Reel History with Missing Reels?

Robert A. Rosenstone, November 1999

The April 1999 Perspectives special issue, "Reel History," seems to prove that the history profession follows the example of the Bourbon Kings—we forget nothing, and we learn nothing. This is not meant as a complaint about any individual article or author or as a criticism of Film and Media Editor Robert Toplin, who had the difficult task of assembling the issue. My quarrel, rather, is with the totality of what was presented. The many insights into aspects of film and history that the essays contain are, I fear, vitiated by what seems to be the implication of Reel History—that taken together, these articles represent the current state of research on the relationship between history and film.

I question this implication. Except for references to recent films, there is almost nothing in the issue with regard to theory, practice, or understanding of film and history that was not being expressed at least five decades ago. Taken together, the articles seem to show that there is no cumulative dimension to historical scholarship. In the issue one could hear loud echoes of Louis Gottschalk's 1935 complaint to the president of Metro Goldwyn Mayer that "No picture of a historical nature ought to be offered to the public until a reputable historian has had a chance to criticize and revise it."1 But one could hear nothing about all the things that have changed in the last half century, including our notions of the past, of historical construction and representation, or of the way film itself has moved beyond the costume drama to create works that, if they do not meet some traditional (and outmoded) criterion for academic history, do raise the same kinds of questions about the past that engage historians. (What might be called "serious" historicals are made in the United States—a film such as Glory or many works by Oliver Stone—but they are even more likely to be made in Europe or the Third World. Directors such as the Taviani brothers in Italy, Istvan Szabo of Hungary, Ousmane Sembene of Senegal, Tomas Gutierrez Alea of Cuba, or Marguerite Von Trotta of Germany, to pick but a few, have made many such works.)

Besides being dated in their sense both of film and history, the essays that comprise Reel History are intellectually narrow, even parochial, in at least three respects.

  1. The essays ignore the conceptual, theoretical, and practical investigations and arguments in many essays and books on history/film written by historians both in the United States and Europe. This includes scholars who have written on film occasionally, such as Natalie Davis, Daniel Walkowitz, Geoff Eley, Nick Dirks, Rudy Koshar, Sumiko Higashi (essays by the last four of these appear in a volume entitled Revisioning History), and others who have done more sustained work and produced books on the topic: Marc Ferro (Cinema and History), Pierre Sorlin (The Film in History), and yours truly (Visions of the Past).
  2. The essays ignore all the important and often sophisticated work on historical film by scholars in cinema studies and literature. Among the best of these are Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat, Robert Burgoyne, Film Nation, Leger Grindon, Shadows of the Past, or Vivian Sobchack, essayist on history/film in both History and Theory and Representations, and editor of an important collection entitled The Persistence of History.
  3. The essays largely ignore the critiques of historical knowledge, narrative, and practice made in recent decades by theorists and philosophers of history such as Hayden White, Paul Ricoeur, and a host of other scholars who have rather convincingly shown that history can never be a clear mirror of the past (as some seem to wish film to be), but must always be a proximate construction of a vanished world, a construction that contains its own fictions—the chief of which is that the past occurred in neat, linear, and moral stories.

Not engaging work in these three areas means at the very least that Reel History does a disservice to the readers of Perspectives, for it makes the issues surrounding film/history seem at once simpler and less interesting than they are. Ultimately the essays leave you with a sense that the only way of dealing with the historical film is on an ad hoc basis. Surely this underlies such statements as: "numerous made-up events and historical errors mar the film . . . [which] takes great liberties by compressing the political intrigues . . . ." Or, "I would guess that the four 90-minute episodes contain about as much information as two fast-paced, well organized lectures of 60 minutes each."2

It's not the truth of such statements that is in question, but their relevance. What they fail to recognize is that a film is a film, not a book or a lecture. Not an argument or a representation on a page but a work that creates a world for us in a visual and aural medium (though film can also incorporate the written word). Were history simply a matter of getting information across, we could all go back to writing chronicles. But we don't. We write narratives—moral narratives—in which the demands of written language and genre inflect the kinds of things we can say about the past.

It is the same with history on film. Both the dramatic film and the documentary are forms for creating a visual past. Both are subject to (at least) two kinds of limitations: the possibilities of the medium and the practices acceptable to audiences in a particular time and place. This, I might add, is equally true of historical writing. Anyone who has strayed from traditional form knows that literary innovations such as multivoiced narratives, self-reflexivity, overt fictionalizing, or thought experiments can be met with a storm of professional disapproval—witness some of the reactions to works written by well-known historians, say Simon Schama's Dead Certainties, Natalie Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre, or Edmund Morris's Dutch.

