History Through FIlm

by | Jun 1, 2020 | 0 comments

Justifying the Cinematic Medium as a Way to Study History

History as taught in most Western high schools is based on the memorization and verification of facts. The correlation of such a study with the subjects of math and sciences leads to a certain identification of patterns when regarding academic thinking and exploration. It is therefore revolutionary, and certainly confusing, when certain university studies of such “solid” subjects, look to destabilize and deconstruct the mode of learning with fact that had been so cemented in children’s minds. College-level history classes reveal the fractures and doubts that appear when analyzing the actual “study” of history; as we begin to see the power that powerful states and people have over narratives and stories into supposed air-tight events. Such as the story of Christopher Columbus; once heralded as a hero and icon of the Western world, the Genovesan explorer’s legacy has been completed with a fuller context of the genocides and horrors his “discoveries” brought about. To the point that Columbus’ memorial day in October has been rechristened by many: Indigenous People’s Day. With a constantly changing narrative, the entire structure of history and its learning is destabilized. Thus film, an entertainment medium that would sometimes “misconstrue” historical events for its own populist and financial interests, would never have been deemed worthy as adding to historical knowledge when I entered college. Studying film individually, however, allowed me to see it as a more elevated medium than the pure entertainment I had been led to believe; adding to the weight of filmic stories and explorations. Furthermore, as the ambiguities of history, narrative, and fact began to seep towards me in college classes, the idea of a visual exploration and ​interpretation ​of history began to take on a whole new level of meaning.

When looking at the accuracy of history and its interpretations, however, one needs to accept the dimensions of an historical account. It is impossible to have one particular point in history completely covered or verified at 100%. Every couple of decades a particular event is revised and a flipped perspective is given. Thus, history and historians should be considered as interpreting ​facts and documents. A case is made for the ambiguity of history and its flexible narratives by Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot in his analysis of the Haitian Revolution, and specifically in the name, Sans-Souci. Trouillot goes on a deep dive of trying to discover why popular Haitian revolutionary Henri Christophe named his lavish palace Sans-Souci. We discover he had an enemy by that name, whom he feared of usurping or overshadowing him, and we also learn that Prussian King Frederich the Great had a palace made a decade prior by the same name. Troulliot goes about divulging records of evidence that make the case for each of the reasons. But through it, we also see how Christophe buried the memory of his rival, to the point of having the palace literally built on top of the site of his murder. Historians for much of history dismissed the person Sans-Souci, all thanks to the manipulation of Christophe. However, given the light shined by Trouillot, a new and undiscovered dimension of history is brought to light. It goes to demonstrate that no full picture of history will ever be discovered, as neither will a full picture of the present. There will always be a manipulation, be it from unreliable individual and collective memory, or the unseen forces and actions that have buried information for their own benefit.

This idea of history and stories being manipulated by the powerful has been prevalent for centuries, and acknowledged by historians, both classical and modern. This can be seen in propaganda films. They are the clearest example of historical manipulation, however, such biased films and documentaries still have an important value for historians. ​Birth of a Nation (1915) and Triumph of the Will ​(1935) are two of the most famed propagandistic films, and they are hardly ever discarded by historians. ​Triumph of the Will ​is the famed documentary by Leni Riefenstahl of a Nazi rally in Nuremberg. The film uses no narration, instead emphasizing its editing, showing the real faces of fascination of young German kids intercut with Hitler’s speeches of dignity and the German ​volk​. Many historians, including Edward Berenson, argue that while ​Triumph of the Will is an important primary document, it can’t have much value except for showing the inaccuracies and blatant censorship that fascist regimes had. While it is true that the film never mentions the real historical instances of Hitler’s cruelties or the unreality of his populist message, it ​is a perfect example of the convincing nature that fascist messages have, playing to a shamed and defeated population and returning their sense of pride. The filmic portrayal was truly the perspective that many average Nazi followers had, including perhaps Riefenstahl herself. While ​Triumph of the Will ​is a manipulation of its contemporary history, ​Birth of a Nation ​goes a degree beyond, proving to be a propagandistic manipulation of events decades before its making. How can there be any value to such a film that purports itself to be a historically accurate portrayal of the disenfranchisement of whites during the Reconstruction era in America? 

