25 March 2008

History & Film: From The Patriot to John Adams

Yesterday's post about John Adams got us thinking about history in film. Longtime readers know that both our undergraduate and graduate training has been in history and modern history, respectively. Throughout our education, we have been concerned with ideas of collective memory and history and how those things affect collective identity. For many, history doesn't expand beyond 5 years ago.

What we mean is, collective memory and history is the history, or memory of history shared by, in this case, citizens of the United States. To a large degree, our understanding of the past and thus, our collective memory of the past has been shaped by the films we watch. Ask today's average adult about WWII and it is likely their informed opinion was shaped by Pearl Harbor, Saving Private Ryan, Flags of our Fathers, etc. The same is true of other historical events: The Patriot, the American Revolution; Forrest Gump, American history from the 1960's onward.

Despite this loss of role to the electronic media and producers in Hollywood, most historians continue writing books few understand and even fewer will read. This transfer of the ancient role of “story teller” has brought on a popular memory filled with the fantasies of whatever the producer decided to create.

Increasingly this has led to another conflict which rages between the historical field and the electronic media. Historians accuse the media of distorting history for the sake of a healthy bottom line and the media responds accusing historians of being “dry as dust.” This conflict has created a gap between true history, influenced by historical research, and what actually fills the mind of the public—images from the movies.

So powerful is the effect of this medium on the mind of the young that as they see more movies it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish between what they learned in their history class and what they saw at the theater the night before. Clearly both areas play a role in representing history, however, more coordination must occur between those who research history and those who portray it on the screen.

Historian Wulf Kansteiner, in "Searching for an Audience: The Historical Profession in the Media Age," wrote:
the growing insignificance of traditional historiography indicates the need to focus on different…and more challenging questions, for instance on the problem of bridging the gap between scholarly historical narratives and the kind of sweeping, imprecise, visually-based narratives about the past that find the interest of larger audiences; or on the problem of how scholarly protocols for the writing of truthful histories can be transferred to visual media, that is, how histories can be responsibly narrated in images
It is this challenge, we believe, that highlights the need for more collaborative productions like Spielberg & Ambrose's Band of Brothers and Hanks, and Ellis & McCullough's John Adams. These films have their faults, but they at least try to bridge the gap between academic history and "popcorn history."

Let us make a more general argument in favor of history: history needs to become more relevant and better taught so that current and future generations will be able to face the challenges of the day with a little context. Too often, problems are considered in a vacuum.

For example, some make the following argument: Iraq has problems of security and self-governance which in 5 years it has been unable to overcome. Therefore, failure of democracy in Iraq.

A little historical context and understanding of our own country's founding would remind the casual observer that we declared independence in 1776, though actual fighting broke out in 1775, battlefield conflict ceased in 1781, but official peace wasn't declared until 1783. The early coalition of states operated under the Articles of Confederation from 1777 until they were replaced by the Constitution in 1788--12 years after the Declaration of Independence, 7 years after military victory at Yorktown, and 5 years after the official peace-establishing Treaty of Paris. However, 24 years later, we fought another war against England--the War of 1812. A war our British friends remind us was fought to a draw, at best (for us).

Nor should we forget that this is a country that had institutionalized slavery until 1865, 89 years after the Declaration of Independence, and Jim Crow and segregation until about 1968--192 years after Thomas Jefferson first wrote that "we hold these truths to be self evident: That all men are created equal."

Women, by the way, weren't allowed to vote in this country until the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, 144 years after the Declaration of Independence. As you can see, it took us a some time to live up to the lofty ideals first expressed back in 1776. American-style democracy circa 2008 is a bit different to American-style democracy circa 1776.

And some people want to abandon Iraq because they haven't met our benchmarks? Please.

(disclaimer: don't confuse these historical points with the lunatic rants of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.)

How might a better understanding of our own beginning (which John Adams can help to provide) illuminate our understanding of current events in say, Iraq?

(Aside: All of this highlights the need for, and potential of, Consource--the project to digitize and make available to everyone the primary source documents related to the creation of the American Constitution. This is a project we've written about before: here and when David McCullough got involved, here.)

But don't miss the forest (our overall point about history and film) for the trees (our Iraq example). Even if you think the example fails, we still hope you'll agree that our point about the importance and potential of better joining history and film holds merit. We think that understanding and perspective are some of the most important lessons we can learn from history--lessons that can be better and more widely learned from films like John Adams.

If you have tips, questions, comments, suggestions, or requests for subscription only articles, email us at lybberty@gmail.com.

No comments: