Why film deserves a starring role in history

Hollywood is a great starting point for exploring inaccuracies and subjectivity - and for discussing how other media edit the past

John Blake

As a historian, watching a film set in a particular historical period can sometimes be awkward - if not for you, then for your embarrassed friends and relations.

They have to sit next to you in the cinema as you bellow, "She'd have been 4 at the time, you weirdo!" while Mel Gibson's William Wallace seduces Edward II's wife Isabella in Braveheart. Or endure you whispering, "Actually, his reign lasted at least 10 years," as Joaquin Phoenix's deranged emperor Commodus gets his comeuppance in what seems like a matter of minutes in Gladiator (pictured right). Or sit listlessly as you describe why the theory that President John F Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA, put forward in Oliver Stone's JFK, is nonsense from beginning to end.

At least, these are all things that my family and friends have had to put up with. And I can't be the only history teacher to foist my knowledge on fellow watchers of historical films in a bid to correct inaccuracies.

But does the fact that no historical film is ever entirely accurate, and that many are wildly out of tune with the reality, render them useless to teachers? In fact, the ubiquity of film in the modern world is one of the major reasons for engaging with it in the classroom. After all, if teachers don't set out to challenge these myths, who will? It is certainly a valid use of lesson time to take a look at some of the most frequent misconceptions in film and to demolish them: for example, it was the British, not the Americans, who captured an Enigma machine in the Second World War (U-571); and burning alive a church full of villagers was an atrocity committed during that same conflict rather than in the American Revolution (The Patriot).

But more value can be extracted from films than just emphasising that they are a form of entertainment, not a historical record. They can be an interesting way in to discussing interpretations of the past. For example, Queen Elizabeth I's defiant speech at Tilbury as the Spanish Armada approached (which historians are pretty confident happened) has been put on screen more than once, each time reflecting a different view of one of England's most famous monarchs.

Cate Blanchett's portrayal (in Elizabeth: The Golden Age) is mail-clad, more Amazon queen than virgin. Anne-Marie Duff's version (in the television miniseries The Virgin Queen) is no less defiant but the scene is more intimate and her passion less grandiose. Such contrasting views of the same event allow us to explore why the stories the film-makers are trying to tell require different presentations of the same words. Handled carefully, this can be a launch pad for considering why historians can lay such different stresses on the same event. This is an especially difficult idea for students to grasp and using familiar visual forms can be helpful.

The final reason to consider film in history teaching is that modern dramas are not the only sources of historical narrative that may be selling us a fable. Perhaps the strongest visual example of this is also among the most famous: the Bayeux Tapestry. Even its name is a fiction. It was almost certainly manufactured not in the French town where it now rests but at a workshop in Canterbury, and (in a joke much beloved of medieval historians) is literally and figuratively an embroidery.

Although both its main panels and its marginalia are often referred to as though they offer photographic accuracy of the past, several of its images are exact copies of earlier ones found in holy books stored at Canterbury (which is why we are confident it was made there). The story the tapestry tells seems conspicuously favourable towards Odo, bishop of Bayeux (almost certainly its patron), whose actions at Hastings are suggested here - and nowhere else - to have been crucial to the Normans' victory.

Another depiction of the Norman Conquest, written by William of Poitiers, William the Conqueror's personal chaplain, is often cited as providing strong evidence, especially about military matters, because its author was a former soldier. But a firm grasp of the nature of war was not the monk's only virtue. He was also an ardent reader of Julius Caesar's writing on his own British conquest. At times, William of Poitiers essentially rips off the exploits of the past to enhance the status of his master, hinting that the Norman leader was greater than the Roman general in whose footsteps he now trod.

So it is always worth reminding students, and indeed teachers, that although The Patriot (pictured, inset) may be absurd in its rendering of history, such liberties with the past are as old as historical writing itself.

John Blake is a history teacher and writer

Get Into Film

The Into Film Festival, a free annual celebration of film and education for schools and young people supported by TES, will be running from 4-21 November across the UK. Find out more at www.intofilm.orgfestival

For Into Film resources on the TES website, go to www.tesconnect.comIntoFilm

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

John Blake

Latest stories

Ministers seem to think schools are wasting money - in fact, schools are experts in cutting costs, says James Bowen

Why international teachers should receive financial CPD

There's a lot to learn working in another country - not least the financial situation and how to use your money wisely, which is why perhaps a CPD session or two would be a worthwhile investment
David Keating 30 Jul 2021