Film and the Teaching of History

[Michael Curtiz, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) – a man who “speaks treason fluently” to tyrants]

[Warren Beatty, “Reds” (1981) – a brilliant political film but about the wrong side]

See also “The Politics and History of/in Film”.

I have used films in my teaching and lecturing ever since I began teaching at the University of Adelaide in 1986. They were a regular feature in my first year introductory courses on Modern European history, my upper level courses on “German Europe” and “The Holocaust,” and most extensively in my course “Responses to War: An Intellectual and Cultural History” in which, over a period of a decade, I showed about 100 different films. [See “Some Thoughts on how People have ‘Responded to War’”]

The week long Summer Seminars organized by the Institute for Humane Studies during the 1990s on “Liberty in Film and Fiction” gave me an opportunity to show and discuss films with a group of students who were sympathetic to CL/libertarian ideas and who were in creative writing and film studies programs. These films included:

  1. Lewis Milestone, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930)
  2. Michael Curtiz, “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938)
  3. Robert Wise, “Executive Suite” (1954)
  4. Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)
  5. Andrew McLaglan, “Shenandoah“ (1965)
  6. George Lucas, “Star Wars IV: A New Hope” (1977)
  7. Claude Berri, “ Jean de Florette“ (1987) and “Manon des sources” (1987)
  8. Oliver Stone, “Wall Street” (1987)
  9. Kenneth Branagh, “Henry V” (1989)
  10. Volker Schloendorff, “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990)
  11. Norman Jewison, “Other People’s Money” (1991)

[Claude Berri, “Jean de Florette” (1987) – on property rights in water and what happens when they are violated]

Since war films were a major interest of mine, during 1995 I held a two week long “film festival” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, during which I showed two films a day for two weeks. See the full list.

The two Honours level subjects I taught on ”Reel History: History IN Film and Film AS History” (course guide) and “Film and the History of Occupation, Collaboration, and Resistance in WW2” (course guide) provided an opportunity to explore in greater depth some of the key questions which an historian must ask about film, such as

  1. the representation and interpretation of history which takes place WITHIN films, in other words, to examine films as works of historical interpretation by the filmmaker
  2. to study films as important historical documents in their own right, i.e. to use films as just one of many primary sources one might use in order to better understand the past
  3. to compare and contrast the kind of history presented to the public by the film industry in Hollywood, i.e. “Hollywood History”, with other, sometimes more thoughtful historical films made by European and independent filmmakers
  4. to compare and contrast all forms of “filmed history” with the history found in traditional, printed texts

Since I was teaching “history” courses a major question we had to ask and try to answer (if we could) was how historically accurate was the film, and if it was not accurate, to ask the follow up question, why did the filmmaker alter the past or stress certain aspects and ignore or distort others?

A question we kept coming back to was one posed by Robert Rosenstone, who asked:

No matter how serious or honest the filmmakers, and no matter how deeply committed they are to rendering the subject faithfully, the history that finally appears on the screen can never fully satisfy the historian as historian (although it may satisfy the historian as filmgoer). Inevitably, something happens on the way from the page to the screen that changes the meaning of the past as it is understood by those of us who work in words.

[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. ]

It should be noted that Rosenstone, as an historian, wrote a biography of the American socialist journalist John Reed, Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed (1975) and then advised Warren Beatty in the making of his Academy award-winning film Reds (1981). The film is a brilliant depiction of an immensely important historical event but is is far too sympathetic to the socialist cause, even uncritical. This inspired me to write my own screenplay on a classical liberal on whom I had written a great deal who had also been involved in a revolution – Frédéric Bastiat in the 1848 Revolution in Paris in February 1848. The results, entitled “Broken Windows” screenplay HTML, along with an “illustrated essay” to help the director “visualize the past” can be found here. I found some initial interest by a small-time producer in taking it further but that interest soon evaporated when the complexity and the cost of filming an “historical film” became evident. In the meantime a dreadful “bro” movie about Marx and Engels in Paris at the same time Bastiat was living and working there got made with funding by the EU. [Raoul Peck, “The Young Karl Marx” (2018) and the review in the New York Times by A.O. Scott (22 Feb. 2018) here]

[Raoul Peck, “The Young Karl Marx” (2018) – yet another account of the life of an obnoxious man and his obnoxious ideas]

Other questions I explored in these classes, with particular reference to war films, were the following. To use films:

(1.) to assist in the visualisation of historical events or historical conditions, thus the film acts as a “window on the past” and is an attempt to “restage the past” (Sorlin) or an attempt to create “historical authenticity” (Zemon Davis) on the screen. Examples include:

  1. Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc) (1928)
  2. Lewis Milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
  3. Cy Endfield, Zulu (1964)
  4. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) and Dr Strangelove (1964)
  5. Peter Watkins, The Battle of Culloden (1969)
  6. Oliver Stone, Platoon (1986)
  7. Maxwell, Gettysburg (1994)
  8. and one film which is not: John Wayne’s Green Berets (1968).

