Film and Media

Needed: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue

Robert Brent Toplin, November 1999

In his attack on the Reel History issue of Perspectives (April 1999), Professor Rosenstone says the special issue implies that the articles "represent the current state of research on the relationship between history and film." This was not our intention, and we never made that claim, either explicitly or implicitly. As mentioned in the introduction, the issue provides a look at a variety of ways some historians are dealing with film: working as an adviser to a film project, serving as the principal on-camera host of a documentary, integrating film into classroom teaching, studying the use of drama to communicate ideas about history, and reviewing documentary films that deal with significant historical subjects such as slavery in America and the Cold War. Even if the special issue of Perspectives had included articles on theory from Rosenstone and discussions about Rosenstone's concerns in each of the articles by other authors, it could hardly have been considered a comprehensive statement on the subject.

It is odd to see the charge that Reel History gave us "almost nothing" of recent vintage on "the theory, practice, or understanding of film and history," because, as editor of the special issue, I approached Professor Rosenstone about writing an article when Reel History was in the planning stages (I also approached one of the scholars he recommends to us for a better theoretical understanding of the subject). Both individuals indicated that they were too busy at the time to take on the assignment. If Professor Rosenstone had committed his words to print at an earlier time, he could have had an opportunity to ensure that the collection of articles brought up the conceptual issues directly.

The main thrust of Rosenstone's message is to encourage historians to become familiar with the evolving theoretical literature on film and history. He wants them to understand that condensation, alteration, and invention are necessary in historical film, that the story on the screen is not a literal interpretation, and that film can deliver insights as important as books (but in a different manner). These are very important points. They raise our thinking about historical film to a higher level, above narrow questions about whether a filmmaker got the hats right in a docu- drama or left a speech out of a documentary. But is there not also a correlative to consider? In other words, if we can accept the conclusion that historians need to become better versed in the literature of film studies, shouldn't we also insist that people in film studies need to develop sensitivity to the issues that concern historians? For purposes of this discussion, my general reference to "film studies" relates to scholars from diverse backgrounds: professionals from film studies programs, specialists in literature; historians with an interest in connections between history, philosophy, psychology, literature, and film; deconstructionists from various disciplines; and others.

Although Rosenstone accuses the contributors to Reel History of being "intellectually narrow, even parochial," he is rather sanguine about the supposed insights that can be drawn from reading the theoretical literature (except in a brief concession that these writings may be "preliminary, tentative, and wrongheaded"). There is almost no critical dimension to his discussion of film studies scholarship. Are there no problems with that literature?

More important, Rosenstone could have demonstrated greater balance in pointing out new ways to think about historical film. He has certainly done a splendid job helping us to think positively about what a filmmaker can do with history. In various publications Rosenstone has argued that Oliver Stone's JFK is an intelligent motion picture because it addresses some larger "truths"; that Walker, with its juxtaposition of 19th-century examples of American imperialism with 20th-century icons of cultural and corporate imperialism, raises intriguing historical questions; and that Glory presents a useful perspective on the past despite some necessary and understandable manipulations by the filmmaker. But are any manipulations problematic? Is every invention a praiseworthy example of imaginative filmmaking? In which situations are criticisms appropriate? Are questions about historical representation, by their very nature, irrelevant? It is not enough to make a relativist case, frequently citing Hayden White's deconstructionist reminder that scholars of the printed word also invent. Indeed, are there no limits to White's model? Can it be taken to extremes?

Film studies specialists are very demanding, claiming that historians ought to read their literature and become familiar with their paradigms. But are they eager to listen to historians, and ponder the issues that interest them? Indeed, are they willing to read the historians' literature and become aware, to use Rosenstone's words, that there is a "cumulative dimension to historical scholarship"?

Interestingly, many individuals writing from the perspective of film studies give relatively little attention to historical scholarship. Often, their footnotes in articles and books about history and film contain very few references to research in history. Instead, the writers refer to other films or to ideas about film promoted by various film studies theorists (they are also inclined to slip in a reference or two to Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault). Many of these writers pay little attention to scholarship in history because they do not feel it is pertinent to the issues that interest them. In fact, many of them consider the question that often intrigues history professionals-how well does a film deal with the past?-pretty much irrelevant.

Professional historians and film studies scholars also differ in their views of what constitutes research. Historians are likely to be disappointed when they see that a large part of the discussion in film studies literature is limited to an analysis of what appears on the screen. Film studies specialists focus on elements of the plot, directors' choices about camera angles, and ideologies hidden in symbols, and they often speculate about the meaning of details in individual scenes. Historians will appreciate some of the insights derived from this approach, learning, for instance, how to break down the parts of a scene to understand the language of a film's communication. But they will hunger for more.

When the subject of discussion is historical film, historians may seek a more probing type of scholarship, an attempt to get behind the film and learn about its own production "history." This can include an investigation of the personal background, politics, and philosophy of the "authors" of the film (such as producers, writers, directors, and cinematographers). Attention to the production's history can also lead historians toward the pursuit of specific research evidence such as scripts, unedited film clips, the filmmakers' correspondence, office memos, script notations, interviews, and other sources. This kind of evidence can help to answer questions about the construction of cinematic interpretations of history in ways that discussions focusing on the finished film and the opinions of film scholars cannot. Of course, scholars who are uninterested in the filmmakers' views of history may not engage in this kind of research.

