Movies helpful to history students

As a history teacher, I often mention movies in the classroom to help the students gain some perspective on events and experiences that might be foreign to them. I’ve found that we cannot discuss the Greek and Persian wars without the movie 300 entering the conversation. To explain the events before and after that battle in light of what they think they know from the movie is beneficial. Once I led a before-class discussion of which war movies were truest to life. Since many of my students have military backgrounds, their perspective of war movies is probably more useful than that of the general population. Recently I recommended 1776 as a way to learn the issues and personalities surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Although Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the rest did not sporadically burst into song in Philadelphia that summer, the movie script successfully reproduces the conversations that happened during that key historic event.

In the coming week, I will be mentioning three more movies to the students. When we are at this part of the book, I frequently want to watch all three movies, even though generally I don’t have enough time for even one of them. Besides, I’ve already seen each of them enough times that I probably could speak much of the dialogue along with the characters on the screen.

Evita (1996) tells the story of Eva Peron, wife of the caudillo Juan Peron. She was part of his message to Argentina that he supported the common people and their goals. (After all, he married one of them.) The movie comes from a musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, first performed on Broadway in 1979. (The soundtrack album was recorded and released in 1976.) As is the case with 1776, Evita depicts the principle characters singing rather than talking. In fact, there are very few spoken words in the entire movie. Casting Madonna in the title role was extremely controversial in the 1990s, but it worked. While the movie condenses history and combines events, it reflects the emotions of the time and place in a way that a classroom lecture and discussion cannot replicate. The movie runs two hours and 15 minutes.

Gandhi (1982) won many awards for its biographical portrayal of Mohandas Gandhi, known in India as the Mahatma. Like Evita, it condenses history, combines some events, and skips others entirely. Unlike Evita, the film Gandhi is not a musical. The key events of Gandhi’s life and career are shown within the proper historical and geographical setting. Again, a sense of the flavor of India during the first half of the twentieth century cannot be reproduced in the classroom. The movie runs three hours and 11 minutes.

The Last Emperor (1987) shows Chinese history during the first half of the twentieth century from the point of view of the final Qing emperor, who was only a boy when the rise of the Republic threw him out of power. Later, he naively cooperated with Japanese officials in an attempt to regain some of his lost power. He then is captured by Communist forces, who retrain him to be like everyone else in China. Once again, the film gives context to the historic events, dramatically depicting the way real people dealt with the changes that were happening in China during those decades. The movie runs two hours and 43 minutes.

An odd similarity among these movies is that all of them begin at the end of the life of the title characters (in the case of Evita and Gandhi, with their funerals) and then treat their lives and histories as flashbacks. This allows the moviemakers to make dramatic jumps in time between two events, omitting the portions of history that are less relevant or interesting for the script and the audience.

These three movies are vastly superior to the large number of movies that use history only as inspiration for the story the moviemakers want to tell. Most movies of historical fiction (and even some that pretend to be documentaries) consist of more fiction than history. This phenomenon is not new—Shakespeare’s historical plays were more imagination and propaganda than they were historical truth. (This may be as close as Oliver Stone will come to being compared to Shakespeare.) When I can point to a few helpful movies, though, it may assist at least one student to gain more appreciation of history than can be imparted in the classroom. J.


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