[The sensational original release movie poster of a slave revolt in ancient Rome which does not show any inkling of Kubrick’s deeper ideas about the subject.]

(2.) to study the history of prevailing attitudes or mentalités, since 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”.

  1. the left-wing and humanitarian pacifism of Remarque/Milestone’s All Quiet (1930) and Pabst’s Westfront 1918 (1930) in the late Weimar Republic;
  2. the officially sanctioned or supported war propaganda of Olivier’s Henry V (1944) and Frank Capra’s series on Why We Fight (1942); and on the German/Nazi side, Veit Harlan, Kolberg (1945)
  3. he paranoia and fear of communist infiltration and invasion at the height of the Cold War in Siegel’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956);
  4. and the anti-authoritarianism, even anarchism, of the swinging sixties depicted in Altman’s MASH** (1970) and Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970).

(3.) to study the ideas of individual filmmakers (especially those who were war veterans); in this case, the film is a “personal memoir” by someone who had first-hand experience of the events depicted on the screen.

  1. films made by directors who were engaged as official filmmakers during war who went on to make films after the war, such as John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945) and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
  2. 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 (1986) and Born on the 4th of July (1989).
  3. or indirectly, when a director makes a film based upon a novel or memoir by someone else who was a participant, such as Lewis Milestone (Erick Maria Remarque), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

(4.) 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.

  1. films based upon Shakespeare – Laurence Olivier’s and Kenneth Branagh’s versions of Shakespeare’s Henry V (1944/1989), Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985);
  2. Akira Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) (1954)
  3. Sergei Bondarchuck’s version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1968);
  4. Jean Renoir, La Grande Illusion (1936); Kon Ichikawa, The Burmese Harp (Harp of Burma – Biruma No Tategoto) (1956) and Fires on the Plain (Nobi) (1962)
  5. 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)
  6. Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (1958-61).

[Lewis Milestone, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) – the classic anti-war movie to which we all keep coming back.]

An important question which was often raised in my courses was one articulated by the Romanian film historian Manuela Gheorghiu-Cernat who expressed it this way: is the showing and studying of war films (especially violent ones) “a pedagogy of peace or a school of violence?” [Arms and the Film, pp. 303-23]. Perhaps Fritz Lang was correct when he stated in 1958 interview: “Could anything new be possibly said on war?… No. But, it is essential for us to repeat over and over again, the things previously uttered.” (Quoted in Manuela Gheorghiu-Cernat, Arms and the Film, p. 304.)

Lang’s unstated assumption is that in the 20th century film would become the medium through which this restatement of the horrors and evil of war can and should be made. We need to ask ourselves whether film, rather than the written word (or perhaps art), is the proper medium for this dialogue. Or perhaps Georges Duhamel is closer to the mark with his prediction: “I shall no longer be able to think what I want. My thoughts will be replaced by mobile images.” (Quoted in Manuela Gheorghiu-Cernat, Arms and the Film, p. 305.) The American soldiers in Vietnam who had watched John Wayne westerns and war movies when they were growing up had such mobile images in their minds – images of heroic actions, self-sacrifice for the state, and glorious death on the battlefield. The great power cinema has is the capacity to offer such “mobile images”, with their associated political and moral meanings, for the purposes of distraction, excitement, amusement, and the political control of audiences. Thus educators have a special responsibility to use this medium carefully.

What I try to do in my use of film in the teaching of history is to make explicit what is implicit in the mobile images on the screen, to place in historical context what might appear at first sight to be timeless and “normal” to the viewer, to discuss the moral beliefs and the political orientation of filmmakers and the impact these ideas have on their filmmaking, and to examine the reception of the films by the audiences of their day.

[Source: Manuela Gheorghiu-Cernat, Arms and the Film: War and Peace in European films. Translated into English by Florin Ionescu and Ecaterina Grundbock (Bucharest : Meridiane, 1983).]

