Historians expect films on history to be “basically a book transformed onto the screen” – but this is not what films do. Films’ way of telling history is, in some ways, fundamentally different from those possible in books. In this lesson, we’ll look at the ways in which films differ from history books, and then explore what Rosenstone calls “Mainstream (history) Drama.”

Mainstream history dramas are not costume dramas. They are intended to tell a story about real historical events in such a way that viewers gain some meaning from them. They attempt to show the film makers’ answer to certain questions about a particular episode, event, or person that really existed and had an impact on who and what we are today. In that sense, the film makers have similar goals to those of academic historians. To understand those goals, and how mainstream history drama works, we’ll start by trying to understand a bit more about how academic (written) history works.
Academic historians spend their lives trying to sort through primary sources to find the answers to questions they have about the meaning and impact of historical events. This work involves long hours reading secondary sources to understand the context of the events in question, and the interpretation of those events given by historians who have been working on similar questions before. This means that an important part of being an academic historian is to participate with other historians in a long, ongoing discussion about the nature and meaning of historical events. This debate is carried on, for the most part, in print. Although historians do make frequent presentations of their research in front of audiences, the permanent nature of print, and the available space within books and journals is important because it allows the argument to be very detailed, and to go on over extended space and time. So traditional academic history is a conversation carried on in books and articles.

This fact means that historians must learn the rules of writing history so that they can focus on the content of the conversation, rather than its form. There are established ways to provide evidence, for example, and for what constitutes acceptable evidence, that all academic historians follow. Having these rules allows us to understand where another person’s interpretation comes from, and to evaluate whether that interpretation makes sense, without having to go back and do all of the other writer’s research over again. This allows the conversation to move forward. So written history has become the standard because it allows us to present our interpretations of events in great detail, with clear standards of research, and it lasts a long time and can be transported across the world for other historians to read and analyze, and answer.

The rules for thinking about and writing history have been evolving over the last three hundred years. Because of this long use and evolution, the rules have allowed academic historians the opportunity to refine historical analysis, refine our understanding of historical events around the world, and to discover relatively quickly mistakes in our interpretations. Thus, with these rules, our work gets better and better (and more and more detailed) over time. Historians are trained carefully to follow these rules, and their ability to do so has an effect on the degree to which other historians take seriously their contribution to the conversation about the meaning of history. Thus, historians have always placed great faith in the methods (rules) for doing history established by the field of academic history.

One thing that all historians are aware of, however, is that no amount of research can answer a question fully, or completely. The idea that a particular interpretation of history is “proven” is usually the mark of an untrained historian. The more one participates in the conversation, the more one realizes two key facts. First, very few things in history can be “proven” beyond a doubt. Second, there are always holes in the evidence. History is an inexact science that relies on subjects and results created in random social events in a past that is not directly accessible to us.

Sometimes, over long periods of time, evidence may be lost. For example, there are no extant copies of any of the original gospels of the New Testament. All of the oldest versions we have are copies of copies. They may be good copies, but we don’t know, because we don’t have the first documents. For that reason, we can’t talk about what the original gospels actually say, only what they might actually say. And those guesses have to be based on evidence and reason themselves. Thus to say that the gospels are objectively true is a statement of religious faith, but not a historical statement. Historians can only assert what they are able to support with existing evidence that others can also view and interpret.

In other cases, the evidence may be equivocal. Almost no one who wrote the primary sources that historians rely upon had any intention of writing those sources for the purpose of the specific historical research that is being done in our own time. For one thing, it was impossible for those people in the past to imagine what questions we would be asking of their documents. For another, they may have not been altogether truthful. Few people are completely honest about all of their thoughts and motivations, even when writing in diaries, and most official documents don’t provide opportunities for authors to comment upon their motivations for writing. So again, using primary sources as a springboard, historians have to make educated guesses in many cases.
Since history is such an inexact science, it follows that history books require readers to be critical. This is the source of the conversation mentioned above. Historians argue with each other over the meaning of events and historical facts because such an argument (it is conducted in print, and politely) allows us to find each other’s errors and logical weaknesses, and to strengthen the overall understanding of history. So history books are not entirely accurate. They can make a good claim to accuracy, though, because of the degree of detail of factual information that can be presented in books, the degree of detail in the logic of the argument being presented, and the fact that all arguments have to be backed up by a presentation of the source of the data from which the interpretation comes (i.e. footnotes). Films have none of these, and have a much shorter history of telling history narratives. Thus most historians are skeptical of their ability to do so. Films are also works of art, and so being, tend sometimes to fudge details in favor of art. Historians see this as willful inaccuracy, and so see no value in films. However, I beg to differ on this point, and so does Rosenstone.

History films may be less accurate than history books, but neither can tell the whole story, nor be completely sure of perfect accuracy. Of course, it is a logical fallacy to say that just because both films and books are inaccurate, the relative degree of inaccuracy is unimportant and both can be dismissed, or seen as having an equal claim to the truth. History books are by their nature and design more accurate, and more easily subject to use within the conversation of historians. This makes them, for the most part, a better tool for understanding the past. That said, this does not mean that we can just dismiss films as historical interpretations, simply because they usually choose art over historical accuracy. The key question for us should be whether films provide an opportunity for film makers and film viewers to join the conversation about the meaning of history. Both Rosenstone and I assert that they do. Since this is the case, and since we have stipulated the relative inaccuracy of film in the first place, there is no need to go into inaccuracy further in this class. Films are inaccurate to a degree greater than (most) history books. Given. Let’s move on. What do films have in common with academic history that allows us to see them as part of the history conversation? Films, like books, give us the ability to imagine past events and to model the reasons for the historical changes that took place. By extension, this gives us the opportunity to make conclusions as to what the impact of historical changes on later events may have been, and the reasons for that impact. That is what I mean when we talk about making meaning out of the past. We come to conclusions about what caused what, and what effect that had on later events. This is ‘doing history’.