My larger point is this: thinking about or judging historical film need no longer be something ad hoc, or a mere lament over the fact the filmmaker invented characters or did not get the facts right. To keep seeing film that way is to ignore arguments to the contrary. Certainly the scholar has an obligation to grapple with discourse in a given subfield—with the argument, for instance, that I advance in Visions of the Past that you can never get the facts right on the screen because the visual media demand to know things that we can never really know—the exact furnishings of a room, the way a historical character moved and sounded, the words spoken on private occasions. That by standards of the historical discipline, it is always all fiction on the screen (that character isn't really Gandhi, it's Ben Kingsley). That indeed, invention in various forms (compression, condensation, alteration, metaphor) is always at the heart of history on film, including documentary. But that even so, the best historical films raise and critique issues of major concern—issues surrounding the meaning of the Holocaust, slavery, Vietnam, World War II, the Third Reich. Our task as historians, then, is to learn to judge films by their own rules of engagement with the past and not by rules we have long used for written history.

Taken together, studies of history and film made by academics in history, cinema studies, and literature show, at the very least, why there is much more to the good historical film than the impossible attempt to produce some mirror of a vanished past. Something more, too, than just getting the facts right—or wrong, since that is usually the complaint. All these works recognize that, ultimately, film is a lousy medium for delivering facts. Instead, they suggest that the visual media are another (and still new and barely understood) way of thinking about the issues of the past. Film may look like a literal mirror, but it, as much as written history, is a construction that utilizes the events, moments, individuals, movements, and situations of the past to create arguments, critiques, and metaphors that let us make sense of and understand our historical experience. (One might wish to argue that history on film is ultimately always metaphoric rather than literal. But we must never forget that our written historical works are, as Hayden White has been pointing out for years, metaphorical too.) Let me give three examples of how historical film works at the level of argument:

  1. Glory. This dramatic account of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first black unit from that state in the Civil War, depicts its historical commander, white officer Robert Gould Shaw, alongside four wholly fictional black characters. It creates some incidents, condenses and/or rearranges others, mixes direct quotations from Shaw's letters with wholly fictional dialogue, and yet produces a powerful historical argument about the meaning of military service to African Americans of that, and later, eras.
  2. October, Sergei Eisenstein's classic, depicts the Bolshevik Revolution. Here again is a mixture of fact (the declining bread supply, the summer offensive by the Provisional Government, the fruitless debates in the Smolny Institute) with fiction (the raising of the Petrograd bridges, the storming of the Winter Palace) and metaphor (the camera lingering on the rear ends of the horses). But the overall argument of the film, that the Bolsheviks at that moment embodied the will of the Russian people for change, is one still being made by reputable historians, such as Orlando Figes in his recent work, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924.
  3. Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone's film based on Ron Kovic's autobiography, blends incidents taken from the book (the truth of which also may be in doubt since the author is the only witness) with alterations and wholesale inventions—such as Kovic's meeting with the family of the Marine he accidentally killed. Doing so allows the filmmaker to create an overall interpretation of the sixties and the meaning of Vietnam for America. The film links the high cost of that war to a certain kind of American masculinity and generalizes the experiences of one soldier to that of the nation. The deep split in Kovic's family is clearly a metaphor for the split the Vietnam War created in the nation.

These are but the edges of a larger argument about history and film, one that a number of scholars have pursued but that—to return to the original subject of this essay—is missing from Reel History. The problem is that if we historians go on treating film as if it were something other than film—say a book or a lecture—we miss what is unique and powerful about the medium, the ways in which it constructs a world and turns drama into a historical argument. Certainly film does not and cannot do history in the same way we do it on the page, but why should it? As one essay admitted, "film often makes the limits of academic history glaringly apparent."3 Rather than lamenting the supposed sins of film, we need to investigate its strengths. What film can do for the past on the screen is that which is difficult or impossible to do on the page. Film at its best—as I have elsewhere argued—visions, contests, and revisions our notions of history.4 The essays in Reel History seemed to tacitly accept what one author said directly: "Americans increasingly get their history from movies or television." If this is so, it seems imperative that historians concerned with film should at least familiarize themselves with writings—however preliminary, tentative, or wrongheaded—of those scholars who have already grappled with the issues of this elusive but important medium for interpreting the past.

—Robert A. Rosenstone teaches at the California Institute of Technology.


1. Quoted in Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), 46.

2. Carole Levin, "Elizabeth: Romantic Film Heroine or Sixteenth-Century Queen?" Perspectives 37 (April 1989), 29; Peter Kolchin, "Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery: A Review," ibid., 43.

3. Richard White, "History, the Rugrats, and World Championship Wrestling," ibid., 12.

4. See the introduction to Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 3–13.


Burgoyne, Robert. Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Ferro, Marc. Cinema and History (Detroit: Wayne State Press, 1988).

Grindon, Leger. Shadows on the Past: Studies in the Historical Feature Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).

Kaes, Anton. From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).

Rosenstone, Robert A. ed. Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

______________. Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).

Sobchack, Vivian. The Persistence of History (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).

Sorlin, Pierre. The Film in History: Restaging the Past. (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1980).