by Joel Tscherne | 8/27/2009 07:00:00 AM

How much should historians pay attention to Hollywood and media coverage of historical events and figures? I bring this up after my first graduate class last night, a reading seminar on the American Revolution. When another student asked the professor about the HBO John Adams miniseries, the instructor responded, "I don't have cable", clearly showing no interest in even discussing the subject. But can historians afford to let screenwriters and producers make movies and TV shows that clearly plays fast and loose with history?

I bring this up as we approach the 70th anniversary of World War II (in a few days) and the 150th anniversary of the United States Civil War (in a few years). The media is always big on commemorating anniversaries and these will not be an exception. Steven Spielberg is in development on a biography of Abraham Lincoln, set for possible release in 2011, with Liam Neeson signed on to play the president. In addition, Robert Redford has just announced plans to make The Conspirator, a movie featuring the story of Mary Surratt, one of the Lincoln assassination plotters, the first woman executed by the Federal government.

Obviously there have been a large number of movies, documentaries, and TV shows that have used historians as consultants. Unfortunately, many of these works have been heavily criticized by historians for both the way they often play with facts and their misunderstanding of the events they mean to present. Of course, the problem is that more people are likely to see a movie or watch a show than read either university press books or even history best sellers.

So how can we juggle our desire to make sure that Hollywood gets it right with our belief that it isn't worth the time or trouble when it?s unlikely that anyone is going to listen to us anyway? And while you're thinking about it, consider this: Oliver Stone has signed with Showtime to create a 10-part miniseries on the secret history of America. No matter what you think about his films or his politics, doesn't that still give you pause for thought?

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/27/2009 9:31 PM:

I don't think there's anything wrong -- especially in the age of google -- with historians putting out corrective, critical commentary so that people who are interested in the truth, in more detail, in other perspectives (even if a movie doesn't actively make anything up, usually it restricts itself to one view of an event).

I don't spend a lot of time talking to my students about movies, though: some instructors figure "if you can't beat 'em" and use the media saturation as a touchstone from which they can work. The problem with this is cognitive: By mentioning a bad movie, even critically, you can actually reinforce the impact it has, and drown out the positive information you're trying to present.

It's hard enough teaching history, without having to walk them through critical media studies at the same time.


Blogger AndrewMc on 8/28/2009 8:52 AM:

I had the "opportunity" to meet Oliver Stone after the movie JFK came out. He bitched to me about how historians never understood the purpose of a movie. That part is often true.

But he also bitched that historians don't understand history in general, which made me laugh at him.


Anonymous Anonymous on 8/28/2009 11:11 AM:

Of course some historians think OTHER historians don't understand history too!

I know it seems like fighting a losing battle, but I consider it to be on the same level with my information literacy classes where I try my best to convince students that wikipedia is not a good source for scholarly research.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/28/2009 12:35 PM:

The conventional view is on display here [emphasis added]:

Television dramas, films and novels offer a way in to history and can inspire an abiding passion for the subject. Provided that they encourage people to find out what ‘really’ happened, rather than being treated as reliable historical sources in their own right, then they can and should be respected as a force to be reckoned with in the world of history.

That proviso really is the crux of the problem, isn't it? It would be all well and good if we didn't take visual evidence so damned literally, and had a modicum of critical literacy....


Blogger mark on 8/28/2009 11:09 PM:

The first purpose of movies and television shows is to make money by telling an entertaining story that attracts a large audience. The second purpose is artistic expression of the director/screenwriter/actors. Historical accuracy comes in on the priority list at about 197th place.

John Adams was far from the worst effort at historical moviemaking, at least there were verbatim quotes in the dialogue. JFK was a complete work of fiction, yet it was entertaining to watch. Birth of a Nation was monstrous in intent, yet a milestone in the field, Eisenstein is the flipside ( add Triumph of the Will here for documentary category).

Art and history are different domains.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/29/2009 10:46 AM:

Art and history are different domains.

If they'd stay in their domain, we'd stay in ours. You don't hear us moaning about the X-Files Special, or Transformers 2.0, or 007: Return of the Libido, do you?


Blogger James Stripes on 8/30/2009 6:29 PM:


Historians in our age must be media critics in the same way that historians of old had to be competent textual critics. Some are better than others, of course. I have cable, but not HBO, and plan to rent the miniseries John Adams soon, especially as I seem to be reading Adams' letters quite a bit these days.

As for Wikipedia, and other tertiary sources: you need not convince your students they are poor sources if you employ your authority to forbid citations to them. They can look, but their work must contain citations to primary and secondary sources. Force competent work, the recognition of quality will follow.

Many historians that have denounced JFK have failed to comprehend that the subject is Jim Garrison, not the Kennedy assassination itself. Garrison's view, and his legal career, is presented somewhat accurately in the film. Alas Stone's own comments get in the way of seeing the film for what it is.


Blogger idiosynchronic on 9/01/2009 10:42 AM:

Art and history are different domains.

Which makes art historians the world over begin to seize up and bluster incoherently in outrage.

A much better statement would be, "History and for-profit artistic narrative are different domains."

Otherwise, we wouldn't have Tracy Chevalier, Philippa Gregory & and their peers fictionalizing all over the historical record like incontinent spaniels.

Hell, even Guernica is fictionalized; inspired by true events.

James' point, "Historians in our age must be media critics in the same way that historians of old had to be competent textual critics," is dead on. We must be familiar with the cultural context in which both our work is read, and in how the audience is brought to our disciplines. It is up to us to engage them at that point; if we need to destroy the frame, it's nothing that the discipline doesn't do itself periodically as historical record loses or finds content and its reinterpreted in the present.

I don't hear Space Race scholars bitching about The Right Stuff (or they all did in the 80's), or the later intellectual children of that film, Apollo 13 & From the Earth To The Moon. They seem to be quite pleased that the shows were made at all.

Kicking Oliver Stone around is pretty gratifying - but ultimately futile. Very few people would believe Stone's account of history - even for a movie like W. which was well-researched for a Stone film.