Cinema and Media Studies Historical Film
by
John Trafton
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0239

Introduction

From the advent of cinema to the present day, history has been brought to life on screen in many striking ways that have advanced motion picture technology and forged new relationships between viewers and the historical past. Historical films offer a privileged site for scholars of cinema, media, history, and many other disciplines to interrogate a nation’s relationship with the past. How cinema engages with the past, whether recent or distant, provides interesting case studies for how successive generations renegotiate cultural memory and understandings of how the past shapes the present. Historical films can bring into relief hidden or competing histories that either challenge or compliment prevailing narratives and authoritative accounts of the past, asking the viewer to consider the present as being shaped by multiple histories, rather than by one history. Historical films also suggest new ways of understanding the past, and as a consequence they also present new ways of understanding the present. Lastly, historical films can perform thought experiments about the past, deliberately departing from the historical print record in order to pose a different set of questions about a nation’s relationship with history. As such, historical films have garnered a tremendous level of scholarly interest, covering a broad range of research foci and subjects that are very useful in expanding discourses on national identity and historical memory. This article seeks to provide academics with ample resources and theoretical frameworks for conducting research on historical films or incorporating aspects of historical film studies into other disciplines. Starting with a general overview and scholarly approaches to historical films, the seminal works of Hayden White, Robert Rosenstone, and Vivian Sobchack are considered alongside newer approaches and scholarly journals, offering the scholar with an array of methodologies for bridging film studies to other fields. The article then examines in greater detail texts and studies concerned with a variety of questions and subissues pertaining to historical film studies—first with how film engages with memory (historical, cultural, personal, and national), then how historical films either interrogate or compound notions of national identity, and then how these ideas are explored in a variety of national and regional contexts. Next, the article will turn toward the issues that stem from the scholarly approaches: how historical films can be used as a teaching tool, issues of genre and subgenre taxonomy, and how films themselves act as moments in history. Lastly, the article considers notions of authorship in historical cinema. Since many historical films are helmed by world-renowned filmmakers, the article ends with a section that explores repeated directorial engagements with history as a strong component of auteur cinema.

General Overviews

The symbiotic relationship between film history and other histories (technological, social, cultural, political, etc.) is a crucial component of film studies, but in the case of historical film scholarship, this relationship can explain a lot about the role that historical films play within a particular culture or nation at a given moment. As Robert Burgoyne notes in Rosenstone and Parvulescu 2013, “[historical films] index generational change,” and it is vital for historical film scholars to understand this process. For this reason, Burgoyne 2008 features here as a useful starting point. As this section includes both early texts and current ones, the purpose of which is to provide the scholar with an understanding of how ideas about historical films have developed over the last two decades, Stubbs 2013 is included here because it offers a useful springboard to further the discussions that are currently taking place. Furthermore, issues surrounding the historical film as either a genre or as a phenomenon that expands established genres must be addressed early on, and both Chapman 2013 and Grindon 1994 are considered for the purposes of mapping out the generic functions and conventions of historical films. Since a common problem that arises with historical films is their reliability, due to the inevitable liberties filmmakers take with the historical record, Toplin 2002 and Sanello 2003 critically engage with this issue, offering a compelling defense of historical cinema. Historical film scholars should also be aware of how the technical work behind a historical film’s production can shape how the past is brought to life. For that reason, included here is King 2005, as it contains some very useful chapters on the historical filmmaking process. Lastly, this section includes two important journals that consistently engage with historical cinema, keeping scholars abreast of relevant discussions and emerging trends. Film & History (Lawrence University) is not only a valuable tool for remaining critically engaged with the historical film scholarly community, it also holds an annual conference that can provide good exposure for the scholar. The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (Routledge) is also an excellent journal for publishing articles on historical cinema and participating in the discourse surrounding this field.

  • Burgoyne, Robert. The Hollywood Historical Film. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

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    Burgoyne provides an encouraging place for a scholar of historical films (of any national cinema) to begin. This book divides the historical film into its various subgenres (the epic, the biopic, the war film, the topical film, and the metahistorical film) and charts their development alongside the broader film history. Each chapter performs a textual analysis on iconic historical films from the 1990s and 2000s to show how each subgenre of the historical film forms a dialogue with the past.

  • Chapman, James. Film and History. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

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    Innovations in visual storytelling, according to Chapman, are essential to understanding cinema’s engagement with the historical past. As social change and new ideas have increased the capacity to examine and interpret the past, so has an expansion of film form provided a more advanced audio/visual language for representing history. Chapman’s book links innovative film movements and the rise of film theory to an understanding of how films can themselves serve as historical texts. This book provides a usual place for scholars of historical films to hone their methodologies.

  • Film & History. 1971–.

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    Edited by Loren PQ Baybrook, and published by Lawrence University, Wisconsin. This peer-reviewed journal acknowledges film as both a potential teaching tool for history and as a central to history itself. It is published biannually, with each issue focusing on a particular theme; one of the most recent issues, for example, focused on representations of love in film and television. Film & History also holds an annual conference every November, an ideal place for scholars to present their work and engage in broader conversation about the historical film.

  • Grindon, Leger. Shadows of the Past: Studies in the Historical Fiction Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

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    Grindon’s book examines the historical film as a stand-alone genre, complete with its own set of motivations and unique genre codes and tropes. Historical film scholars will find this work useful as an earlier attempt to flesh out what a historical film is and how it functions in relation to written history.

  • Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. 1981–.

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    The journal of the International Association of Media and History, published online by Taylor and Francis, the Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television is a very useful tool for the historical film scholar, as it includes contributors and topics across a broad range of disciplines. The editorial board has largely focused on the role that historical films have played in shaping film history, thus making it a valuable resource that is consistently in tune with emerging trends and discourses.

  • King, Geoff, ed. Spectacle and the Real. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2005.

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    Among the fine entries in this edited volume on special effects and realism, I am quite keen on Michele Pierson’s chapter “A Production Designer’s Cinema: Historical Authenticity in Popular Films Set in the Past.” Pierson’s chapter provides some very interesting insight that may help the historical film scholar formulate research questions that bridge various aspects of historical film studies.

  • Rosenstone, Robert A., and Constantin Parvulescu, ed. A Companion to the Historical Film. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118322673E-mail Citation »

    This edited volume contains a strong overview of the historical film’s different subgenres, cultural implications, and revisions throughout film history. It contains contributions from notable scholars who also feature elsewhere in this bibliography.

  • Sanello, Frank. Reel v. Real: How Hollywood Turns Fact into Fiction. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade, 2003.

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    Reel v. Real seeks to address the central concern of historians and history aficionados when it comes to historical film: historical accuracy and period fidelity. Sanello addresses this concern through a consideration of several popular historical films, working to drive the conversation toward what historical films can teach regardless of the accuracy of their depictions.

  • Stubbs, Jonathan. Historical Film: A Critical Introduction. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

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    Stubbs draws upon the work of previous historical film scholars (Burgoyne, Toplin, and Grindon, for example) to offer new insights into the historical film genre. This book has the potential to serve as a model for a historical film scholar attempting to develop new theoretical frameworks for historical film studies.

  • Toplin, Robert Brent. Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood. Culture America series. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002.

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    Historical inaccuracies in historical films, in particular Hollywood historical films, and the potential problems that arise remain a critical issue for both historians and film scholars. Toplin addresses these concerns through an examination of various Hollywood historical films, casting the historical film as an alternative historical discourse and calling into questions the notions of it as a genre (an interesting contrast to the work of Phillip Rosen).

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