Doing history is always a challenge, however. Intellectual historian Hayden White has written about how we learn, and, by extension, how we learn history. Our learning is conditioned by language, according to White. To learn a thing often works in indirect as well as direct ways. We communicate with each other, and understand the world, by comparing what we experience to other things we have experienced before. In other words, we think in terms of metaphors. When we think of famous dictators, for example, we might think of Napoleon and Hitler. Then we can begin our historical questions by asking how Hitler was different from Napoleon. That method of comparison is a process of learning through metaphor. This is not a new idea, and academic historians use this often in books. Of course, because of their visual vocabulary, films use it, too.

This has led Frank Ankersmit to suggest that historians are not being fair in their evaluation of history films. They are expecting films to do what books do, and that is not how films work. While both try to answer questions about history, and both work through metaphor (films more than books), they are otherwise very different. Films tell history through dramatic narrative and acting. Books through exposition and analysis. Neither can be the other. So our approach to history films should not be to “prescribe a right and wrong way to do history, but to derive theory from practice – how have the movies “written history” visually?” In other words, Ankersmit suggests that we should recognize the efforts that film makers are going to in order to join the discussion about the meaning of historical events, and rather than suggest that they make films more like history books, we should try to understand how films can and do join that conversation. We can’t make film fit the conventions and traditions of written history.[1]

We have to ask ourselves, then, what is “doing history”? If by this phrase we mean seriously attempting to make meaning of the past then we have to acknowledge that some films in fact do this. [2] One of the best examples, and on your list to watch this week, is Glory (1989, dir. Edward Zwick, starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick). Like other history films, to paraphrase Ankersmit and Rosenstone, Glory is not a mirrors of actual historical events, but a constructed narrative, like history books, but in a different way. Rosenstone quotes Hitchcock, who noted that “Drama is life with the boring parts left out.” That is, I think, what Glory is as well. Film makers stage history to make meaning.[3] They use narrative techniques that help them to get their story across in the short span of the length of the movie. In Glory, we see compression (condensation) – the process of taking long stories and making them shorter by compressing time, combining parts, etc. It is not necessary to show us in real time the long passage of years, for example, of the entire process of training the soldiers. A few well-placed dramatic events suffice to show us that training was happening and time was passing. There are numerous filmic techniques for doing this. Glory also makes use of historical displacements – changing the order of events to suit the narrative better. This is certainly taking artistic license, and is one of the biggest objections academic historians have to film. Yet, when done right, this technique can help the audience to understand cause and effect more clearly (when done badly, it can give the audience a completely wrong understanding of history, which is a danger).

Another means of moving the story forward in order to make a point about history is to alter the story. The film The Patriot (2000, dir. Roland Emmerich, starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger) is an example of this. Although Gibson’s character did in fact exist, nearly everything about him is completely made up in the film. Here, the character exists to make a point about the larger war, and why many Americans fought in it. Gibson’s character is a metaphor, or more precisely, a synecdoche, for all Americans who participated in the war. This may not be accurate, but Emmerich was making an interpretation of the war, joining the conversation, and this is what he wanted to say about it. In Glory, Zwick used the letters written by the character Matthew Broderick plays in order to get a sense of how he thought and wrote, but none of the actual words from the real letters made it into the script. The letters that Matthew Broderick reads as a narrator are completely made up.

Film makers and actors use dialogue. Most dialogue is not – cannot be – accurate. In most cases we do not know exactly what a historical person said in a specific circumstance, and even when that information is recorded it may be inaccurate. Therefore, dialogue is a device to move the narrative forward toward the answer or question of the filmmaker, as is character. One of the interesting facts about Glory, for instance, is that the characters played by Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman did not in fact exist. These characters are stand-ins for all of the black men who joined the Union Army during the civil war. They are intended, again, as synecdoche. Thus, their characters are amalgamations of the acts of many real people, all placed into a single fictional character for the purpose of telling the story.

Finally, film makers use drama to make us see the problems in history, and the solutions to those problems proposed by the characters, in an interesting light, giving us an exciting problem to solve as we watch the film and think through cause and effect at a visceral level. Plot twists and turns, the difficulties characters face, and the conflicts and tragedies of characters that our mind chooses to think of as real people bring cause and effect to life like many history books cannot.

So we see the film Glory. Many historians praised Glory as accurate when it appeared, despite the fact that it can easily be demonstrated to have used false information and events to move its story forward (see my examples above). As Rosenstone says, “what is lost in verifiability is gained in space for dramatic historic truth.”[4] Many, if not most, Americans these days get at least some of their knowledge of history from films. We know films are inaccurate. Despite the inaccuracy of academic books on historical subjects, films are more inaccurate. Yet, many are also striving for a dramatic accuracy, if not a documentary one. If many Americans are getting their understanding of history from these films, and the film makers are attempting to join the historical conversation, it seems important to try to understand what they want to say.

The final point I want to make about mainstream historical drama, then, is that it seems to be, so far, the most successful of the history film genres with a general audience. A mainstream history drama is a film that uses characters to drive the plot forward in a realistic vein, shooting on location of actual events whenever possible, and to the degree possible depicting events as they really happened – or at least going the distance in trying to make them seem real, and fit chronological facts. The use of heroic characters is the primary generator of audience interest and plot focus. Setting that character, fictional or real, into a setting that imitates a historical event as far as possible has the effect of telling a story about history.
I hope you enjoy your mainstream history film choice.


[1] Rosenstone, p. 37.
[2] Rosenstone, p.37.
[3] Rosenstone, p. 39
[4] Rosenstone, p. 42.