- Historical Film: A Critical Introduction by Jonathan Stubbs
In this useful and well-written book, Jonathan Stubbs synthesizes, critiques, and advances the current scholarship on historical film. One of his major contributions is his first chapter’s interrogation of whether or not historical film is, in fact, a “genre.” He applies the work on genre by Steve Neale, Rick Altman, Jason Mittell, and others to historical film and argues that the historical film genre is less about the textual characteristics of a body of films and more about the discourses that surround them. With this perspective, Stubbs examines various definitions of the historical film, from those of Robert Brent Toplin and Robert Burgoyne to David Eldridge and Marnie Hughes-Warrington. In the end, he offers a clear and capacious definition of “historical cinema as films which engage with history or which in some way construct a relationship to the past” (19). With this definition as his point of departure, he productively specifies the engagements historical film makes with the past as both textual—such as elements of mise en scène—and extra-textual, including promotion and reception. Although he mentions a number of examples of engagement, he more fully discusses two: the textual use of the written or spoken word and the extra-textual promotion of historical research. Both of these examples of engagement represent efforts by filmmakers to claim historical authenticity for their productions.
Stubbs’ first chapter demonstrates the virtues of the book as a whole. In keeping with the brief of the Bloomsbury Film Genre series, he references and provides overviews of key scholarly research and writing in the field and offers his assessment of the field’s future direction. His second chapter on how film represents and interprets history includes, for example, discussions of filmmakers’ use of historical detail to achieve authenticity, how they [End Page 65] seek to balance accuracy and artistic license, and the work of Robert Rosenstone.
Stubbs then presents three chronological chapters on Hollywood historical film, spanning the 20th and into the 21st centuries. These chapters cover numerous historical films, including the context of their production and reception, and provide a good starting point for scholars and students interested in specific historical films. These chapters also present a narrative of change over time in Hollywood, specifically a narrative of decline. During much of the 20th century, according to Stubbs, historical cinema lent prestige to and provided profits for the American motion picture industry. By the 21st century, however, “The commercial and cultural force of the historical film has dimmed but has by no means been extinguished, and the genre remains a significant and prestigious production category” (134). The recent spate of historical films to win Best Picture Oscars—The King’s Speech (2010), Argo (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013)—or to be nominated for Best Picture (half of 2014’s nominees were historical films) confirms that conclusion.
Following this excursion into film history, Stubbs presents a chapter on spectacle as an important aspect of historical film, including the use of technological innovations to create it. Drawing on the insights of Vivian Sobchack, he convincingly argues that spectacle is a crucial means by which filmmakers forge a connection to the past for spectators. The book’s last chapter presents debates and controversies among critics, censors, and educators over the cultural value of historical film. In his conclusion, Stubbs urges historians to take historical film seriously, to investigate how and why Hollywood filmmakers take on historical subjects, as do the readers of this journal. As the book’s title states, it is an “introduction,” but it is also one that will prove valuable to both experts and newcomers in the field of historical film studies.