Like, ​Triumph of the Will, Birth of a Nation ​is of historical value not with the events it portrays, but ​how ​it does so. The D.W. Griffith-directed film showcases the mindset of many American southern whites, who felt completely humiliated and emasculated after the abolishment of slavery and their subsequent defeat in the battlefields of the American Civil War. That mindset has persisted from the end of the Civil War, to the making of Griffith’s film, and beyond. Such a mindset of racism and discrimination against blacks is shown in its full glory in Birth of a Nation along with the justifications that such white people feel when purporting such cruelties on racial minorities. ​Birth of a Nation ​captures a repressed mindset that provides many answers to the historical build-up and snaps of racism in America afterwards. But, while those films have remained their manipulated forms at the time of their conception, the example of Raza ​(1942) is a different case. ​Raza​, written by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, is a film that has morphed through time; with different edits coinciding with contemporary needs of Spain. In its production in 1941, and subsequent release in 1942, the film ended with a military march and soldiers and civilians alike in Madrid performing the Nazi salute. This was due to the alliance between Franco and German dictator Adolph Hitler at the time, but as the Allies began to turn the tide in WWII, Franco brought this alliance to a neutrality, and by the late 1940s, copies of ​Raza ​had the Nazi salutes and other fascist mentions edited out. Such propaganda films showcase the indoctrination methods of 20th century fascist movements in a primary-document experience.

But what to do with those films purported to be solely “entertainment”?

Historians grasp the pulse of a particular time period and culture by looking at primary written records of the time, which can also include fictional and artistic documents that produce a more indirect truth and a mapping of the complicated realities of a people. Throughout history, the great works of entertainment and storytelling have been the most effective way to grasp the real attitudes and happenings of the time. In fact, in Ancient Greece the arts of history and poetry were indistinguishable, with the likes of The Iliad being littered with fiction, while also recording the very real battle of Troy. But even works of entire fiction can provide useful historical insight. The 442 BCE Sophocles play ​Antigone​, for example, helped shed light on the change from monarchical to democratic rule through an argument over burial rituals. The same historical value can be found in the 10th century English poem ​Beowulf​, which also gave us an insight into ancient burials as well as the idealized view of men and warriors. ​Beowulf also shows the flexibility with nationality and inheritance at the time; showcasing initial nepotism, but a deep sense of meritocracy as well. 

Neither Beowulf nor Antigone existed, and their stories are entirely fiction, with one interpolating dragons and swamp beasts, but their historical value is incalculable in how it showcases attitudes, culture, and mannerisms of people of the time. Artists throughout time, have always sought to imbue their works with an honesty that properly represents the feelings and stances towards different issues, whether political or emotional.

While ​Beowulf and ​Antigone are fascinating looks at the high echelons of how governments and politics might have worked in their respective societies and times, the respective 16th and 17th century Spanish texts of ​Lazarillo de Tormes and ​El Celoso Extremeño are a unique look at how the lower classes of society lived and struggled. ​Lazarillo de Tormes is an especially fascinating read, not only because it is claimed to have invented the picaresque story-structure, but because it is one of the few documents that showed how those living in poverty related to society and even religion. The story never brings about the glamour or honor of ​Antigone and ​Beowulf instead portraying immoral characters, stealing and exploiting others for their own benefit. The showcase of such attitudes towards the weak and the poor in Lazarillo proves to be a singular, yet refreshing view, in the suffering and mistreatment of the lower classes of the time. Such a story would never have been produced in primary documents by the literate classes of the time, however, as we see ​Lazarillo is an incalculable asset when deciphering the full sociological composition of 16th century Spain. 

El Celoso Extremeño takes on a different perspective on Imperial Spain’s poverty, in fact the story is more interested in exploring the ​noveau riche ​that came about after the discovery of the Americas. In the story, author Miguel de Cervantes is able to showcase a pathological sense of paranoia and greed that he theorizes comes about whether one is born in wealth or if one acquires it in his lifetime. The story is a cautionary tale to the volatile wealth patterns of the time, and of the destruction and division that it was sowing amongst Spaniards of all classes. Such a paranoia makes sense when regarding this story along with Lazarillo​. The poor have been so ignored and mistreated that the trust in goodwill from the ​nouveau riche ​is non-existent. This proves to be a puncture in the controlled narrative of society that the Catholic Church had at the time – given that they controlled the little universities and schools that were producing contemporary historical accounts. Without ​Lazarillo or ​El Celoso Extremeno one would only have biased governmental and elitist accounts of how history played out. However, these fictional stories are able to lend a dimension into the “feeling” in society as well. 

