Film and History: The State of the Union

Robert Brent Toplin, April 1999

In a session at the 1985 AHA annual meeting a producer of documentary films presented a very gloomy review of the status of history on film. He observed that political conservatives were strongly resisting efforts to fund educational films with public dollars. PBS, the source of television's few historical programs, did not seem likely to receive much financial support for educational programming in the years ahead. Furthermore, decisionmakers at the major commercial television networks were not demonstrating enthusiasm for projects about history. They appeared much more interested in producing sitcoms and other profitable forms of mass entertainment. Hollywood, too, seemed to offer little promise. Studio moguls on the West Coast sought action-adventure movies, not historical epics.

These assumptions about the demise of history on film turned out to be overly pessimistic. In fact, viewers can find much more history on today's small and large screens than they found in 1985. Historians may argue about the quality of these productions, but they can agree that the quantity has expanded considerably.

The growth of cable and satellite-based television since the mid-1980s created a multichannel universe that permitted greater attention to audience niches. A proliferation of channels enabled TV producers to direct attention to much smaller clusters of audience interests than NBC, ABC, and CBS could handle in the days of their shared monopoly over commercial entertainment. The explosion in programming not only brought vast new viewing opportunities to shoppers, sports enthusiasts, and evangelical Christians, but also opened choices for the rather substantial body of history enthusiasts among the American public. The Arts and Entertainment Network, the Learning Channel, CNN, and other channels began to feature a number of history programs. The History Channel, which began operations just a few years ago, has grown from under a million subscribers in its first year to more than 54 million today. C-SPAN also made contributions, featuring historians as authors and as "talking heads." Furthermore, Turner Classic Movies, American Movie Classics, and other stations offered reruns of Julius Caesar, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and other old Hollywood features in their film libraries.

Two important developments on PBS helped to make that channel a much more prolific contributor to historical reporting than the pessimistic producer imagined when he gave his assessment of history's present and future in film and television in 1985. The extraordinary popularity of Ken Burns's 1990 documentary film series about the American Civil War demonstrated that history programming could attract respectable audiences. Forty million Americans saw one or more programs in the first broadcast of the series. The success of The American Experience on PBS also showed that documentary films about history could excite a strong response from the viewing public. That series of films, which began annual broadcasts in 1988, won more than 150 awards and garnered solid audiences by PBS's standards (average nightly audiences are about eight million). Its most consistently popular films focused on the 20th-century presidents.

History also got a boost from Hollywood. Feature films about the past represented only a small portion of the hundreds produced each year, but they received much critical acclaim. In 11 years since the producer's pessimistic report (1986 to 1997) films with stories set in the past and films about real-life situations and figures from history received the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) Award nomination for Best Picture every year (in several years two, three, or four of those nominated for Best Picture fit this definition). In nine of those twelve years the winning picture featured a story set in the past (although, of course, the scripts varied widely in terms of the artistic license and creative fiction employed in the storytelling). The winners were Platoon, The Last Emperor, Driving Miss Daisy, Dances with Wolves, The Unforgiven, Schindler's List, Braveheart, The English Patient, and Titanic. All five of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture of 1998 present a historical setting or perspective. Two deal with Elizabethan England (Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love) and three focus on the World War II era (Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, and Life Is Beautiful).

We can see abundant signs, too, of a growing interest in film within the historical profession. Back in the 1980s I learned about this enthusiasm in numerous conversations with colleagues at AHA meetings and in other professional conventions. University and secondary school instructors reported excitedly about their efforts to incorporate films and videos in classroom teaching. Now, in the late 1990s, their reporting has changed. A substantial number of teaching historians observe that they are scheduling entire courses based on connections between film and history (they study, for example, the Vietnam War and film or the civil rights movement and film). Furthermore, today's public historians exhibit much more interest than before in featuring public programs based on films. A good example of this is the project called "From Rosie to Roosevelt," a well-planned series of public programs in libraries across the nation. The events, managed by National Video Resources in partnership with the American Library Association and funded in large part by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, feature screenings of documentary films about the American experience in World War II. In each public meeting a local scholar leads discussions that draw attention to evidence found in both films and books.

Expanding interest in film is also evident in scholarship. In December 1986 the Journal of American History established a regularly published section of film reviews, and the American Historical Review introduced a section in 1989. A journal dealing specifically with the subject (Film & History) has greatly expanded in size recently. Furthermore, sessions dealing with film have become familiar in the lists of sessions in convention programs, and both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians now give awards for outstanding treatments of history on film (the John E. O'Connor Award and the Erik Barnouw Award, respectively) along with their customary prizes for outstanding books and articles. Of late we have also seen the publication of a number of books about film and history, whereas such works were almost nonexistent in the 1980s.

While there is much to celebrate in view of developments since 1985, historians still express many concerns about film. For instance, some remain troubled by the popularity of commercal cinema and the influence of its historical interpretations. They seek ways to communicate their objections in public forums. Evidently they have achieved some small successes. Scholars' well-publicized criticisms of Mississippi Burning and Amistad seem to have damaged the legitimacy of these films in the competition for Best Picture. Historians also seek greater input in the making of documentary films. They want to do more than serve on screen as "talking heads." Also, many historians who have worked behind the scenes as consultants to film projects are not happy with their experiences. They complain that filmmakers often assign them to advisory roles only to advertise that the films received a scholarly stamp of approval. Historians seek more input in the design of films, including work in the early stages of planning. Some historians are dealing with these difficulties by studying the craft of filmmaking and creating their own film projects.

This special issue of Perspectives provides examples of the diverse ways historians are now dealing with film. Some of the authors (Kenneth T. Jackson, Lloyd Gardner, Carole Levin, Peter Kolchin, and Peter Rollins) review important Hollywood and TV dramas and documentaries that have excited considerable public interest or controversy. Richard White and Simon Schama report on their experiences working "inside" documentary film projects, and I have included an interview with Terry George, a screenwriter and movie director, in order to obtain a filmmaker's perspective on the challenges of portraying the past in dramatic film. Additionally, Kathryn Fuller and Steven Leuthold report on the challenges of using film in the history classroom.

I want to thank Robert Townsend and Pillarisetti Sudhir, editor and managing editor respectively, for promoting this effort to create a special issue of Perspectives devoted to the subject of film and history. Their enthusiastic support has helped to put discussions about film near the top of our professional agenda, where they belong. David Trask, contributing editor for articles about teaching, deserves thanks, too, for securing Leuthold's essay.

—Robert Brent Toplin is the contributing editor for film and media for Perspectives.