- Hollywood’s History: The Historians’ Response
Historians often display a strong interest in motion pictures in their lunchroom conversations, but they write very little about them. Their occasional books and articles about movies usually treat popular films as reflections of the attitudes and concerns of a particular era. Rarely do historians write about the way film interprets history. Until recently, one of the few notable examples of such scholarship was a forum that appeared in a 1988 issue of The American Historical Review, which included essays by Robert A. Rosenstone, David Herlihy, Hayden White, John J. O’Connor, and this reviewer. Suddenly, the field of cinematic history looks busier: books that have appeared in the last year include Robert Rosenstone’s Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (1995) and Revisioning History: Film in the Construction of a New Past (1995), Mark. C. Carnes’s Past Imperfect, and my own History By Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (forthcoming from University of Illinois Press, 1996). The long-neglected subject of history through film may, at last, be attracting the interest it deserves.
Past Imperfect examines almost a hundred films through the eyes of both academic and independent enthusiasts of history. Each author analyzes a specific motion picture’s treatment of the past, observing the strengths and weaknesses in the portrayals and addressing relevant questions about the challenges of doing history on film. The volume also includes a brief but pithy introduction by Carnes, a kickoff conversation between historian Eric Foner and filmmaker John Sayles, and an amusing and thought-provoking “script” at the end by Simon Schama. Although the discussions include reviews of films about European and world history, most of the essays deal with movies about American history.
Carnes assembled an all-star cast for this collection of reviews. Among the commentators are Anthony Lewis, Gerda Lerner, Richard White, J. Anthony Lukas, Tom Wicker, Gore Vidal, Paul Fussell, Alan Brinkley, Geoffrey C. Ward, Frances Fitzgerald, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and William Leuchtenberg. [End Page 337] Evidently, the editor encountered little difficulty enticing contributors. Many of the authors readily agreed to step away from current projects and apply their expertise to Hollywood’s treatment of one of their favorite subjects. Several revealed that Hollywood movies made a contribution to their own fascination with history, especially in their youth. Sean Wilentz offers one of the most interesting testimonials, confessing that he got hooked on history at age seven while watching Buccaneer at a Brooklyn matinee.
In the introduction Carnes addresses questions about cinema’s impact on its audiences and concludes the influence is great. We often think about historical figures in terms of the movies’ depictions of them. George C. Scott is our Patton; Denzel Washington is Malcolm X; Ben Kingsley serves as our image of Gandhi. Indeed, many Americans get more of their news and their ideas about history from the screen than from books. Can this learning pattern produce a disaster for education and a crisis regarding the public’s understanding of the past? Carnes does not sound apprehensive; in fact, he finds genuine contributions to thought in cinema-based history. He claims movies “have spoken nearly always in ways we find fascinating,” and he points to their “unique capacity for stimulating dialogue about the past” (p. 10). Popular films may entertain and inspire at the same time, says Carnes, and “teach important truths about the human condition” (p. 9). Motion pictures are not a substitute for solid, research-based historical scholarship, he acknowledges, and sometimes filmmakers make exaggerated claims about the truthfulness of their products. Viewers should not accept film’s presentations as the last word on history but as “an invitation for further exploration” (p. 10).
Carnes’s comments are more sanguine about the value of historical movies than the views many other historians have expressed. While scholars have pointed out specific inaccuracies in motion pictures, they have generally been less concerned about whether the set designers got the wallpaper right than whether the writer and...