- American History Thorough Hollywood Film: From the Revolution to the 1960s by Melvyn Stokes
Melvyn Stokes' latest is easy to read, but difficult to review. It has no organizing thesis to probe and critique. Nor is there a conclusion to stimulate reflection. It is, as Stokes concedes, a synthetic volume patterned after a history textbook, but with a twist. Unlike a traditional textbook, Stokes does not rely primarily on academic historians, but on American filmmakers, analyzing their films and the commentaries they generated. The result is an accessible, well-researched, and intriguing glimpse into how Hollywood has screened and interpreted the past.
Stokes begins his journey with the American Revolution, an event that has never much caught the fancy of Hollywood. He focuses on The Spirit of '76 (1917), America (1924), Revolution (1985), and The Patriot (2000), with the discussion of the first title, mostly drawn from the work of Anthony Slide and Michael Selig, being the highlight.
Thereafter, Stokes enters into the heart of his book, a four-chapter sequence revolving around the Civil War. He devotes one chapter to the underlying cause (slavery), another to the war itself, a third to its principal actor (Abraham Lincoln), and a final one to some of the war's legacies (the Lost Cause and the Ku Klux Klan). Given that he is the author of a well-regarded study of The Birth of the Nation, it is not surprising that these chapters are Stokes' best. He exhibits a solid grasp of multiple literatures and comments incisively on several films, including a nicely nuanced exploration of the ways in which The Birth of the Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) complicate as well as reinforce Lost Cause mythology.
While the Civil War-themed chapters grant a few high-profile releases greater attention, they also embed these discussions within more extensive surveys of the relevant filmographies. Stokes is less successful in this regard for the remainder of the book. His analysis of the Indian image in American cinema makes some useful references to other films, but focuses overwhelmingly on Dances with Wolves (1990). The same can be said for his chapters on the immigrant experience (Hester Street, 1975 and The Godfather Part II, 1974, the Great Depression (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940), HUAC (The Way We Were, 1973 and Guilty by Suspicion, 1991), and the 1960s (Mississippi Burning, 1988 and JFK, 1991).
Taken together, the final five chapters prove less satisfying than the first five. If Stokes remains a resourceful reader and researcher, a broader perspective is largely absent. For example, he misses an obvious opportunity to tie his chapter on the celluloid Indian to one of his reoccurring themes: the [End Page 87] idea that popular history often involves telling audiences what they expect to hear, which means omitting, submerging, and/or revising the problematic. American filmmakers have overwhelmingly relegated Indians and Indian Wars to a very specific span of time, the 1860s to the 1880s. The effect has been to downplay the centrality of these conflicts to American history, reducing a three century-program of ethnic cleansing into a few cowboy shootouts and cavalry charges. Stokes compounds this oversight by devoting nearly his entire discussion to a film set in the 1860s.
The book's other glaring weakness stems partly from the tension between the project's stated ambitions and the book's relatively modest length. To be clear, the problem is not that things are omitted. No book could ever survey the cinematic doppelgänger for every event, figure, era, and theme that appears in a textbook. The problem is that some omissions loom incredibly large, especially when contrasted with some of the included topics. In particular, it is hard to grasp how Stokes could omit World War II. Not only has it been the subject of far more box office hits than the American Revolution and the Civil War, but its memory has powerfully shaped (and continues to shape) how average Americans and policymakers see the world and America's position within it. Certainly, it would...