Historical Films

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Historical Films


Beginning in 1915 with The Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), the historical film has been one of the most celebrated forms of cinematic expression as well as one of the most controversial. As a genre, it has maintained a high degree of cultural prominence for nearly a century, and it has established itself as a major form in nearly every nation that produces films. But it has also consistently provoked controversy and widespread public debate about the meaning of the past, about the limits of dramatic interpretation, and about the power of film to influence popular understanding and to promote particular national myths.

The historical film has often served as a vehicle of studio prestige and artistic ambition, and many distinguished directors have made major contributions to the genre. Steven Spielberg (b. 1946), Martin Scorsese (b. 1942), Oliver Stone (b. 1946), John Sayles (b. 1950), Edward Zwick (b. 1952), Bernardo Bertolucci (b. 1941), and Roman Polanski (b. 1933) have made important and powerful historical films that have reawakened interest in aspects of the past that were not previously well-represented or understood. For many societies, the historical film now serves as the dominant source of popular knowledge about the historical past, a fact that has made some professional historians anxious. Other historians, however, see these films as valuable for the discussions and debate they generate. Films such as Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), and Stone's JFK (1991), for example, have fostered a widespread and substantial public discussion that has contributed to historical appreciation and understanding.

Although several types of film can be grouped under the heading of the historical, Natalie Zemon Davis usefully defines the historical genre as being composed of dramatic feature films in which the primary plot is based on actual historical events, or in which an imagined plot unfolds in such a way that actual historical events are central and intrinsic to the story. This broad, plot-based characterization of the genre captures the specific and unique character of the historical film, which depends for its meaning and significance on an order of events—historical events—that exist outside the imaginative world of the film itself. Within this somewhat narrowed framework, however, there are still large variations in the types of films that can be considered historical films. Because the genre overlaps with other well-established genres, it is useful to consider the historical film in terms of several subtypes. These include the epic, the war film, the biographical film, the period or topical film, and what might be called the metahistorical film—films such as JFK or Courage Under Fire (Zwick, 1996) that present the past from multiple, conflicting viewpoints in an attempt to illustrate the complexity of representing the historical past.


Epic films made in Italy between 1910 and 1914 were the first to capture the spectacular power of the cinema to recreate the past, and the first to extend the screening time of films to two and three hours or more. Films such as Quo Vadis? (1912), Cabiria (1914), and Spartaco (1913) were vast, sweeping depictions of the ancient world that united spectacle, lavish set design, and narrative in a way that had an enormous influence on film style, and that brought an extraordinary amount of publicity to the films even prior to their release. The Italian epics of the early silent period were a particular incentive to D. W. Griffith, who after seeing Quo Vadis? in 1913 decided to make a two-reel biblical film, Judith of Bethulia (1914). The grandest of the Italian epics, Cabiria, by Giovanni Pastrone (1883–1959), commanded such public attention for its length, epic form, and massive sets that just hearing about it prompted Griffith to begin planning his own epic, The Birth of a Nation (1915). And after seeing Cabiria, Griffith began planning an even larger-scale narrative that would interweave four historical periods, resulting in the ambitious Intolerance (1916).

The Birth of a Nation is generally credited with inaugurating the genre of the historical film in the United States. Although films that used historical settings and included historical characters were fairly common by 1915, they could not be considered serious attempts to understand or explain the past; rather, they consisted of romances, costume dramas, tales of adventure, or small historical vignettes set within larger dramatic narratives, such as the scene in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903) with Little Eva looking down from heaven on the divisive events of American history. The Birth of a Nation, on the other hand, attempts to offer an explanation and interpretation of the most troubled and divisive period in US history; despite its offensive stereotypes and obvious racism, it poses serious questions and makes serious interpretations about the meaning of the past.

