The Power of Film and a Popular View of History


Few forms of mass media have exerted as much influence on the public historic conscience as feature films. Movies capture the imagination and shape the minds of the audience. Nowhere is this sway more acute than in the case of so-called "historic" movies. Plainly, for the ordinary man, and even for many amateur historians, movies form the basis for their understanding of relevant historic events or periods. Movies contextualize and detail public historic memory, defining their understanding of the time period portrayed in the film. These sorts of films are the ultimate evolution of events-based history, in which entire historical theaters are remembered through a narrow perspective. Naturally, in movies this point of view is typically that of the main characters and, more abstractly, the post-facto views of writers and directors. Often this perspective makes overt links to present-day issues and political agendas, tainting the memory of history, which should be nothing but unbiased.

Through their adventures and narrations, movies define wars, revolutions, governments, and social reforms. With wider ideas and social contexts brushed in by a third-person omniscient narrator, a film encapsulates an entire historic theater for its audience. With complex special effects and dramatic relationships between historic figures, this summary judgment defines the audiences understanding of the given history. Unfortunately, for the average American moviegoer it would be hard to say that their understanding of history is anything more than rudimentary. Often relying only on vague memories of high school and college history courses, few dispute the findings of cinematic representations of history. This unquestioning acceptance of historical movies is especially the case since most history films represent obscure events or historic theaters. Unless these depictions are dispelled, contradicted, or confirmed by the audience's own investigations of other sources, the movie becomes the audience's historic understanding. In this "historic" cinema walks a dangerous line that often distorts actual history. This periodic misrepresentation is problematic because cinema is the most widely distributed source of media in the United States.

Moreover, eight of the highest grossing movies of all time represent historic events, making them the most distributed source of history in the country.[1] Feature films reach tens of millions of people in every state. Because of the sheer numbers of people it reaches, the value of cinema as a source for history has been artificially inflated. Furthermore, the representation itself is visual, and these images play off natural human vulnerability to rapid successive visual stimulation. In this way, cinema is unlike other sources of historic data, it does not just tell a story, it shows one. The effect of visualization should not be underplayed, for people often attempt to visualize what happened when trying to understand history. Cinema does this recollection for the viewer: not only do visual representations show events, but also they show mood, tone, and emotion. When this depiction is compounded by the emotional attachment people often make with movie characters, cinema has an exaggerated value in the comparative role of relevant history sources. In many ways movies are not only means of historiography, they are means of modern social criticism or statement. Often, by using "historic" movies, writers and directors are able to portray their own visions of contemporary problems. Instead of holding a cursory role it takes on a primary one.

In a final irony cinema has even found its way into the serious consideration of modern historians. Movies are not only used by the general public for historical ends, they are also indeed used by historians themselves. In the past ten years many excellent books have been published around historic cinema. These books compare and contrast movies with their corresponding historical event. Authors such as Robert Burgoune, Peter Burke, Kenneth Cameron, and Robert Rosenstone write in detail about individual movies and their effect on overarching public ideas of historical time. More than this criticism, authors like Peter Burke trace the use of movies to the long-standing effects of visual imagery on historic memory. Movies are also used by historians for instruction as well as a barometer for what general audience literature they attempt to publish. Moreover, historians also develop fierce discussions around a feature film, using a movie to catalyze a polarized historical argument. Among historians and amateurs alike there is often a problem in how the past is interpreted. Far too often, complex historical problems are boiled down into black-and-white distinctive sides. This fallacy often occurs when contemporaries use their own learned biases and cultural understanding to interpret history. In historic films this sort of history finds its greatest champion. Films certainly allow for complex situations to be boiled into simple ones.

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