Hollywood misses no chance to print the legend

The Columbia Companion to American History on Film
January 14, 2005

The advent of cable and satellite channels - in addition to other proliferating means of releasing, rereleasing and redistributing the contents of the world's movie and TV programme vaults - has led to an unanticipated revival of public interest in history. Caverns brimful of ancient movies and TV tapes are being disinterred for circulation, while an ever-increasing number of new productions, fiction and documentary are being made.

Nowadays, the DVD format allows for a great deal of additional textual material to inform the stimulated imaginations of new audiences still further. On both sides of the Atlantic, there are whole channels devoted to history, not always fully contextualising their wares and tending to concentrate on societies, eras and events that are known to attract audiences, without balancing their schedules to contrive a coverage of the broad sweep of recorded history. Many professional historians are enthusiastically harnessed to these projects, though some come away disappointed with the results. But the history craze is not a fad; it has settled in the media for good.

The new fascination with history is an international one, and this compendium of information about the resources of history on film, a large and ambitious work, could be a valuable tool for people consuming much history on film, who want to enlarge and enlighten their view. It has been produced by a team, led by Peter Rollins of the University of Oklahoma, that sets out to help all those who endeavour to study history through the use of motion pictures. In effect, the 80 essays contained here survey a century of films, period by period, topic by topic, and help the viewer to "read" the films and explore the past in a systematic way. Every feature film has something to say, albeit obliquely, about its own historical moment, something that will in time force it to become part of the evidences of contemporary history.

For more than 30 years there has existed a specialist committee of the American Historical Association with its own journal, Film & History , edited by Rollins, that explores the problem-strewn relationship between this entertainment form and the historical legacy of America. History has, in effect, been taken over by the media in the consciousness of the lay audience, and there is thus a greater danger than ever for a facile view of historical events to take root, entrenching the fixations of the moment.

George Santayana once crossly declared that historical movies were a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren't there.

This volume is intended to play its part in fostering multiple perspectives on the past, avoiding condescension but lifting the veil of historical distortion.

Films about history are as old as the medium itself. From D. W. Griffith, whose films settled the imaginative framework within which Americans of the 1920s understood the Civil War and the movement of expansion to the West, to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 , there has been a continuum of historical imagery fed to the American audience. It uses the audience as a transmission system to pass the unquestioned prejudices of one era on to the next. Very often, historical newsreel has been combined with skilful re-enactments to the point that restoring the line between actuality and fiction has become impossible.

Furthermore, the newsreels themselves, notably in the First World War, failed to make the distinction, else how would we carry in our minds those searing images of men going "over the top" directly into the enemy's cannons - images we now know to have been created after the battles they purport to depict? The March of Time newsreel thought nothing of such falsifications or, rather, created them without thinking through the implications for a time when historians would be confronted with an inextricable farrago of inauthentic images. In the cinema and on the television screen, there are no footnotes, no means of signalling sources and no lines of authority for the pieces of information coded onto celluloid or tape.

Nearer our own time, Oliver Stone has been the author of a series of films - JFK , Platoon and Wall Street - that have raised even more serious and morally complex issues. In JFK , Stone used the Zapruder footage of the assassination alongside re-enactments so skilfully made and transmitted with the same surface texture as the 1963 newsreel that distinguishing one from the other is impossible, certainly on the part of the immediate audience. George Will once called Stone "an intellectual sociopath, indifferent to the truth". But the compressions of cinema narrative, which places events and their causes and consequences in close juxtaposition, foster easy conspiracy explanations of historical events. Time acerbically observed of JFK: "So, you want to know, who killed the President and connived in the cover-up? Everybody! High officials in the CIA, the FBI, the Dallas constabulary, all three armed services, Big Business and the White House. Everybody done it - everybody but Lee Harvey Oswald."

Running through the whole collection of essays is a unifying series of standard questions: for example, whether a film accepted the prevailing interpretations of its own time in respect of the era with which it deals (for example, did Griffith just accept the "tragic era" interpretations of Reconstruction?); also, whether a film deviates from its source narrative (for example, in the case of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath ); whether contemporary issues and concerns shaped the film, as in the case of, say, Roots or The Crucible or On the Waterfront . Then there is the issue of how a given work makes its point, how the meaning is conveyed, whether in music or the use of sexual imagery or in visions of the pastoral. Finally, there are questions about the making and reception of the film, how the production system of a given decade had an impact on the way a film told its story and whether it instigated dispute or debate among its audience, or the government, at the time.

The 70-page index is of great value in itself in revealing the strands within the American psyche that a given film might be thought to have helped shape. Look up Citizen Kane , for example, and you find: "American Adam in", "capitalist tycoons in", "childhood in", "government/politics in", "media in", "New York City in", "success myth in". The book follows themes as well as personalities and eras. Each film treated is linked to others both diachronically and synchronically, and the issues and origins and film-related debates are brought out without any excess baggage of film theory. The book is not an encyclopedia, but it can be used for reference before a screening. It proffers no overarching theory, but makes reference to all the standard theories. It should become a universal handbook for schools and colleges that use film to stimulate an interest in history, or that use history to stimulate an interest in culture.

Rollins has included references to British films, even when they deal with specifically British rather than American topics, such as If...., The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Another Country , in his section on private schools (in an essay by John Briley). But that does not diminish the need for a comparable volume on British history films composed along similar lines. One hopes that such a project will be forthcoming.

Anthony Smith is president of Madgalen College, Oxford.

The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past

Editor - Peter C. Rollins
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Pages - 671
Price - £57.00
ISBN - 0 231 11222 X

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