In its ambitiousness, notoriety, and insistence on presenting a serious, if deeply flawed, interpretation of the meaning of the past, The Birth of a Nation brings into relief the distinctive characteristics of the genre and provides a blueprint for the future development of the historical film. It melds an elaborate family romance with a story of national trauma and national reconciliation; it employs a visual vocabulary consisting of wide panoramic shots, elaborate cross-cutting, and the use of close-ups as a form of historical commentary and analysis; and it insists on the authenticity of its representations by closely imitating battlefield daguerreotypes, by asserting the fidelity of its depiction of Lincoln's assassination, and by dwelling on the lived spaces of the historical past, the porches, picket fences, and dirt roads of the South. Although it was challenged at the time, its depiction reflected the beliefs of the most powerful school of American historians of that era, including President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), who after a private screening purportedly commented: "It's like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."

The negative publicity generated by The Birth of a Nation intensified Griffith's ambition to make a great historical film. Intolerance, over three hours long, combines four stories set in different time periods and inter-weaves the stories in a complex arrangement, like a musical fugue. The thematic link among these stories is the idea of intolerance through the ages and its overcoming through love. By cutting these four stories together through parallel editing—which up to that time had been used strictly for cutting between parallel actions in the same time frame—Griffith tried to articulate a universal historical patterning, one that linked the story of Christ's crucifixion with a modern story of injustice, together with the fall of ancient Babylon, and the story of the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre in sixteenth-century France. This innovative use of parallel editing to link and harmonize four separate historical narratives was a dazzling conceptual breakthrough, but the film was not well received by the public and became a massive commercial failure.

Griffith's influence on the development of a cinematic style of historical narration is perhaps best seen in the Soviet cinema of the 1920s. Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) expanded on Griffith's formal innovations in editing to create an even more advanced visual aesthetic known as montage editing, a style characterized by rapid, dynamic combinations of shots of very short length. Eisenstein used this style to create a history or, better, a foundational mythology for the fledgling Soviet Union. In Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, assistant-directed by Grigori Aleksandrov, 1925), Eisenstein takes a small-scale historical incident—the mutiny by a small group of sailors on board the battleship Potemkin during the czarist period—and turns it into a stirring dramatization of the power of the proletariat to overcome oppression and create a revolution. In Oktyabr (Ten Days that Shook the World and October, assistant-directed by Grigori Aleksandrov, 1927), also known as Ten Days That Shook the World, Eisenstein presents the turbulent events of the ten days of the Bolshevik Revolution. The film combines close attention to the actual events with an elaborate set of visual ideas including the use of visual metaphors, repetition, humor, and a highly charged sense of movement and dynamism.

The Soviet filmmakers were experimental in their treatment of the historical past, exploring ways of creating a revolutionary historiography for a revolutionary time. The style of historical narration that they pioneered had an impact on the Latin American cinema of the 1960s and, later, on Stone's JFK and Nixon (1995).


The war film is one of the great modes of cinematic expression. Many war films have been lauded for their realism and their focus on the cruelties of war, as well as for their portraits of heroism. Outstanding examples of the subgenre include formidable Hollywood productions such as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Longest Day (1962), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Glory (1989), and Saving Private Ryan (1998), but also more subdued treatments of war and resistance such as Roberto Rossellini's (1906–1977) Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, also known as Open City, 1945) and Paisà (Paisan, 1946).

The Big Parade (1925) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) were extraordinarily successful works that established the war film in the United States as an important subgenre of historical filmmaking. The Big Parade, directed by King Vidor (1894–1982), contains memorable World War I battle sequences, especially a night battle scene that captures the nightmarish aspect of war on the western front, and became the model for many subsequent films. Lewis Milestone's (1895–1980) All Quiet on the Western Front won international and popular acclaim, as well as Oscars® for Best Picture and Best Director in 1930, for its portrait of the horrors of war as experienced by a young German soldier. The film marked the first time Germans were treated sympathetically in Hollywood films made after the war. In the most extensive use of moving camera in a sound film up to that time, Milestone used a mobile crane to create elaborate moving camera shots for the battle scenes. The film not only established the power and commercial viability of the war film, but it also established the Great War as an enduring emblem of human loss. Posing serious questions about ideals such as nationalism, patriotism, and the dehumanizing effects of war, All Quiet on the Western Front articulated the antiwar sentiment later taken up by war films such as Paths of Glory (1957), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and Apocalypse Now (1979).

