The Historian and Film: Challenges Ahead
Robert Brent Toplin, April 1996
These are heady times for teachers, researchers, and public historians interested in film. Enthusiasm for the genre has grown tremendously in recent years. Sessions on film are featured frequently at professional meetings, the major history journals now regularly publish film reviews, and museums are giving greater attention to the culture of movies and television. Furthermore, historians are writing much more about film than ever before. A recently published book gives impressive evidence of this: Past Imperfect, edited by Mark C. Carnes, contains movie reviews from many well-known scholars who eagerly accepted their assignments. Gone are the days when professional historians turned up their noses at suggestions that film sometimes should figure prominently in discussions about the past.
Evidently, the first phase of the battle is coming to a close. For years, teachers who worked with film struggled to achieve a degree of respect for their work. Instructors tried to demonstrate that using film in the classroom does not constitute neglect of responsibility for lecturing and discussing. They spoke of "teaching a film" and encouraged students to ask questions about the moving image's mode of interpretation. Scholars, too, struggled for respectability. They said that an analysis of motion pictures and television programs can yield insights into the conscious and subconscious concerns of people in another time and place much as a study of literature can produce insights. They observed, too, that film can deliver thought-provoking perspectives on life in the past. Film is not simply entertainment, they asserted; it is an important cultural product. Public historians in turn demonstrated that film belongs in museum retrospectives. The Smithsonian Institution gave dignity to Archie Bunker's chair by displaying it prominently in Washington, D.C. Similarly, the Holocaust Museum featured newsreel excerpts depicting Hitler's rise and the Final Solution. All of these developments signaled that film and video had arrived. By the mid-1990s, historians found it much more acceptable to incorporate the moving image into historical studies than they had a few decades before. While not everyone in the profession was shouting "Hooray for Hollywood and the New York documentary makers," there was enough evidence of general enthusiasm to suggest that the goal of integrating the visual media into classrooms, publications, and public forums had largely been achieved.
What lies ahead for film-oriented historians after scoring these successes? If the first level of struggle was to do battle with critics who did not adequately appreciate film, perhaps the second level calls for a more critical stance toward work within the field. Now that the study of film has won a degree of respect in the profession, it is appropriate to ask, Which techniques of analysis need further development? Which questions about film and history deserve greater attention? How can historians working with film bring a greater degree of sophistication to their craft? Indeed, how can they prod each other, demanding that studies of the moving image break new ground and deliver new insights to scholars, students, and the public?
These are big questions, and it is difficult to muster answers. I sense that historians are beginning to give the questions more attention as they move into the second level of dialogue regarding film and history. For purposes of encouraging a greater exchange of ideas about the challenges ahead, I would like to summarize a few of the principal issues that seem to be emerging. I do not claim originality in identifying these ideas; rather, this list represents a pirating of concepts currently circulating in forums ranging from hallway conversations to scholarly publications.
One of the most fundamental challenges facing historians of film concerns the form and language for analysis. A few historians insist on borrowing overarching concepts from the field of film studies. They refer to Freudian, Marxist, and feminist perspectives; invoke the ideas of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Hayden White; and point to insights from deconstructionists and specialists in semiotics. Others are uncomfortable with the jargon or the ideological perspectives of the theorists. These individuals do not suggest a common structure of analysis. Eclectic in approach, they simply speak or write about film in a manner that appeals to them, drawing ideas from a variety of sources. While most historians display affinity for the latter group, there is growing evidence of interest in identifying broad constructs, schemes of analysis, and common points of reference (while avoiding the style and politics of the film theoreticians). A few years ago John E. O'Connor, working with support from the American Historical Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities, identified four broad ways historians can work with film. He noted that they can study film as a representation of history, use it for insights into the social and cultural values of the past, examine it as a form of historical evidence, and study the history of the film and television industries (see his edited work, The Image As Artifact: The Historical Analysis of Film and Television ). More recently, in Visions of the Past (1995), Robert A. Rosenstone attempted to use insights from the postmodernists without becoming entrapped in their seemingly elitist and opaque language. The observations of O'Connor, Rosenstone, and other scholars suggest that those who wish to integrate film into historical studies will need to consider new paradigms if they are to elevate the field to a higher plane.
Of the various approaches to studying film that O'Connor considered, one of the most popular has been the analysis of motion pictures for insights into the public's attitudes, tensions, and aspirations at a particular time in history. For instance, U.S. historians often refer to Invasion of the Body Snatchers when talking about conformity in the 1950s, or point to Dr. Strangelove for leverage in discussing the arms race and fear of nuclear holocaust in the 1960s. While such references are inherently interesting, little has been done in recent years to illuminate questions about intent and influence. We need to know more about the filmmakers' goals: were they aiming to deliver the messages historians have read into their movies? How did audiences receive their productions? Did viewers actually draw the conclusions historians have assumed? To advance discussions of the role of cinema in society, historians must base their observations on careful research into a movie's production history and audience reception rather than relying on loose speculation based almost exclusively on examinations of the motion picture.
The same need for deeper research applies to a different issue: the analysis of film as a form of historical interpretation. Observers must ask, How have filmmakers interpreted the past? Which techniques are commendable and which deserve criticism? How much fictionalizing is acceptable? Until recently, most discussions of these questions concentrated on elements in the plot and visual presentation. In other words, the historian's principal focus has been on the motion picture. This constitutes a superficial approach to research on film, however, and scholars are beginning to demand greater depth and breadth of study. For instance, they are treating the production itself as a subject for analysis. They attempt to learn about the personal background and viewpoints of the "authors" of the film, such as the producers, directors, and writers. They also study the production experience, including the economic and political pressures that often influence a filmmaker's interpretation. For such research, the historians' sources include scripts, unedited film clips, artistic notes, business correspondence, interviews, and other evidence that illuminate the record in ways that the finished film cannot possibly do. In these investigations, too, the historian needs more impressive evidence of audience reception. For instance, how did viewers in the United States and the rest of the world react to Oliver Stone's JFK? Did the motion picture significantly affect opinion about an assassination conspiracy, John F. Kennedy's plans for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, or other issues? A confident judgment requires more than personal speculation or reference to a few quotations.
