Monday, 20 February 2012

Can film be used to illustrate the past or is it more dangerous than useful?

Postmodernists claim that feature films are just as a valid source at discovering history as any other methods of gathering evidence to create a bigger picture of the past. Cinema and film are undoubtedly of huge cultural and social significance, millions of people go to the cinema, in 2011 1.28 billion tickets were sold in the US alone[1], to watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster, so what better place is there to contain a message or tell history? The audiences look on as films look into the past telling us stories of the Second World War, Vietnam War and of racial injustice in America. However, can feature films such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) be used as evidence to paint a picture of the Vietnam and Second World wars? Or do films like the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation (a film undoubtedly racist but also one of the most important films in American cinema for its technical innovations) present difficulties at using film as a historical source? There are many issues at using film as a historical source, however, there are also many positives and these positives outweigh the dangers of using film as a historical source.

Historical films are not known for their accuracy, but it is rather pointless for a historian to point out the smaller factual errors, however, historian’s essays written to counter historical films’ factual inaccuracies counter the issues that feature films create in telling history to the general public. While it is funny that Mel Gibson’s film, Braveheart (1995), claims that William Wallace seduced Isabella of France despite Isabella being three years old at the time of the Battle of Falkirk it would be rather futile to discredit the value of feature films as sources because of those small, insignificant factual errors. However, if the film’s historical inaccuracy becomes manipulative that is an entirely different problem, The Deer Hunter, a film that has been claimed ‘a total distortion of the truth'[2] is one those films whose historical inaccuracy presents a number of issues.

However, these historical inaccuracies can be used by historians as a way of looking at the time period in which the films were made. For example, films like The Green Beret (1968) and The Deer Hunter could be used to examine America’s attitudes towards the Vietnamese and Vietnam War at that time. In The Birth of a Nation blacks were shown as being violent rapists but maybe, despite the films gross historical inaccuracies, The Birth of a Nation can be used by historians as a way of examining American society and the views of culture and race of the American people during the time the film was released.  Or possibly one could use the 1988 film Mississippi Burning not just for its depiction of the 60s but for the liberal attitude during the late 80s in America. Director of Mississippi Burning Alan Parker seems to give us the impression that it was white people who inspired black people to fight against their racial injustice but never does the film consider the importance of black figures such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. In fact this view of The Civil Rights Movement in America still survives today as is evident in the 2011 film The Help, however, the book is rather less liberal then the film makes it out to be. Film could used to look at the change in attitudes towards sex, as the 60s saw a relaxation in ‘societal sexual standards'[3] and this is clearly evident in Hollywood films. Films from the 50s provide a very interesting ‘social-historical point of view'[4] as films such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which the pods could represent communism. In the 50s racism was still a major issue, but 12 Angry Men could be used as evidence for change in cultural perspectives as the jurors turn their back on the racist bigot who believes that all kids from the slum are scum (the seventeen year old on trial is a Puerto Rican immigrant). 12 Angry Men also serves as a social commentary of selfishness and greed of American society and also a commentary on the justice system in 1950s America.

There are of course two sides to every coin, like there are two sides to every story, one person can look at the same object or story or in this case film in a completely different way to another and The Deer Hunter is a good example to use to highlight this point. One of these major issues that many film critics and historians have commented upon is the manipulative, racist, and quite simply ignorant view of the Vietnam War that is presented in The Deer Hunter. It’s a film about a friendship and relationship between three steel workers who enlist in the army to join the Vietnam War. The film, however, seems to think that the Vietnam War is a war of good vs. evil (with the Vietnamese being evil). We are introduced to the Vietnamese in the shape of Vietnamese soldier chucking a grenade into a cellar where a group of civilians are hiding, and then we see the same soldier shooting a woman who is carrying a baby. The American (played by Robert De Niro) then burns the Vietnamese soldier as though he is providing justice. Throughout the film, the Vietnamese are portrayed as being brutal, cruel and sadistic while the Americans brave and heroic. The Deer Hunter is famous and infamous for the Russian roulette sequences in which the captured Americans are forced to play Russian roulette by the Vietnamese captors. The major critique of this is that there have been no recorded incidents of any Vietnamese soldier playing such a game, the fact itself is not the issue, but it is what the fact represents. While one can argue that the Vietnam War itself is not the central point of the film, but the effect the war has on small communities in American, the issue of The Deer Hunter’s rather one sided view of the Vietnam will not just vanish.

