History and the Movies: Some Thoughts on Using Film in Class

By Leazer, John | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

History and the Movies: Some Thoughts on Using Film in Class


Leazer, John, Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


Hollywood movies about historical topics often present a dilemma for history instructors. On one hand, movies are a powerful medium and, certainly, no student is immune to their effects. As such, they have the potential to be an extremely effective teaching tool. On the other hand, movies have many flaws that can make them particularly challenging as instructional material. For the most part movies rarely, indeed if ever, depict history correctly. Thus, many instructors argue that movies usually do more damage than good and cannot possibly be used in any serious history class. To use film, one must balance the interest that students often have in the movies against the challenges associated with their use. Achieving that balance is not impossible. Based on my own experience, I would argue that instructors ignore film at their own peril. Moreover, when used correctly, movies can be effective in helping increase students' understanding of history and especially historiography.

Hollywood movie producers have long been fascinated with history. And who can blame them? Some of the most lucrative films ever made deal with historical themes. For example, the 1995 movie Braveheart chronicling the exploits of the legendary Scottish patriot, William Wallace, grossed over 210 million dollars. (1) Even this staggering figure pales in comparison to the returns seen by the movie Titanic based on the doomed voyage of the Royal Mail Ship Titanic, which to date has grossed, incredibly, over two billion dollars. (2) These two mega-blockbusters are just a small sample of countless other profitable historical movies.

Yet this success for Hollywood presents a problem for instructors of history in the classroom. History teachers know that many movies rarely if ever "get it right." There can be no better example of this than Braveheart, which aside from its five Oscars, including Best Picture, should have also received an award for a historical movie that gets almost all of its history wrong. Examples of the movie's historical inaccuracies are too numerous to list, but one of the most glaring infractions is the depiction of one of Wallace's greatest military victories, the Battle of Stirling Bridge. In the movie, there is no bridge to be found. Instead, the battle is staged in a wide, open field. The end result is a visually awesome battle scene, but one that is not at all accurate. Another glaring error in the film is the fanciful love affair between William Wallace and Isabella, the French wife of the future Edward II. Aside from the total improbability of such a scenario, Isabella was a little girl in France at the time of the supposed affair and did not marry Edward until two years after Wallace had been executed, thus making such an affair impossible.

Now certainly, historians expect a certain amount of, shall we call it, misinformation from Hollywood films. History instructors are not too naive to realize that producers and directors will use their "creative license" to titillate modern audiences. But even so, some inaccuracies can throw historians over the edge. For example, during one scene in Braveheart, the evil English King Longshanks, that is Edward I, grants English noblemen land and privileges in Scotland, including the right of primae noctis, the right of the lord to take a newly married Scottish woman into his bed on her wedding night. Edward does this, as he maliciously states in the movie, in order to "breed" the Scots out of Scotland. Because of this scene in particular, a Scottish historian from my graduate school days would just about have an aneurysm whenever the topic of Braveheart came up. The thought of the general public believing that this blatant misrepresentation of history was accurate was too much for him to even consider.

What is worse is that many movies--again Braveheart is a good example--spend a fortune on making their movies as elaborate in scale and as realistic as possible. …

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