Overview for films in Colonial Era
(Digital History ID 2949)

No one goes to the movies for a history lesson. Nevertheless, history has always provided movies with many of their most compelling characters and plots.

Historians are often contemptuous of film history. Filmmakers are accused of manipulating fact, inventing dialogue, and injecting romance for dramatic effect. They are also charged with simplifying a complex historical record, privileging action and drama over accuracy, promoting a “great man” theory of history, and dividing history into good guys and bad guys. Above all, moviemakers are frequently accused of sanitizing, distorting, and romanticizing the past.

But we should be careful about dismissing cinematic history out of hand. Movies often do a better job than written histories in conveying the look and atmosphere of another era. And movies can provide alternate perspectives on the meaning of past events. As William Faulkner wrote in his novel Absalom, Absalom!: "There is a might-have-been which is more true than truth."

In 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, two big budget films appeared. Interestingly, neither motion picture was produced by a Hollywood studio. One of the films, 1492: The Conquest of Paradise, was a French production; the other, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, other produced by the makers of Santa Claus: The Movie and Superman: The Movie. At a time when intense controversy swirled around Columbus - whether he should be celebrated as a brilliant explorer and visionary who helped usher in the modern world, or as a genocidal murder, responsible for the mass death of Indians, inaugurator of the slave trade, and despoiler of the natural environment - Hollywood doubted the subject’s mass appeal.

How could a film about Columbus engage an audience’s interest? The more serious of the two films, 1492: The Conquest of Paradise, straddles the fence on the controversies raised by Columbus. He is depicted as a visionary who embodies many of the values that Americans hold most dear. He is rugged, self-reliant, and refuses to defer to the authority of the church or state. He is also an idealist who seeks to protect the native peoples. But his efforts fail, according to the film, partly because of twisted adversaries (notably, the Spanish nobleman Adrian de Moxica and the power of the church. Columbus reflects to himself, "This is not how I imagined it would be."

The 1995 animated Disney musical Pocahontas has been subjected to particularly harsh criticism by historians for the way that it sentimentalizes history, stripping it of its complexity, conflict, drama, and meaning.

The film Pocahontas has little problems and big ones too. The eleven or twelve year old Pocahontas is transformed into a buckskin clad young woman in her late teens while John Smith is transformed into a youthful, clean shaven, blond hulk. The real John Smith was a bearded middle-aged Renaissance soldier, who had been a pirate, a beggar in Ireland, and a mercenary for the kingdom of Hungary who had received a pension for beheading three Turks.

But the film also illustrates in microcosm four psychological mechanisms that Americans use to evade the true meaning of our collective past. The first mechanism is a “screen memory.” In Sigmund Freud's system of psychoanalysis, a screen memory is a recollection of early childhood that is falsely recalled or magnified in importance and that masks other memories of deeper importance. Nations, like individuals, can have screen memories--overpowering images that distort historical realities. Most Americans know nothing about the colonization of Virginia except for the romantic episode of John Smith's rescue by Pocahontas.

In fact, America's early history is filled with screen memories. As schoolchildren, Americans learned a series of legends that suggest that relations between the English and the indigenous people were more cooperative and less acrimonious than they actually were. The true story of English settlement in Virginia is a nauseating story of conflict, negotiation, and cultural and racial warfare.

A second mechanism that distorts historical realities is "splitting." It involves dividing a complex reality into dualities or polar opposites. Splitting has played a critical role in European perceptions of Indians. Indians were either noble children of nature or they were bloodthirsty savages, they were either proto-ecologists or they were a primitive people. The realities, of course, were far more complex.

A third mechanism is projection or displacement. This involves attributing one's own feelings, ideas, or attitudes onto some other people or objects. It involves the externalization of blame, guilt, or responsibility. Today, Americans feel very uneasy about race relations, our treatment of the environment, the materialism of our society. One way to deal with these anxieties is to displace them into the distant past.

A final psychological mechanism involves myth making. Historically, Americans have dealt with the displacement of American Indians by depicting them as the passive victims of an impersonal and inevitable process of modernization, or what used to be called "the march of civilization." Yet far from being passive victims, Native Americans were active agents engaged who responded to threats to their cultures through negotiation, physical resistance, and cultural adaptation.

Pocahontas is a wonderfully well-intentioned movie. It is a plea for a tolerance and ecological awareness. It transforms the Pocahontas legend into a critique of ethnocentrism, materialism, possessiveness, and greed. Yet the film is historically misleading It omits the larger context of colonial expansion and violent resistance. It is inconceivable that Disney could create a heartwarming cartoon musical based on the story of Anne Frank. Yet that is precisely what the studio has done with Pocahontas.

Recommended Films

1492: The Conquest of Paradise

Director Ridley Scott’s epic portrays Columbus as a brilliant navigator, a failed governor, and a tragic figure whose idealistic vision for peaceful coexistence of the Spanish and the Indians is undercut by religious dogmatism and greed.

The Crucible

Although the screen version of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, written in the midst of the “witchhunts” accompanying the postwar Red Scare, does not explain the range of factors that contributed to the 1692 Salem witchcraft scare—including the heavy mortality in recent Indian wars, the diminishing prospects for marriage of many young women, and rivalries and conflicts within Salem--it does a highly effective job of communicating the look and feel of life in seventeenth-century Puritan community.

Copyright Digital History 2021