Real to Reel

History at the Movies

Published: December 6, 2012

A scene from “Titanic,” winner of Best Picture in 1997.

Three of the first four films to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards were movies about history. With this year’s Lincoln and Argo, we can expect that history will again have a big role at the Oscars. In this episode, the History Guys will reflect on a few of their favorite films about history. They’ll do their best to steer clear of the historian’s urge to poke holes, and instead focus on the more interesting question of what these films tell us about the times in which they were made.

What’s your favorite historical film? Are there any that strike you as particularly accurate or inaccurate? Any that do a particularly good job of projecting our current anxieties onto the past? Let us know below!

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Comments (33)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Chris Haak

    As a film studies grad student at Ohio University I taught a class call “Vietnam through Film” that looked at the ways Hollywood films “taught” the audience about the war. One of the films I programed that I thought would generate a lot of discussion was Operation Dumbo Drop (1995). I wanted to show how Disney had taken what many consider a national scar and a horrific moment for the nation as well as the soldiers who fought, and disneyfied it into a children/family movie. I’m not sure accurate or inaccurate are the most important questions we can be asking, rather, one question I would like to see discussed is how we use films to challenge or confirm our projections of what our past was. As a counter to those films/book/articles that exposed the atrocities of the war, Operation Dumbo Drop explicitly positioned the American soldiers as on the side of good. Our soldiers will move mountains to do the right thing and replace the elephant that was murdered by a North Vietnam officer.

  2. Sean

    I think of Westerns, along with sci fi alien invasion movies, as *the* metaphor for the Cold War. How did the Cold War change the western genre? Did other countries see Westerns the same way? I’ve heard that Westerns were very popular is parts of Africa at times. And were spaghetti westerns doing the same ideological work as American Westerns? I haven’t seen any European Westerns; my dad was a John Wayne fan. Also, who do the “Indians” represent in a Cold War analogy, or is my reading too neat?

  3. Will Wright

    It’s very difficult to name my favorite historical film; my list of favorites numbers to nearly 500. But the title that leaps to mind is “Malcolm X.” I remember how how much pressure Spike Lee and Denzel Washington were under to get it right. In-turn that implied omitting some facts and contexts while emphasizing others. As with any historical icon, individuals from disparate walks of life cling to a prefered version of Malcolm. I remember that some people were pissed off because Mr. Washington did not receive an Oscar for his portrayal of Mr. X.

    Mr. Lee took on a daunting and divisive, even dauntingly divisive story, and delivered it deftly.

    All of these could occupy a full segment.

    And, then, there’s the thorny tale of how Spike Lee chose to turn to rich Black celebrities in order to finish the film in the manner he knew he had to! This story is suited to a different hour of BackStory, about how American people of color dare to rely on one another, and their own communities in order to produce representations of themselves that ring true.

  4. Brian Parkinson

    What does Blazing Saddles’ success as the top-grossing Western of all time (up to that point) tell us about the 1970′s?

  5. Denis Sugrue

    [quote comment="79363"]What does Blazing Saddles’ success as the top-grossing Western of all time (up to that point) tell us about the 1970′s?[/quote]

    It probably tells us people in the 1970s wanted some light hearted fun as Hollywood was making some negative stuff: Death Wish, Taxi Driver, Marathon Man, The Friends of Eddie Coyle,The Boys from Brazil, Carrie, Network, The Exorcist, The Omen, Dog Day Afternoon, The Great Santini, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc. Heck, you couldn’t even go to the beach as a shark would eat you…on the Fourth of July no less!

  6. Mike

    [quote comment="79363"]What does Blazing Saddles’ success as the top-grossing Western of all time (up to that point) tell us about the 1970′s?[/quote]

    I always thought it was a god example of how Americans wanted to laugh to sublimate the ugly truth of our racist past. It offered the twin pleasures of laughing at others folly while allowing us to claim that we were far more enlightened than those poor benighted souls..

  7. Anne Payne

    I grew up in the late 50s and early 60s watching biopics from a gereration earlier on the afternoon movie, late movie, etc. These movies about scientists, statesmen (there’s a word on its way out) composers, etc., generally started with the premise that the subject was noble (another word sledding toward the thin ice!) If the real life person had unfavorable biographical facts that weren’t widely known, they would be left out or maybe treated with a passing reference that would be missed by anyone not in the know. If the person had really notorious unpleasant behavior, the movie would tend to minimize or spin less attractive aspects. I took the movies at face value when I was in fourth grade, but since I am blessed or cursed with a good long term memory, I’d have “Hey, that wasn’t in the movie” moments years later when I found out Beethoven or whoever was kind of a jerk.

  8. Chuck I.

    One issue I would like to pose to the History Guys: Can a movie truly be 100% “historically accurate”? For purposes of this question, let’s assume the word “movie” cannot include a documentaries.

