What Makes for the Best Historical Movies? (part 2)

What Makes for the Best Historical Movies? (part 2) July 19, 2016

Last week I started a series in which I’m trying think through how we evaluate historical movies. It’s prompted by this summer’s release of Free State of Jones, in which writer-director Gary Ross tells his version of the story of the Mississippi county that effectively seceded from the Confederacy in the middle of the Civil War.

In part one, I suggested that historical movies — which, like histories, interpret the past, but do so according to different rules and with different goals in mind — should be entertaining (in multiple meanings of that word) and truthful (in how they help us understand what the past felt like, if not entirely in terms of what happened). Today, two more criteria:

3. Is it actually interested in the past?

When I ask students in Bethel’s Intro to History course to think critically about their favorite historical movies, they tend to point to lack of accuracy. By this, they usually mean that the cast of characters or the timeline of events has been condensed or otherwise altered. In general, they’re not terribly bothered by this sort of dramatic license, but there might be deeper problems than inaccuracy.

For example, Tracy McKenzie’s review of Free State of Jones points out minor errors and examples of dramatic invention — e.g., not only exaggerating how much Newton Knight actually fought Confederate soldiers in open battle but improbably inserting women into combat roles. But McKenzie’s more fundamental concern is that “Ross has made the entire story into a simplistic morality play.” He complains that “Knight is delivered to us as a noble Robin Hood with twenty-first century racial sensibilities who would probably be a Sanders supporter if he were alive today” while “every Confederate character in the movie is either a non-entity (enlisted men with no lines) or smarmy villains devoid of decency.” And because the “movie claims to be teaching us about the past” it taps into “one of the besetting historical sins of our culture: to evaluate history on the basis of its artistry or political usefulness, rather than its truthfulness.”

Not every historian agrees with this assessment. In fact, some endorse Free State of Jones precisely because Ross does use a particular interpretation of the past to speak to the present. Here’s Bowdoin College professor Patrick Rael, writing enthusiastically for Journal of the Civil War Era:

The actual Newton Knight
Photo of Newton Knight (1837-1922) – Public domain/Wikimedia

In a film tradition typified by reconciliationist fantasies, evasive race politics, and unexamined gender norms, this alone situates [Free State of Jones] on progressive terrain. Its story accomplishes even more, for it is the tale of Newton Knight, the Mississippi native who led a rebellion within a rebellion, establishing the interracial Free State of Jones as a challenge to a Confederacy built on class privilege and white supremacy….

This is a film for the post-Charleston age, which does not soft-pedal its cultural politics for fear of offending large segments of its audience. It is unabashedly anti-Confederate, offering an ideal of class unity across racial lines. Resisting the Confederacy represents the central external challenge, but achieving cross-racial community constitutes the film’s primary internal struggle, and the higher moral goal the resistance itself serves. “You cannot own a child of God,” cites Moses, Knight’s closest African American ally, but it will take more than a rejection of property in man to unite the people of Jones.

Unlike McKenzie and Rael, I’ve neither seen the movie nor am a historian of this era, so I won’t weigh in on this debate.

But even if you can see the virtue in making a Civil War film with a particular “age” and its concerns in mind, there’s another problem: when filmmakers just don’t seem all that interested in the past on its own terms. By all accounts, it seems clear that Gary Ross finds absorbing the story of Newton Knight and Jones County. But a film or TV series can look and sound as much like its historical setting as possible, succeed in entertaining the audience, yet also make clear that its makers are simply using the past as another dimension of the set.

To cite a very different kind of motion picture… My wife and I enjoy the British gangster drama Peaky Blinders, which just finished its third series on the BBC (and streams in the US on Netflix). Despite the high quality of the acting and the seeming verisimilitude of the sets and costumes, the soundtrack (composed of songs from present-day singer-songwriters like Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and Jack White) hints at the fundamentally anachronistic goals of the producers. Apart from its occasional meditations on the psychological toll of World War I on those who survived and its eagerness to show Winston Churchill at his most conniving, Peaky Blinders couldn’t seem less interested in its 1920s setting. Indeed, the gang by that name was primarily active in the late 19th century.

4. Does the historical film prompt the audience to engage in historical thinking?

Ultimately, even a historical film that fails one or more of the previous criteria can still have value as a teaching tool. Peaky Blinders has renewed my interest in the Roma experience of modern European history. And McKenzie appreciates that Free State of Jones “explodes the myth of a solid Civil-War South” and, by spending a third of its screen time on Reconstruction, “effectively hammers home the reality that the official demise of slavery did little to weakens [sic] the ubiquitous racism that had been a bulwark of slavery for at least a century and a half.”

Ideally, then, people will leave that theater hoping to learn more about what happened in Jones County in 1863-1865, and why that story — and so many others — did not end with Appomattox. Here’s how New Yorker critic Richard Brody opened his review of Free State of Jones:

The main reason to delve into the history books after watching a movie is that the cinematic experience is inadequate—that, during the viewing, the movie feels as if something important is missing. What generates that feeling is when the drama is mechanical, when the characterizations are simplistic or flat, or when the ideas expressed are much narrower, duller, or less contentious than the ones that are implied. That’s the feeling I had while watching “Free State of Jones,” a movie that’s based on a true story—a story that is far more complex than the one that the screenwriter and director, Gary Ross, brings to the screen.

Or as philosopher Gary Gutting observed a few years ago, even the best historical drama is most truthful only when it is put “in dialogue with the work of historians.” He was responding to a debate about the last Civil War film to provoke heated debate among historians: “Without the active engagement of such dialogue, our experience of ‘Lincoln’ will be entertaining but not instructive.”

Tellingly, Patrick Rael contrasts Free State of Jones positively with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), which “explored how the Civil War led to emancipation, but managed the feat while marginalizing the very subjects of emancipation, relegating them to roles as onlookers and reminders of the moral gravity of the work undertaken by national leaders, who are white men all.” But McKenzie recommended Lincoln because “by Hollywood standards” it made “room for an unusual degree of historical complexity.”

And that leads me to my final point: that a historical film, made with different rules and goals in mind than an academic history, nonetheless can succeed in prompting us to “think historically about the past” (McKenzie’s recurring phrase in The First Thanksgiving, one of our textbooks for Intro to History). It can help us understand the complexity of the politics behind the 13th Amendment, “to dispel the power of chronicle, nostalgia, and other traps that obscure our ability to understand the past on its own terms.” That definition of complexity from Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, whose four other “C’s of historical thinking” — contextchange over time (or continuity, the lack of change over time), causality, and contingency — might also be sparked by the best kind of historical movie.

I’ll say more about that in next Tuesday’s conclusion to this series, when I share two of my favorite current examples of the genre.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you think. Do these four criteria make sense? Going by them, or your own criteria, what would you nominate as an especially great example of historical movie making? (And I’m definitely interested in TV series as much as feature films, as you’ll read next week.)

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