Darryl F. Zanuck's (1902–1979) The Longest Day initiated what has become a historical film staple of combat spectaculars. The combination of extraordinary realism in the battle scenes and exceptional attentiveness to the small dramas unfolding among the individual soldiers provided the model for many films to come, among them Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan. The film also set a new standard for authenticity in the historical genre, in some scenes replicating the Normandy invasion so closely that stills taken from the shooting of the film

b. Rome, Italy, 8 May 1906, d. 3 June 1977

One of the most influential filmmakers in the history of world cinema, Roberto Rossellini followed an idiosyncratic artistic path that brought him world attention. Over the course of his career, Rossellini continually defied expectations and consistently forged his own creative path, a quality that gives his work an unequaled variety and range. Following an apprenticeship making films for the fascist government of Italy in the early 1940s, Rossellini first achieved renown with his neorealist films Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) and Paisà (Paisan, 1946). In the 1950s he made a series of films with actress Ingrid Bergman, including Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1953), which opened a new creative focus on the psychology of the couple. In the 1960s and 1970s he changed course again, making a series of didactic films on the history of western civilization for Italian and French television.

Rome, Open City, represents a fundamental breakthrough in film style and subject matter. Using the streets and apartments of Rome directly following the Nazi occupation, and employing a largely nonprofessional cast, Rome, Open City crystallized the emerging aesthetic of neorealism, which became one of the most celebrated film movements of the twentieth century, the emblematic filmic expression of the harsh social and psychological conditions of modern life. Rossellini followed with two additional films dealing with the devastation of World War II, Paisan and Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1948), that employed the look and feel of documentary and merged it with the dramatic plotting of the fiction film to create a powerful sense of social truth.

After seeing Rome, Open City and Paisan in New York, the actress Ingrid Bergman wrote to Rossellini expressing her admiration for his work. They married in 1950 and began a collaboration that would result in several important films, including Stromboli (1950), Europa '51 (The Greatest Love, 1952), and Journey to Italy. At this point in his career, however, Rossellini's critical and Paisa reputation was suffering from his supposed turning away from overtly social subjects to more psychological, "involuted" concerns. Critics in France, however, especially those associated with Cahiers du cinéma, argued that these films represented a fresh and liberating approach to filmmaking, one that was psychologically complex and daring.

In 1964, Rossellini again changed direction and began a series of "didactic" history projects for Italian and French television. These films, including La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (The Rise to Power of Louis XIV, 1966), L'Età di Cosimo de Medici (The Age of the Medici, 1973), and Agostino d'Ippona (Augustine of Hippo, 1972), among others, were explorations of the historical past shorn of dramatic fictional plotting. Concentrating on the behavioral details of the period, Rossellini foregrounded his own "didactic" role as historian-narrator by using a zoom lens, called the Pancinor, to highlight certain elements of the scene.


Roma, città aperta (Rome Open City, 1945), Paisà (Paisan, 1946), Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1947), Stromboli (1950), Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1953), Il Générale della Rovere (General della Rovere, 1959), La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (The Rise to Power of Louis XIV, 1966)


Bondanella, Peter. The Films of Roberto Rossellini. Cambridge UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Brunette, Peter. Roberto Rossellini. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Forgacs, David. Rome, Open City. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

Forgacs, David, Sarah Lutton, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Roberto Rossellini: Magician of the Real. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

Rossellini, Roberto. My Method: Writings and Interviews, edited by Adreano Apia. New York: Marsilio, 1995.

Robert Burgoyne

and stills taken from the actual invasion are nearly indistinguishable.

In the late 1970s the American cinema began to take on the subject of Vietnam. Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) both portrayed the war as a pathological endeavor that foreboded the ruin of a generation of young Americans. It was not until 1986, however, with the release of Oliver Stone's Platoon, that the Vietnam sub-genre began to flourish as a dominant mode of cinematic expression. Stone followed Platoon with Born on the Fourth of July, an antiwar film that dealt with the trauma of the returning Vietnam veteran. A sober and scathingly critical work, Born on the Fourth of July followed in the tradition of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) in illustrating the profound alienation of returning veterans who have been traumatized by the experience of war.