Historians are also much more curious about reception. They want to know: How did the public react to the historical film? What lessons did audiences draw from it? How did the film stir debates about history in the popular media? Did the film have an impact on the public's thinking about history?

Differences of opinion about which questions are important sometimes produce friction between historians and film studies specialists. Film scholars often give a cold reception to the historians' interest in assessing filmmakers' presentations of history. Some film specialists have crusaded so strongly for the idea that film is art and entertainment and communication and business that they seem rather uncomfortable with discussions about film as "history." When film scholars encounter historians raising criticisms of Hollywood productions, they often respond by saying, essentially, "Don't get so serious. It's a movie, stupid."

This kind of reaction does not do much to advance a dialogue. Many historians do want to talk about historical interpretation. They sense that films, both in documentary and dramatic form, are making a significant impact on the way the public perceives history. Historians recognize that television programs such as The Civil War and Hollywood movies such as Schindler's List can arouse public interest in the past in extraordinary ways. Many of these historians well appreciate the caveats Rosenstone articulated in his essay. They understand that film is different. They recognize it is not the same as a lecture or an article, and that the creators of films are usually more interested in delivering profitable entertainment than in providing instruction to the masses. Still, historians want to know: What kind of history does film provide, and how can it be judged?

There are perils in trying to combine an interest in investigating cinematic interpretations of history with an interest in addressing issues that Rosenstone raises. Sometimes when I make just a brief reference to historians' criticisms of film, the observation draws angry fire. For example, Maureen Ogle complained (in the September Perspectives) about my article in Reel History. She wrote: "Let me get this straight: According to Robert Brent Toplin, historians have taken it upon themselves to function as monitors and watchdogs of the film industry." She went on to question whether there are "any limits to historians' professional arrogance."

Reading Ogle's letter, I wondered if she drew inspiration from the weird and mistaken reading that film studies specialist Robert Sklar gave my book History By Hollywood. Despite abundant arguments in History By Hollywood stating that we need to see filmmaking as very different from writing and lecturing (an insight I gained, in part, from several years of work as a creator of historical dramas that appeared on PBS Television and the Disney Channel), Sklar accused me of leaving the impression "that there is a single, authentic past which filmmakers should strive to represent." Suggesting that I wanted to employ a "highway patrol model" for chasing down filmmakers who are guilty of distorting history, Sklar asked, much like Ogle, "By what authority does an academic historian assert power over how filmmakers interpret history?"

Both questions are ridiculous, yet historians who suggest that we need to assess the treatment of history in film are likely to encounter them. Some critics seem wedded to the misguided notion that historians are proposing gatekeeping, turf protection, thought policing, or censorship when they express judgments about filmmakers' treatments of the past.

Robert Rosenstone's sophisticated commentary certainly does not make such claims, but why should we accept his suggestion that historians unschooled in the film studies literature are ill-prepared to understand the issues he raises? There are several fine historians who have contributed informed discussions about film that do, indeed, contain a number of sophisticated observations about the way films communicate (including contributors to Reel History). One of Rosenstone's primary illustrations showing how we can reach a higher level of discussion relates to Glory. Rosenstone justifies the movie's occasional manipulation of evidence, since it manages to communicate important arguments and truths about history. Rosenstone, I, and several other film scholars have cited this example in many publications to make a case against nit-picking. But let us acknowledge the original source of our inspiration-an insightful article about Glory published in 1989 by James M. McPherson, a respected Civil War historian who had not immersed himself in the film studies literature (Rosenstone cites McPherson's article in other publications).

In sum, we face an important challenge, one that is more complex than Rosenstone's article suggests. It involves not only the difficult task of exposing historians to ideas from film studies; it is also the challenge of making scholars in film studies aware of the concerns of professional historians. Enthusiasts of the film studies perspective need to face the C-word-to acknowledge that historians care a great deal about it and to explain (forthrightly and in intelligible language) how they propose to deal with it. The C-word is content. Much more than film studies specialists, historians want to talk about the historical substance of films, the words, pictures, structures, narratives, and other elements that communicate interpretations of the past.

So how do we get the two groups to communicate better with each other? How do we promote a cross-pollination of ideas that can bring discussions of historical film to a more sophisticated level? It can certainly be helpful for historians to gain greater exposure to the scholarship on film, as Rosenstone argues, but it will also be helpful if film studies scholars learn to address issues of concern to historians. We need a dialogue, not a monologue, a respectful appreciation of perspectives, not a finger-waving exercise.

A final note. It should be obvious that I believe historians should play an important role in judging historical presentations that turn up on the screen. When making these judgments, historians need, of course, to be broad-minded and informed by the considerations Rosenstone outlined in his article, but they should not be timid. I do not think classroom teachers, scholars, and public historians ought to apologize to the film studies scholars for taking filmed interpretations seriously or to be silenced by claims that the stuff on the screen is just art. Our politicians, TV talk show commentators, and newspaper and magazine pundits take the genre seriously, frequently discussing and disputing the messages of historical movies in the popular media. Historians need stronger voices in these debates. They should not remain hidden in their classrooms, libraries, museums, and archives, separated from the important discussions going on outside their institutions.

—Robert Brent Toplin is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and is contributing editor for the Film and Media column of Perspectives.