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History And The Imagination

July 2024
5min read

The editors have invited me to write an occasional column on history as encountered in movies and on television. The assignment is welcome to one who has been irregularly a film critic as well as regularly a historian. But the job may not be so simple as it first appears. For the relationship between history and film takes a diversity of forms—from film as rendition of past history to film as material for future history.

I expect to write mostly about the cinematic depiction of the past. Still, one should note that the film has become itself a historical source. Younger historians especially are turning to movies as a means of entry into the recent past. Two periodicals— Film & History and The Journal of Popular Film —tease historical meanings out of flickering images, much as historians of ancient Greece or China tease meanings out of potsherds and grave rubbings. The recent book American History/American Film , edited by J. E. O’Connor and M. A. Jackson (Frederick Ungar, 1979), presents a variety of styles of historical analysis.

Even traditional historians are willing to accept newsreels and documentaries as sources, but they remain dubious about fiction films. Yet on reflection the distinction between documentaries and dramas may not be all that clear cut. Both involve the selection and arrangement of images; selection and arrangement involve interpretation. Documentaries may even be the more treacherous, since the overlay of reality tends to conceal the manipulative purpose. Overtly fictional films at least warn their audiences that they are not literal representations of actuality. Yet fiction films cannot issue from the imagination alone. They are products of a particular place and time. Moreover, they are products of a collective process and are designed for a mass audience. Created by a crowd for a crowd, movies inescapably bear the imprint of the society that makes them.

On the most palpable level, they may serve as mirrors of their age. The Warner Brothers vernacular films of the 1930’s, for example, are a treasure house for the historian, offering a gritty journalistic panorama of life, work, love, and death in the great city. Among other things, as a writer recently pointed out in the Village Voice , old films remind us what has happened to the dollar in the age of inflation—as when on the late show we view “such scenes as someone almost having a nervous breakdown over asking his boss for a $2 raise; two gangsters haggling over whether $75 is enough to charge for a rub out; someone leaping for joy because of a $5,000 inheritance and shouting, ‘Now I’m fixed for life.’ ”

Movies are dream as well as reality. They embody an epoch’s pervasive values, hopes, ambitions, anxieties, fears. “What films reflect,” as Siegfried Kracauer wrote in From Caligari to Hitler , “are not so much explicit credos as … those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimensions of consciousness. ” Analysis of deep layers is tricky, and Kracauer’s argument that the German movies of the 1920’s prophesied Nazism has excited much controversy. Nonetheless, properly deciphered, films have something to tell us not only about the surfaces but also about the depths of modern life.

This is film as evidence for history; there is also film as instruction in history. Films tell us about the past in several ways. As writers may reconstruct the past in forms ranging from the scholarly monograph through the synoptic overview to the historical epic or romance, so film makers can render history as documentary, as “docudrama,” and as dramatization.

Documentary uses only authentic shots taken at the time, edits them, and adds a commentary and a musical score. The splendid Second World War series Victory at Sea is a memorable example; the Thames Television’s fine The World at War is another. The “docudrama”—an ugly but precise word—mingles the appearance of a documentary with the reality of a dramatization. Its characters are historical figures, and the pretense is of factual accuracy; but the means is the staged re-enactment of historical events. The dramatization abandons any documentary pretense and uses literary invention and poetic license to reimagine the past, seeking less to get every fact right than to seize the essence of historical conflict and achievement.

The docudrama has had a considerable run on television in recent years. Some examples—“Eleanor and Franklin,” for instance, and “The Missiles of October”—have won deserved admiration for a combination of dramaturgic skill with general fidelity to actual characters and events. (I remember seeing “The Missiles” in Theodore Sorensen’s living room with other veterans of the missile crisis. The sight of actors labeled with the names of people in the room and not much resembling them provoked general hilarity; but I noticed that, once the drama got under way, the jokes ceased, and the group watched with intense interest.) Other docudramas, like the television biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., Douglas MacArthur, and Senator Joe McCarthy, have been widely denounced as distortions of the historical record. Falsification in works professing documentary accuracy perpetrates a fraud on the public in a manner that dramatizations employing obviously made-up characters cannot do. If a docudrama is technically skillful enough, unwary viewers may even suppose they are seeing the real thing.

