Historical Films: Perceptions Of The Past
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Published: Wed, 17 May 2017
The first films were made in the first half of the twentieth century and along with this the first historical films were made. These include ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ in 1924, ‘The King of Kings’ in 1927 and ‘The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse’ in 1921. Even since the first historical films were made, this genre has become one of the most popular out of all types of film. Due to this, millions of people watch these films every year and therefore get their perception of History mostly from film. This poses a problem for the historian. Robert Rosenstone clearly states this, “Let’s be blunt and admit it: historical films trouble and disturb professional historians and have troubled and disturbed professional historians for a long time” (Rosenstone R, 1995, p.45). Furthermore, William Guynn provides evidence of this, “In cinema, history empties out its significance and leaves us with the cold artifice of representation” (Guynn W, 2006, p.6). On the other hand, Guynn admits, “For some Historians, the cinema is not entirely lost; indeed, it can be salvaged if we acknowledge that historical film is the ‘most fictional of genres’ and abandon the idea of film as a vehicle of historical representation” (Guynn W, 2006, p.6). What this means is that although film cannot be an instrument for representing the past, it can bear witness to the historical period in which it is produced. Most people do not study history or have only briefly studied it at a younger age; therefore film has become the primary source of knowledge for them about the past. Therefore historians are forced to accept these historical films despite their historical inaccuracy. Even if a film cannot offer the critical elements and analysis insisted on in scholarly text and even if it bends history to match the characters or the plot line and completely misses out the finer details of historical accuracy, film can stimulate the imagination and create curiosity and interest into the lives of past generations. Importantly, it can cause an interest into history which can later lead to the choice of studying it or a topic of research and enjoyment. Therefore there are a number of negatives and positives to historians from film. However one thing is clear, it is not possible for a film to be historically accurate. There are a number of reasons for this. The obvious one is that how can a film be historically accurate if no one, not even historians, have an accurate picture of a historical period. Furthermore, most historical film makes don’t care whether the film is accurate of not, they prioritise making a popular film with a good story line. It is not important if a film is inaccurate, it is only important for a historian who is frustrated with the wrong facts being given out to millions of people. The reasons are many and these will be explored in detail. It is clear that a film cannot be historically accurate however a historical film has so many benefits that it doesn’t need to be.
History is not a pure science, it is not just open to historians alone to study therefore historians do not have a monopoly on reading, studying and conveying history. Most films are not made for historical accuracy therefore is not open to criticism from historians. Guynn believes, “Historians resist approaching film because history and film are based in different sign systems that refer to the world in a radically different way” (Guynn W, 2006, p.8). However historical truth on a whole is elusive and subjective just like a film set in a historical period. What is important is that no work or historical piece of writing is capable of achieving the appreciation of, for example, medieval warfare. Historical films like ‘Braveheart’ however can accomplish this in minutes. This by no means claims that Braveheart is historically accurate, in fact it is incredibly inaccurate; how could William Wallace have an affair with Isabella of France when she didn’t even arrive in England until three years after his execution? Despite this however, it is clear that film can powerfully convey the foundations of historical information to millions of people. Furthermore, can a document, sculpture and eyewitness account present the excitement and chaos of chariot racing which was accomplished in ‘Ben Hur’? Similarly, in no other way can the power and magnitude of the Roman coliseum be portrayed than in the film ‘Gladiator’. In these ways, film is an incredibly valuable tool in creating history as a vision which is engaging, vibrant and real, in the sense that we can hear and see it. Guynn supports this, “From this perspective, films are like any other artefacts dropped on the road of history. They bare unconscious witness to their own period, as do private letters, diaries, and accounts that were never intended to be read from the historian’s perspective. They provide a body of data to be analyzed and interpreted in terms of the mentality of a period, or they can, unwittingly, speak about unacknowledged realities…” (Guynn W, 2006, p.12). Furthermore, one can argue that there are times when film can achieve greater levels of appreciation than those possible in the written world. Rosenstone provides evidence of this, “Film shows history as a process. The world on the screen brings together things that, for analytical or structural purposes, written history often has to split apart” (Rosenstone R, 1995, p.57). Therefore this provides evidence that despite the fact that a film may not be historically accurate, it is incredibly effective at displaying the foundations of History in a way no other works of history can. Bringing history alive in a way which people can hear and see is arguably more effective than a historians writing. The historical story line may not be accurate however the general foundations of the period probably are and this is very important in providing people with the awareness of history in an enjoyable way. R.J Raack provides evidence to support this view, “Traditional written history is too linear and too narrow in focus to render the fullness of the complex, multi-dimensional world in which humans live. Only film, with its ability to juxtapose images and sounds, with its quick cuts to new sequences, dissolves, fades, speed-ups and slow motion, can ever hope to approximate real life, the daily experience of ideas, words, images, preoccupations, distractions, sensory deceptions, conscious and unconscious motives and emotions. Only film can provide an adequate empathetic reconstruction to convey how historical people witnessed, understood, and lived their lives. Only film can recover all the past’s liveliness “(Raack R, 1983, p.417).
