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Reviewed by:
  • The History on Film Reader
  • Cynthia Childs
Marnie Hughes-Warrington, editor The History on Film Reader Routledge, 2009; 326 pages; $35.00

There has been ongoing debate regarding the relationship between the crafting of formal written history and what historian Robert Schneider terms “an important and influential medium” for connecting with the past—the historical film. This collection of twenty-seven essays, edited by Marnie Hughes-Warrington, seeks to foster further “discussion on films as history” (8). Hughes-Warrington, a professor of Modern History at Macquarie University, has assembled an eclectic collection of essays by both history and film scholars. Her introduction opens the work with a concise summation of the debate on just what history presented on film might be doing, elucidates what she sees as the key points “that have shaped historical film scholarship in the past thirty years” (8), and presents a basic framework for how she sees these ideas playing out. She divides the remainder of the work into five parts, each with a preface effectively setting forth that section’s organizational themes and fitting each of its essays into the overall scheme of the work.

Part 1 offers five essays that Hughes-Warrington views as seminal to theorizing the historical film as “a distinct form of history that needs to be understood on its own terms” (14) and that present some of the main threads contributing to the debate on the doing of history on film. These include Pierre Sorlin’s early essay suggesting that the historical film may be regarded as a special case but concluding that “historical films are all fictional” (16); Natalie Zemon Davis’ considerations on achieving historical authenticity; Robert Rosenstone’s essay examining two approaches—one supporting the idea that films do history, the other opposed—and falling in with the first view (30); Marcia Landy’s overview of theorists who argue for changes in how history might be carried out in an effort to rethink “the relationship of media to historical representation” (51); and finally Hayden White’s essay offering a postmodernist explication of why both filmic and written histories should be considered as discourses on history. [End Page 17]

Following the first part’s engagement with the basic issues of the debate, Part 2 then explores some of the forms the historical film have taken, the idea being that creators shape their products—authors for written histories, filmmakers for film—through choices they make about form, be it written or cinematic. Included in this section are an analysis of the body vis-à-vis the relationship between actors and the historical characters they play, Mary Ann Doane’s look at cinematic time as a challenge to capitalist modernity, a reading of the many ways in which flashbacks function, a Gilles Deleuze contribution on time in film, and two essays exploring the uses of humor in representing the Holocaust.

Part 3 turns to “the ways in which scholars connect historical films with current-day problems and notions of identity,” that is, interpreting such films “as being about the present” (133). The assembled case studies focus on films that deal specifically with identity in the United States, such as Monica Silveira Cyrino’s reading of Gladiator (2000) as being as much about the social, economic, and political power of 21st century America as about ancient Rome, or Susan Aronstein’s take on First Knight (1995) as using Arthur’s roundtable as a validation of the Clinton era.

Part 4 extends the discussion by taking it into an even more theoretical realm with essays by, among others, Jean Baudrillard who argues for history films to be regarded as simulations that approach “with greater and greater perfection, to the absolute real” (191) from his 1994 Simulacra and Simulations; Roland Barthes’ iconical reading of the sign of the “Roman fringe”; or Linda Williams’ look at documentaries that incorporate aspects of feature films.

Focusing on the concept that the historical film has an impact on audiences distinct from that of other film genres, Part 5 addresses viewer reception and marketing. Two articles speak to audience response, the first looking at research on ways to gauge how the past is accessed and understood by...


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