American History In Motion Pictures Essay, Research Paper
American History in Motion Pictures
We were there while the Titanic sank, we stormed Omaha Beach at Normandy, we saw the Battle of Gettysburg in person, and we rode throughout the west with Wyatt Earp. We were able to do this because Hollywood allowed us to journey to these historic times through the movies. Hollywood allows us to journey back in time to see how people lived, to witness the major events that shaped our world, and help give us a better understanding of a time period that we might not otherwise grasp. The movies help give us a visual picture, of the past, pictures that might not be easily extracted from a book. The means by which history has been taught has changed dramatically throughout the course of history. Ancient cultures taught history through the oral reciting of events. Giving the teller the freedom to change history but also giving people a closeness with the story. With the introduction of the written word a more scientific approach was taken and an event could be studied and analyzed by many different people, this created a more linear way of thinking about history. By putting historical events into movies it changed the way history was perceived. History was no longer only on the page of a book it was now visual. It had the ability to show things that were hard to describe in words, throwing several things at the viewer in one scene where it would take twenty pages to describe the situation on paper. It had the ability to reach a new audience and the ability to spread the knowledge of events to people who would not learn it from a book. The change has been so drastic that a history class of today would probably learn more about the Civil War from the movie Gettysburg than from reading The Killer Angles, the book from which the movie is based.
?It is history written in lightning.? Former president Woodrow Wilson spoke these words after seeing D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece The Birth of a Nation in 1915. The Birth of a Nation is considered as Hollywood?s first ?blockbuster? movie and is a historical picture. It is the story of the south during reconstruction and how the people must fight outside forces to maintain their normal lives. The Birth of a Nation served as a format for historical pictures for many years to come. Moviemakers began to adapt famous novels, plays, and events into movies to draw a crowd and to also serve a teaching purpose. One author suggests that, ?One of the key functions of the new mass entertainment industry was to inculcate American values in the new immigrants and the only tried and true values were the old rural Protestant values of self-help, stern morality, a respect for family life, and a commitment to traditional sex roles.? Nowhere were these values found more than in novels and in the records of history. The main theaters of the time were filled with these new immigrants and the movies that were coming out of Hollywood, while entertaining, instilled this American moral code in them. Until recent years war movies were not produced with any negative connotations toward war, with the mild exception of a few, namely the adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front. War films showed the romance and adventure of war and did not dwell on the actual horrors of it. They were there as propaganda and they helped build a strong sense of nationalism in the country. Only after the civil changes of the 60?s and 70?s have anti-war movies such as Born on the Forth of July, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon began to take a new and different look into war. Each of these generation?s movies definitely reflect the atmosphere of the time, yet another way that movies can be linked to historical study.
The accurate recreation of events is a problem that Hollywood must contend with. How do you make a historically accurate film with out going into too much boring detail? Since most historical events would be near impossible to perfectly replicate, most historical films take a fictional point to show the true aspects of the situation. The film Glory deals with this in a unique way. Glory is the story of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment of black soldiers during the Civil War. The movie has to handle several details such as the training of men, the fighting of battles, or even the smallest details of how a room looked at that time. Nobody knows what the regimental commander?s room looked like at the exact moment that he was offered control of the regiment, but what they can do is say this is an accurate description of a common room of the time. Nobody knows how the soldiers were trained or what happened exactly in the battle, but they can take written evidence and give a good representation of how it may have looked. Another problem faced in a movie like this are the characters. Taking actual soldiers from the regiment and telling the story through them would not be informative or entertaining. Solution; by creating four main characters, each a stereo-type a country-boy, an older wise man, a racially angry young black man, and an intellectual, the story can create conflict between the diverse characters while also showing the larger picture of what was going on. This is not pure fiction, these are four positions that possibly could have been filled at this time, and it focuses around the actual events of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment. A large reason for the addition of fiction to historical fact to tell a story is the importance of entertainment in a story while keeping the historical story intact. How many people would have sat through two and a half hours of Saving Private Ryan if it was purely a recreation and description of the battle at Normandy and the conflicts of the surrounding areas, very few (this would probably include myself). However throw in the story line of a private losing his brothers to the war and a group of soldiers risking their lives to save his, and you have an award winning movie that millions of people go to see and the film-makers are still able to teach people about the horrors of this war and what those soldiers actually faced.
Historical film is also used in other ways such as a writer expressing hi theories about a questionable period, or a group of people distorting the facts to strengthen their point of view. History has long been accused of telling half-truths and putting a spin on controversial situations, using the saying ?the winners write the history books.? Movies seem to take the same approach, a movie made in Germany around the time of the world wars will press the issue that the allied powers in those wars were the aggressors and that they were merely fighting for the ?mother land?. However, a movie produced in the United States will state the fact that Germany was in fact the true aggressors and that they only stepped in for the good of the world. People have accused many movies of being biased about history Birth of a Nation was criticized because it depicted the Ku Klux Klan as the saviors of the south. Gone With the Wind was criticized because of its depiction of slaves, even though it merely showed what it was probably like on an ante-bellum plantation. Even the older war movies, that were propagandist in style, have come under scrutiny for their light views on war. Other writers have used the medium of movies to express their theories on what really happen in the past. The best example of this is Oliver Stone?s JFK, this movie endured a lot of scrutiny for Stone?s mixture of actual and fictional events. The movie attacks us on many different levels. It attacks our emotions as well as attacking the hierarchy of our nation. Stone winds and mixes the truth and fiction much more than is done in a movie like Glory. Stone twists the fact to the point that you are not sure what to believe while the fiction in Glory helps to accentuate the truth. There are two main complaints over the misuse of history in film: first, that a historical film is no more than a piece of written history transferred to the screen, and thus subject to the same rules of historical practice; and second, that a fact is a fact and that history is little more than a compilation of facts. However, we must realize that facts cannot stand on their own, they must be supported by the work from which they are embedded. To evaluate them is to look at their goals and possibilities.
The mass media spectacle known as motion pictures has many different aspects and uses. We can use these movies to learn about the past as well as teach the past. The industry has its goals of making money, but hopefully not to the extent of forfeiting the goal of producing historically accurate films that help us learn more about our past as well as our future.