In regard to assessing the quality of the history presented in films, historians offer widely diverging opinions. Some are still very skeptical of history presented on the screen, whether it is from Hollywood dramatists or from documentary makers. Commercial motion pictures particularly trouble them; they complain about manipulation, invention, distortion, misrepresentation, and simplification in movies like Mississippi Burning, Gandhi, and 1492: The Conquest of Paradise. Other scholars, such as Robert Rosenstone, welcome innovative approaches to history-based filmmaking, praise avant-garde efforts to experiment with nonlinear stories, and urge us to consider ways in which history through film is not the same as history through a book. Rosenstone's enthusiasm for bold efforts to "revision" the past is commendable, but some of the films he finds appealing will almost always remain on the periphery of public interest in the movies (such as the "postmodern" Walker , which juxtaposes the present and the past, showing Zippo lighters and helicopters in a story about U.S. intervention in Nicaragua in the 19th century).
The big controversies about historical film will continue to center around the "linear" stories, which Rosenstone often finds disappointing. Historians are just beginning to discuss in detail what they expect of mass-marketed docudramas. Clearly, they must object to excessive use of creative license, but the more sophisticated dialogue of the 1990s suggests little tolerance for the simplistic complaining of earlier decades. Historians now better recognize that a film is not a book or an article. It cannot "cover" every topic they wish to see addressed; it will not introduce complexity and multiple causes to the degree that history in print does; and it is less effective than print in providing abstract analysis. Furthermore, film-based history demonstrates a greater tendency to portray the past through appeals to the emotions and attention to personalities. Still, proponents of teaching and research with film understand that all historical interpretation (including writing) involves selectivity and creative imagination. They note, too, that some degree of invention is inherent in all docudrama and that the genre, despite its shortcomings, can provide a valuable stimulus to thought when it is done well. What constitutes a job well done is just beginning to command interest in the field's second level of development.
Another challenge for the future involves a move away from political themes. In general studies of history, we have already made considerable progress in this respect. Classroom activities, scholarship, and presentations in museums and historical sites now give greater attention to the broad subject of social history than they did in previous decades. This has not signaled the submergence of political history (and it is not completely divorced from it), but we now better recognize the value of studying people from the past whose lives were not intimately associated with elections, administrations, legislation, policies, and treaties. In historical studies of film, however, politics remains paramount. Lectures, books, and public displays frequently deal with the Hollywood- Washington, D.C., connection. And many historians demonstrate a strong interest in questions about censorship, apparently because the subject relates film to politics through attention to public opinion, regulation, and constitutional matters. The connections between politics and film will always prove appealing, but historians will have to put aside the crutch of politics in the second level of film studies if they hope to investigate some exciting new areas that have not been explored before.
There are also rich opportunities for scholars interested in studying the medium of television. Historians have largely overlooked TV. For various reasons, movies have seemed more appealing for analysis. Perhaps it is because Hollywood's motion pictures are easier to identify and appear to be more recognizably controversial than individual documentaries and docudramas lost in the mass of television offerings. It is easier to talk or write about The Birth of a Nation, The Battleship Potemkin, Young Winston, or Glory than to examine television's attempts at historical interpretation. Overlooked, too, is a much more prominent subject for study: television's role in modern society. Many American families keep a TV set turned on approximately seven hours a day; children and adolescents often devote three or four hours daily to television. Because TV has come to occupy such a large portion of the public's life, the subject of television and history offers rich material for social history. Its messages compete aggressively with society's traditional influences on youth—the family, the church, and the schoolhouse. Historians who wish to stay close to political history can also find many rich lodes to mine. TV has changed electioneering dramatically, and it has brought down individuals and policies (as in the Army-McCarthy hearings, the Watergate hearings, and reporting on the Vietnam War). These are just a few of the many important implications. Unfortunately, television remains largely neglected. There are few insightful contributions on the subject in historical scholarship, and classes on film and history are much more prominent in university catalogs than are courses on television and history.
Finally, we need to learn more about the role of historians in filmmaking. When the director John Ford made Young Mr. Lincoln in the late 1930s, he did not turn to scholars for advice. Today, the situation is quite different. Hundreds of historians have served as advisers for various film projects, including feature films. A few have secured more involved roles, working as project creators, script writers, primary consultants, or producers (among them, Natalie Zemon Davis, Virginia Yans, R. J. Raak, and Daniel Walkowitz). But only a few of the hundreds have reported on their important experiences working from the inside. As more historian-filmmakers begin to talk and write, we will gain a better understanding of the opportunities and difficulties associated with presenting history through the moving image.
The historians who have worked with film and television over recent years now sense that their pursuits are attracting considerable attention. They are like the early users of the Internet who suddenly discovered that their medium was tremendously popular and there was much demand for their insights. In view of the history profession's fast-growing interest in the moving image, teachers, writers, and public historians can now find abundant chances to integrate media studies into their work. Their explorations will prove especially fruitful if they challenge traditional modes of investigation and seek new paths to understanding.
—Robert Brent Toplin is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He is editor of film reviews for the Journal of American History and editor for film and media for this newsletter. He was the creator of historical dramas that appeared nationally on PBS television and the Disney Channel and is the author of History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (1996) and editor of Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond (1996).