Focusing on the marginal

20th March 1997 at 00:00
Cinema and History

Project study guides on 'Regeneration', 'Titanic' and 'Amistad'

Free from Film Education

Age range: 14-18

Following last year's Shakespeare Project, Film Education has embarked this year on producing a similar set of materials for use by history teachers.

There is no shortage of films to draw on, though the events described in Regeneration, Titanic and Amistad could all be said to happen in the margins of history: Regeneration is set during the First World War but in a Scottish hospital, not at the front; Amistad describes an incident that occurred when the slave trade had been more or less outlawed, but before the American Civil War; and the loss of the "Titanic", though it has acquired the status of myth, can hardly be described as a major historical event. Can films based on these subjects, including a large element of fiction, be of use to history students?

As understanding of the past needs a point of focus, these events on the margin can often provide it. The poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are among the most important aids to our understandin g of the

First World War, and perform that invaluable task of inciting further questions: if we come to care about the two men who

provided that devastating testimony to the horrors of trench warfare, we will want to know why they were subjected to it, and to what effect.

Regeneration is an imaginative reconstruction of their stay in Craiglockhart Hospital under the care of Dr William Rivers, and it could be the starting point for work on topics including psychiatry and the class system, as well as the conduct of the war.

The study guide on this film suggests such lines of enquiry and helps to separate fact from interpretation and invention. It reproduces some revealing documents: poetry, a report by Rivers on Sassoon's medical condition and letters, including one from Owen to his mother describing the blinding of a sentry under his command during a mortar attack and the poem ("The Sentry") that he wrote as a result. Like other materials in the dossier, it could provide material for English as well as history teachers.

Essentially, the Titanic guide sees the liner as a microcosm of Western society before the First World War. Out of the 2, 200 passengers on board, 63 per cent of first class passengers survived, compared with only 25 per cent of those in third class.

Nearly 80 per cent of men drowned, compared with less than 25 per cent of women. The dossier suggests what this sort of evidence tells us about the privileges and responsibilities of the well-off Edwardian society and looks at the mythology surrounding the "Titanic".

The focus, however, is fairly narrow, and the film probably does not justify such attention, unless for the reason that many students are likely to have been to see it anyway.

The problem with Amistad is the opposite: like Steven Spielberg's film, the study guide and CD-Rom try to cover too much ground in relation to a single historical incident.

One of the suggested tasks is to find out why there was a demand for slave labour between the 17th and 19th centuries in America; another to compare the ideologies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

It is not hard to guess why

several of the exercises in this dossier begin with the discouraging phrase: "Find out as much as you can about. .."

On the whole, however, the guides continue to provide valuable materials for history and media studies teachers.

Film Education, Alhambra House

27-31 Charing Cross Road, London WC2 0AU. Tel: 0171 976 2291

Web site: http:www.filmeducation.org

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