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 assist in the visualisation of historical events or historical conditions - the film acts as a "window on the past", it is an attempt to "restage the past" (Sorlin) or an attempt to create "historical authenticity" (Zemon Davis) on the screen. Three examples of films which create vivid and largely historically accurate depictions of historical events or conditions are : Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930); Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove (1964); and Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986).
  • to study the history of prevailing attitudes or mentalités - sometimes the film tells us more about the time of its making than the events it sets out to depict, that the film reflects the "climate of opinion" of the society in which it was made, in other words it acts as a "mirror of contemporary society". Examples include the left-wing and humanitarian pacifism of Remarque/Milestone's All Quiet (1930) and Pabst's Westfront 1918 (1930) in the late Weimar Republic; the officially sanctioned or supported war propaganda of Olivier's Henry V (1944) and Frank Capra's series on Why We Fight (1942); the paranoia and fear of communist infiltration and invasion at the height of the Cold War in Siegel's Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956); and the anti-authoritarianism, even anarchism, of the swinging sixties depicted in Altman's M*A*S*H* (1970) and Nichols' Catch-22 (1970).
  • to study the ideas of individual filmmakers (especially those who were war veterans) - in this case, the film is a "memoir" by someone who had first-hand experience of the events depicted on the screen. Two examples of films made by directors who were engaged as official filmmakers during war include John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945) and William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Three examples of filmmakers who personally experienced combat include Jean Renoir's La Grande Ilusion (1936), Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition (1959-61), and Oliver Stone's (again) Platoon and Born on the 4th of July ().
  • to reflect on the nature of war, history and the human condition in a general way - in this case, film can function as a philosophical or historical "essay" which attempts to interpret or make sense of the past in some way. I include is this section the following films: Laurence Olivier's and Kenneth Branagh's versions of Shakespeare's Henry V (1944/1989); Sergei Bondarchuck's version of Tolstoy's War and Peace (1968); Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1936); Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain (1962) and Harp of Burma (1967); Stanley Kubrick's oeuvre of war films; Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition (1958-61).




To analyse a film historically I suggest you keep the following factors in mind:

1. Biography

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.

2. Historical Context

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):

  • the context of the actual war and the historical figures engaged in that war - e.g. the 100 Years War and King Henry V
  • the context in which Shakespeare wrote the play - e.g. events in late 16th and early 17th England, the rivalry between England and Spain, problems in Ireland, political assassinations
  • the context in which the film was made - e.g. WW2 Britain, propaganda funded by the British govt to bolster the war effort
  • the context of the audience watching the film - Adelaide, 1996

3. Historical Origins

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.

4. Historical Accuracy

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.




1. Film and History: The Relative and Partial Nature of Truth and Memory

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.

2. Film as a "Window on the Past"

  • Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc) (1928)
  • Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
  • Cy Endfield, Zulu (1964)
  • Peter Watkins, The Battle of Culloden (1969)
  • Oliver Stone, Platoon (1986)
  • Maxwell, Gettysburg (1994)

3. Film as a "Mirror of Contemporary Society"

  • G.W. Pabst, Westfront 1918 (Comrades of 1918) (1930)
  • Veit Harlan, Kolberg (1945)
  • Don Siegel, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  • Robert Altman, M*A*S*H (1970)

4. Film as a Personal "Memoir"

  • Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
  • Jean Renoir, The Great Illusion (La Grande Ilusion) (1936)
  • John Ford, They Were Expendable (1945)
  • Masaki Kobayashi, The Human Condition (1959-61)
  • Oliver Stone, Platoon (1986)

5. Film as a Philosophical or Historical "Essay"

  • Films based upon Shakespeare's plays: Laurence Olivier, Henry V (1944), Kenneth Branagh, Henry V (1989), Akira Kurosawa, Throne of Blood (The Castle of the Spider's Web - Kumonosu-Djo) (1957), Akira Kurosawa, Ran (1985)
  • Akira Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) (1954)
  • Sergei Bondarchuk, War and Peace (Voina i Mir) (1967)
  • Jean Renoir, The Great Illusion (La Grande Illusion) (1937)
  • Kon Ichikawa, The Burmese Harp (Harp of Burma - Biruma No Tategoto) (1956) and Fires on the Plain (Nobi) (1962)
  • Stanley Kubrick's oeuvre of war films: Paths of Glory (1957), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Dr. Strangelove, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb (1964)
  • Masaki Kobayashi, The Human Condition (Ningen no Joken) (1959-61)

6. Documentaries

  • Gwynne Dyer, War (London: Bodley Head, 1986) and accompanying documentary series: War (A National Film Board of Canada Production, 1983), in seven parts
  • Frank Capra, Why We Fight (1942)
  • The World at War (1973)
  • Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will (1935)
  • Marcel Ophuls, The Sorrow & the Pity (1970) and Hotel Terminus (1987)
  • Claude Lanzmann, Shoah (1985)
  • The Archives Project/Rafferty, The Atomic Café (1982)

7. Propaganda Films

  • Bugs &Daffy: Wartime Cartoons (1989)
  • Seiler, Guadalcanal Diary (1943)
  • Mizoguchi, The Loyal 47 Ronin (1941-42)
  • Harlan, Kolberg (1945)




1. Film Guides: General

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).

2. Film Guides: War

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).

3. History and Film

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).

4. War, Film and History

+ 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).

5. Theory of Cinema

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).

6. History and Criticism of Film

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).