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Thesis Topics: Ready-Made



From the earliest days of the motion picture, screenwriters and directors have chosen historical events as the subjects or settings of their films. The Birth of a Nation provoked Woodrow Wilson to describe depiction of events in the new medium as 'history written in lightning.'[1] In the past few years, films such as The Crucible and JFK have revived the perennial debate among filmmakers, historians, and educators concerning the degree of accuracy in historical films, and what this accuracy-or lack of it-may mean in artistic and social contexts.[2] As a 'thesis topic,' this controversy presents both advantages and disadvantages. It is not difficult to find books and articles in the Catalog and Wilson Combined Indexes files in the Dartmouth College Information System, using 'motion pictures and history' as a specific subject term, but an overabundance of sources can be daunting. This essay will describe briefly two ways in which this broad topic can be narrowed into something more manageable.

One possibility is to take one or more specific films and compare the filmmakers' version of events with available primary and secondary sources. Past Imperfect,[3] a recent collection of writings on historical films, comprises essays by historians, biographers, and journalists, who contributed chapters on films with subject matter in their specialties. Each essay concludes with a few references for further reading, but the historical context of each film could be studied in much more depth. Several examples follow.

Gerda Lerner, in her essay on three films about Joan of Arc, writes that 'Victor Fleming's Joan of Arc and Otto Preminger's Saint Joan adhere quite closely to the main historical facts of her story,' but prefers the approach used by Carl Dreyer in his 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent film with intertitles taken in part from the trial proceedings.[4] There are several editions of the transcripts of the trial, in both English and French.[5]

Josef von Sternberg's 1934 The Scarlet Empress features Marlene Dietrich's portrayal of Catherine II, Empress of Russia, later known as Catherine the Great. According to one of her modern biographers, 'the historical Catherine was nothing like the kittenish, pouting, vamping heroine' on the screen.[6] An anachronistic musical soundtrack, including the 1812 Overture and Wagner, emphasizes the Hollywood distortion that 'reduces Catherine's life . . . to a dark fairy tale . . . But the factual story of Catherine's life was more compelling than any myth.'[7] However, even this film is not totally devoid of authenticity; the screenwriters made some use of Catherine's memoirs, which are available for study in several modern editions in either English or Russian.[8]

A more recent film, about an incident in the more recent past, can be similarly studied. According to William Leuchtenburg, 'Warner Brothers took great pains to achieve authenticity' in the 1976 All the President's Men, but the film did 'misinterpret the events that culminated in Richard Nixon's August 1974 resignation,' illustrating the point that 'a film can be accurate without being true.'[9] With modern indexing, finding contemporary news stories and analysis presents no problem; and the full text of the Watergate hearings is available for study.[10]

A second approach might examine the use of historical films in the classroom. While this issue has concerned educators for many years,[11] it has come into prominence more recently as an aspect of 'cultural-literacy' criticism of popular culture in modern education.[12] Articles in scholarly education journals discuss the issue from various viewpoints. One such article argues for the use of films that 'dramatize themes and ideas from history and literature in ways that amplify and illuminate these issues for students . . . Films are an important art form in their own right.' But the problem of historical accuracy isn't really addressed here.[13] A more sociologically-oriented article describes high-school students' reactions to the portrayal of Native Americans in two films produced in widely separated eras: The Searchers (1956) and Dances with Wolves (1990).[14]

The problem of motion pictures as history can thus be approached from many viewpoints, using scholarly resources from various disciplines- film studies, history, education, or cultural and ethnic studies. Neither Hollywood nor independent producers show any signs of abandoning historical films, so controversies are sure to continue.

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[1] Quoted in American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, ed. John E. O'Connor and Martin A. Jackson (New York: Continuum, [1988]), xix.

[2] Commentary abounds in newspapers, popular magazines, and scholarly journals. For examples, see William Safire, 'The Way It Was Not,' New York Times (27 November 1995), A15; Thom Geier, 'Fact and Fiction at the Movies,' U. S. News & World Report (1 March 1993), 16; and Robert A. Rosenstone, 'JFK: Historical Fact/Historical Film,' American Historical Review 97:2 (1992), 506-511.

[3] Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, general ed. Mark C. Carnes; ed. Ted Mico, John Miller-Monzon, and David Rubel (New York: H. Holt, 1995).

[4] Gerda Lerner, 'Joan of Arc: Three Films,' in Past Imperfect, 56.

[5] Joan, of Arc, Saint, 1412-1431, defendant, Proces de condamnation de Jeanne d'Arc, ed. Soci�t� de l'histoire de France, Fondation du Departement de Vosges, 3 vols. (Paris, Klincksieck, 1960-1971); The Trial of Jeanne d'Arc: a Complete Translation of the Text of the Original Documents, with an introduction, by W. P. Barrett (London: G. Routledge, 1931). There are other editions of the transcripts in the catalog, both in English and in French.

[6] Carolly Erickson, 'The Scarlet Empress,' in Past Imperfect, 86.

[7] Erickson, 'Empress,' 88-89.

[8] Catherine II, Empress of Russia, Zapiski imperatritsy Ekateriny II, ed. E. L. Rudnitskaia (Moscow: 'Nauka,' 1990), and The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, ed. Dominique Maroger, intro. by G. P. Gooch, trans. Moura Budberg (New York: Macmillan, [1955]). There are other Russian and English editions in the catalog, but we do not have the original French edition.

[9] William E. Leuchtenburg, 'All the President's Men,' in Past Imperfect, 288.

[10] United States. Congress. Senate. Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, Hearings before the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities of the United States Senate, 93d Cong., 1st-2d sess., May 17, 1973-, 24 vols. (Washington, D. C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973-); Appendix to the Hearings of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities of the United States Senate 93d Congress, 1st and 2d Sessions. Legal Documents Relating to the Select Committee Hearings, 2 vols. (Washington, D. C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1974-); United States. Congress. House. Committee on the Judiciary, Testimony of Witnesses. Hearings . . .to Investigate Whether Sufficient Grounds Exist for the House of Representatives . . . to Impeach Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States of America , 3 vols. (Washington, D. C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1974); Hedda Garza, The Watergate Investigation Index: House Judiciary Committee Hearings and Report on Impeachment (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1984); Hedda Garza, The Watergate Investigation Index: Senate Select Committee Hearings and Reports on Presidential Campaign Activities (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1982).

[11] Several articles chosen at random from Writings on American History include Paul G. Hook, 'Effect of Silent Motion Pictures on Study of History,' Virginia Journal of Education 30 (1937), 381-382.

[12] The author of a recent article quotes Allan Bloom's denigration of cinematic versions of the lives of, for example, Gandhi or Thomas More, 'designed to further passing political movements and to appeal to simplistic needs for greatness.' See P. Adams Sitney, 'The Need for, and the Scandal of, Film in the Curriculum,' New England Review 17:3 (Summer 1995), 89.

[13] Julie Johnson and Colby Vargas, 'The Smell of Celluloid in the Classroom: Five Great Movies That Teach,' Social Education 58:2 (February 1994), 109.

[14] Peter Seixas, 'Confronting the Moral Frames of Popular Film: Young People Respond to Historical Revisionism,' American Journal of Education 102:3 (May 1994), 261-285.

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