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The mirror crack'd-history reflected by Hollywood.


This article examines how mainstream (Hollywood) history films can be productively incorporated into high school and university history classrooms. It presents the findings of an experimental case study of the use of mainstream film in an Advanced Placement high school history course, and based on those findings suggests a sample module for a twentieth century history course combining film and text-based approaches to history.

I. Introduction

As the habit of reading continues to decline, especially among the young, history teachers are increasingly confronted by students whose impressions of the past are shaped by the mainstream historical films that Tony Barta has called "the most powerful engine of popular history in our culture." (Barta, 1998, 2) The most prominent of these films are popular, Hollywood-style releases that characteristically sacrifice historical accuracy to the imperatives of emotionally-satisfying narrative resolution and commercial success. As a result, many students arrive in class with a deep background of historical misperception.

Faced with engrained historical misrepresentation, history teachers can respond with two basic strategies. Firstly, they can swim against the tide of increasingly cinematic history and continue to insist on the traditional text-focused curriculum, dismissing more popularized depictions of their course material. Secondly, they can attempt to adapt to the changing times by beginning to strategically incorporate popular historical films into the classroom despite their frequently dubious accuracy.

While recognizing that the first pedagogical strategy is not without merit, it is the second strategy whose potential we wish to explore here. We suggest the following merits of the second strategy warrant a closer examination of how it could best be accomplished: (i.) historical films provide a richer visual depiction of events than equivalent texts, are (ii.) an experience the class can more easily share, and therefore (iii.) are simply more inclined to instigate wide-ranging discussion than equivalent texts. Furthermore, (iv.) historical films will continue to exercise an enormous influence over most students; thus it only make sense to equip students with critical viewing capabilities. In addition, (v.) students have an enduring affection for unmasking manipulation, and the honing of this skill is likely to enhance the interest of history as a subject. Finally, (vi.) incorporating film into the core curriculum in no way necessitates the exclusion of relevant texts. On the contrary, historical films will generally give a visual immediacy to the events described in history texts, and thereby enhance their interest. Moreover, the employment of relevant texts in debunking the inaccuracies and manipulations of mainstream films will tend to enhance rather than diminish their importance. Indeed, it is the critical symbiosis produced by integrating dramatic visual narrative within a rigorous text-based curriculum that holds the greatest promise for enhancing historical understanding in the long term.

The question then is how can popular, Hollywood-style films be most effectively incorporated into the history classroom to complement the existing curriculum. Too often, films are used as a reward or as time fillers. It is easy to understand this rationale. A film is an easy way to fill in a period. What is unfortunate is that teachers often do not bother to analyze the films they use or to integrate them into their overall lesson-plans. Moreover, contemporary scholarship provides little practical guidance, especially to high school teachers, as to how film could be successfully integrated into their classes without undermining the seriousness and rigor of the discipline.

A range of scholars, including Daniel Walkowitz, Robert Brent Toplin, Tony Barta, John O'Connor and Robert Rosenstone deserve to be recognized for their pioneering work in the field of film and history, advancing above all the standard of accuracy in historical films. Still, as O'Connor notes, "given the continuing popularity of commercially produced historical film and docudrama ... teaching people to be more critical viewers of everything they see on film ... is an even more effective way for historians to influence the public perception of the past." (O'Connor, 1990, 3) In the spirit of this statement, we incorporated Hollywood historical feature films into a number of history classes at the high school level, and examined one of those classes more in-depth via a case study.

For the study, we chose an Advanced Placement European History Class. This level of class allowed a dual set of objectives to be explored. On the one hand, it allowed us to consider the response of high school history students to class presentations of Hollywood films in a number of different formats. On the other hand, it allowed for the presentation of university level assignments and discussions relating to those films. This article presents our findings and, on their basis, suggests a module on how to introduce a film successfully into a traditional history class. This module can also serve as the basis for a complete Historical Visual Literacy course.

II: Experimental Overview

Our study was conducted with a group of students registered in an Advanced Placement European History course at St. George's High School, a private, English language, coeducational school in Montreal, Quebec. Classes were held five times a cycle and a cycle consisted of ten school days. The course objectives were to introduce the students to the major topics in European history since the Renaissance, to develop essay-writing skills appropriate to first year university and to provide a number of discussion sessions in which the students would express their understanding of the material. Students were given regular reading assignments from a text (Roberts, 1997), attended lectures and wrote one short essay, one major paper and two exams. In addition, those who wished to earn university credits wrote the standardized Advanced Placement exam. Sixteen students were enrolled in the Advanced Placement class, all of whom participated in the case study. The selection of the films used was determined largely by the requirements of the course, the first unit of which focused primarily on early modern Europe--from the Renaissance through to the Counter-Reformation. Correspondingly, the films 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Elizabeth (1998) were chosen.