    I believe the correct answer to my question is “NO.” Any film requires some element of creative liberty in order to drive the plot. And, frankly, I would worry that too much attention to historical detail may increase the risk of financial failure at the box office.

  9. Chuck I.

    Oh, and I think any discussion on this topic needs to begin with some serious discussion of the first-ever major motion picture–not to mention one of the most historically INaccurate: “Birth of a Nation.”

  10. Denis Sugrue

    [quote comment="80987"]Oh, and I think any discussion on this topic needs to begin with some serious discussion of the first-ever major motion picture–not to mention one of the most historically INaccurate: “Birth of a Nation.”[/quote]

    Good call Chuck. Is it true President Wilson said about Birth of a Nation “It’s like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true.” ?

  11. Will Wright

    Dear Mr. Sugrue:

    I remember that, yes, Pres. Wilson said that first memorable line about “history written in lightning,” but the second sentence is news to me. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations, though, he did indeed utter both lines.

    [quote comment="83290"][quote comment="80987"]Oh, and I think any discussion on this topic needs to begin with some serious discussion of the first-ever major motion picture–not to mention one of the most historically INaccurate: “Birth of a Nation.”[/quote]

    Good call Chuck. Is it true President Wilson said about Birth of a Nation “It’s like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true.” ?[/quote]

  12. Brian Parkinson

    [quote comment="80987"]Oh, and I think any discussion on this topic needs to begin with some serious discussion of the first-ever major motion picture–not to mention one of the most historically INaccurate: “Birth of a Nation.”[/quote]

    If Backstory does do a story on BON, would you explore Griffith’s response to criticisms that BON was racist?

    The fact that Griffith argued vehemently that there was nothing racist about BON is perhaps the most bizarre chapter in the film’s history. For instance, Griffith inserted a statement at the beginning of BON that the film was not meant to be racist. Then, he directed a second epic film called “Intolerance,” which celebrates tolerance of different people…which is completely bizarre considering that there probably is no work of American art more explicitly and unapologetically racist than BON.

    Also, Backstory could connect the film to the Thomas Dixon’s plays (particularly the Leopard’s Spots) which, among other things, helped to spark the race riots in Atlanta, Georgia.

  13. Brian Parkinson

    Also interesting that Thomas Dixon’s plays (that were the basis for Birth of a Nation) were written to retell Uncle Tom’s Cabin from a white supremacist’s perspective. Dixon’s plays even contained characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but recast to subvert Harriet Beacher Stowe’s moral message.

  14. Bruce Pencek

    Don’t forget documentaries. Audiences may be more credulous about nonfiction films than about dramatic works, even though it seems to me that dramatic effect is a central goal alike for the makers of historical documentaries and historical dramas.

    How have documentarians’ conventions of representing historical facts (or “facts”) changed vis-a-vis those of academic historiography — eg, on points like evidence, context, complexity, indeterminacy, and — as this seems to be reduced to set-piece representations — contestation?

    Similarly, in what respects have documentarians situated themselves more with scholars than with cinematic artists?

  15. Sam C

    What an interesting question to ask when “Zero Dark Thirty” is one of this year’s nominees for Best Picture. A lot of commentary on the movie has asked whether it would have been better made 5-10 years from now, when events in it would feel less like news and more like history. The fact that the movie begins 10 years in the past, with September 11th, leads me to think of it as a historical movie, though it ends with events that happened a little more recently.
    So how far in the past does a movie have to take place for it to be historical? Do films’ portrayals of events become more or less accurate as the memories of those events fade, or is their accuracy in the eye of the beholder?

  16. Dale

    I would nominate “Amazing Grace,” the story of William Wilberforce and his commitment to end the slave trade in the British Empire, one year before the United States was able to do so. While it did not end slavery, Wilberforce did live long enough to see the end of slavery in England. I was able to facilitate a screening of the film for historians, educators and pastors in the Williamsburg area early in 2007. The films accuracy in costume, setting and story were applauded by all present. There website, http://www.amazinggracemovie.com may not be in operation right now, but there is some good information at Wikipedia and there are several trailers available online. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazing_Grace_(2006_film)

  17. Paddy Swiney

    [quote comment="80986"]One issue I would like to pose to the History Guys: Can a movie truly be 100% “historically accurate”? For purposes of this question, let’s assume the word “movie” cannot include a documentaries.