The traditional war film experienced a resurgence at the turn of the century with films such as Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down (2001), Glory, Pearl Harbor (2001), and The Patriot (2000), which together reestablished the power and appeal of films that crystallize the heroism and sacrifice that war entails. Noted for the authenticity of its battlefield sequences as well as for its evocation of nostalgia for the certainties of the "last good war," Saving Private Ryan resurrected the traditional war film, which had fallen into disrepute in the post-Vietnam period, and reestablished it as a dominant form in American cinema. Saving Private Ryan also broke new ground in its technological innovations, most evident in the Omaha Beach landing sequence, in which the film blends computer-generated imagery, live-action photography, reenactments of documentary photographs and sequences, accelerated editing, slow-motion cinematography, and electronically enhanced sound design. The film combines the traditions of the war film—stressing the importance of the individual soldier and the success of the collective endeavor mounted on his behalf—with advanced visual and acoustic techniques that give it a powerful claim to battlefield authenticity and realism.


Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria was quickly followed in Italy by many films dealing with ancient Rome and Greece. In America, after The Birth of a Nation established the viability of longer, ambitious historical films, MGM in 1925 released Ben-Hur, directed by William Wyler (1902–1981), which became a commercial blockbuster. Cecil B. DeMille's (1881–1959) The Ten Commandments (1923) established Hollywood as the major producer of epic films in the 1920s.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, however, the epic form waned as audience tastes turned to contemporary subjects, exemplified in the sophisticated musicals and comedies of Hollywood and in the Italian "white telephone" comedy genre (films about the rich and idle). But the form returned full force in the early 1950s, with Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951), and The Robe (Henry Koster, 1953), and the first film to be shot in Cinema Scope. The epic, with its lavish sets and mass choreography of crowds and armies, lent itself to the widescreen format that was one of Hollywood's responses to the threat of television. For most critics Ben-Hur represents the high point of the style. King of Kings (Nicolas Ray, 1961), and El Cid (Anthony Mann, 1961), were also accomplished works, as was DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), which marked a return to the subject he had first treated in 1923.

The epic form in Hollywood reached its zenith in the early 1960s with three films: Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960), Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963), and The Fall of the Roman Empire (Mann, 1964). (Spartacus, which gave screenwriter credit to Dalton Trumbo [1905–1976], a prominent leftist who had been blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, became known as "the film that broke the blacklist.") However, The Fall of the Roman Empire did poorly at the box office, and from 1964 until the mid-1990s the epic was decidedly out of fashion. With Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995) and Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000), the epic renewed itself in a way that heralded a return to cultural prominence. Gladiator, in particular, provides a fascinating example of the use of new visual technologies to narrate the past. Its elaborate use of computer-generated imagery recreates the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and an exceptional sense of realism in its gladiator contests. With varying degrees of critical and box-office success, twenty-first-century directors have made more films in the epic genre, including Troy (Wolfgang Petersen, 2004), Alexander (Stone, 2004), and The Passion of the Christ (Gibson, 2004).

b. New York, New York, 15 September 1946

One of the most accomplished filmmakers working in contemporary Hollywood, Oliver Stone is also one of the most controversial, creating vivid dramas of American history and politics that have provoked equal parts admiration and outrage. His film about the Kennedy assassination, JFK (1991), for example, created a searing controversy that led to denunciations by leading politicians, journalists, and historians. Ultimately, however, it resulted in legislation authorizing the Assassination Records Review Board, which assembled and made available millions of pages of documents on the assassination previously withheld from the public. In 1998 the Review Board specifically credited JFK with arousing public opinion to pressure Congress into passing the legislation. Arguably, no American work of art, with the possible exception of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), has had as direct or consequential an impact on American history as JFK.

