Teaching Innovations

Finding the Right Film for the History Classroom

Donald Mattheisen, December 1989

Like most of us who teach history to the television generation, I envy the power of film (and video) to grasp and hold the attention of students. Books and lectures are all very well, but the magical properties of film are too obvious to ignore. By appealing more directly to the imagination or by stirring up the emotions, a good film can arouse interest and generate enthusiastic discussion in ways difficult for the classroom teacher to accomplish. According to Daniel J. Perkins, who surveyed a number of history departments, many of us use the occasional film in class because it gives a "feel" or a "feeling" or a "sense" for history. We think that films "convey a reality words cannot," that they "touch the imagination" and involve students "emotionally." We are not always persuaded that these are our highest instructional objectives, only that they are somehow worthwhile. As one of Perkins' respondents put it in "Historians and the Documentary Film: A Survey," "Film just does things that print doesn't." I value those things less than my students [do], but I find it expedient to truckle a little to student tastes."

Our biggest problem is finding the right film for the right occasion. The problem has two aspects. First, a good film—one that is instructive, relevant to the course, and sensitive to historical issues—must be available. Second, we must be able to find it.

Happily, the first aspect of the problem is rapidly being solved for us. Though twenty years ago William H. McNeill could justifiably complain that the films offered for use in history classes were "bits of flotsam and jetsam from the communications world that some bright salesman once figured could be used in schools with little or no adjustment and at minor additional cost," that is no longer entirely true. The selection has gotten much better. There are several reasons for this, but an important one is that historians are now involved in making them. That is not, to be sure, an infallible recipe for success. The enthusiastic band of Yale University historians who made "The Chronicles of America" series in the early 1920s fumbled rather badly. In the often-quoted words of the later critic Paul L. Saettler in A History of Instructional Technology, their project was an artistic and commercial failure because "the films were as dead as the historical detail which characterized them." Obviously, such an undertaking requires cinematic skill as well as scholarly zeal. Not every historian can do it.

But in the past two decades some have acquired the knack. That is in good part a result of the burgeoning of media studies in the 1960s. Film became respectable then, and academics began to pay attention to it. A Historians Film Committee was founded and began its own scholarly journal Film and History, in 1970. Both the AHA and the OAH have taken measures to encourage the use of film in history teaching. Individual historians have pioneered efforts to integrate media studies into their graduate programs, and some began to make their own films. Commercial and independent filmmakers have made more and better use of historical advisors, stimulated, among other things, by a policy of the NEH that encouraged historians and filmmakers to work as a team on the historical films it funded. In the end, even some of the commercial and independent filmmakers have acquired an appreciation for historical authenticity, influenced perhaps by the novel attention of the historical profession to the products of their industry.

Taken as a whole, these developments have created an inventory of historical films worth paying attention to, with the promise of more to come. An enumeration would be tedious, but just consider the variety. Most conspicuous are the highly-publicized blockbuster series on topics of broad general interest that usually originate with the larger public television stations, like "The Adams Chronicles," "Eyes on the Prize," and "Vietnam: A Television History." They overshadow a group of similar, if only slightly more esoteric, series and miniseries: "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews," "Roanoak," and "A House Divided," are good examples. Series emanating from the commercial networks, like "Peter the Great" and "North and South", are actually better examples of how not to do history, though British commercial firms have given us some gems like the documentary "The World at War" and the fictional "The Jewel in the Crown."

Most instructors, admittedly, would find it tough to schedule an entire film series into a one-semester course (though individual episodes can sometimes stand alone). But historical films generally come one at a time and in copious diversity. There are films about political radicals, The Wobblies; about the labor movement, The Molders of Troy; about women, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter; blacks, The Killing Floor; Jews, We Were So Beloved: The German Jews of Washington Heights; and other ethnics, Sequin; about statesmen, Truman: A Self Portrait; and politicians, The Life and Times of Huey Long; about artists, Mark Twain: Beneath the Laughter; and their works, Isenheim; about historic cities, The Isfahan of Shah Abbas; and their creators, Architect of the New American Suburb: H. H. Richardson 1838–1886; about the Middle Ages, Cathedral; the Renaissance, Man in the Renaissance; the British subjugation of Scotland, The Battle of Culloden; the Salem witchcraft trials, Three Sovereigns for Sarah; and the American Revolution, Hard Winter.

