History, Film, and the "Cinematic Historian"

By Kunz, Don | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

History, Film, and the "Cinematic Historian"


Kunz, Don, Literature/Film Quarterly


Robert Brent Toplin, ed. Oliver Stone's USA: Film, History, and Controversy (Lawrence, KS: U of Kansas P, 2000), 335 pages, illus.

This collection of essays grew out of a session on film and history which University of North Carolina (Wilmington) History Professor Robert Brent Toplin organized at the American Historical Association's meeting in 1997 and a two volume special issue of the journal Film & History devoted to "Oliver Stone as Cinematic Historian" which he edited in 1998. Consequently, most of the essayists are Professors of History in United-States academic institutions. A few like Stephen Ambrose, David Halberstam, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. are well respected writers of history with an audience which extends beyond the academy. There is even an essay by George S. McGovern (former United States Senator from South Dakota and presidential candidate) and another by Le Ly Hayslip (the real life protagonist of Stone's Heaven & Earth). Moreover, Stone's participation in the AHA Conference at Toplin's invitation resulted in more than twenty-one hours of follow-up interviews which Toplin conducted, edited, and included as "essays" in this volume.

Toplin divides his collection into three parts. Part One frames the debate. Here the editor raises significant and timely questions which his essayists address: Is Stone an historian? What truths does he try to communicate? Are his inventions defensible? Do his interpretations make an impact? What is his political perspective? Following Toplin's introduction Professor Robert Rosenstone (California University of Technology) analyzes ways in which Oliver Stone might or might not be regarded as an historian; this is the most original and provocative essay in the volume, equally comprehensive in understanding the construction of history and the Hollywood feature film. Part One concludes with an insightful commentary by Professor Randy Roberts and Graduate Student David Welky (both of Purdue University) on the importance of Stone's most formative experience-the Vietnam War-and how it has shaped his oeuvre. But in the penultimate essay of Part One Oliver Stone asserts: "I do not think of myself as a cinematic historian now or ever and, to the best of my knowledge, have not made that claim" (40). There is the crux of the debate which runs through the rest of this volume. Has Stone claimed to be an historian or is that a title accorded him somewhat contemptuously by a less than scrupulous press or partially and guardedly by historians who disagree about what history is?

Part Two features essays on certain of Oliver Stone's films as history, more or less: Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK, Heaven and Earth, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. As editor, Toplin has made some curious choices here which begin to suggest the confusion among academic historians as to what history is or might become. For example, why include Wall Street and Natural Born Killers which do not dramatize specific historical events or claim to depict the lives of actual people? Does this suggest that any filmmaker who injects invented characters and events into a scrupulously accurate mise en scene is to be regarded as an historian? And if so, what are the criteria by which the guardians of historical integrity might confirm legitimacy upon him? Furthermore, since Natural Born Killers originally was a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, not Stone, and still bears the marks of its initial author's style and white-trash view of United States culture, has the auteurist theoretical foundation upon which Toplin's volume rests begun to fracture? Conversely, why exclude Talk Radio, which is partly based upon the career of Alan Berg, the Denver-based, Jewish talk show host who was assassinated in the driveway of his townhouse around 9 p.m. on June 18, 1984 by a white supremacist group based in Hayden Lake, Idaho, calling itself the Aryan Nation? Does the exclusion imply some unstated but perhaps shifting fact-to-fiction ratio for measuring what represents history? …

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