Masters at the Movies

Masters and the Movies, Take 13: Philippa Levine on the Trouble with Film

Robert Brent Toplin, March 2010

Under the rubric “Masters at the Movies,” this column features a variety of articles about film crafted by some of the most accomplished teachers and scholars in the profession. Most of the authors are familiar to readers principally in connection with their general contributions to scholarship rather than because of their specific work on film. Our readers rarely encounter these authors’ observations about movies and television programs. The “Masters” series invites these historians to consider how cinema can present exciting opportunities and challenges for interpreting the past.

In this issue Philippa Levine raises thoughtful questions regarding the potential of film to arouse our thinking about history. She acknowledges that well-crafted movies with talented actors can thrill audiences. Good films are seductive. But do they deliver the kind of multifaceted interpretations that historians seek when they address important subjects about the past? Examining four recent movies that drew substantial audiences or critical acclaim, Levine finds the productions wanting.

These movies offered many impressive qualities, notes Levine, yet they failed to portray history in complex ways. The films were visually stimulating and intelligently directed. They criticized prejudice through compelling drama. In each case, however, the filmmakers employed “long-held western stereotypes” when framing their stories. Levine suggests that moviemakers can do better, although she understands that they must operate as businesspeople. Directors face enormous pressures to deliver profitable, successful dramas. Consequently, they choose “easy sentimentality” over sophisticated analysis.

Can movies present history in ways that satisfy professional historians? Do dramatic productions inherently fail to give audiences what Levine calls “a complex examination of systems and structures”? Should we lament the tendency of cinema to focus on personalities rather than issues? Or should we accept the judgments of some film scholars who claim that movies offer distinctive commentaries on history, perspectives that are quite different from the ones presented by historians who communicate in lectures and writing. Directors exercise a good deal of dramatic license, these film scholars acknowledge, but those filmmakers can also help audiences to visualize the past in unique ways. Their portrayals excite viewers’ curiosity about the past and enthusiasm for reading books about history.

In this insightful analysis Philippa Levine challenges us to confront fundamental questions about the value of dramatic cinema for thinking about history.

Philippa Levine is Professor of History at the University of Southern California. Her research has focused particularly on race and sexuality in the British Empire. Among her books are Feminist Lives in Victorian England: Private Roles and Public Commitments (1990), Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (2003), Gender and Empire (2004), The British Empire: Sunrise and Sunset (2007), and Gender, Labour, War and Empire: Essays on Modern Britain (2009).

Robert Brent Toplin (Univ. of North Carolina at Wilmington, emeritus) is a member of the Perspectives on History editorial advisory board and edits the essays in the Masters at the Movies series, which he conceptualized.