pedestrian these men were. The question, though, is whether this playing around with history provides us with insight into these tyrants or simply confuses the presentation of them.
Like Pingree, Robert Rosenstone focuses on actual historical characters in his “In Praise of the Biopic.” Rosenstone discusses the interpretive issues at work in depicting historical characters and how biography is altered during the filming process. The constraints on biographical films are further illustrated through his discussion of three films—Reds (1981), Reed: Insurgent Mexico (1972), and Red Bells (1981)—by directors from the United States, Mexico, and the Soviet Union, respectively. In each, Jack Reed is the focus, but the balance between his political ideals and personal relationships is significantly different in each one, as is the scope, style, and vision. As Rosenstone asks, “Each of these films…has much to tell us about the man and his personal struggles, and each suggests something about the larger issues of the times in...