So far, my argument has been that films and stories only provide historical value (qualified as an expansion of knowledge and awareness of the past)  in regard to ​when ​they were made. ​High Noon ​(1952)​, ​while set in the 19th​ century, comments more clearly upon the persecution of Hollywood writers with Communist sympathies in the 1950s. So, a work of historical fiction from another period in history can also give us valuable insight into the politics and society of the time in which it was produced.

A historical textbook is based on facts and facts only, and thus has more weight and value when reconstructing and understanding history than a film about the Roman Empire or 18th​ century France might. However, historian Robert A. Rosenstone writes about the value of films’ representation of the past not because of its 100% factual representation of society, but because ​of its imaginative leaps and filling in the gaps. A book has the advantage of only commenting on aspects of history that it can know for sure. A film, however, when set in the past, must recreate every aspect visually, whether known or not. Take a scene at a bar in 19th​ century France, a historian might be able to depict how such bars were utilized and what their reputation might be based on letters exchanged between contemporaries of the bar. However, when shown in a film, a director must dress the set with what he or she thinks the tables would look like, a specific texture of wood, what the lighting of such a bar would be, what the ambience would be like, and even the manner of serving drinks. Such a director must use intuition of what kind of wood an average Parisian bar would have, what the wages and working-schedules of Parisian workers were like, in order to capture their tiredness or frustration, etc. Such depictions might be given approval by rigid historians, claiming that to capture such a bar scene, is more intuitive and less impactful than the leaps that films make when depicting more “important” historical aspects.

In Ridley Scott’s ​Gladiator ​(2000), there are many scenes regarding Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, his General Maximus, and Marcus Aurelius’ son Commodus. The film goes into uncharted territory, when showcasing private conversations with the intent of the emperor of passing over his son in the line of succession and choosing his favored General instead. This concept is completely unverifiable and no doubt scandalized many historians when shown on screen. However, a filmmaker has the task of also filling in gaps in history that are passed over by historians due to lack of evidence. In a narrative film, such gaps must be filled in in order to have a complete structure, and thus provide a balanced and coherent view of events. Such imagination and creative leaps are, of course, theories, and yet history is made ​understandable for a viewer. Rosenstone, however, goes further in his defense of cinema, claiming that facts and leaps are not what matters, but rather the emotional dimension that films are able to bring to history instead; something completely exclusive that a historical book is largely incapable of capturing.

 Rosenstone’s defense of an “emotional history” involves the important job a filmmaker has in inhabiting his or her characters and bringing about their emotional journeys (usually the center of films and stories) to a realistic completion. The impact of numbers of dead as written in a textbook is not the same as the killing of a character that a viewer has become emotionally attached to. Such emotional dimensions of history add to the horrors or heroics of certain historical persons, allowing for an actual immersion into history to occur on part of the viewer.

We can analyze this from the perspective of WWII and the Vietnam War. On paper, WWII no doubt seems like the more justifiable of the two wars, for moral reasons of saving Europe and the world from a fascist and repressive ruling. Vietnam, however, was seen largely over the world and by many in the US as a capricious intervention perpetuated by leaders that were obsessed with battling Communism. As such the depiction of both wars differs in history books, but gloss over what the waging of such wars actually looks like. Strategies and statistics are abound in many of these academic readings, and yet as soldiers and veterans tell it, once on the battlefield the ideologies and causes of war blur away as the unspeakable horror and fear of killing fellow man takes over. 

This is apparent when comparing the films of ​Platoon ​(1986) and ​Dunkirk ​(2017). ​Dunkirk ​is set during the famed retreat in WWII. The film, directed by Christopher Nolan, is driven by a narrative of survival as the various characters we follow are clinging on for dear life. In fact, the Germans that the British were battling are never once seen on screen, they are an unknown force and as such not the main concern of the soldiers on the French beaches. Instead we see paranoia and desperation abound in a very unglorified view of such a “moralistic” war. Nolan even chooses to showcase not a specific battle, but rather a retreat, which mainstream viewers normally see as a defeat; and yet Nolan is able to etch a message of triumph in the simple act of surviving. There is a further contrast when the famed Winston Churchill speech “We shall fight on the beaches…” is delivered by a common soldier, with no dramatic pause or musical cue; showcasing that these words and intentions are of little concern to them. ​Platoon ​looks at the Vietnam war, a supposedly very different war, and yet comes out with nearly the same conclusions as ​Dunkirk​. In the film, we do see a trajectory of the ideologized soldier who comes to Vietnam ready to fight for his country, but is quickly contrasted and scarred by the horrors perpetuated by both sides of the war. By the end, director Oliver Stone (who is a veteran of the Vietnam War) strips down any political sides or opponents that might have been conceived when thinking about such a war, and portrays a view of human destruction and desperation instead. Both films were made after their respective subjects took place, and while they may comment on the times in which they were made as well, they provide much more valuable information about the emotional state and costs of the historical events they are depicting.