As stated previously, there is no doubt that written history and film history possess different strengths and weaknesses. What is important however is that written history and history in film are experienced in different ways. Rosenstone states, “The most serious problems the historian has with the past on the screen arise out of the nature and demands of the visual medium itself” (Rosenstone R, 1988, p.1173). Furthermore Rosenstone believes, “The historical film must be seen not in terms of how it compares to written history but as a way of recounting the past with its own rules of representation” (Rosenstone R, 1995, p.3). Critics point to the lack of essential historical information in films and the finer details of history. What historians are basically referring to is the lack of footnotes. However these historian critics are attempting to judge these historical films by inappropriate standards. It is not realistic analysis of how viewers watch films. They don’t care about finer details missing, they probably don’t notice. Furthermore, the director does not put first these finer historical details but instead a good story line which an audience will want to watch. Historians may not like the view audiences create for themselves of a historical period however they should think positively and believe that the viewer is being informed of the foundations of a historical period and becoming aware of it. If anything, the fact that the film misses out the finer details creates lose ends which the viewer can then explore further. This can create an interest in history and cause a future study or interest in it. Critics of film history also repeatedly state that the films over personalise however this is from the experience of a historian. The filmmaker over personalises to create a story however this makes the film historically inaccurate. It is almost impossible to make a good film with a good story line historically accurate as films are focused on particular people personally and their feelings of love, hate, anger etc. However history focuses on people personally only to the extent to which their personalities or actions are portrayed by another person and this is not a reliable viewpoint to get an accurate picture of an individual as opinions of a figure can differ from person to person. Therefore as films are deeply personal, this overwhelms the senses and the viewer becomes personally attached. This in itself is a strength and a weakness depending on who is watching it. Clearly a historian, who is aware of all the facts of the person or time period, wouldn’t believe it as the historian has their own perspective on the person taken from a document and writings. However the viewer of the film will have a different view. There is no way of knowing in detail what, for example, Elizabeth I was like personally however Shekhar Kapur portrays his view in the film ‘Elizabeth’. Therefore this is evidence to prove that no one knows personally what historical figures are like therefore films are beneficial to providing viewers with a visual representation and this is the director’s view on the figure. Rosenstone provides a balanced view on why historians distrust a historical film, “The overt answer: Films are inaccurate. They distort the past. They fictionalize, trivialize, and romanticize people, events, and movements; they falsify history” (Rosenstone R, 1995, p.46). However Rosenstone goes on to state, “The covert answers: Film is out of the control of historians. Film shows that we do not own the past. Film creates a historical world with which books cannot compete, at least for popularity. Film is a disturbing symbol of a post literate world in which people can read but wont” (Rosenstone R, 1995, p.46). This is further evidence to prove that despite inaccuracy of historical films, they are very beneficial to raising awareness for a historical period. Similarly to Rosenstone, Marc Ferro provides a balanced viewpoint on historian’s view of historical film. Marc Ferro is the most influential French historian in the neglected field of history and film and Guynn states, “Ferro’s approach is well articulated and worth following in some detail” (Guynn W, 2006, p.8). Ferro’s argument begins with a negative thesis, “It is easy to think that film is not suited to represent past reality and at best its testimony is valuable only for the present; or that, aside from documents and newsreels, the reality it offers is no more real than the novel’s” (Ferro M, 1988, p.47). However Ferro’s principal thesis on the viewpoint is very positive. He argues that film can become a rich resource of information on the period in which it was made. Ferro believes that historians have neglected film almost entirely, “…film does not enter the historian’s mental universe” (Ferro M, 1988, p.47). Therefore this is evidence to prove that not all historians believe that historical film is completely useless and that it can be very useful to the study of history as it brings it to life.
