This guide is part of a collection of material on film and history.
Film has become one of the greatest and most influential art forms of the 20th century. We need to learn how to view films critically and historically not just to be entertained by them. We need to appreciate that films embody ideas and values about the world and that critical viewing of them can reveal what these ideas and values are. The visualisation of historical events or historical conditions is the most elementary function of film in the teaching of history. It is simply an attempt, in Pierre Sorlin's words, to "restage the past" in a manner which captures the imagination of viewers. Where once words on a page were sufficient to create images in the reader's mind, in the TV age images on a screen are needed to achieve the same result. To a literate reader, Voltaire's few sentences in Candide (1759) describing the innocent victims of war and the sanctimonious behaviour of the French and Prussian military leaders are sufficient to transmit his profound hatred of war which emerged during the Seven Years War. The power of Tolstoy's prose to describe the French summary executions of Russian civilians who opposed the occupation of Moscow by Napoleon's troops in 1812 is as impressive as one can find anywhere in literature. Likewise, the passages in Émile Zola's novel The Debacle (1892) describing the horrors of a makeshift field hospital and the human consequences of the new Prussian needle gun in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 require no pictures to make their point. I think Zola does a much better job of showing the horror of production line amputations than Kevin Costner does in the opening of Dances with Wolves. However, when it comes to twentieth century wars our mental picture of them is just that - mind "pictures" which have their origins in film, photographs and TV. Twentieth century war is "visual" like no other period of warfare in human history. Thus, we must be able to "read" a film in a critical and historically informed manner if we are to deal adequately with the nature of war in our century.
War films can be used for a number of purposes in the study of history:
To analyse a film historically I suggest you keep the following factors in mind:
What personal experience of war did the individual concerned have and what impact did it have on them? In other words, what was their response to war? Biographical information can be found in autobiographies, biographies, memoirs and other critical works written by historians, encyclopaedias.
What were the main events and significance of the war experienced by that individual and/or what contemporary events influenced the individual when the text was created? Works to consult for this information include standard histories of the war in question, historical works on the country or period in which the individual lived and worked. There are a number of levels of historical contexts of which you should take note (Olivier's Henry V is taken as an example):
What are the origins of the ideas/approaches/style used by the individual in their response to war? What earlier writers, artists, filmmakers, philosophers influenced their work? Information on the intellectual origins of the response of individuals can be found in specialised critical works on the author or filmmaker, histories of art, music, film etc.
Are the events depicted in the text or film "accurate" when compared with standard historical accounts of the war in question? Are they similar to other accounts by eye-witnesses, other novels, other films? If the text or film is not accurate, why has history been distorted? for what (political) purpose? Information to judge the historical accuracy of a film or text can be found in standard histories of the war in question.
Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon (1950). A rape and murder is witnessed by a small group of individuals (a woodcutter, a priest, a police agent, a bandit, the wife and the husband), all of whom recollect the events in a different way.
The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Volume 1: Films, ed. Christopher Lyon (London: Macmillan, 1987).
The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Volume 2: Directors, ed. Christopher Lyon (London: Macmillan, 1987).
Bloomsbury Foreign Film Guide, ed. Ronald Bergan and Robyn Karney (London: Bloomsbury, 1988).
CD-ROM edition of Cinemania'95 (Microsoft Corporation, 1992-94).
Mick Martin and Marsha Porter, Video Movie Guide 1994 (New York: Ballantine, 1993).
War Movies: A Guide to more than 500 Films on Videocassette, (Evanston, Illinois: CineBooks, 1989).
Encyclopedia of American War Films, ed. Larry Langman and Ed Borg (New York: Garland, 1989).
Celluloid Wars: A Guide to Film and the American Experience of War, ed. Frank J. Wetta and Stephen J. Curley (New York: Greenwood, 1992).
John Dowling, War. Peace. Film Guide, revised edition (Chicago: World Without War Publications, 1980).
Mick Broderick, Nuclear Movies: A Filmography (Northcote, Victoria: Post-Modem Publishing, 1988).
The Forum on Film and History in the American Historical Review , December 1988, vol. 93, no. 5.
Natalie Zemon Davis,"'Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead': Film and the Challenge of Authenticity," Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 1988, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 269-283.
"Film Reviews", American Historical Review, October Issue, 1988-1995.
Past Imperfect: History according to the Movies, ed. Mark C. Carnes (New York: Henry Holt, 1995).
Robert A. Rosenstone, "History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History into Film," American Historical Review, December 1988, vol. 93, no. 5, pp. 1173-85.
Pierre Sorlin, The Film in History: Restaging the Past (Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1980), "How to Look at an Historical Film," pp. 3-37.
Pierre Sorlin, European Cinemas, European Societies, 1939-1990 (London, 1991).
Marc Ferro, Cinema and History, trans. Naomi Greene (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988).
Robin Buss, The French Through Their Films (London, 1988).
The Historian and Film, ed. Paul Smith (Cambridge, 1976).
Feature Films as History, ed. K.R.M. Short (London, 1981).
+ Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 1994, vol. 14, no. 4. Special Issue: War, Film and History. Selected Papers from a 1993 Conference Sponsored by the Rutgers Centre for Historical Analysis, New Brunswick, New Jersey.
"`Been to See the Elephant': Film and Combat Experience," in Celluloid Wars: A Guide to Film and the American Experience of War, ed. Frank J. Wetta and Stephen J. Curley (New York: Greenwood, 1992), pp. 33-54.
Ivan Butler, The War Film (South Brunswick and New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1974).
Norman Kagan, The War Film: A Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies (New York: Pyramid, 1974). "Introduction: Are War Films Ever True?" pp. 10-11.
Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Harper, 1993).
Joan Mellon, The Waves at Genji's Door: Japan Through its Cinema (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976).
Annette Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Manuela Gheorghiu-Cernat, Arms and the Film: War and Peace in European Films (Bucharest: Meridiane, 1983), Chap. X "The Educational Function of War Films," pp. 303-23.
K. Brownlow, The War, the West and the Wilderness (London, 1979).
Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1989).
Michael T. Isenberg, War on Film: The American Cinema and World War I, 1914-1941 (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1981).
Clayton B. Koppers and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (London: I.B. Tauris, 1988).
Roger Manvell, Films and the Second World War (New York: Dell/Delta, 1976).
Jeanine Basinger, The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
Albert Auster and Leonard Quart, How the War was Remembered: Hollywood and Vietnam (New York: Praeger, 1988).
Thomas Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War Two (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).
Gilbert Adair, Hollywood's Vietnam: From "The Green Berets" to "Full Metal Jacket" (London: Heineman, 1989).
American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, ed. John E. O'Connor et al. (New York: Ungar, 1988).
James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History and Theory of Film and Media, revised edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).
Louis Giannetti, Understanding Movies, third edition (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1982).
Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
Leif Furhammar and Folke Isaksson, Politics and Film, trans. Kersti French (London: Studio Vista, 1971), pp. 145-48.
Terry Christensen, Reel Politics: American Political Movies from "Birth of a Nation" to "Platoon" (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987).
Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).
David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema, 1933-1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983). Especially chapter VI "War and the Military Image," pp. 186-237.
Eric Rhode, A History of the Cinema from its Origins to 1970 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984).