- A History of the U.S. in 20 Movies: An All-Movie History Course by M.W. Jacobs
At first glance, M.W. Jacobs seems to have taken on an impossible challenge in A History of the U.S. in 20 Movies. It is doubtful whether a satisfactory narrative could be generated from a pool of films two or even three times as large. But with the usual caveats regarding authorial selectivity and directorial subjectivity, Jacobs has produced a useful accounting of the major events and themes of our national past. This first of two projected volumes discusses ten films with a chronological range of 1607 to 1920. Jacobs has chosen his filmic texts well. Beginning with Terence Malick’s “The New World,” continuing with such historically rich offerings as “Amistad” and “Lincoln,” and concluding with John Sayles’ labor classic “Matewan,” the films on his list explore critical themes and crucial issues in American history.
Jacobs avoids the temptation to focus exclusively on individual characters and compelling personalities – Pocahontas, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln – instead using his films to seek out the deeper and broader questions that engage the serious historian. How did America’s national economic market emerge (“Amistad”)? Was slavery or states’ rights the primary cause of the Civil War (“Lincoln”)? Is the idea of “the West” a myth (“Little Big Man”)? What was the role of ethnicity and race in the development of the American labor movement (“Matewan”)? Jacobs employs the judgments of major academic historians, including Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Eric Foner, and James McPherson, to inform his own. He includes a timeline of events for each chapter, which, when taken together, comprise a solid and usable narrative of the first three centuries of American history. Jacobs also offers historical context – “before” and “after” sections – for the films he analyzes, as well as briefer discussions of other movies produced on the same or related subjects.
Jacobs’ historical judgments, with the exception of a misplaced comparison of the Confederacy to the 20th century Nazi regime in his discussion of “Gettysburg,” are sound. It is almost inevitable, given the predilections of the American film industry, that political and military history have pride of place in Jacobs’ analysis. But he also leaves room for discussion of economic (“Amistad”), religious (“The Crucible”), labor (“Matewan”), Western (“Little Big Man”), and Native American (“The New World,” “Little Big Man”) history. Throughout, the issue of race is treated with insight and sensitivity. Jacobs understands the ways in which race informs the whole of the American experience, undergirding every discussion and argument even when not articulated explicitly. He also examines the racial attitudes of his film characters even-handedly and on their own terms, a difficult task even for professionally trained historians.
Jacobs is careful not to claim too much for his films. He makes careful note of the instances in which they substitute fiction for fact. At the same time, he is sympathetically aware that “filmmakers are constantly balancing the demands of visual storytelling with those of historical accuracy” (136), and that virtually all films exist to entertain – and make money – as well as inform. But as this book aptly illustrates, a film director can enrich his studio while also enriching his viewers historically, as long as they know where and how to look.