History Films Are Back at the Oscars


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

William Faulkner famously wrote that “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.” He was right. The past is not dead. It is alive and well and will be present in force at the Academy Awards next Sunday. A history film seems certain to win Best Picture. The big favorite is The Artist, the unique and much heralded black and white “silent” film about the history of Hollywood as seen through the story of a veteran actor and an ingénue in 1927.

If it fails to capture the prize, though, almost every other nominee for Best Picture is a history film (excluding The Descendants and arguably Moneyball) is a history film: War Horse is Steven Spielberg’s World War I epic; Hugo is Martin Scorcese’s love letter to film pioneer Georges Méliès; Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s love letter to the Lost Generation in Paris; The Iron Lady features Meryl Streep in the titular role of Margaret Thatcher; The Help is set in the civil rights-era South; The Tree of Life is Terrence Malick’s ambitious experimental film which intercuts the story of a family in 1950s Texas with the origins of life on Earth; and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the adaptation of Jonathan Foer’s novel about 9/11’s effect on a young boy who lost his father in the attack.

When The King’s Speech, the marvelous story of King George VI’s struggle to conquer his stammer with the help of a speech therapist in London in the 1930s, won Best Picture last year it ended an eight-year drought of history films as Best Picture. Now, perhaps, a new era of history Best Picture Oscars will start.

It wouldn’t be the first. A study of the Academy Awards for Best Picture from 1927 to the present shows that over half (46 of 83) were stories about the past, be they war films (from All Quiet on the Western Front to Platoon), historical biopics (like The King’s Speech), epic dramas (Ben-Hur), or epic melodramas (Gone With the Wind). And then, of course, there are the Best Picture winners about then contemporary events that have become themselves historical documents (Casablanca and The Best Years of Our Lives to name but the two most famous examples).

The very first Academy Award for Best Picture was given to a history film, Wings, in 1927. In some years, most of the nominees were history films. In 1953, From Here to Eternity, about the attack on Pearl Harbor, won and the runners up were Julius Caesar, Shane and The Robe (a sword and sandal epic about the Romans who crucified Jesus). From 1962 through 1967, every Oscar for Best Picture was given to a film about the past, with In the Heat of the Night breaking the streak.

History films are important because the public obtains most of its information about history from movies and television, not books and journal articles. Making history movies is a big responsibility. Writer Gore Vidal said that “he who screens the history makes the history.”

Screenwriters have done a better job of authenticity over the last twenty years than in past generations, when outlandish history films were produced (pick a random Western from the 1950s and the odds are the cowboys will be wearing suspiciously modern-looking suits when they hit the casino). They feel a greater responsibility to accuracy and also use more historians as consultants (there are, of course, exceptions—one of the many errors in 1994’s Braveheart was, during the film’s Battle of Stirling Bridge setpiece, the conspicuous absence of a bridge). Re-enactors, who have appeared in many recent war films, also contributed to the screenwriters’ knowledge of the past. More critics attack films that are not accurate, and late-night comics mock them mercilessly; thus, screenwriters make more of an effort to make today’s films historically better.

Good old-fashioned American patriotism partially explains the appeal of movies like Saving Private Ryan. Americans do love their country. But increasingly we’ve realized, or at least Hollywood has realized, that the successes in U.S. history are matched by a lot of failures. The tragedies make for films as riveting as the triumph, and the people who have been left out of the tale are often as important as the people in it. Increasingly, films about history in general, and American history in particular, are full of challenges and confrontations.

“In creating the image of the past, we create ourselves, and without that task of creating the past we might be said scarcely to exist,” said historian/poet Robert Penn Warren on a 1989 essay on film.

Best Picture Oscars are frequently won by films trying to sort out the past and tackle the complexities of life, whether in entertainment history (The Artist), politics (The Iron Lady) or war history (War Horse) and, in doing that, show the human story, regardless of the year. The human stories depicted on film span centuries, but they remain human stories.

History films win Oscars because whenever Americans are in trouble—which, let’s be honest, is most of the time—we look to the successes of the past so that we can remind ourselves that we were a great people once and can be again. No matter how big our contemporary problems become, we know that we can close our eyes and bring back Eleanor Roosevelt or Davy Crockett (or John Wayne as Davy Crockett) to solve them.

Actors themselves thrive on films about the past. Way back in the silent era, actors realized that the main characters in historical films were as complex as they were titanic and a real challenge for the performer. Perhaps nowhere is this better exemplified than Peter O’Toole’s masterful, star-making performance as Colonel T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia.

History films also give audiences the thrill of multiple layers. The first is the direct personal story that is the focus of the film; the second story that you don’t get in contemporary films is the historic backdrop; the third is the uproar that always surrounds a controversial historical movie. A perfect example is this year’s The Help, a film about black maids and their white employers in the South in the 1950s and ‘60s. The main story is the servants’ struggle for respectability in a racist region, connected to the personal stories of their bosses. The historical backdrop is the fight to end segregation in the country and the violence connected to that. The history underscores the importance of the main story and the main story showcases the history. On top of that is the third story, the controversy over the alleged trivialization of the experience of black servants and its negative portrayal of black men. That’s the combination in history films that you do not get in other movies. It is powerful.

Finally, history films, more than any other, allow audiences to sit in the dark and watch the story of the American people, in all their glory and all their pathos, larger-than-life characters on a larger-than-life screen. We love that because to know who we are, we must discover who we were.

There is no better way to do that, popcorn in hand, than watch Judah Ben-Hur race his chariot or Oscar Schindler working feverishly to save more Jews in Nazi Germany or Scarlett O’Hara shake her fist at heaven and shout that she will never be hungry again. Movies about history, like books, tell us, again and again, about the best in men and women.

We forget the troubles of the present and go back to the past, borne back there ceaselessly, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby (itself getting the celluloid treatment this coming Christmas), to learn about who we were, and indeed, who we are.

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