Recently, while traveling on a train out of New York City, I introduced myself to a businessman sitting next to me. When I indicated that I was a university professor who conducted research on Hollywood's treatment of history, the traveler smiled and rolled his eyes. Suggesting that I had "plenty to complain about," he communicated a cynical view of Hollywood's portrayals. The man assumed that I agreed with him, expecting that a professional historian would be eager to decry Hollywood's tendency to favor fiction over fact, entertainment over education. "Why can't moviemakers present the truth?" the businessman asked. Answering his own question, he claimed that real history was much more interesting than Hollywood's myth-based stories.
This traveler echoed a familiar criticism of history from Hollywood. On numerous occasions I hear related complaints. Once new acquaintances learn about my professional interest, they often respond with sharp critiques of the movies' portrayals. Their reactions to Hollywood's depictions of the past are almost uniformly negative. Many complain that movies serve primarily as instruments for communicating the directors' personal agendas. They argue that cinema does not provide sophisticated commentaries on the past. Some who are wedded to traditional print-oriented approaches to history consider motion-picture entertainment largely irrelevant. They do not see much educational value in productions that manipulate and distort evidence excessively. Moviemakers cavalierly violate scholarly standards for the handling of evidence, they charge. Hollywood filmmakers readily bend, distort, and invent facts to create appealing stories. Because filmmakers exhibit little concern for discovering truths about the past, say t hese critics, their productions should not be considered serious interpretations of history.
Are these objections fair? Do they reflect realistic perspectives on the potential of motion pictures for delivering insights on the past?
I suggest that movies can communicate important ideas about the past, but not in the way that teachers and scholars approach the subject when they deliver lectures or write books. Comparisons with traditional methods of examining history are not fruitful. A 200-page book is vastly superior to a feature film as a source of detailed information and abstract analysis. Motion pictures cannot communicate a plethora of historical facts or a variety of interpretive perspectives as effectively as a lengthy publication. Nevertheless, in many important respects the two-hour movie can arouse emotions, stir curiosity, and prompt viewers to consider significant questions. To appreciate these achievements, we need to think differently about the medium.
THINKING DIFFERENTLY ABOUT FILMS
We should recognize that Hollywood filmmakers are always influenced to a considerable degree by practices of their craft. Cinematic history is a genre. Moviemakers adopt traditional stylistic elements to enhance the entertainment value and profitability of their productions. Often filmmakers collapse several historical characters into a few, condense the time sequence of events, focus on only a few moments of crisis, and leave out a great deal of peripheral information. Their stories focus on personalities rather than issues, examining great events in terms of the experiences of a few heroes or heroines. Heinous villains also populate their dramas, antagonists who rather starkly stand for the forces of evil. Hollywood's storytellers privilege tales about conflict, confrontations over power and rights. Warfare is a favorite subject. They usually sympathize with the poor and humble. Often the villains in their stories are in positions of power and wealth. Moviemakers frequently deliver a democratic message when focusing on the common people's struggle, leaving audiences with uplifting moral lessons. With the exception of some war stories, cinematic history usually features romance as well to enhance audience interest. …