Some additional thoughts on the connections between film and history can be found in the following essays and guides:

“A Guide to the Study of War, History, and Film”

“Further Thoughts on War Films and the Study of History”

“Bastiat goes to the Movies, or “Filming Freddie”: How to Popularise Economic Ideas in Film” (2017)

“Some Thoughts on an ‘Austrian Theory of Film’: Ideas and Human Action in a Film about Frédéric Bastiat” (Sept. 2019)

An Allegory of War and Peace

The Dutch legal theorist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) published the first edition of his important book on the Laws of War and Peace in 1625 while he was in exile in Paris. His second edition of 1670 was published in Amsterdam and came with two etchings, one of himself and another which was an allegorical etching of Justice, War, and Peace (or Bounty) which served as the frontispiece of the book.

The engraver was Romeyn de Hooghe (1645 – 1708) who was a Dutch painter and engraver who made political prints in support King William of Orange (1650-1702). See Romeyn de Hooghe – Wikipedia.

Romeyn de Hooghe (1645 – 1708)

The portrait of Grotius:

See the larger version 1781×3042 px

The allegorical etching is a very interesting visual summary of Grotius’ book. A printed summary of his ideas can be found in Grotius’ “Prolegomena” to his book which I have made available in HTML.

That body of law, however, which is concerned with the mutual relations among states or rulers of states, whether derived from nature, or established by divine ordinances, or having its origin in custom and tacit agreement, few have touched upon. Up to the present time no one has treated it in a comprehensive and systematic manner ; yet the welfare of mankind demands that this task be accomplished. …

Such a work is all the more necessary because in our day, as in former times, there is no lack of men who view this branch of law with contempt as having no reality outside of an empty name. … Of like implication is the statement that for those whom fortune favours might makes right, and that the administration of a state cannot be carried on without injustice. …

Furthermore, the controversies which arise between peoples or kings generally have Mars as their arbiter. That war is irreconcilable with all law is a view held not alone by the ignorant populace ; expressions are often let slip by well-informed and thoughtful men which lend countenance to such a view. Nothing is more common than the assertion of antagonism between law and arms. …

Since our discussion concerning law will have been undertaken in vain if there is no law, in order to open the way for a favourable reception of our work and at the same time to fortify it against attacks, this very serious error must be briefly refuted. …

Man is, to be sure, an animal, but an animal of a superior kind, much farther removed from all other animals than the different kinds of animals are from one another; evidence on this point may be found in the many traits peculiar to the human species. But among the traits characteristic of man is an impelling desire for society, that is, for the social life—not of any and every sort, but peaceful, and organized according to the measure of his intelligence, with those who are of his own kind; this social trend the Stoics called ‘ sociableness’. …

This maintenance of the social order, which we have roughly sketched, and which is consonant with human intelligence, is the source of law properly so called. To this sphere of law belong the abstaining from that which is another’s, the restoration to another of anything of his which we may have, together with any gain which we may have received from it; the obligation to fulfil promises, the making good of a loss incurred through our fault, and the inflicting of penalties upon men according to their deserts. …

From this signification of the word law there has flowed another and more extended meaning. Since over other animals man has the advantage of possessing not only a strong bent towards social life, of which we have spoken, but also a power of discrimination which enables him to [ix] decide what things are agreeable or harmful (as to both things present and things to come), and what can lead to either alternative: in such things it is meet for the nature of man, within the limitations of human intelligence, to follow the direction of a well-tempered judgement, being neither led astray by fear or the allurement of immediate pleasure, nor carried away by rash impulse. Whatever is clearly at variance with such judgement is understood to be contrary also to the law of nature; that is, to the nature of man. …

Least of all should that be admitted which some people imagine, that in war all laws are in abeyance. On the contrary war ought not to be undertaken except for the enforcement of rights ; when once undertaken, it should be carried on only within the bounds of law and good faith. Demosthenes well said that war is directed against those who cannot be held in check by judicial processes. For judgements are efficacious against those who feel that they are too weak to resist; against those who are equally strong, or think that they are, wars [xii] are undertaken. But in order that wars may be justified, they must be carried on with not less scrupulousness than judicial processes are wont to be.

Let the laws be silent, then, in the midst of arms, but only the laws of the State, those that the courts are concerned with, that are adapted only to a state of peace; not those other laws, which are of perpetual validity and suited to all times.