Asserting his political orientation with his first major films, Stone's early works combine an explicitly political viewpoint with dramatic plotting and sympathetic characters. Salvador (1986) and Platoon (1986) are emotionally wrenching depictions of the conflicts in El Salvador and Vietnam. Following Platoon, which won Academy Awards® for Best Picture and Best Director, Stone made two films dealing with domestic American life, Wall Street (1987) and Talk Radio (1988). Born on the Fourth of July (1989) took up the subject of Vietnam again and won for Stone his second Oscar® for Best Director. A powerful film about the loss of national ideals and purpose, rendered through the experiences of a wide-eyed, all-American hero who comes home a disillusioned paraplegic, the film reads as a culminating statement against the war and its pointless sacrifice of a generation of young people. Stone completed his Vietnam trilogy with Heaven and Earth (1993), a beautiful and highly stylized portrait of a young Vietnamese woman and her experiences during the war and its aftermath.

With The Doors (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995), Stone extended his stylistic range, which had largely been tied to realist modes of representation, to include an array of subjective, dreamlike devices including disorienting, rapid-fire montage, superimpositions, and elaborate layering of the sound track. In these films, Stone creates an expressionistic portrait of American reality, dramatizing the frenzied, driven, and ultimately self-destructive aspects of American culture. His more recent films, including Any Given Sunday (1999) and Alexander (2004), represent a departure from the political focus of his major works, which stand among the most provocative and powerful in cinema history.


Salvador (1986), Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), Nixon (1995), World Trade Center (2006)


Kagen, Norman. The Cinema of Oliver Stone. London: Continuum, 2000.

Kunz, Don. The Films of Oliver Stone. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1997.

Silet, Charles L.P., ed. Oliver Stone: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

Stone, Oliver, and Zachary Sklar. JFK: The Book of the Film. New York: Warner Bros., Inc. and Regency Enterprises V.O.F., 1992.

Toplin, Robert Brent, ed. Oliver Stone's USA. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Robert Burgoyne


The biographical film, or biopic, also has a long and distinguished history in world cinema, with several works attaining high status for their critical as well as their commercial success. For example, The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, 1933) was the British

cinema's first international success; Charles Laughton (1899–1962) won a Best Actor Oscar® for his portrayal of the monarch. The French film Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927) brought a similar sense of national pride to a country whose film industry had been devastated by World War I. Still regarded as one of the most outstanding achievements in the history of the cinema, Napoléon was seen as the culmination of the French cinema's rise from near annihilation in 1914. The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987), which won nine Academy Awards®, was the first film to be shot on location in Beijing's Forbidden City, heralding a more open era in Chinese–Western cultural relations.

The biopic emerged as a recognizable subgenre in the 1930s. The first biopic is generally considered to be the George Arliss (1868–1946) vehicle Disraeli (1929), marketed as a Warner Bros. prestige production. Arliss also starred in Alexander Hamilton (1931) for Warner Bros. and in Voltaire (1933). The commercial and critical accomplishment of these works paved the way for several later Warner Bros. films directed by William Dieterle (1893–1972), including The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), for which Paul Muni (1895–1967) won the Oscar® for Best Actor; The White Angel (1936), the story of Florence Nightingale; and The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Juarez (1939), both also starring Muni.

Biographical films are often driven by a national, myth-making impulse. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), starring Henry Fonda (1905–1982) in his first film with John Ford (1894–1973), and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), starring Raymond Massey (1896–1983), were not so much historical as mythological exercises, as neither film was particularly accurate with regard to the actual events of Lincoln's life nor to his character. Nevertheless, Young Mr. Lincoln, in particular, succeeded in elevating Lincoln's early years to the level of national myth.