 Film critic Pauline Kael remarked: "The impression a viewer gets is that if we did some bad things over there we did them ruthlessly but impersonally; the Vietcong (V.C.) were cruel and sadistic. The film seems to be saying that the Americans had no choice, but the V.C. enjoyed it'.[5]This utterly one-sided view of the Vietnam War can present a number of issues for example the film is remarkably well made and so convincingly acted that some, more likely in the 70s than in the present day, may actually believe the Vietnamese were repulsive murderers but if anyone has this view then it is more likely that they already have racist attitudes rather than having their opinion changed by a film. Historical films with a manipulative way of telling a story do tend to create problems with people taking them at face value and as films reach out for a large audience they could meet a number of people who take a film’s account of a historical period at face value presenting an issue of people being offered a clouded, one-side view of a historical period.

Similar issues with The Deer Hunter are found in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 epic A Birth of a Nation, which is a deeply unpleasant watch due to the blatant racism; the film actually relaunched the Ku Klux Klan.[6] This is can be used as evidence to prove that films can have a negative impact on people as A Birth of a Nation was a propaganda film that convinced people (or reignited the idea) that black people were ills of society and to blame for the Civil War. Most mainstream cinema goers are probably interested in being entertained rather than the historical side of a film but the message or the way a historical period is portrayed could stir something subconsciously.  This is can be used as evidence to prove that films can have a negative impact on people as A Birth of a Nation was a propaganda film that convinced people (or reignited the idea) that black people were ills of society and to blame for the Civil War.

What films can also do is offer a visual representation of the past, they can also help one experience the past. Steven Spielberg’s war film Saving Private Ryan, which is constantly being regarded as a masterpiece of the genre, harks back to the 1940 war films where the American soldier was a good man who loved his country and family.[7] For about twenty minutes Saving Private Ryan is one of most breathless, compelling and shocking films one is ever likely to see. It depicts the Omaha beach landings as frantic, chaotic, brutal and bloody. German machine gun bullets are able to wipe out a whole group of men aboard a landing craft within seconds, intestines are spilling out as men scream in absolute agony and the viewer sits watching in sheer horror. No history textbook or other source can even come close to matching what the intensity of battle might be like as Saving Private Ryan did, in fact Bill Collins, a veteran of the Omaha beach landings, said ‘It was so real that the next best thing would have been to be there yourself'[8]. While it is certainly true that Saving Private Ryan fails to fully represent the value of British and allied troops in the D-day landings it remains possibly one of the best ways that could help us experience (as close as it could possibly be without actually being there) the Omaha Beach invasion over 50 years on. Even those who have never served in a combat zone (like me) know that nothing can capture what fighting a battle is like, but I imagine that films, that are made correctly, offer a better representation then any academic textbook can.

Film director Oliver Stone regularly dabbles in recent American history making Stone a strong example of a filmmaker who is also a historian (Stone does, however, deny this). Oliver Stone’s most famous and greatest film Platoon offers the experience of what it might be like to serve in the Vietnam War. Oliver Stone leaves the viewer with an impression that fighting the Vietnam War was sweaty, tense and claustrophobic, there was little knowledge of where the next attack may come from and we the viewer experience exactly what Oliver Stone wants us to. Oliver Stone, who was wounded twice and awarded the Bronze Star while servicing in the Vietnam War[9], become disillusioned with America and War thus he has become one of the most prominent figures in the making of films about recent historical events and certainly not a stranger to controversy. Like Eric Maria Remarque, Oliver Stone draws upon his own experiences of warfare and this adds a degree of authenticity about Platoon which the likes of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter are lacking.  While events may lack historical accuracy in both Platoon and Saving Private Ryan they do, however, capture the psychological damage done to the soldiers and capture the experience of what it might have been like to fight in the respective wars.

