Film: The Historians' Dangerous Friend
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 5, Number 4, December 1975
- pp. 6-9
- Additional Information
FILM: THE HISTORIANS' DANGEROUS FRIENDm wows CRIPPS Now that historians have begun to explore the uses of film in the classroom, either by using the productions of others or by making their own films, many old questions of veracity, credibility, and reliability of sources reemerge from forgotten notes on historiography. Everyone knows that the perfect source is the one made for the fewest eyes—the private letter, the confidential diary, the personal memoir. But the old film used in making a compilation film was probably shot intentionally for public consumption as propaganda. Even then the provenance and the pedigree of most old film has been lost. We no longer know the motives of the cameraman, or his prejudices. So the historian's task of preserving his own scholarly standards on film seems hopeless. Moreover, historians and filmmakers are driven by different ambitions : the historian as craftsman whose work may become art, but whose goals include clarity and objective truth; the filmmaker as artist who suggests truth by remolding it in his own image. Indeed, one cinema historian, Jay Leyda, recalls not a single instance of cooperation between historians and filmmakers. Another writer has observed that "historians and sociologists have made only limited use of cinematic archives and have tended to question their value as historical evidence.1 The historian's reason is clear: he needs "strict verification of the conditions under which the pictures were made"; what they were like before editing, censorship, and reuse; what they were like before the martial music and the narrator's voice of doom were on the sound track. Thomas Cripps is Professor of History and coordinator of the graduate program in popular culture at Morgan State University (Baltimore) . He has written more than fifty articles and reviews and produced as many television programs. He wrote Black Shadows on the Silver Screen (Post-Newsweek TV) which won best documentary at the San Francisco Film Festival (1975) . He is on leave as a Rockefeller Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. The historians' handbooks are filled with cautionary tales of misleading documents: the elusive "Diary of a Public Man," Gideon Welles' covertly edited diary, the fabricated "Protocols of the Elders of Zion, But the search into film-as-record demands even more care. At the least, for example, the historian must know the conditions under which the film was shot and cut, as in the quiet conspiracy to avoid filming President Franklin D. Roosevelt's crippled legs.^ Other instances abound. An ancient Lumiere film used random footage shot in Finland, the Nile Delta, and Russia to tell the story of the famous Dreyfus case. Edwin S. Porter's primitive The Life of an American Fireman grew from fragments in the Edison film library. Robert Flaherty's classic romantic documentary, Nanook of the North, benefited from staged shots offered as candid record. At the turn of the century, studios regularly restaged the events of the day such as the sinking of the Maine and the Boxer Rebellion . Jay Leyda remembered shots of the British Navy in Eisenstein's Potemkin. In the 1920's the workers of Berlin made revolutionary films from stockshots in UFA' s library. During World War II, Humphrey Jennings ' Fires Were Started, although released as visual reality, made use of a staged fire and occasional retakes. During the career of The March of Time staged reenactments, among them Wendell Willkie, Douglas MacArthur, and Huey Long, gave false tones of authenticity to the films. More recently, Lionel Rogosin larded Come Back Africa with staged violence while the distributors of The Battle of Algiers allowed their drama to be taken as a fantasy-textbook by American putative urban guerrillas. ^ It is here that historians and filmmakers part company. Neither group is afraid to have a point of view, but historians insist that it spring from the evidence at hand and not from the artist's instincts. When Henry Luce describes the methods of The March of Time as "fakery in allegiance to truth," the historian cannot follow. It may be true, as one filmmaker writes, that "stock footage is to films what quotations are to literary works," but the historian must...