- Historic Sites
The author sent dozens of historians to the movies to find out how much—and how well—films could teach us about the past
September 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 5
I‘d long suspected that colleagues in the profession shared my illicit interest in historical movies; their detailed contempt, like mine, betokened intimate familiarity. My recent experiences as editor of Past Imperfect , a collection of essays on Hollywood’s interpretation of history, have confirmed my suspicions. The indictment—and it is a broad one—can now be unsealed: Historians love movies about the past.
Here’s the evidence: The historians I approached to write the essays were busy folk, and even before I could explain the project, many of them recited, mantralike, a litany of crushing professional obligations or publication deadlines. But as the idea began to seep through the protective verbiage, they conceded its appeal. A few did decline at this stage, but always reluctantly; nearly everyone else, with salacious alacrity, agreed to do an essay.
Carolly Erickson, who grew up in Hollywood, said that she loved movies; Stephen Jay Gould confessed that he, like most historians, “adored” them. The women’s historian Gerda Lerner said that she watched several movies a day. William Manchester, currently working on Richard Attenborough’s The Last Lion (with Anthony Hopkins as Churchill), instantly chose to review Attenborough’s Young Winston (1972). Tom Wicker took Paths of Glory (1957) and several other films on the Great War, “having been fascinated by the subject ever since reading the Tietjens trilogy, and always by the movies.”
This general enthusiasm for movies translated into a reluctance to take on bad ones. Thus Jonathan Spence skipped the blockbuster movies about China to write about his lesser-known favorite, Shanghai Express (1932). Gore Vidal, who I thought would pounce upon one of the delectably awful films on ancient Rome, chose instead Preston Sturges’s classic of the Great Depression, Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., picked The Front Page (1931), “because it is one of the first talkies to combine speed and bite of dialogue with a certain reckless fluency in camera movement, because it is such a vivid period piece, because of Adolphe Menjou’s wickedly witty performance—and because it is such fun to see.” James Axtell, a scholar of Native Americans, declined to review a famous film about a famous Indian because it was “such a bad movie. But,” he said, “I’d love to write about Black Robe , the wonderful Canadian-made film on Jesuits and Hurons in the 1600s.”
Some movies that were dismissed when they were made have gained credibility with time: PT 109 seems truer today than it did in 1963.
Some authors chose to revisit films that had drawn them to history early on. Princeton’s Scan Wilentz, a scholar of the early national period, had been attracted to the subject, at age seven, by The Buccaneer (1958), while the New York Times columnist and legal historian Anthony Lewis had drawn inspiration from Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), which attracted a cult following while he was in college; he saw it twenty times. I did not know why Paul Fussell, Professor of English literature emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, requested Patton (1970) until I read his essay. Junior officer Fussell had endured a vainglorious harangue by the real Gen. George Patton (“What an asshole,” Fussell then muttered).
So recruiting the sixty authors for the project was easy and, indeed, reassuring; it was good to know that others openly shared my vice. After the historians had completed their essays, moreover, most invoked the same noun to describe the experience: fun , not always the first word to surface in discussions of the history profession or its practitioners.
What makes Hollywood history so attractive to historians? Envy, I suspect. Professional historians toil in dim archives, where they pluck the most solid bits of evidence from the muck of the historical record, carefully mold them into meanings, and serve them up as footnoteencrusted books. Reviewers in professional journals, like inspectors along a coal chute, relentlessly poke around for imperfections of evidence and softness of argument, all the while heaving up black clouds of skepticism. It is a dirty business.
But Hollywood History dazzles. Confronted by gaps in the historical record, Hollywood fills them with paste; when dulling ambiguities and complexities mar the story, Hollywood polishes them smooth. The final product gleams, and often it sears the imagination. Who can forget Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great, George C. Scott as Patton, or Ben Kingsley as Gandhi? Even Malcolm X, whose meteoric career blazed through our own times, is hard to fix in memory after we have seen Denzel Washington’s electrifying portrayal of him.