In order to evaluate the influence and effectiveness of historical feature films on students, two questionnaires were generated. One set was completed by the students three times, immediately after viewing each film. Its twelve questions were designed to examine whether and how each film advanced the students' understanding of the topics presented therein. The questions included "What historical thesis is the film promoting? Is it clearly stated? How?"; "Identify the cinematic elements in the film that helped you to understand the historical topic which it addresses;" and "After viewing this film, what questions spring to mind that you would like answered about either the topic or issues or the way they were covered?" The second questionnaire contained only three questions meant to assess the more general question of whether or not historical feature film is a useful approach for the dissemination of historical knowledge. Taken together, the questionnaires generated raw data for analysis and helped suggest a future course of action.

Along with the questionnaires, the method of presentation for each film was an important factor in the exercise. The conditions under which the films were screened were different each time. This was done in order to assess the impact such conditions might have on the students' understanding of both the film itself, and of the underlying historical material contained within it. In other words, do students learn more from watching the film uninterrupted in the dark, as the filmmaker intended, or should there be interruptions to address specific issues? Should lights be on or off to create an effective learning environment?

The three presentation formats were as follows. Each film (plus questionnaire) spanned three or four seventy-five minute periods. The first film was screened as a "movie experience"--in the dark with minimal interruption. Students were instructed to hold any questions until after the film had finished. In this way, the students' ability to critically assess an unmediated film experience could be analyzed. The second film was screened under different conditions. The classroom lights were left on and the students were allowed to ask questions immediately rather than at the end of the film. No interruptions or explanations were initiated. Finally, the third film was screened under the same conditions as the second, with the addition of instructor-initiated interruptions and explanations as well as student questions. As one of the goals of the study was to assess the pre-existing critical skills of the students, no specific background readings related to the films were pre-assigned.

III: Main Findings

An examination of the survey data supplemented with interviews with the students and the careful observation of classroom dynamics over several weeks gave rise to the following main findings:

Introductory readings and lectures prior to viewing films are essential. As self-evident as this might appear, the case study sought, in part, to establish a baseline of the students' native critical viewing skills (either innate or transferred from other disciplines such as English) and so we only provided a cursory verbal introduction to the topics in each film.

The need for, and usefulness of, a classroom environment (lights on, note-taking during screening) and regular interruptions of the films remained important even as the students developed their visual literacy skills. In the interest of maintaining a modicum of enjoyment for the students, sacrificing the "lights on" requirement did not prove overly detrimental to their learning. However, a failure to engage in judicious interruptions, to provoke discussion or provide clarification, notably diminished the educative impact of the film.

While short interruptions to the screening by the teacher were very valuable, lengthy interruptions of the film as a whole were counterproductive. The need to screen films over the course of several days had an adverse effect on the students' ability to follow the narrative flow.

Older films were particularly useful as starting points as students were more naturally inclined to question the historical accuracy of such depictions. Students tended to view more contemporary productions as more accurate, in part because the dialogue and mannerisms expressed by characters in recent films more closely resembles their own experiences. (Seixas, 1993, 352)

An additional concern raised by the case study was the general inability of students to initially identify the thesis of the films. While a portion of the students' difficulty with this issue stemmed from their inability to transfer skills acquired in English classes to history classes, it is also true that a different set of skills is involved in 'reading' a film. Since the level of students' existing film literacy is a key determinant of how best to introduce films into a history course, these skills were not introduced prior to the case study. Once the habit of identifying a film's historical theme and the means of its development was established, however, students began to demonstrate a capacity to do it independently.

These results suggested the desirability of a course, or at least a module within a course, to help students develop visual literacy skills in relation to historical film. They also provide some guidance as to how such a module might best be organized.

IV: Proposed Module/Course

While today's students are practiced viewers of visual media, they are not necessarily critical viewers. In the same way that historians arm their students with the tools to become critical readers, they can and should arm their students with critical viewing tools. These tools will allow students to better explore media-related themes including the following: realism versus accuracy; education versus entertainment; and time-compression and its effects on historical accuracy. The following sample plan for a module (or course) is proposed as a means for developing these critical viewing tools. In general, introductory readings and lectures should be provided prior to screening a film to give students background and context on the topic. Students should also be provided with readings from a primer on film techniques and terminology. Each film should also be accompanied by a short essay assignment chosen from among three or four related topics. The module is designed to allow for different films and topics chosen at the instructor's discretion while maintaining an overall structure that is flexible enough to be applied across a wide range of levels, from Grade Ten to the early undergraduate level. Difficulty levels can be varied through the complexity of films selected and essays assigned.

