Hollywood History: Entertainment and Inspiration

How should we assess historical movies and TV series? Several of you emphasized that the starting point for such storytelling is necessarily entertainment (and commerce). Others argued that this kind of historical storytelling — despite inaccuracies — can help inspire viewers to learn more about history.

NELSON: …it is important to understand that the main job of a film crew is to make their respective project entertaining and make money. Often times this means that the crew must take certain “liberties” in order to make their film/series a better sell. One such case is the movie of Hacksaw Ridge; it shows Desmond Doss volunteering to go to war, but in reality Doss was drafted. The movie does this (I think) to better portray Doss as having a strong moral sense of duty to fight for his country. While the movie does take other “liberties” it still is enjoyable and entertaining, and that’s the point. The job of entertainers, in this case the film crew, is to entertain; often times they are not history buffs, and while they have to be well versed in the history they are filming, they cannot be expected to have every detail memorized or in some cases even want to include them. Their job is to sell and sometimes certain historical facts are not welcomed in the pockets of buyers, so they are excluded.

LAUREN: Hollywood is mainly concerned with two things: money and excellence. So, does the film have financial success, or the hope of it, and is it made well, are both crucial questions. If the film is not well made, meaning that it is not convincing in its production design, or just poorly visualized, audiences will not like it, and it will also fail in the sense that it probably will not make as much money.

However, for me, the question comes down to the creativity of the filmmaker and writers, and how much the craft is sacrificed for the art. The Academy Award-winning film The King’s Speech, about the stuttering King George VI, even if it has its inaccuracies, succeeds in humanizing a powerful historical figure, a man who was never supposed to and did not want be king. Beautifully shot, and cleverly written, its themes are the takeaways, supported by facts, balancing art and craft. This is the most common quality of successful period drama.

AIDAN: …when I think about Hollywood and other parts of popular culture portraying historical things, I am all for it, because that is how I learned to love history. It doesn’t matter that some parts are fictional or that there are some historical inaccuracies. When I look back on my own experience it was a work of fiction [Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, the source material for the film Gettysburg] that caused me to love history, and then it was this love of history that then caused me to read more studious well thought out books. If another work of fiction causes somebody else to fall in love with history and causes them to learn more about that event and what really happened then I think that is worth any historical inaccuracies that the work had. That being said if you are going to write historical fiction remind people that it is based on a true story, but is not an actual one.

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Hollywood History: Accuracy

Historical movies and TV series often catch flak for “taking liberties” or “dramatic license” in their interpretation of historical facts. At least for some of you, that was a key line to hold: a good historical movie is an accurate historical movie.

SARAH: In attempting to evaluate the historical accuracy of a movie, attention much be focused on specific criteria while keeping in the mind the time limitations of film. While details may be omitted due to constraints, historically accurate films do not seek to oversimplify an event and instead stay focused on the complexity of the past. A particular agenda should also not be apparent, and facts and details should not be ignored in an effort to merely get the attention of the audience.

MATT: Assessing historical movies and or TV series must begin with the essential question of accuracy. Is what the director of the adaptation actually accurate to what historical study tells us regarding the specific time and/or place and/or figure true? Often we consume something that we believe to be historically accurate, that ends up being merely historically inspired. With this in mind, I believe that the primary criteria for assessing historical movies and TV series must being with the accuracy of that which is being betrayed…. While based on and in a historically true family and location, Medici: Masters of Florence is not a historically accurate television series, [c-creator Frank] Spotnitz himself says that “We begin the show with ‘what if’…” which is a dead giveaway on the historical inaccuracy of the show. While it paints a true and accurate picture of the location, and possibly even the culture of the Medici family and dynasty, it is certainly not telling a historically accurate story thus failing the standards I set forth above.

SHAWN: The two things that would take to assess a historical movie or a tv show would be “Historical accuracy” and “ Historical detail.” The two might sound more of the same, but the difference are that accuracy in a movie is trying to bring back to life what had happened in the past accurately. With detail, the movie or the TV show is trying to show the detail of the even from the past and not just an overlay of a certain event, this is trying to show the whole picture and not just parts of the whole story. Also within detail being able to have the scene in the movie look like the same location or be the same location is key.

What’s the most accurate historical movie you’ve seen? (How do you know it’s accurate? How closely do you investigate this before or after you watch something?) Do you take Shawn’s point about the difference between “accuracy” and “detail”?

Do We Learn Lessons from the Past?

Thanks to everyone who shared their comments the last couple days. I appreciate the seriousness and thoughtfulness that go into that virtual conversation!

But as with the first couple rounds of blog commenting, a fair number of people in class didn’t participate at all and are stuck with a 0/5 for that portion of their participation grade.

