Philip Jenkins writes about “Ed Murrow’s Water Bottle, Or How Not to Use Films in Teaching History.” I like the main thrust of his argument, which is that apart from their stories or subject matter, movies can teach us a lot about the culture and customs of the time in which they were made. Here’s one of his many examples:
The 1970 film M*A*S*H notionally concerns the Korean War, but it tells us nothing whatever about that conflict. It is richly informative about American society, culture, values, and gender attitudes as they existed in 1970, and can serve as a primary source for that topic.
That’s a good point, although neither the movie nor the CBS sitcom of M*A*S*H was ever really about Korea. They were both set in Korea, but they were both about Vietnam. And one of the things they can teach us about American society, culture, and values ca. 1970 to 1983 is that America was unwilling and unable to talk directly about Vietnam. In other words, in Jenkins’ terms, neither M*A*S*H is a reliable contemporary primary source for learning about the Korean War, but both are excellent contemporary primary sources for learning about Americans’ attempts to come to grips with the Vietnam War.
Jenkins’ title comes from a flub in George Clooney’s 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck, which was set in 1953:
A careful viewer would note a scene in an office where you see a water bottle sitting on a desk, in a way that water bottles did not in 1953, any more than did Macbooks or Starbucks cups. The interesting thing is not that somebody left the bottle there, but that nobody else noticed it was odd, or anachronistic. They assumed that what was normal today was normal back in that earlier era. We see things as we expect them to be, according to our own familiar realities. And whether we recognize it or not, those realities change over time. Put another way, we see things not as they are, but as we are.
That’s not the only anachronism in Clooney’s film — IMDB lists several more on the “Goofs” page for the movie involving telephones, military uniforms, typefaces, a Knicks game, and a Moscow “hotline,” among other things. Of course, neither Jenkins nor the nitpickers compiling those goofs for IMDB are suggesting that such minor details make Good Night, and Good Luck a bad film. It’s a terrific film, well deserving of the six Academy Award nominations it received (including for its art director and set director). And David Strathairn is so, so good in it.
Anyway, for a much older example of precisely the kind of anachronistic blindness Jenkins is getting at, consider Abraham’s camels in the book of Genesis. Abraham was a wealthy, prosperous man, Genesis tells us, and thus he had a lot of camels. Those camels even play a big role in the lovely story of Rebekah at the well in Genesis 24.
The problem here is that the story of Abraham is set in the second millennium BCE — more than a thousand years before domesticated camels were introduced in the Holy Land. Oops.
This is a useful anachronism. We don’t have an IMDB for ancient texts where we can look up the publication or release date for the book of Genesis, but it’s anachronisms help us try to figure that out. The unremarkable presence of domesticated camels suggests that the story of Abraham was written much, much later than the time in which it is set — that it was written sometime long enough after the 9th-century BCE introduction of camels that their presence in the story would be, for the writers and compilers, “things as we expect them to be, according to our own familiar realities.”
This anachronism is one data point among many confirming this much later date of composition for the book of Genesis. If there were an IMDB “Goofs” page for Genesis, the anachronisms section would be very long indeed.
The book of Genesis, in other words, is not a reliable contemporary primary source for learning about the ancient age of the patriarchs. It is, for that, at best a far-removed secondary source compiled long after the events it describes by people with few resources available to them. That does not definitively rule out the possibility that Abraham and Isaac were historical figures, but it does mean that the text of Genesis is, on its own, incapable of supporting the claim that they were.
But what this also means is that the book of Genesis is useful as a primary contemporary source of the time in which it was written. Like M*A*S*H, which is mostly useless for learning about Korea but richly rewarding for learning about Vietnam, the book of Genesis is a valuable artifact of its own time, if not of the time of its notional setting.
Jenkins’ discussion has me thinking not only of the Bible itself, but of “biblical” films. Cecil B. DeMille’s sandal-epic The Ten Commandments is a terrible introduction to the biblical story of the Exodus, but it is a useful artifact of 1953 America which may have as much to teach us about the culture of that time as Good Night, and Good Luck does. This has nothing to do with the anachronistic safety pins, zippers, and tire tracks scrupulously compiled by the nitpickers of the movie’s IMDB “Goofs” page (none of which kept its costume and set designers from Oscar nominations either). But DeMille’s campy spectacular can teach us a lot about white popular theology in mid-20th century America.
It’s not that I want to recommend watching this movie — it hasn’t held up nearly as well as Clooney’s film. My main reaction to The Ten Commandments is to turn it off once Yul Brynner shows up and to switch over to The Magnificent Seven — if you’re gonna give me Yul Brynner, then give me Yul Brynner.
But if you’re into empire criticism or interested in (or reflexively opposed to) liberationist theologies, The Ten Commandments has a lot to show us about what a non-liberationist reading of Exodus looks like. It has something to teach us, I think, about both the style and the substance of Billy Graham’s preaching in the early 1950s. And if you’re watching that movie in 2021, you may find yourself thinking of recent books by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Anthea Butler, Jemar Tisby, Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead, Robert Jones, etc., and thinking, “Yep. They’re right.”