Despite the fact that historical films are never completely historically accurate, they can be incredibly useful in teaching. This includes primary school, secondary school and even university teaching of history. A class discussion of the accuracies and inaccuracies in a film can be quite valuable. For example, for all the criticism which ‘Braveheart’ faced from historians, it does include some realistic parts on medieval warfare and tactics. Furthermore, the vast battle scenes and accurate medieval executions bring this historical period to life. Therefore for a class which is learning about thirteenth century England or Scotland, the watching of ‘Braveheart’ can be useful, especially in a discussion on the accuracies and inaccuracies. Furthermore, despite the fact that ‘Gladiator’ is centred on a romanticized plot that is not real, it displays rich glimpses of the Roman period. Several of the characters are portrayed realistically, and while not all historians would agree with the architectural specifics of the reconstruction of the great city of Rome, the resulting grandeur is certainly effective at illustrating how superior the city was compared to the rest of the world in the period. Another fine example is the film ‘The 13th warrior’, this film has a number of historically accurate scenes which are taken from historical manuscripts. The face washing of the Vikings and the ship burials are taken directly from the tenth century works of Ibn Fadlan. Furthermore, ‘The 13th warrior’ includes references to ‘Beowulf’. Therefore a discussion on the film’s relationship with ‘Beowulf’ and the way in which modern people perceive the Vikings is useful and could possibly lead students towards the interest of medieval literature and history. Elements of historical accuracy can be found in many historical films and the appreciation of these accuracies in class discussion can be very rewarding.
Can a film be entirely historically accurate? The answer to this question is ‘no’. However there is no doubt that a film can contain elements of historical accuracy therefore be extremely beneficial to the study of history. It is also clear though that a student of history can never rely on films alone. It is certainly obvious that the library is not about to be cleared out of the way by video or cinema. Evidence of this is that film history only started in the twentieth century however the study of history has been going on for hundreds of years prior to this. Therefore only in the twentieth and twenty first centuries have films become a possible primary source for the past therefore this is evidence to prove that it is not necessarily necessary. The real question to ask is ‘what can historians potentially learn from film, as a secondary source, that written works cannot tell them?’ Film brings alive a historical period, it is easy to learn something when you can see it or imagine it clearly. Film can be classified as a historical resource and historians should be making the most out of every resource. There is no doubt also that the combination of historical films and written history could be a highly stimulating way of learning and teaching history. It can teach important skills which are essential to history for example, becoming more critical in the analysis of sources of historical information. Therefore is it clear to sometimes set aside the written world and allow the drama of film to stimulate students of history and to view it as a dynamic medium which can be appreciated for it complexity and its application to the present. Historical film, as a production which portrays the past during the present can be an enjoyable and informative way of participating in history despite the fact that films are not entirely accurate. Ron Briley makes an important case on appreciating historical film, “Whether educators approve or not, young people are going to attain a great deal of historical information through film. Accordingly, it behoves teachers to provide their students with the intellectual tools and media literacy to deconstruct and interpret film” (Briley R, 2006, p.5). Therefore it is clear that historical films should not be ignored or dismissed in the teaching of history as they can beneficial. Historical film adds a spice to history; it is good to sometimes change from reading through books, documents and manuscripts but instead to visualise and hear history. Therefore despite the fact that a film can’t be entirely historically accurate in the view of historians, it can be accurate in the sense that it can be extremely beneficial to the study of history as well as creating a new enjoyment and interest in it.
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