But in order to interrogate an idea that came up several times in the “usable past” discussion, I’m going to create a second chance for anyone to get partial credit for blog commenting this week… (of course, I’d also welcome contributions from those who already shared a comment on Thursday or Friday)

No later than the start of class on Monday, please share a short but thoughtful reply to the following question:

When have we learned a lesson from the past? Several of you said (in your response papers or blog comments) that this was perhaps the most importance “use” of the past. So, what’s a specific example of that theme: What was the lesson and how was it learned?

Usable Pasts: Inspiration

As I read your response papers this week, the most popular “usable past” that came up was John Fea’s idea of the past as a source of inspiration (or caution). Three examples of that theme…

SHAWN: I see the past as a useful notion because why else do we have the ability to remember the past. It is useful because we have to past to remember and try not to repeat in the future. We see the past and learn from our mistakes so that when we move on in to the future we make bigger and brighter choices. …[John] Fea shares with us the idea that the past inspires us. Giving an example of how soldiers storming the beach at Normandy to William Wilberforce helping to end the slave trade to many more heroic things. Fea goes on in this section to expand this idea of being inspired and share that as we see these heroic events in the past us as humans get inspired and many times want to be better. While we see the past as a positive and heroic place, there still are negatives that are from the past that we dislike. Fea shares that the past is a useful “cautionary tale”, because it is filled with people and things that we do not want to repeat.This idea of hero is not secluded to someone famous, but to anyone in your life that you deem as a hero.

DUSTIN: [John] Fea talks about how people are able to use the past as a source of inspiration and motivation for present day life. He gives the example of his student Christina and the inspiration she received for her senior art project on Thomas Paine. Christina was able to not only find inspiration from the words of Thomas Paine, but also, it gave her the motivation to do her final art project on something that she was passionate about. History is full of figures and events that we can look to for guidance and also to serve as a reminder to the mistakes we have made in the past, “Whether it is inspiration or warning, we can all draw lessons for the present by studying the past” (Why Study History?, p. 33).

NELSON: …I grew up not knowing much of my family history; because of this I put a great emphasis on knowing the past, remembering it. In that sense the past is useful, it helps one understand how they got there. Perhaps more importantly to me is that the past is a source of motivation for me. Fea describes it as the “Inspirational Past.” Writers like Frederick Douglas inspire me to treat others equally, thinkers like Martin Luther King Jr motivate me to act peacefully, and other men like Hitler serve as a warning of what evils man can do. As Fea puts it, “Whether it is inspiration or warning, we can all draw lessons for the present by studying the past” (p. 33).

Is there a particular individual, group, or event from the past that you find especially inspirational — or cautionary? What problems do you see with the past-as-inspiration? How might McKenzie critique the idea of a “heroic” past? (see ch. 4 of The First Thanksgiving)

Usable Pasts: Identity

While many of your response papers this week warned against seeking an “escape into the past,” the value of seeking personal or national identity in the past resonated strongly — though not perfectly — with many of you.

SARAH: History may prove to be the most useful and avoid potential loss of value when used to assist in the formation the identity of a particular nation or group of people. Without a sufficient understanding of the past, the question of identity often becomes impossible to answer. Notions of freedom and liberty would not prevail in American society today had the events surrounding the American Revolution not developed into common and pervasive public knowledge (Fea, 37). Thanksgiving was responsible for the forming of a broad American understanding that all were immigrants at one time, although this idea was uniquely influenced by the fears surrounding the mass immigration of those from Eastern Europe at this time (McKenzie, 165). The past, when truthfully communicated, can inspire patriotism among the young (Fea, 38). But, although this use seems to hold more of a deeper application of usefulness, it can become controversial when events in the past are sugarcoated or seem to only focus on one aspect as a means of propaganda. This is demonstrated by the fact that Native Americans are not able to identify with the American corporate identity as immigrants and through presidents’ appeal to the Pilgrims to urge for soldiers to “fight for a better world for all” and for survival, forgetting that peace constituted an important value for the Pilgrims as well (McKenzie, 168). Despite the problems in this use of the past, its use as a national identity tool proves to get at a higher end than the mere consumerist mentality that characterizes the goal of many Americans’ efforts.

AIDAN: The most important place that people use the past is in shaping their identity. We are as a society very individualistic, and we do not like telling other people telling us what are identity or our character should be. That being said, everybody grounds their identity in something because it is really hard to have a baseless identity. The past gives us the best of both worlds. It gives you something to ground your identity in, but it allows you to still be individualistic, because it’s your past and you get to control it. Dr. McKenzie talks in The First Thanksgiving about how the holiday of Thanksgiving has been changed during the years from a religious holiday, to a family event, to a cultural celebration depending on our nation’s focus and identity. In the same way, we as individuals reshape our personal view of the past by highlighting one part of our history and putting less focus on other parts depending on the circumstances.