What films also do is offer a chance of developing an emotional understanding of history allowing us to connect to the past; one has to remember the phrase ‘a picture is worth 1000 words’. A historian of World War One may gain an encyclopaedic of the war but he/she will never fully understand it without developing a human understanding of the war and films allow us to do that thus all World War One historians have to read Eric Maria Remarque’s remarkable All Quiet on the Western Front. Cinema’s power has the ability to turn history into reality, turning subjects of the past into real, living and breathing people. Roman Polanski’s harrowing The Pianist does exactly that, and thanks to Adrian Brody’s outstanding central performance (a performance he won an Oscar for), the horrors the Jewish people had to endure is so much more powerfully portrayed. Of course, like so many other historical films, some events are dramatised an example being the scene with which a Nazi officer asks Władysław Szpilman (the central character) to play the piano but here Polanski conveys a message that the help of non-Jewish characters was vital to the survival of himself and many other Jewish people. However an issue with being so emotionally engaged in a movie is that one is more susceptible to manipulation.

If one uses feature films as a historical source in a correct manner then one can receive huge benefits from them, not only do films (with varying degrees of accuracy) tell us about the historical event in which the film is basing itself upon but it also gives us an idea about the time in which the film was made because films contain messages and commentaries relevant to the time the film was made. For example one can easily see a recurring theme of communism and fear of nuclear technology in films of the 50s. Feature films can also help us experience history in a way that academic textbooks could not achieve. Thus all things considered, if one uses feature films correctly and analyses them corrected then, no matter how much Arthur Marwick and fellow historians attempt to deny, feature films are both primary and secondary sources that can be used in conjunction with other sources that are used to discover history, there are dangers but they only occur when people use them incorrectly or fail to analyse them deeply enough.

[1] Ben Child. (2011). US box office takings fall to 16-year low. Available: Last accessed 3rd Jan 2011.
[2] Leonard Quart and Albert Auster, American Film And Society Since 1945, 3rd edition (USA, Praegar Publishers. 2002) 120.
[3] Leonard Quart and Albert Auster, American Film And Society P 73.
[4] Tim Dirks, 1950s Film History, Available: Last accessed 5th Jan 2012.
[5] Sylvia Shin Huey Chong, Restaging the War: “The Deer Hunter” and the primal Scene of Violence
 Vol. 44, No. 2 (Society for cinema and media studies, Winter, 2005).
[6] Francine Stock, In glorious Technicolor, (Great Britain, Chatto and Windus, 2011) p 25.
[7] John Bodnar, The American Historical Review, Vol. 106, No. 3 (Jun., 2001), pp. 805-817
[8] Unknown, Veterans back Spielberg war epic . Available: Last accessed 5th Jan 2012.
[9] Robert A Rosenstone, History On Film, Film on History, (Malaysia, Pearson Longman, 2006) p 119.


  1. it can be use as a source, just need to back it up with other sources.

  2. Great essay. Films about history are often brilliant and epic but you got to check your facts.

  3. Thanks Pete(s).

    Facts have to be checked, and that is what historians are for.

  4. A well thought out essay. Good job.

    I partially agree with your points. I agree that films should not be used as history lessons for the events depicted in them. I do agree that they can be used somewhat to show what attitudes were like at the time the film was made, but I feel that this can also lead to inaccuracies.

    It is more likely that they reflect the attitudes of the filmmaker, who may or may not agree with society as a whole. In his Oscar acceptance speech a few years ago Clooney defended Hollywood for "being out of touch" - a charge conservatives have been making for years. Clooney pointed out that Hollywood honored Hattie McDaniel with an Oscar in 1939, when blacks were still heavily discriminated against. Your example of 12 Angry Men from the 50s is a great one about a movie ahead of its time.

    I think in many cases films show us things the way the filmmaker thinks they OUGHT to be, rather than how they actually are. They are idealized looks at ourselves and our society. In some cases, society later catches up to those images.

  5. Ah, yes the filmmaker as a historian - I do agree that the filmmaker's attitude towards certain subjects is reflected in the film. Oliver Stone for example, disillusioned by war so much of his work is critical of war and American Government.

    It is important to look at current events today when looking at a historical film to see which event they relate to as many films are political statements. For example, to choose a large mainstream film, Avatar is an antiwar statement and also raising awareness of the planet's exploitation of the world's raw materials.

    Clooney may as well point that important moment out, but in cinema during the 30s, 40s etc, black people were given stereotypical roles in Hollywood movies.