The following is a sample module from a traditional course dealing with the Cold War. To prepare for this module the students will be assigned excerpts from Stanley Karnow's Vietnam (1983), Walter Lefeber's America, Russia and the Cold War (2002) and the novel The Quiet American by Graham Greene. The film will be The Quiet American (2002). There will be a lecture to clarify the readings and provide further context for the film, specifically as it treats the transition from French to American involvement in Vietnam within the broader context of the Cold War. The lecture, moreover, will address the mechanics of critical viewing as applied to historical feature films, drawing upon the lessons learned from the case study. Approximately three three-hour class periods will be devoted to preparing for, viewing, and discussing the film. As it is the first film of the course, there will be a significant number of interruptions for explanations by the instructor. The students will be provided with a worksheet that guides them during their film viewing, also ensuring that they have notes to consult during the subsequent class discussion of the film. Following the film and discussion, each student will be assigned an essay on one of the following topics:

Based on your readings, as well as the film, discuss how US policymakers made similar mistakes to those of the French. Be sure to discuss how the film illustrates these mistakes and identify where the filmmakers relied on Greene's novel and where they relied on the historical record, typified by your assigned readings.

Hollywood films based on historical events, whether inspired by novels that are set in that time or by events themselves, often portray the point of view of one or two individuals. How do the points of view of the main characters in the film compare to the authors of the assigned history texts. Do they share the same sympathies or are they opposed? To what degree? Give at least three references from each text.

Unlike the novel on which it is based, The Quiet American is a post-Cold War production. What elements in the film do you think exemplify the fact that the film is about the Cold War and Vietnam, but not of them. Justify your examples with reference to your readings and your lecture notes.

Submission of the papers is followed by a general in-class discussion of where and how the film promotes accurate and inaccurate perceptions of the Cold War. One could easily expand this module into a full course on the Cold War and film. Films such as Thirteen Days (2000--on the Cuban Missile Crisis), The Path to War (2003--a look at the Johnson administration's escalation of the Vietnam conflict) and We Were Soldiers ... (2002--about the first official combat mission for US soldiers in Vietnam) are recent productions that examine various aspects of US policy and decision-making during the first half of the 1960s. The module can also be easily adapted to other periods and themes.

V: Conclusion

It seems safe to conclude that historical feature films have become a permanent part of the mainstream of historical research. A vast body of literature by historians has already been dedicated to film and history. Nevertheless, with the notable exception of O'Connor's work, there is a demonstrable lack of discussion about how to integrate films into the classroom, whether in university or high school. This lack is something this article has tried to begin to redress.

While historians are charged with pursuing and acquiring knowledge of the past and examining its truth (singular or plural, subjective or objective), they are also charged with disseminating that knowledge and teaching others the skills necessary to make informed judgments. History has long privileged the written word as its primary medium of expression. Throughout the twentieth century, however, still and motion pictures have competed mightily with the written word in this regard. At the start of a new century, it appears that pictures are gaining the upper hand, at least with the general public. The number of feature films, documentaries and television programs, not to mention entire networks, devoted to history continues to grow at an accelerating rate. Whether for good or ill, this situation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. It therefore becomes imperative that historians at all levels, from post-graduate supervisors to high school teachers, first acquire and then teach critical viewing skills to their students. Whatever form that methodology takes, we believe it needs to become one of the basic tools of the modern practicing historian.


Books and articles:

Barta, Tony. ed., Screening the Past: Film and the Representation of History. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 1998.

Greene, Graham. The Quiet American. New York: Viking Press, 1956.

Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: a history. New York: Viking Press, 1983.

Lefeber, Walter. America, Russia and the Cold War, 1945-2002, updated ninth ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

O'Connor, John. Image as Artifact. Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Co., 1990.

Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of Europe. London: Penguin Publishing, 1997.

Seixas, Peter. "Popular Film and Young People's Understanding of the History of Native American-White Relations," The History Teacher, Vol. 26, No. 3 (May 1993).


A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Elizabeth (1998)

1492: The Conquest of Paradise (1992)

The Quiet American (2002)

The Path to War (2003)

Thirteen Days (2000)

We Were Soldiers (2002)

Paul D'Amboise, no current affiliation Avery Plaw, Concordia University, Canada

D'Amboise, M.A. is a high school history teacher, currently on sabbatical and Plaw, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Concordia University
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Author:D'Amboise, Paul
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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