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Teaching History with Movies

by Raymond J. Haberski, Jr.
Marian College
Indianapolis, Indiana

Interpreting and Representing the Past
James Joyce reportedly told Max Eastman that he wrote his novel Finnegans Wake in a difficult style to keep the critics busy for the next three hundred years. I have a similar impression of Oliver Stone's movie JFK. While not difficult to understand (Stone is no Joyce), JFK will keep history teachers busy for the foreseeable future. JFK resides in a unique class of movies: it is an impassioned, extremely well made treatment of a controversial event in history that has become, itself, controversial because it is so good and so bad. Stone's movie is so seductive that his outright fabrication of history seemed to many who saw it as being not merely possible but true. Even the federal government had to respond to the popularity of the movie by releasing hundreds of documents pertaining to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Stone's ingenious deception might appear at first to be the bane of historians, but when thought about in a different way, it can also be quite useful when teaching history. In short, the case of JFK illustrates both the pitfalls and advantages of using movies in class.

Stone's movie is outright awful history. His tragically selective use of documents and his recycling of myths, rumors, and dubious sources would force any historian to dismiss much of his argument. However awful his use of history might be, he is also awfully good at creating a sense of cinematic truth. In other words, he is eloquent and convincing when editing a narrative together. Most students would be thrilled to be able to peddle an argument so compellingly. And therein lies the "learning moment." Because students tend to believe what they see in movies -- especially Oliver Stone's movies -- they are likely to be fully engaged in a discussion of what is "true" and what isn't. And while some movies are much better than others at doing justice to the past, some elements must be present for a film to work in a classroom. Unfortunately, those wonderfully detailed and historically accurate documentaries -- replete with talking heads and earnest reenactors -- typically do not make the cut. Effective movies can be good or bad historically, but must be great cinematically.

There are four key elements that I believe mark a movie's quality as an effective teaching tool. It should be noted that the most effective way to use movies when teaching is to show only a clip or scene from a film embedded in a larger discussion.

Cinematically Interesting -- The movie must have compelling characters, an intriguing storyline, and at least a few harrowing or powerful scenes. So, avoid awkward costume epics, subdued performances, and low-quality productions. Look for movies that can match the complexity of the scene in JFK in which Kevin Costner's character meets up with "Mr. X" outside the Lincoln Memorial. The 15 minutes Stone devotes to this interaction is a short history of American conspiracy theories and concentrated version of his argument. Students are consistently riveted and convinced not only by the material Stone presents but also by the way he presents it. Steven Spielberg is another filmmaker who plays somewhat loose with history, yet he too is a master of marshalling the power of cinema. The first 20 minutes or so of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is so harrowing that it has almost replaced whatever our minds could imagine when reading about the D-Day invasion. Spielberg pulls off a similar feat in Amistad when he depicts life (and death) aboard a slave ship. Scenes such as these provide a relatively brief snapshot of a past that is ordinarily too difficult to bring to life within the confines of an hour lecture in a survey history course.

Historically Revealing -- I am not, though, advocating the use of scenes that have only flash and no substance or truth. JFK depicts a conspiracy so immense that even Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's vice president, is implicated in the assassination so that he and the military can angle the United States into a full-fledged war in Vietnam. While patently false, Stone's theory has credence with so many people that its power as myth forces a teacher to address the manufacturing and belief in myths that become accepted as history and truth. In other words, just because a film doesn't show the past "as it happened" (no movie ever really can) doesn't mean it has failed to accurately portray what people believe. JFK reveals a great deal about how Americans understand their common past and their relationship to the government.

Historically Theoretical -- I have found that films such as JFK can be very useful in teaching students about the dynamism of the historical profession. Of course, that statement sounds anachronistic-- historians as dynamos? However, students generally have a simplified notion of the art of writing history; it seems to me that they think most textbooks are revealed truth, secrets of the past that once unlocked become gospel. Using JFK forces teachers and students to imagine history as an ongoing discussion in which persuasion based on evidence carries the day. In a very real sense, Stone's hero is the ubiquitous historian reflecting the director's quest to reveal what really happened that fateful day in November 1963.

Cinema as Historical Document -- JFK remains a powerful movie; it helped establish a new way of remaking the past cinematically. By doing so it revealed undercurrents in the American mind that lead to conspiracy theories and a general distrust of the government and others in positions of power. The movie works, though, because Stone grasps the historical method, albeit in a way that distorts the past. The combination of these elements makes the film a historical document itself. Many movies possess a similar combination of qualities -- they creatively and powerfully engage the past; they reveal something about the creation of our understanding of that past; and they stand alone as a historical marker in their own slice of the past.

Historians often blame movies for inciting crimes far worse than those Stone's JFK perpetrates. It would be dangerous to dismiss the destructive power of Triumph of the Will or The Birth of A Nation, but it is equally dangerous to hand over history education to the movies. Movies did not create Nazism, racism, or even a love for conspiracy theories -- ignorance did. It is still up to teachers to help interpret and represent the past, and using movies in the classroom will help advance that mission.

Raymond J. Haberski, Jr., is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Social Science and the director of the honors program at Marian College in Indianapolis.

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