However, there are still conflicts when regarding film as equally valid in qualifying history in the same way that classical historians meticulously do. It would seem unfair to throw away the hard work that a historian does, trying to find verifiable facts in a job that is the opposite of the Hollywood glamour. Film doesn’t have the value of ​recordings ​that history books might have, by showing quotes and archeological evidence (documentaries aside). The defense of film as a way of studying history, however, is not to substitute the hard work historians already do – it is not competing with it in any way. In fact, film never proclaims to be history. By being done in a medium more commonly thought of as entertainment and art, a statement is already being made to viewers about the true grasp of facts that a film may have. In the end, all history is an interpretation, and interpretations can be done from multiple angles, be that from a factual side or a narrative one. Trouilliot has shown us that history is ever changing and morphing, with the biases of writers forever weighing and conditioning the entire truth of a certain subject. As human beings, it is impossible to be completely objective or unbiased; even indisputable facts can be manipulated based on the way that they are arranged. For example, the United States was known to “liberate” Cuba in 1898 after the attack of the USS Maine by Spanish ​saboteurs​.

However, this factual event completely changes meaning when seen by the Cuban side, which saw the Americans as using an excuse to colonize their island for their own capitalistic gains, and the Spaniards, who saw the Americans as taking advantage of a decadent empire to form their own imperialist ambitions. The Americans themselves saw the event as a provocation from an ancient and arrogant empire, and they were seeking a liberation of colonies and a spread of democracy to their Western Hemisphere. All three perspectives are based on a known fact, the sinking of the USS Maine, and yet all three utilize the fact in completely different ways, telling disparate versions of the meaning of what happened. In the same way, a film about the Spanish-American War in Cuba would thus have as much validity in using the explosion on the USS Maine, as the different and biased responses of each of the three nations. 

History is storytelling, as its own etymology indicates. The act of historicizing involves putting characters, events, and other aspects in a logical order and searching for a ‘cause and effect’. However, the specific order and logic imposed on said elements is heavily influenced by winners and power, as the overused quote of “history is written by the victor” clearly states. There are great voids and biased tinges regarding race, gender, and class that will forever condition the absolute truth and vision of what written history can be. One can’t disregard the fact that a historian is a human being and thus will forever have his or her own biases and prejudices when writing a specific history. Philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the impossibility of objectivity given how much our present cultures limit us from seeing the cultures of the past. 

Alternate history and historians ​have ​been able to fill in gaps and untold stories of racial, gendered, and classed groups, but this recent development is in its nascent stages and itself will only look at one lost perspective of history. These alternate historians also use the same methodology of ‘cause and effect’ when the reality of the past is much more complex and anti-climactic. Seeking to find patterns and meaning in great and small aspects of life is a very human process at understanding the world, but truth and nature are not structured that way. 

Films, from the get-go, admit to their narrativization of history, and make the case that this is necessary in order to ​understand ​chosen events or characters. This ‘meta-history’ is very similar to textual historicism, since it is taking on a specific and limited interpretation of the past. Film by extension is able to add a special dimension to history, one which Rosenstone emphasizes is an emotional one. One mustn’t disregard the importance of emotion in history, as it is able to relate human experiences (which all history is) to a current audience; thus stripping away the supposed oceans of difference in custom, and boiling down the harrowing or uplifting events to an interactive level. In the end, individualism is how each human experiences life, and film is able to bring about an individualist interaction with history; providing an important immersion into an array of subjects. We mustn’t discount the effort that goes into creating visual history either. As mentioned before, filmmakers have had to make jumps into the creation of what a Parisian bar would look like that textual historians wouldn’t have to. These creative additions help evoke not so much an emotional aspect of the past, but a “feeling” of it too; of textures, sounds, and lights. In the end, one must conclude that film and textual history ​are different due to their respective problems of telling history. However, film shouldn’t be brushed aside because of its fame as being entertainment, but rather regarded as complementary to the historical explorations done in text. Film is simply another medium to tell history, and is thus no less flawed than the other forms that our past has been recorded and discussed on.

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