Eisenstein's Ivan Groznyy I (Ivan the Terrible, Part One, 1944) focused on an individual protagonist, rather than the collective protagonist of his earlier films, in part to rally the Russian people during World War II by giving them a historical hero who had unified Russia, fought off treachery, and defeated external enemies in the sixteenth century. Unlike his earlier Aleksandr Nevskiy

(Alexander Nevsky, co-directed by Dmitri Vasilyev, 1938), however, which focused on the story of a thirteenth-century prince who defeated an invading Teutonic army, Ivan the Terrible, Part One is less a symbol of the Russian people than a portrait of a fully rounded character, complex and beset by internal conflicts. Although Ivan the Terrible, Part One received the Stalin Prize, Ivan Groznyy II (Ivan the Terrible, Part Two, co-directed by M. Filimonova, 1958) was condemned by Stalin and suppressed. Ivan the Terrible, Part One has long been considered one of the most important and original films in world cinema in terms of its formal design; the two parts taken together may also be the first biographical film to explore the darker side of its main character.

As the biopic matured as a form, its subjects became more complex. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), starring Peter O'Toole, for example, paints an arresting portrait of its main character that shows him as both heroic and fatally flawed. Patton (Franklin Schaffner, 1970) took a similar approach, with George C. Scott (1927–1999) depicting the main character as both a noble warrior and vainglorious egomaniac. The complex and subtle shadings of character that distinguish films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Patton are also found in later examples of the form. Works such as Bertolucci's The Last Emperor and Stone's Nixon are distinguished examples of films that take a complicated view of the link between the individual subject and the historical process, refusing to see the individual agent as simply the crystallized expression of historical forces. Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) and Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982) as well as Schindler's List, consider the question that is at the heart of the biographical film: the relationship between the currents and forces of history and the charismatic individual who strives to shape those forces.


Many important historical films center on a particular incident or focus on a specific period rather than on the grand narratives of war, heroic individual action, or the emergence of a race or nation in the form of the epic. The topical, or period, film is exemplified by such celebrated works as Rossellini's Rome, Open City and Paisan, Senso (Luchino Visconti, 1954), La Marseillaise (Jean Renoir, 1938), Danton (Andrzej Wajda, 1982), Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981), and Titanic (James Cameron, 1997). Two other notable examples, Eight Men Out (1988) and Matewan (1987), are the work of the independent film-maker John Sayles. Commenting on Matewan, Sayles explained that, rather than recreate an entire fifteen-year period in American labor history, he focused on the Matewan Massacre, an incident in the mining industry, as one episode that epitomized that period. Similarly, Eight Men Out, a film that focuses on the Black Sox scandal of 1919, in which several players conspired to throw the World Series, dug under the surface of the incident to show the period as a moment of cultural transition in which sports, advertising, public relations, gambling, leisure, and mass communications were beginning to transform the nation from an agrarian culture to an urban, commodity-based society.

Other historical films are important for their exactitude of period detail and for their deep understanding of the difference between the past and the present. Such films fully express a cultural order that, organized according to different allegiances and beliefs, has become remote. These include Le Retour de Martin Guerre (The Return of Martin Guerre, Daniel Vigne, 1982), Black Robe (Bruce Beresford, 1991), and Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991). Black Robe centers on the challenges facing Jesuit missionaries in French Canada in the 1600s, in particular the attempt by one young priest to travel to a distressed mission in the Ottawa River Valley, a journey that becomes an ordeal. The film captures the strangeness and sense of otherness that the priest experiences while traveling among the Algonquins who serve as his trading partners and guides, but it also gives us the perspective of the Indians and effectively opens a window onto their cultural sensibility. Each culture is presented to the viewer in its unfiltered strangeness, as it was to the other in 1634.


Certain films can be called metahistorical because they offer embedded or explicit critiques of the way history is conventionally represented. Courage Under Fire, for example, employs multiple flashbacks from different points of view to piece together a disputed account of a female air force officer's death. Walker (Alex Cox, 1987) brings present-day objects from consumer culture into its collage-like narrative of the nineteenth-century adventurer William Walker, who declared himself emperor of Nicaragua. What these films have in common is the attempt to interrogate the process of historical representation, both written and filmed. JFK presents a provocative interpretation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in a highly charged, polemical style that mixes idioms, splices together documentary and historical footage, and uses montage editing to disorient and "agitate" the viewer in a manner that calls into question accepted interpretations of the past. Hitler—ein Film aus Deutschland (Hitler: A Film from Germany, also known as Our Hitler, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, 1978) attempts to confront the German amnesia concerning Hitler by rendering the phenomenon of Hitler's rise as a disorienting operatic production, calling to mind the German fascination with and investment in this form. The film's extreme length (seven hours and nine minutes), its use of dolls, dummies, and caricatures—Hitler is portrayed variously as a house painter, Chaplin's Great Dictator, a Frankenstein monster, and Parsifal—underscores the way historical events and characters take on meaning through their representations in the media.

