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From the Letters to the Editor column in the May 1999 Perspectives

Is "Reel History" Too Much Fun?

Marshall Poe, Catherine Ann Curry, Michael Mase, and Herbert Aptheker, May 1999

To the Editor:

It was with some dismay that I read the most recent edition of Perspectives. Why, may I ask, devote an entire issue to film when there are serious issues to discuss? Believe me, I'm not opposed to a little fun now and then. We cannot spend all our time talking about the crisis in academic publishing, the dearth of good jobs, the slavery of adjuncts, the proliferation of truly deranged "historical" material on the Internet, the abuse of tenure by completely inactive senior colleagues, the poverty of graduate students, the attempt to create "standards" for high school history instruction, the systematic failure of search committees to hire the most qualified candidates, the elimination of NEH funding for important research programs, the proliferation of "interest-based" journals that don't even make motions toward objectivity, the acceptance of hordes of graduate students by programs that know they will never get jobs, the American mania for all things here and now (vs. there and old), etc., etc. But film? Each of the articles in this issue points out that most history on the screen does not meet our professional standards. And where is the news in that incredibly obvious insight? How is this pearl of wisdom supposed to help the membership of the AHA? What's next? How about reviews of comic books like "Sargent Rock"? Lots of kids read it and it deals with WWII, so why not? Or maybe historical novels? Even better, how about video games. Many of them have vaguely "medieval" settings, so they could be reviewed. Oh yes, if you are going to review these sort of things, make sure they are all from the English-speaking world because (as a quick look at your "film" issue suggests), the rest of the planet doesn't really matter. The AHA is a professional organization, but Perspectives is not a very professional newsletter. It is hard to imagine, for example, a newsletter of surgery giving itself over to a consideration of the depiction of surgery in film. "You know, we don't really do that in the operating room and it's a darn shame those pesky directors don't get it right!" The professional obligation of surgeons is to save lives, so their newsletters are about surgery. The professional obligation of historians is to write authoritative, accurate history. Our newsletter is about historical fiction on film? In the future, please try to be serious.

—Marshall Poe
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, N.J.

To the Editor:

Thanks for the great issue of Perspectives on "Reel History." I enjoyed it very much. I think this is a service the profession can do for people.

I am glad the AHA is finally addressing the part-time problem. It is surprising that an organization or union has not been formed ere now.

—Catherine Ann Curry
San Francisco

To the Editor:

I wish to thank Carole Levin for the article on the film Elizabeth. I am passing it around for friends to read.

I saw this film with several friends, all of whom are college graduates, and none of whom could make heads or tails of the film. I was given the task of explaining what was going on, and found that I had to rewrite the film to make any sense of it. The last scenes in particular—the scene from the statue of the Virgin, through the hair cutting and paste making, to the entrance as the Virgin Queen, were just too much to bear.

Levin is correct to criticize the "weak" development of Elizabeth and the representation of some type of sudden conversion from an ineffective girl to an early Iron Lady. It was not just history that was thrown out the window, so was good script writing and editing. It is a pity that such effective actors were saddled with such poor direction and writing.

Thank you Professor Levin, your article explains far better than I did the shortcomings of this film to my friends and colleagues.

—Michael Mase
via the Internet

To the Editor:

The essay by Jeanine Basinger on Saving Private Ryan (Perspectives, October 1998) was excellent. As one who served in the field artillery for over four years and was in France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, I felt intensely the film's reality. (I broke down at its conclusion and wept for several minutes.)

But there is a major lack in the film, not noted by Basinger. This was its failure to convey any sense of the reality of Hitlerism's monstrosity. Simply soldiers of two opposing armies in action—all done superbly. But what we saw in Europe—its ravishment by the Nazis, the barbarisms of its armies, the devastation and suffering we fought to terminate, no hint of this is in the film.

This, I suppose, would conflict with Washington's postwar policy of alliance with the forces—and even personalities—responsible for the infinite horror those forces created.

—Herbert Aptheker
via Robert Brent Toplin