In your lifetime, do you think that the past has become more useful or less as a source of national identity? To what other kinds of pasts-as-source-of-identity do you personally turn? (e.g., Does the past shape your identity as a Christian? Or a woman or man? Or [insert other identity]?)

Usable Pasts: Escapism

In ch. 2 of Why Study History? John Fea explores several types of “usable pasts.” While some struck most of you as quite valid as you wrote your response papers, one that was generally unpopular was the notion of past as an “escape from the pressures and anxieties of modern life” (p. 33).

JOHN: If you always escape to the past to avoid your problems then your problems will never go away. Sometimes you need to face your pressures of life head on and try to correct them. I see this with some of my friends from high school. The first year of college they will go home a lot of the time because they feel safe there. That is ok to do time to time but they also need to try and deal with their anxiety about college. There are many ways to make the past useful and I feel we need to take advantage of those ways.

JAKE: I think this point contradicts the idea that we should be using history to influence our world today. McKenzie draws on this point, that history should not be understood in a passive sense. He says, “A dismissive attitude toward historical truth robs history of its greatest potential benefit to us a disciplined study that helps us to see the present more clearly” (McKenzie, p. 171).

Fea cites the example of a Twilight Zone episode. Can you think of a specific example of historical escapism in popular culture? Can you see any benefit to the past as a source of escape? (Do you ever do this? Do you think you’re more or less prone to this kind of escapism as someone who’s especially interested in history?)

Christian History: Access to the Academy?

One of the objections to “providential history” that some of you picked up from the assigned sources is that if Christians claim special insight on the basis of religious revelation, they will no longer be able to participate in academic conversations about the past. Andrew Nieuwsma argued that “using providential history… can discredit what one has to say and take them out of the larger discussion with other historians or turn away a larger audience.” Both Nelson and John noted Prof. Kooistra’s comments about working in fields where Christian scholars are the minority and invoking biblical texts would leave her work discounted.

Similarly, in the video conversation I alluded to the argument of historian George Marsden, who believes that Christian historians ought to “play by the rules” of the secular academy (except where they explicitly contradict Christian belief) in order to participate in scholarly conversations. He found “quite congenial” William James’ metaphor of a pluralistic society being

like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it. In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith and strength; in the third a chemist investigating the body’s properties. In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown. But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.

Or if you’re a Social Studies Education major, think about this in terms of access to public schools: In order to serve those religiously diverse students, don’t you need to accept limitations on how you present and interpret, say, U.S. or world history?

Do you think this is a strong argument against what Fea defines as “providential history”? How important is it that Christian historians like Dr. Kooistra and myself be taken seriously by fellow scholars? (Or that Christian teachers be able to work in public schools?)

Christian History: Theology in the Background

With a few exceptions, the vast majority of you agreed with John Fea that Christian historians generally ought not to engage in providential history. For example, Omar argued that “there are certain limitations to how much we can find out about what happened to a particular individual, country, object, etc. Using Providential History is the same as saying, This is how it happened, there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.” And while Mikalah was “not against someone thinking that an event was an act of God,” ultimately she concluded that “[t]here is no way one can prove either side of the argument and because of this it would be irresponsible to assert that God’s will is fact.”

However, several of you then turned to Fea’s argument (in ch. 5) that specific theological ideas could implicitly shape Christian work in the discipline of history. For example, Sarah was taken with Fea’s emphasis on depravity and incarnation: “The fallen nature of humanity obscures what historians are able to know, but the incarnational approach gives credence to how just studying the creation may be thinking both Christianly and historically. And Matt thought that the doctrine of providence itself shouldn’t be dismissed as irrelevant to our work: “To be a Christian Historian does NOT mean that you must approach history providentially, but it certainly means that you have to wrestle with what it means for God to be sovereign within your field of study.”

What’s an example of a belief that shapes how you ask and answer questions about the past? Do you think this is unique to Christian, or other religious, historians?

Here They Are: Your Digital Timelines!

Thanks for all your hard work this week on your digital timelines! You’ll have time in class this afternoon to start looking at everyone’s work, then I’ll have you complete that during the weekend and fill out a brief peer evaluation via a Google survey linked on Moodle.

Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow me to embed them directly into this post, but just click on the screenshot to link to the rest of each timeline.

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

(Collin, Maddy, Omar, Sarah)

Screen shot of Fall of Roman Empire timeline

The Massachusetts Bay Colony

(David, Jake, John, Matt)

Screen shot of Massachusetts Bay Colony timeline

The Roaring Twenties

(Bonita, Haley, Lauren, Mikalah)

Screen shot of Roaring Twenties timeline

World War II: The Early Years

(Braeden, Dustin, Nelson, Shawn)

Title slide for "World War II: The Early Years"

 World War II: The Pacific Theater

(Aidan, Andrew N., Andrew Z., Logan)

Screen shot of WWII: Pacific Theater timeline