    I believe the correct answer to my question is “NO.” Any film requires some element of creative liberty in order to drive the plot. And, frankly, I would worry that too much attention to historical detail may increase the risk of financial failure at the box office.[/quote]

    This is precisely why I use a historical film in combination with historical documentation. I usually use “Amistad” with a chapter from Wyatt-Brown’s biography of Lewis Tappan, plus an account of the actual trial from Douglas Linder’s website. We watch the film in class, and then the students write an essay on “What’s wrong with this picture”, citing the historical accounts. They have to address WHY changes were made–plus why historians would use historical fiction movies at all. Movies can make history come alive, as long as it is history, and not “Django Unchained:

  18. Paddy Swiney

    [quote comment="80986"]One issue I would like to pose to the History Guys: Can a movie truly be 100% “historically accurate”? For purposes of this question, let’s assume the word “movie” cannot include a documentaries.

    I believe the correct answer to my question is “NO.” Any film requires some element of creative liberty in order to drive the plot. And, frankly, I would worry that too much attention to historical detail may increase the risk of financial failure at the box office.[/quote]

  19. Sarah Ingle

    I want to hear the history guys’ take on 1776, the musical. Obviously, there are a ton of inaccuracies–starting with all of the ridiculous singing and the dancing! But I kind of like the fact that the movie has such an irreverent take on the “Founding Fathers.” The movie is pretty easy on Jefferson, especially on the issue of slavery, but I love the way that it handles the letters between John and Abagail Adams. How do you think 1776 compares to the recent HBO miniseries about John Adams?

  20. Pete Basofin

    By coincidence the latest C-Span “Lectures in History” segment is a class on “Gone with the Wind.” Very interesting. Here’s the promo:

    Professor Jeffrey McClurken evaluates the 1939 movie “Gone with the Wind,” looking at it as a source on southern culture during the Civil War & Reconstruction, and reflective of the Depression era in which it was created. This class is from a course on “U.S. History in Film” at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

    http://www.c-span.org/History/Events/Lectures-in-History-Gone-with-the-Wind/10737437341/

  21. Jim C

    Citizen Kane remains my favorite “historical” movie, capturing the zeitgeist of an era and the power influence of an individual on his/her era. As noted earlier, by definition, non-documentaries can’t be 100% accurate. The importance is that they are honest in their portrayal. And in that sense, a movie like Django Unchained passes the test.
    But for movies that honestly convey a new point of view on a historical event, Letters from Iwo Jima is the most successful in recent time,

  22. Camille

    As a history major at Stanford and obsessive move buff, I always thought the best job would be to be the historical consultant on movie sets. Is this a job that actually exists? I’ve tried to do some poking around the internet but can’t find an established cinematic historical consultancy. I still think if this was possible, I would do it. What could be better than determining whether that dishwasher was available at the time, or how people laced their boots in 1782? Sounds awesome to me. Can’t wait for this episode!

  23. Sara Barz

    I’m skeptical that any of the following are particularly accurate, but I like these films because they portray a sense of time and place so beautifully:

    Gone With The Wind (Civil War era south)
    Lincoln (Civil War era D.C.)
    Mary Poppins (early 20th Century London — not so American)
    Anchor Man (1970s San Diego — and television news culture)
    Age of Innocence (Gilded Age in New York City)
    There Will Be Blood (early 20th Century Southern California)
    The Graduate (1960s California)
    Good Will Hunting (1990s Boston and Cambridge)

  24. Laura

    I live in Civil War country, and the local county fine arts museum in my town in holding an exhibition of Civil War art and artifacts. As part of the show, they’ve held a couple of screenings of Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, “The General.” As much as I love (and I do mean _LOVE_) Buster Keaton, this struck me as a bit odd.

    I know “The General,” like many of his movies, has had tremendous impact in the film and art spheres, but I wonder how much of an effect it had outside of those realms. It wasn’t a great success when it was released, but what does it mean to make a comedy about the Civil War? Moreover, what does it mean to include a film like that as an artifact in an exhibit aside guns and bloodied uniforms? What does that say about how we view the Civil War now? Or how we view cinema?

  25. Barb C.

    This is such a broad topic, so many choices. Here are just some of my favorites that made more real the experience of people in particular periods and places:

    Heartland (1979) Engrossing, unsentimental, moving, but rarely shown. In early 20th century Wyoming, a widow (Conceheta Farrell) w/ young daughter becomes a mail-order frontier housekeeper and marries the rancher (Rip Torn). She faces western life’s difficulties typical for women. Considered progressively unglamorous and woman-centered when it was first released. IMBD review: http://www.imdb.com/reviews/422/42274.html

    The House of Mirth (2000) Dramatization of Edith Wharton’s novel about the limitations imposed by 1890′s social norms on a single woman without real wealth, who tries hard to survive emotionally and financially in upper class American society, but makes unwittingly critical errors. A gorgeous, heartbreaking lesson in how corseted, how vulnerable a woman’s life was. Stars Gillian Anderson.

