On Film Reviews in the AHR

Robert A. Schneider, May 2006

The New WorldWe at the American Historical Review have decided on a change of policy on reviewing films; our intention is to replace individual film reviews with extended review essays on films of historical interest. What is the source of this change? What kinds of review essays are we seeking?

The American Historical Review has been reviewing films of historical interest on a regular basis since 1988. An AHR Forum in the December issue of that year, introduced by Robert A. Rosenstone, examined "the problems and possibilities of portraying history on film" ("In This Issue," p. iv) and included extended comments by David Herlihy, Hayden White, John E. O'Connor, and Robert Brent Toplin. Thereafter, one issue a year featured a section of reviews by historians of films, both documentary and feature, from around the world. The reviews were organized according to continent, with a pretty fair global distribution. Rosenstone edited this annual feature until 1995, when it was taken over by Thomas Prasch. Two years later, in 1997, there was another shift: film reviews were placed after the "Reviews of Books" section, and they were no longer organized geographically. This new placement, as well as the change in layout and type size, seemed to indicate a desire on the part of the editors to treat films in the same manner as books, a view that was confirmed when, in 2004, film reviews were merged into the book review section, which was renamed "Reviews of Books and Films." Throughout this period, the AHR reviewed between 25 and 30 films a year, sometimes more, sometimes fewer. In recent years, there seems to have been a significant decline in the number reviewed (only 17 films were reviewed in 2003, 15 in 2004, and 18 in 2005). Beyond these, there have been occasional AHR Forums and articles addressing specific films of historical interest, especially those that have provoked public discussion, such as Oliver Stone's JFK, Spike Lee's Malcolm X, and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.

In the February 2006 issue of the AHR, I announced a temporary suspension of film reviews. I did this because of a widespread dissatisfaction with the nature and scope of our treatment of this medium. On the one hand (I noted), there is a consensus that we must find a way to continue to address the scholarly and pedagogical relevance of films, and in particular to do so in a way that acknowledges film's global impact and reach. To this I would add two comments: First, the very acknowledgment of pedagogical value as a criterion for reviewing a film represents something of a departure for the AHR, which normally restricts its reviews to books deemed scholarly. We review neither textbooks nor other books aimed primarily at students or a general readership. How do we square this long-standing policy, which goes to the core of the journal's definition and mission as primarily a scholarly organ, with reviewing movies that, although undoubtedly useful as teaching devices, do not always contribute to an analytical, sophisticated understanding of history? Second, while the notion of film as scholarship has been asserted vigorously and convincingly by historians and others, it is by no means shared or understood across the profession.

On the other hand (as I noted), it is apparent that we have neither the resources nor the expertise to provide anything more than inadequate and uneven coverage of historically pertinent movies. This problem is both logistical and intellectual, and raises questions having to do with the consistency of our reviewing policy and practice as well. A reminder of what goes into the process and practice of reviewing books at the journal serves to highlight the problem. In reviewing books, the AHR both strives for comprehensiveness and is guided by scholarly expertise. While we decide not to review many of the more than 2,500 books sent to us every year, we take pride in managing to cover an enormous range of bona fide scholarship—and we are constantly looking to enlarge our coverage in fields and regions where it has been underrepresented. More than 200 books are reviewed in each of our five annual issues. Do we miss some books? Of course we do, but neither for want of trying, nor because we are less than serious about trying to be comprehensive. For the actual reviews, we draw upon a community of scholars who have themselves produced the kind of work they are evaluating—that is, only those who have written monographs are considered qualified to judge the written work of others. In this sense—and in contrast to other kinds of criticism—there is no disconnect between the reviewer and the object reviewed.

For films, the discrepancies on both counts are striking. We have reviewed only a handful of films. In comparison to the number of books reviewed, our past efforts have yielded coverage that is minuscule; and any imaginable, realistic future efforts will hardly be an improvement. At best we will be able to offer a sampling of historically pertinent films to our readers. The reason for this is largely practical—we simply do not have the personnel and resources to find and evaluate films for review or to select the appropriate reviewers. Unlike book publishers, film production companies and distributors do not routinely send out review copies. Even more problematically, our reviewers have usually been historians with little training or expertise in film studies and often with little interest in the medium other than as moviegoers. No wonder the dominant approach of reviewers has been to assess the historical accuracy of a film, paying little attention to the specificity of film as a language or mode of representation (something which those with a deep interest in film are quick to point out). When historians review films, they usually write about what they know about—accuracy, verisimilitude, and pedagogical usefulness. These are not inconsiderable as commentary, but it is a far cry from what we expect from them in a book review.

For this and other reasons, I have decided to remove the film reviews from the book review section, and indeed, to address film in a way that is different from how we deal with traditional print scholarship. What I would like to see is space, ideally in every issue, devoted to a review essay on films of historic interest. These could be documentary or feature films, chosen primarily for their pedagogic usefulness or scholarly value, or simply because of their public impact. And I would especially like to see these essays bring to our attention films from areas of the world where our awareness is usually thwarted. In order to realize this goal, however, we will have to rely upon knowledgeable historians and other historically minded students of film willing, in the interest of increasing our understanding of the relationship of film to the study of history, to generate and submit essays of this sort. In short, I am writing this as an appeal for submissions. We at the AHR will offer you guidance, editorial and otherwise; if possible, we will procure copies of films for you to view. I should note that, like other submissions, these essays will be subjected to a review process. In short, we would welcome your input and suggestions, and we hope to be able to tap into the considerable reservoir of interest and expertise in the genre and culture of film within the community of historians and our fellow travelers.

—Robert A. Schneider is editor of the American Historical Review. He would like to thank Jane Lyle and Patti Torp for help in preparing this article. He welcomes comments at raschnei@indiana.edu.