A British docudrama, recently released in the United States by ABC’s excellent documentary division, shows how effective the informed and scrupulous re-enactment of the past can be. This is “Invasion,” a portrayal of the Soviet assault on Czechoslovakia in 1968, produced by Granada Television and based on the testimony of Zdenek Mlynar, secretary of the Czech Communist Party Presidium under Dubcek. Mlynar recorded twenty-six hours of recollections, and the Granada research team thereafter verified and amplified the Mlynar account.

Most of the film is performed by professional actors. These sequences, filmed in color, are intercut with blackand-white newsreel footage from 1968, the contrast emphasizing the difference between dramatization and actuality. The writer, David Boulton, understood that the events themselves were quite powerful enough to carry the drama, so there is no hyping of tragedy by stridency or moralization. A sense of history combined with a talent for understatement gives the best British docudrama a distinctive flavor. One must hope that some American network will soon bring us the BBC’s “Ireland: A Television History,” written and narrated by the premier historian of modern Ireland, Robert Kee, and making impressive use of eyewitnesses; and the ITV “The Troubles,” in which experts enliven the narrative by presenting discordant views on Irish problems.

As for the cinematic equivalent of the historical epic, a stunning example came to New York early this year; again, alas, from foreign shores. Abel Gance’s Napoleon had its first showing in Paris over half a century ago. Its extraordinary technical innovations, including a triple-screen process that Gance called Polyvision, might have opened a new era; but the arrival of sound the next year sent film makers off in another direction, and Napoleon was a creative explosion that in the end created nothing. Various cut versions were put out in later years; the original score (by Arthur Honegger) and much original footage disappeared; and in due course the film became a minor but inaccessible legend. We owe its reconstitution to Kevin Brownlow, the film historian, and its presentation to Francis Ford Coppola. The bravura score by Carmine Coppola, the director’s father, is remarkably appropriate.


Exhibited at the Radio City Music Hall in a four-and-a-half-hour version, with a symphony orchestra of sixty conducted by the elder Coppola, Napoleon was a major event in the New York winter. The vast space and the Art Deco gaudiness of the Music Hall provided an ideal setting for so magniloquent a creation, and blasé audiences found themselves bursting into applause at especially striking effects. After the score is recorded, the film is scheduled to go into national release. Even on smaller screens in smaller theaters, Napoleon should be an overwhelming cinematic experience.

As instruction in history, however, it is less edifying. Gance transforms history into myth through a fanatic grandiosity of conception. “Napoleon is Prometheus,” he cries. Gance’s Napoleon is not the sardonic realist, the man of shrewd decision and swift action, of whom Emerson said, “He knew what to do, and he flew to his mark. ” He is rather an almost catatonic hero, a passive instrument of historical force, a mystical incarnation of destiny, at times with Hitlerian undertones.

Gance improves the record as unscrupulously as if he were Shakespeare. Everything is hyperbole, and history surrenders to opera. One memorable scene has Napoleon fleeing Corsica with the tricolor as sail in a skiff tossed by a tumultuous storm, all cross-cut with the roar and crash of a tumultuous debate at the Paris Convention. The effect is fantastic. Later Napoleon is rescued; a British frigate sights the rescue ship, and a junior officer proposes to sink it; “No, no, Nelson,” his commander replies, provoking even the reverent Music Hall audience to laughter.

Americans can view Napoleon with detachment and celebrate it as an obsessed artistic triumph. Frenchmen see it as a passionate political statement. Some, like de Gaulle, were enraptured. Others fear that its man-of-destiny megalomania panders to a dangerous national proclivity—the one summed up by Raymond Aron when he wrote, “The Republic was so afraid of great men that it was forced, from time to time, to have recourse to saviors. ”

Still Napoleon , like “Invasion,” shows the opportunities the camera eye offers to history. One must hope that both works will inspire American film makers to apply some of these techniques to the rendition of the American past.

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