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Kinds of Historical Films

Digital History TOPIC ID 42

There are several distinct kinds of historical films. Especially common are "costume dramas." A costume drama typically places modern people in a carefully re-created simulation of the past. Costume dramas are usually obsessed with authenticity and accuracy: They want to get the carpet of the Titanic just right. But the historical accuracy of costume dramas tends to be extremely superficial. The characters are just like people today, reflecting present-day concerns and values. A popular example was the the recent cinematic version of Titanic, which reflected contemporary concerns with class and gender.

A second kind of historical film is the docudrama, an attempt to fashion an entertaining history lesson by blending real historical figures and events with fictional characters, dialogues, and incidents. Unlike costume dramas, docudramas claim to be essentially true to the historical facts--but they seek to fill in the gaps in the historical record. But docudramas are rarely as free from bias as they suggest. In films like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, Hollywood reinforced racial stereotypes, and fixed in the public mind a distorted view that slave life was "idyllic," and that slaves were loyal and docile. A more recent example is Steven Spielberg's Amistad, which portrays white abolitionists as racially condescending hypocrites and which minimizes the racism in the pre-Civil War North.

A third kind of historical film is ethnocentric, telling a historical story from a very narrow point of view. Examples of ethnocentrism include not only films like John Wayne's The Alamo, which fails to present Mexican perspectives on the Texas Revolution, but World War II films that omit our allies and treat the war as if it only involved American soldiers.

A fourth form of historical films revises history with a presentist agenda. A classic example is the 1942 epic They Died with Their Boots On, a sympathetic screen biography of George Armstrong Custer. At a time when American troops faced a series of costly defeats during World War II, the story of Custer's Last Stand provided a historical example of the value of valor and sacrifice. Another example is the film Bonnie and Clyde which uses the story of two Depression-era bank robbers to address the 1960s themes of youth revolt and women's liberation.

A fifth kind of historical film brings largely ignored historical incidents to the audience's attention. This might be called this cinematic social history. The Mollie Maguires looked at a group of nineteenth-century Irish American coal miners; Hester Street , at turn of the century Jewish immigrants; Reds , at World War I-era American socialists and feminists; and Glory told the story of the Massachusetts 54th, which recounts the experiences of some of the earliest black troops to experience combat during the Civil War.

The sixth version of cinematic history is revisionist history--a version exemplified by Oliver Stone's JFK. This is an attempt to refute the dominant interpretation of history. No kind of cinematic history provokes greater outrage from critics than revisionist history. Director Oliver Stone was accused of trying to delude the audience into believing that the U.S. government, led by Lyndon Johnson, conspired to murder John Kennedy in order to prolong American involvement in Vietnam.

A seventh and final kind of cinematic history version attempts to grapple with the meaning of historical change. There have been several striking examples of this approach in recent years. Oprah Winfrey film version of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, seeks to show how traumatic memories of slavery haunted the post-emancipation generation. Another example is Forrest Gump, which follows an idiot savant through the many of the most troubling events of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, including the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, Vietnam War, the Watergate Affair, the murder of former Beatle John Lennon, and the spread of AIDS. The film attempted to reflect on the meaning of these events.

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