The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media provides a variety of thoughtful essays about the uses of historical film. The major questions in this book relate to how film can be used as a source for cultural analysis and how historical film functions as a medium for history. In four sections (“Regarding History,” History as Trama,” “History, Fiction, and Postcolonial Memory,” and “History and Television”), the authors examine the theoretical and practical considerations regarding the use and interpretation of film.
The first section addresses the methodology of using historical film. I found this section most valuable because of its advice on how to tackle the “reading” of films. Pierre Sorlin effectively complicates historical film as a source, noting problems of access, bias, and fictionalization. I found his most compelling argument to be his discussion of historical film as a barometer for “historical capital,” or a general public’s knowledge of history. Sorlin claims that the analysis of a film should not be limited to the quality of its historical content but expanded to include reception and interpretation. Robert A. Rosenstone questions how film constructs history and the importance of self-reflexivity of historians when interpreting film. His four points of the construction of a “historical world” provide a variety of levers with which historians can examine a point of history through film. Ultimately, Rosenstone encourages historians to accept film as a parallel kind of history whose place in the academic world is yet to be defined. The subsequent articles in this section address methodology by providing examples of looking at elements of storytelling in biopics and “costume” melodramas’ construction of gender.
In the “History as Trauma” section, the essayists address cinematic interpretation of specific films, taking a critical look at how they interpret historical moments. Marcia Landy’s analysis of femininity and sexuality in “You Remember Diana Dors, Don’t You?” provides fascinating analysis about the ways in which historical film produces value. Through the common stereotype of the “blonde bombshell” or “blonde sinner,” Landy places historical film in the context of social history, demonstrating that cinema is trapped in in fictions that are much more broad than those of the script.
The brief section on film and empire again addresses questions of the construction of history within film and the creation of public memory. The three authors of this section champion the ability of film to tell the stories of silenced people. However, myth provides the other edge to the sword, since historical film is equally capable of employing Euro-centric narratives to tell the stories of the colonized. Greene succinctly states, “It is, I think, precisely this ‘escape’ that is effected in these films. Pulling us into the timeless world of myth and dream, they create ‘places of memory’ for those whose ‘impossible’ memories have been excluded from history–that is, from a shared national past. Muted and silenced, history gives way to a remembered world in which time has stopped and the past has absorbed the present” (248).
The final section concerning history and television looks at the multitude of ways television expresses history, both in terms of the flow of historical and contemporary information. Also, there is a nice shoutout to Temple’s own Vlad Zubok (p. 300). This section provides the least resolution to its questions. I found the discussion of “live” TV to be most interesting. Mary Anne Doanne looks at how the constant relaying of information inadequately represents culture. She blames the immediacy and time-centered role of television for the lack of analysis and devaluation of its content. By looking specifically at catastrophe, Doanne expresses a dissatisfaction with television’s abstract handling of information, bemoaning the lack of referentiality. The following essays provide examples of ways in which television has intentionally or otherwise constructed history.
> Sorlin states, “I think when professional historians wonder about the mistakes made in an historical film, they are worrying about a meaningless question. They would do better to concentrate on other problems” (38). Do you agree with this statement?
> Thinking of Custen’s article about biopics, to what extent does film use elements of narrative to sell a historical figure? How does this contribute to the “construction of difference”?
> In “Shindler’s List is not Shoah,” Hansen brings up interesting questions about the “politics of memory.” How is historical film manipulative in its shaping of memory? Is it, as Hansen argues, valuable as an indicator of the cultural present? What films, other than Shindler’s List present this problem?
> What is the role of authenticity in historical film?
> Is film capable of trumping historical myth?
> What is the role of television in historicizing a moment? Is it more or less credible than film? How can the methodology of film be applied to television?