    Hester Street (1975) – In Yiddish with subtitles, portrays Jewish society in the New York ghetto in 1896. A wife arrives from Lithuania (Carole Kane) years after her husband, he’s torn between cultures, she struggles to assimilate; a socialist author’s commentary on freedom in this country; richly detailed and authentic.

    Also:
    Cold Mountain – Civil War experienced by a Confederate deserter and those he left behind in rural North Carolina, with a ruthless home guard threatening both – based on some real people and events. Showed a variety of hardships faced during the war by citizens.

    Beloved – Magical realism with much powerful detail about the physical and emotional realities of slavery and the lives of escaped slaves living free just before the Civil War.

    The Great Debaters – true story of 1930′s black college students winning debate over Harvard. In reality it was U of Southern CA, and one debater, James L. Farmer, Jr. later became a major civil rights activist, founder of CORE and initiated the Freedom Riders.

    Swing Time – social changes for women working in WWII

    Far from Heaven – 1950′s suburbia, a woman grapples with the discovery her husband is gay, and her gardener, who is black, is supportive, attractive and socially off limits.

  26. Colton

    It seems the average person derives much of their knowledge and interest in history through film in particular. I know for me personally watching films like The Searchers, The Great Escape, and The Longest Day with my father sparked my interest not only in World War 2 and the wild west, but in history as a whole. This eventually led me to watch more complex historically based films like Battle for Algiers.

    My question is this: due to the possibility for Hollywood filmmakers to become potential educators or “sparkers”, have any notable directors taken on this responsibility primarily for the purpose of teaching the masses something about history?

  27. Will Wright

    Colton:

    I find the question in your final paragraph fascinating. At the same time, after having studied film history, I remember a lesson that came soon after those studies began: even though there are conflicts between colors and because of color, all Hollywood cares about is green! I am the kind of continually curious nerd who often prefers independent and documentary films to the mass market sort.

    I remember that in the 1920s or 30s Howard Hawks made an effort to “spark” as you call it with his version of “Scarface.” Sidney Lumet did so as well several times: “Fail-Safe,” “Serpico,” “Network,” “The Verdict,” “Running on Empty” and more. He was rare. And a mensch. Robert Mulligan did it twice and in two very different ways with “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Summer of ’42″.

    If a filmmaker is going to take on that role, as George Clooney has to a degree (“Good Night and Good Luck”), then he or she must establish his or her ability to produce mass entertainment. Entertaining or teaching small or niche audiences pays only rarely or barely.

    After a film makes money, if it teaches the viewers they’re fine with that. But that is merely incidental to them. The film industry abounds with snarky references to the historical or cultural merit of what it produces.

  28. michael

    Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

    I had heard at some point that colonization was stereotypically characterized into three broad types: The English subjugated and economically exploited, the Spanish annihilated and plundered, and the French fornicated and assimilated, absorbed/intermingled and established trade with the local culture…

    How true these? And how close to historical ‘facts’ did Herzog stay in Aguirre?

    I stumbled upon Aguirre sometime in the 80′s and could not comprehend it fully, but was in awe… I could not comprehend an army forcing it’s way into a hostile jungle, wearing inappropriate armor, bringing along a noblewomen dressed in finery, and floating a cannon down river on a raft.
    I was dumbstruck at one encounter with an indigenous couple, who in naive curiosity paddled naked out to the raft in a canoe. They were approached by the priest who asked them in Spanish (or maybe Latin) to embrace Jesus as their true savior — they looked befuddled, could not comprehend, and were summarily shot.

    I ‘got’ the allusion to the Vietnam war…. But over the years became more appreciative of the ‘layered’ histories in the film. I subsequently learned how, American colonial times, the British army would travel down from Canada with a baggage train including fine china, silverware, officers’ wives… I also subsequently learned that the Spanish royalty had given orders to not just wholesale slaughter the ‘heathens’, but to give them a chance to convert, thus saving their ‘immortal souls’ — an edict circumvented by a lack of common sense in this movie, and one systematically ducked by reading the ‘order’ from the Spanish ships anchored offshore in the middle of the night!

  29. William Donati

    White Hot with Loni Anderson is a biopic about actress Thelma Todd who died in December 1935. The film asserts that she was murdered by gangster Lucky Luciano.
    The film, based on Hot Toddy: The True Story by Andy Edmonds, is fiction. There is no evidence whatsoever that the actress ever met the gangster. I prove in my biography of Thelma Todd that Luciano was under police surveillance in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in November 1935 until his arrest in April 1936. White Hot gets away with murdering Todd’s reputation. William Donati

  30. Joseph Andrew Salmon, Jr.

    The Friday, Monday, Tuesday USA TODAY have had timely, in-depth information about the 85th annual Academy Awards. I am trying to find out more about the Academy Awards.
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