, Research Paper
Films as primary sources for history
If a picture is worth a thousand words than how much is a moving picture, or movie, worth? In the study of history, the usage of movies as primary sources is controversial. Motion pictures are more commonly well-known as sources and created for entertainment purposes. Film is a creation of a reality. This has some valuable resources for the study of history in many respects. They may or may not be representational, and some may include writing or printing. Some can be categorized as fine art, others as documentary record. Originality may or may not be important, and the content may or may not be the primary focus. History is made by people – in a sense that it is written by people positioned in time and in location, living under a certain political regime, in a certain cultural arena, and having an access to certain interpretative schemes.
There are many different types of films. Documentaries and news (newsreels in some instances) are one of the most widely recognized and less-controversial in the study of history since their purpose is not purely entertainment but instead the exploration of an aspect of the world around us. In many respects, they are exposing history as it is happening. Yet with even these films, it should be realized that they are the interpretation of the director/producer, the camera angles are chosen, the people interview are chosen, the information portrayed is chosen. Yet it still retains its advantages. This is the past at its most immediate, valuable for its record of social and cultural life (even if inevitably somewhat distorted in its art form by its purpose as something other than an accurate record). News footage has recorded, both for the cinema newsreel and for television the recent history of past wars in great detail; some of it is readily available on commercial videotapes and increasingly on multi-media CD-ROMs. The weekly newsreels have now been replaced by the much greater immediacy of television. In essence, this is history recorded at the moment of its being made – a trade-off between the ultimate in immediacy and the lack of clarity that reflection and a broader time-scale would produce.
Another form of film would be the historical series. These are the types of films produced for educational networks. They historically research a topic, choose how to represent it, and them produce it for a more or less mass audience. These films can prove quite valuable to the study of history for the elaboration of areas of interest. Also they are valuable in bringing to light aspects that many have been obscured before. On the other hand, the fault of these films lie in which information they choose to portray and not portray. Since they are produced for a mass audience, there are also concerns about them being produced accordingly, leaving out parts of information that may be pertinent in light of public interest. The films have the interesting position of being able to portray history in different lights, they are able to use a different medium to explore a topic, and also bring it to a broader audience. They can portray credability through emphasis and create villains as well as heroes.
In the captialistic world of Hollywood arises the major motion picture. Created for mainly entertainment purposes therefore there is an incredibly decreased emphasis on the historical value of the films. While there may be consulting historians, they purpose of the movie is entertainment and not historical accuracy. The other major disadvantage of major motion pictures is that most are fictional. The use of fiction in history does have its merits but it is not the argument of this paper. The main reason why not to get into this argument is that fiction does have its role in history and then placing the role of a fictional text into a visual fiction is a dissertation and not an essay. One of the major advantages of major motion pictures is that because they are produced for acceptance by the mass society, we are able to disect values of the time period it was created. Visually we are also able to get a sense (of movies that are contemporary in focus especially) is gather a sense of living styles, clothing, mannerisms, popular culture or its antithesis. Historically accurate movies that are also captivating have an immense burden to meet. In terms of historical accuracy, it does not mean trying to encompass everything that happened in a particular time period. Rather, it requires a story that highlights key elements of the period involved while containing nothing that could never have happened in the time allotted for the human attention span. The balance of historical accuracy in movies lies in finding an original story that hits on the key points of the era while not abusing realities of the period in question. Hollywood’s goal is not to make a great historical film, but to make money. (Schindler’s List and other such movies being an exception). When the public craves blood and sex; historical accuracy can take be de-emphasized in favor of the sensational and scandalous. What is overlooked is that history can be the most captivating story of all, because it is the ongoing story of humanity.
So should films be primary sources for history? Both an affirmative and a negative are the answers. Many factors including, the time of film, who created it, who the intended audience is, what the film is about, etc. in relation to the topic being studied are what make film a valuable historical source. Films, in many respects, are no different from any other type of historical sources and should be treated as such. Visual resources are a peculiarly direct and telling source of encounter with the past, even if the image cannot always be taken as truthful, and film, being the one of the youngest visual mediums, is usually discredited. Film is a historical tool, but that does not mean that it should be neglected as an aesthetic object, instrument of propaganda or a phenomenon of mass media and cultural industry.