In a very different way, a series of films that Rossellini made for French and Italian television late in his career can also be seen as metahistorical works. In these "history lessons," Rossellini explored the lives and times of various historical personages in a studiously nondramatic, nonpsychologized way. His films La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (The Rise of Louis XIV, 1966), Socrate (Socrates, 1970), and L'Età di Cosimo de Medici (The Age of the Medici, 1973) were made with nonprofessional actors and avoid following the dramatic arc of most fictional historical films. Rossellini attempts to capture the dailiness of life in past historical times, bringing an almost documentary approach to the treatment of the past.


The costume drama can be distinguished from other variants of the historical film by virtue of its fictional basis. Its plot is most often based on a fictional literary source, and it does not depend on actual historical events as its main focus or framing material. Nevertheless, the costume drama provides many pleasures for viewers, for it often features a sumptuous recreation of a historical period and setting, with the density of detail in the costumes and décor providing a source of sensual pleasure that equates history with emotion and passion. The Gainsborough Studio in the 1940s produced a number of notable costume dramas, including adaptations of literary works such as The Man in Grey (1943), Fanny by Gaslight (1944), and The Wicked Lady (1945).

Costume dramas such as The Mask of Zorro (1998) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988) employ historical settings for their aesthetic value, allowing the viewer to become a voyeur of the past. Historical films in general appeal to this emotional, voyeuristic interest on the part of the spectator, but the costume film allows its fullest expression, untrammeled by the sociopolitical conflicts that dominate the plots of films that deal with actual historical events.


The docudrama, another type of visual narrative dealing with the past, has gained a significant place in television broadcasting, with such well-known titles as Brian's Song (1971), Roots (1977), and Everybody's Baby: The Rescue of Jessica McClure (1989). The genre in its original form combined documentary and drama, categories usually conceived as separate. According to Janet Staiger, the docudrama derives from the early US television program You Are There (1953–1957), which featured staged interviews with actors representing the actual participants in historical events, such as the conquest of Mexico. The "you are there" form, however, has fallen into disuse, and most docudramas employ mainstream forms of dramatic representation and apply them to historical events. They combine fictional narrative techniques with an explicit claim to record or report "reality," a characteristic of television broadcasting in general. In blending narrative and documentary style, the docudrama sets forth a moral view of reality, an ethical response to the "real world," which is initially presented as disordered and irrational.


The historical film emerged as a strong genre form very early in cinema history and has renewed itself many times over the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Although the world of the past is its subject, the genre is often in the vanguard in terms of visual style and cinematic technique. The dramatic, compelling portraits of the past that are brought to life in the historical film have made it one of the most prestigious as well as one of the most controversial genres in film. It provides both a lens onto the past, which it frequently recreates with exquisite attention to detail and period style, while also reflecting the cultural sensibility of the period in which it was made. Above all, the historical film provides an emotional connection to history in a way that foregrounds the power and importance of the past in shaping the cultural imaginary in the present.

SEE ALSO Biography;Epic Films;Genre;Melodrama;Vietnam War;War Films;World War I;World War II


Burgoyne, Robert. Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Carnes, Mark C., ed. Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.

Custen, George. Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Elley, Derek. The Epic Film. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.

Harper, Sue. Picturing the Past: The Rise and Fall of the British Costume Film. London: British Film Institute, 1994.

Kaes, Anton. From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Rosenstone, Robert A. Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

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Robert Burgoyne

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Historical Films

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Historical Films