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Reviewed by:
  • Writing History with Lightning: Cinematic Representations of Nineteenth-Century America ed. by Matthew Christopher Hulbert and John C. Inscoe
  • Frank J. Wetta (bio)
Writing History with Lightning: Cinematic Representations of Nineteenth-Century America. Edited by Matthew Christopher Hulbert and John C. Inscoe. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019. Pp. 335. Cloth, $55.00.)

It may be an urban legend, but Woodrow Wilson is reported to have said after viewing D. W. Griffith’s epic The Birth of a Nation in 1915 that it was “like writing history with lightning.” And then he added, “My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” In 1931, when the film was rereleased with a soundtrack, Griffith filmed a prologue with actor Walter Huston. Huston asked him if the events portrayed in the film were true, especially the scenes involving the Ku Klux Klan. “Yes, I think it’s true,” Griffith replied, [End Page 289] “but, as Pontius Pilate said, ‘Truth, what is the truth?’” Writing History with Lightning is smart to begin with a discussion of Griffith’s cinematic opus. This film, despite its deeply racist themes, has remained a datum point in movie history for over a hundred years, in large measure because, as Hollywood’s first blockbuster, it set the standard for quality filmmaking and, crucially, foreshadowed the tremendous impact that the industry would have on how Americans viewed historical truth.

The editors judge that even in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Hollywood maintains its primacy as the regulator of collective remembrance—the ultimate influencer (though, surely, the History Channel must now be a contender). Movies are more than entertainment; they are “pop histories of the American experience” that inform our historical perceptions (3). It’s no exaggeration to say that people today learn more about history from seeing movies than they do from reading books.

In this first film book to cover the entire nineteenth century, the authors analyze movies produced between 1915 (Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation) and 2016 (Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation). Each of the twenty-six discrete essays (about ten pages each) examine how accurately the movies reflect nineteenth-century history. More important, they reveal how these films are anchored in the issues of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Films may tell stories about nineteenth-century Americans, but they inevitably reflect the cultural, racial, ethnic, social, gendered, environmental, political, and ideological concerns of contemporary Americans. In this way, Hollywood imposes modern sensibilities on nineteenth-century people. In other words, movies appear on the surface to be set in the past, but they are informed by and reflective of the present. They are “shaped directly by the political pulses, economic patterns, social evolutions and revolutions, and cultural mores of the places and the times in which they are produced” (4). Further, the editors emphasize, the movies have been principally shaped by white male producers, directors, writers, and actors. Whatever the perspective, movies based on true stories are always and in varied ways present-minded.

The book covers more than thirty films and is organized into five sections: the frontier and the early national period; slavery and the ante-bellum South; the sectional crisis and the Civil War; the Lost Cause, Reconstruction, and the postwar West; and the late nineteenth-century economy and immigration. The movies under consideration here are both old and new, obscure and well known. Quality acting, commercial success, and production values are far less important to the authors than cultural and political connections. [End Page 290]

A particular asset of this collection is that it introduces readers to films other than Hollywood’s classics. Consider, for example, The Far Horizons (1955), an epic of interracial love and imperial adventure on the Lewis and Clark Expedition; Mandingo (1975), a blaxploitation film about slavery, sex, and race in the Deep South; Santa Fe Trail (1940), in which Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn) and George Custer (Ronald Reagan) team up to oppose the fanatic John Brown (Raymond Massey); The Journey of August Jones (1995), a story of class and race in Southern Appalachia; Nate Parker’s history of the Nat Turner rebellion that became a...