US History in Film

jboyl5av on Jan 15th 2008

Throughout the history of film, motion pictures have powerfully impacted public perception. Perhaps one of the most influential genres of film is that of historical film, since movie-goers have the tendency to take a filmmaker’s portrayal of certain historical figures, events or eras as fact, rather than a creative cinematic interpretation. Aside from the history scholar and occasional movie nut, very few people invest the energy to determine the historical accuracy of a film. This tendency can be a dangerous one in terms of understanding American history and the struggles real people have faced.

My participation this semester in a US History in Film class has forced me to view movies with the critical eye of a historian. As the name of the class suggests, we have focused on the genre of historical film, specifically the portrayal of American history. Starting from the Jamestown Settlement in 1607, portrayed in Disney’s Pocahontas, we have studied the interpretation of American history through a focus on important wars, movements and landmark cases depicted in film. Our studies so far this semester have included the films Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Matewan (1987), My Darling Clementine (1946), Glory (1989), Gone With the Wind (1939), Amistad (1997), The Patriot (2000), Last of the Mohicans (1992), and Pocahontas (1995). Although some of the aforementioned films are the products of painstaking efforts taken by filmmakers to accurately portray history, and can serve as decent secondary sources, other films better serve as primary sources, or indicators of the time period in which they were made. The films that fall under the category of “good primary sources” could have overlooked or simplified the existence of minorities, ignored the actual history of an event by creating a fictional storyline and characters, or had such an ever present bias that it distracted from any historical value the film might have had.

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