Has Hollywood fallen in love with history? - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 25 February

Highly emotionally charged drama has always been the fuel of successful Hollywood films. And in the past nobody cared too much about the veracity of the storylines.


Has Hollywood fallen in love with history?

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 25 February


Jo Knowsley

Highly emotionally charged drama has long been the fuel of successful Hollywood films. And in the past nobody cared too much about the veracity of the storylines.

But yesterday’s Oscars ceremony more than doffed its cap to real-life stories, with five of the nine films nominated for Best Picture based on historically significant periods or recent events of historic importance.

These include Argo (set during the Islamic revolution in Iran and winner of best picture), Django Unchained (slavery in the Deep South), Les Misérables (the French Revolution) and Zero Dark Thirty (the hunt for Osama Bin Laden).

Perhaps the best example of this trend is Lincoln, from director Steven Spielberg, which focuses on one key historical event: the introduction of the 13th Amendment, to abolish slavery, during the violent and intractable Civil War of the 1860s. Daniel Day-Lewis also made Academy history when he won the Best Actor award for his role in Lincoln – the first time an actor has won three times in this category, and a first for an actor playing a real-life president of America.

Some social commentators believe that this desire for historic context tells us more about the current mindset of the Western world than many newspaper headlines. Indeed this is often a popular theme when economic times are tough and the masses are seeking inspiration on how to cope with the future – or at least reassurance that their lot isn’t as bad as it could be. (It’s perhaps no accident that Gone with the Wind won Best Picture in 1939 – towards the end of the Great Depression.) Is this why historic epics are back in vogue now?

David Denby, a film critic for The New Yorker and author of Do the Movies Have a Future?, claims that history “altered through sentiment” produces “nostalgia” – another staple of a certain genre of Hollywood film and a perennial favourite with filmgoers of a certain age.

But can we ever accept Hollywood history, or the way in which it represents factual events, as absolute truth? A study from Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, suggests that showing popular historical films in a classroom setting can be a double-edged sword when it comes to helping pupils learn.

“When information in the film was consistent with information in the text [books], watching the film clips increased correct recall by about 50 per cent relative to reading the text alone,” said Andrew Butler, a psychology doctoral student in arts and sciences.

But “when information in the film directly contradicted the text, people often falsely recalled the misinformation in the film, sometimes as much as 50 per cent of the time”.

Perhaps, after all, despite the plethora of history and real-life themes among this year’s Oscar nominations, it might be more useful to remind students that the movies are, above all, simply the dramatic telling of what Hollywood sees as little more than a good story.


Oscars 2013 teaching resources

  • Check out our brand new 2013 Oscars special to bring some glitz and glamour into your life.


Questions for your class


  • What do you think is more important in a film: accuracy or entertainment?
  • Which events from history do you think would make interesting films?
  • Can you think of any films which are connected to the topics you are studying this term?
  • Do you believe that big awards are always a mark of good quality? Why/why not?

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