Exploring Film’s Role in Historical Representation

Film and Historiography

Throughout the twentieth century, historians have increasingly included film in their research. Film provides a unique window onto history and offers a powerful means of exploring how we construct the past.

Historical films range across a spectrum from “unedited” footage to carefully crafted fictions. All films are valuable as historic artifacts but they must be viewed critically to appreciate their value.

Historical Narrative

The historical narrative is a genre of dramatic feature film in which actual history plays an important part in the fictional plot. It is a common genre in many national film cultures and it can provide valuable insights for historians into a nation’s relationship with its past.

However, this does not mean that the historical narrative can be considered a reliable source of information about the past. It is important to remember that the history depicted in a film is not objective but rather a product of the filmmakers’ imagination.

As such, there are certain limitations to the historicity of a film despite the fact that it aims to be historically accurate. This is not necessarily due to the fictitious nature of the film but rather because it focuses on filling out specifics of a historical sequence, creating a plausible narrative structure within the confines of filmic time and highlighting the main characters of a historical story.

The Biographical Film

The biographical film takes a real person and fictionalizes it for dramatic effect, to a varying degree of accuracy. The earliest examples date to the early 1900s with Thomas Edison’s Execution of Mary Queen of Scots and Jeanne d’Arc (Georges Melies, US, 1912). The genre thrived during the 1950s when Hollywood made many widescreen Technicolor historical epics, including Queen Elizabeth (Alexander Korda, UK, 1933), Danton (Martin Ritt, 1972), and Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967).

New Hollywood variants such as Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and Stone’s Nixon sought a more complex view of the relationship between history and individuals, refusing to see charismatic subjects as the crystallized expression of historical forces. However, the genre still relies on large doses of invention to fill out a story in a limited filmic time frame. This inaccuracy makes the historical film feel like a living, immersive historical world – unlike archival footage which can feel detached from the audiovisual fabric of the film.

The Documentary Film

From its beginnings as a kind of poor step-sister to the fiction cinema of entertainment, documentary film has had to work hard to earn its audience. As a result, it has often borrowed techniques from fiction to help make it a satisfying form, to give the viewer an experience that leaves him or her feeling complete and fulfilled.

In the 1930s, Grierson and other documentarists sought to distinguish higher-quality documentaries from commercial interest films, newsreels, travelogues, and educational “lecture” films, by insisting that they have social as well as aesthetic aims. This sounded good in theory, but even at its best documentary can be a bit glib and superficial.

By the 1960s, technical developments allowed a new generation of filmmakers to make more-plotted and structured films. This led to a more self-reflexive form of documentary that became known as cinéma verite. The films of Chris Marker and others explored a variety of topics and found audiences among trades unionists, solidarity groups, and social-justice aficionados.

The Political Film

Historians can use film to bring into relief hidden or competing histories that challenge or compliment prevailing narratives and authoritative accounts of the past. Film can help us see the past as a series of processes that shape, and are shaped by, present-day society and culture.

Historical films can also perform thought experiments about the process of historical representation. For example, Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, assistant-directed by Grigori Aleksandrov, 1925) dramatizes a small-scale historical incident—the mutiny of a Russian naval ship during the czarist period—and turns it into a stirring dramatization of the power of revolution.

Other films, such as Black Robe (Bruce Beresford, 1991) and Walker (Alex Cox, 1987), depict events in which there are competing historical memories and viewpoints. In such cases, a film can illustrate the complexities of representing a historical past that has lost much of its relevance to present-day culture and politics.

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