And this is only a small sampling of films made recently for a general audience. It leaves older works out of account—some still good like Night and Fog, some now merely interesting as in CBS's "Twentieth Century" series. There are also many old films not originally intended as history but which have themselves become historical artifacts for example, Triumph of the Will. It also does not touch on commercial feature films of an historical nature such as The Return of Martin Guerre, nor on the large number of films created specifically for the classroom. This latter category includes films made "by historians for historians": some by the British InterUniversity Film Consortium, The Munich Crisis; some done for Britain's Open University televised courses of instruction, "The Historian at Work;" a series by a group of American historians convinced that film art and film instruction are not mutually incompatible, Goodbye, Billy; and a film produced by the American Social History Project, 1877: The Grand Army of Starvation. But mostly it is a vast supply of teaching films intended for various levels of student audience, made with varying degrees of participation by historical advisors and distributed by commercial firms such as Films for the Humanities and The Media Guild. And I have omitted from consideration films made by museums to display or interpret their collections, like the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as well as entire fields ancillary to history such as anthropology, archaeology, and ethnography.

I do not make the claim that films can do our teaching for us. On the contrary, the AHA's own pamphlet by John E. O'Connor and Martin A. Jackson, "Teaching History with Film" stresses throughout that films cannot just be thrown at students without comment, but require classroom discussion to put them into proper context for the course. The second, completely revised, edition of that pamphlet, now called "Teaching History with Film and Television, 1987," presents a second important caveat: that filmmakers, like writers, are masters of a persuasive craft; their works must be carefully analyzed rather than swallowed whole. Students should be aware of at least some of the tricks of the cinematic trade so they can view films critically or even just intelligently. (My favorite exercise is to show two films on the same subject, and then ask the students what elements in each film—commentary, music, shot selection, show sequence, and so forth—conveyed its particular message. Parallel episodes from two very different series on the second world war—Victory at Sea, made in the 1950s, and The World at War, dating from the 1970s—work very well for this purpose.)

And there is some reason to believe that films are not very good at all at teaching some things—abstract ideas, for example, or the kind of detailed information called for in most multiple-choice tests. Books and lectures may theoretically do a better job of teaching history, although films are usually more interesting and that has advantages for teaching of any sort. I am sure that a lot of historians are familiar with some of these films and have used them in connection with their courses. I would bet that they discovered them serendipitously: a colleague, or an advertising flyer, or perhaps they saw them on television. I know one method they did not use to find them: they did not conduct a systematic search for just the right film for their class or for their own unique purpose, because there is no way to do that. No such thing as a Historians Guide to History Films exists for historians.

There are, to be sure, some useful lists of available films. The latest two-volume edition of R. R. Bowker Company's Educational Film Locator of the Consortium of University Film Centers, 1987, catalogs 48,500 items available from the consortium's 52 centers nationwide. More comprehensive is the National Information Center for Educational Media, three-volume NICEM Film and Video Finder, from Access Innovation, 1987. It's labelled "first edition" because although NICEM has long published separate catalogs for film and video, this is their first combined list with 90,000 entries. And there is an even bigger on-line version of the latter—called AV-ONLINE—which boasts of 350,000 entries of films, videos, transparencies, filmstrips, etc. So if it is out there, it is probably in one of these catalogs, where you can discover what is available and where to get it.

Other resources historians can use are the electronic clearinghouse, KIDSNET (see the Media and Film column page 16 for more details) and the catalog from the National Endowment for the Humanities called Media Log which will be updated in the spring of 1990. The Log lists over 400 films and radio programs in various disciplines of the humanities.

But to find a film for classroom use you need more than the brief descriptions these lists provide. You need a competent critical evaluation, and that is the problem. It is fortunate that some historical films get reviewed in the following: Perspectives, The American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, the OAH Newsletter and Magazine of History, Film and History, The History Teacher, and Social Education. A few of them even get extended scholarly treatment there. If you know what you are looking for, you can track down reviews through Media Review Digest, 1970ff or Film Literature Index, 1973ff, and articles through familiar indexes like America: History and Life. Most of us have quite enough research to accomplish in our academic specialties without taking on the responsibility of yet another research project. If you were to embark on such a search, you would still find material on only a tiny portion of the output, for most of the films historians are likely to want—documentaries or films produced for educational purposes—are never reviewed at all. At best they will get a brief notice from a media professional in something like EFLA Evaluations published annually by the Educational Film Library Association, which however, recently changed its name to American Film and Video Association. But such notices are inadequate for our purposes since they do not evaluate the film's approach to historical issues. In any event, they cannot be found through any index. So your systematic search for the right film comes to a quick stop only part way down the road. It is a great pity that so much money and talent go into producing such a wealth of educationally valuable films which then only find their way into the classroom by the occasional fortunate accident of discovery.

However, what a pleasure it would be to teach anthropology, for which Karl G. Heider has provided the requisite film catalog. His Films for Anthropological Teaching (American Anthropological Association, 1983) contains 1,575 entries, each one a critical evaluation of some anthropologically useful film or video. In addition, many of the entries provide comments by anthropologists who have used the film for teaching, as well as citations to reviews and other scholarly discussions where appropriate. Historians will never be able to use films in their classroom properly until they have their own version of this work. Somebody ought to do something about it.

Donald Mattheisen is a professor of history at the University of Lowell. He teaches courses on German history and the Second World War.