See a larger version of 1800×3050 px

My analysis of the allegories used in the picture follows:

Standing on a round temple is Justice (she holds the scales of justice in her right hand) above Mars (war) who holds a sword in his right hand, next to whom is Peace or Abundance who holds a compass in her left hand (to measure out quantities), over which is draped a snake which is biting its own tail in a circle (a symbol of eternity), and who holds in her right hand the cornucopia (the horn of plenty). On either side of them and slightly behind are some shadowy figures whose meaning is not clear. Mars’ sword points to the left and in the distance is Neptune with his trident and his chariot pulled by horses. Since Holland and England were both aspiring sea powers this may be a reference to this fact. At the foot of the temple at the right are two figures, a man wearing a helmet who is holding another snake over a fire with his right hand (perhaps here a symbol of evil) and with his left holding a woman around her waste; she is a peasant girl who is wearing a bonnet and a yoke around her shoulders (a symbol of submission) and in her left hand an hour glass (a symbol of the passage of time and of death). At the left is a bearded man in the shadows who is also holding a snake over a fire. At the very bottom of the picture is a dead boar (a symbol of lust and ferocity) which has been sacrificed.

For further material by Grotius see:

  • the main page for Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) which has links to the facsimile PDFs of the 1625 and 1670 editions in Latin
  • an incomplete English translation done at the time of International Peace Conference at The Hague July 4th, 1899, with an introduction by David J. Hill, Assistant Secretary of State of the United States; and with a dedication “To the Memory of Hugo Grotius in Reverence and Gratitude from the United States of America” HTML
  • and an 1925 edition edited by James Brown Scott for the Carnegie Institution, from which I made an HTML version of Grotius’ Prolegomena to the Three Books on The Law Of War And Peace” (1625, 1925)

Picasso and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement 1969


I recently came across an interesting poster (thanks to a thoughtful reader) which was used in the 250,000 person “March against death : march on Washington” anti-Vietnam War protest march which took place on Nov. 13-15, 1969. You can read the front page story about the march on the NYT’s “On This Day” website and more details can be found in the memoirs of one of the organizers, Ron Young, Crossing Boundaries in the Americas, Vietnam, and the Middle East: A Memoir (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014).

Picasso donated a pen and ink drawing for the protesters to use in their promotional material which shows one of his “machines of war”.

(see a larger version 1828 px wide

A view of just the image:


These “engines of war” first appeared in his anti-Korean War pictures from the early 1950s which marked a break from his earlier anti-war drawings which showed primarily the victims of war such as the women, children, and horse in “Guernica” (1937) or the apparently unfinished (or unfinishable) “The Charnel House” (1944-45) depicting the victims of WW2.


For two or so decades after WW2 Picasso drew many images which were used for posters for various peace congresses. These consisted mainly of his classic peace dove images, or images of flowers.



With the Korean War he changed tack and drew a series of works showing the actual killing rather than the aftermath of attacks. In “Massacre in Korea” (Jan. 1950) he shows a group of women and children facing immanent execution by a group of faceless, helmeted soldiers with rifles, very much in the style of Francisco Goya’s classic “The Third of May 1808”.


This was followed a a pair of paintings in 1952, “War” and “Peace”, with the war painting showing a chariot with a warrior with a bloody sword and a group of silhouettes committing unseen atrocities in the background.



During 1951 Picasso drew a series of works which showed various “machines of war” or tank-like vehicles attacking soldiers who look like classical Greek warriors. It was one of these tank-like vehicles which he drew for the 1969 anti-Vietnam War march in Washington.


Another poster from the same year as the anti-war march shows the enduring relevance of the “Guernica” painting for anti-war protesters. It depicts a close-up of the head and arm of the fallen warrior/statue.


For further information and images see:
– my Guide to the War Art of Picasso
Picasso: Peace and Freedom, ed. Lynda Morris and Christoph Grunenberg (London: Tate Publishing, 2010).
Picasso and the War Years, 1937-1945, ed. Stephen A. Nash, with Robert Rosenblum (New York: Thames and Hudson, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1998).

Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937)


The Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) painted a mural depicting the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German air force in 1937 during Spanish Civil War. It depicts the victims of war, such as suffering women, children, and a horse. It is perhaps the greatest painting about war ever made as it focuses on the victims and is timeless and universal in its themes.

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