Friday, March 19, 2010

The Historical Film

X-men Origins: Wolverine begins with the caption “Northwest Territories, Canada, 1845.” The scene opens to a young boy sick in bed in a relatively nice home with a roaring fire in the hearth. Shortly after this the movie becomes the comic book story that it is supposed to be when the young man sprouts deadly bone spursfrom his knuckles and kills a man he didn’t know was his father. The young man, Logan, then escapes through the trees to participate in the American Civil War, the First and Second World Wars and various other conflicts but not before the viewer is presented with a less than accurate image of Canada in 1845. 
Most Canadian historians know that in 1845 first and foremost, the Northwest Territories didn’t exist. They weren’t formed until 1870. We also know that in 1845 any further West than the current boundaries of Ontario and much further North than the Canadian/ American border there really wasn’t much going on. People were few and far between and there were very few settlements. That’s not to say that what is presented in the film couldn’t have happened. It is however, extremely unlikely that in 1845 there was a European settlement built up enough in the Northwest Territories to have multiple well built houses with more than one hearth. In Ontario at this time outside of townships most farm houses had one central hearth, and on the prairies immigration had barely started and building material was so scarce that the few families who were there lived in one room soddies. Moreover, its unlikely that any settlement at that time would have been established long enough for a man to have a 12 or 13 year old boy born on the settlement. To top that off, its extremely important to note that more than half of the Northwest Territories are above the tree line so the chances that Logan would escape through a thick woods is very low.
I site this example because its the last time I can recall really getting angry about historical inaccuracies in a film. I have to face the facts, I’m probably the sucker for believing that a fictional film based on a comic book should be historically accurate but it really does demonstrate for me just how insidious the images and notions that we get from film can be. I don’t doubt that of the millions of people who watched the film many knew nothing about the Northwest Territories and any number of those knew very little about Canada most of those people now when thinking about Canada’s past will imagine that well constructed, richly appointed home and the thick forest through which Logan escapes. As Roberta Rosenstone tells us, we as viewers are often unaware what the “look” of history presented in film is doing to our sense of history. Perhaps the most insidious part of the images presented in Wolverine is the idea that the things presented, like the ornate bed, and wooden mantel piece are the past and the people are less important. This allows the director to place Wolverine in the Canadian bush and do whatever he wants with him because it looks right. In the meantime that same editor hasn’t determined if it looks right for the particular place in which he has set the film. If a film like X-men Origins: Wolverine, which I’ve already conceded no one should expect to be historically accurate, has the potential to cause problems what then do historical films like Braveheart, The Patriot, or Titanic do to our understanding of those historical events?
Admittedly, neither of the three movies I mention above made me angry. This is in part because they were all released between 1995 and 2000 when I was between the ages of 12 and 17. At that point in my life besides a passing interest in history and a love of historical fiction I knew nothing about any of these events that hadn’t been presented to me in reference books or children’s fiction. The reality however is that even now if I hadn’t read about historical inaccuracies in each of these films, I might not be upset by them. Like many historians I’m sure I see myself in Rosenstone’s impolite question: how many historians learn the history of fields outside their expertise from films? I certainly do, I can openly admit to being a lover of historical fiction. I am also of the generation Rosenstone discusses in her book Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to our Idea of History. Film was a relatively regular part of my classroom experience. If I remember correctly the first time I saw Le Retour De Martin Guerre was in 11th grade advanced french class. We also read Jeanne Fille de Roi that year. Martin Guerre made another appearance in a university level class on the early modern family. However, what I’ve learned from my historical education is that one should always take the histories presented in this format with a grain of salt.
In chapter two, “The Historical Film: Looking at the Past in a Postliterate Age” of her book Rosenstone discusses in considerable detail exactly what films like the four I mentioned above do to our sense of history, though she discusses films like Reds, Glory, and The Last Emperor. According to Rosenstone these films show us history as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Moreover, she says that they always have a message, more often than not that things are getting better or are better. They may also be designed to make us feel lucky that we do not for example have to endure the horrors of the holocaust. The Patriot, for example, ultimately leaves the viewer with an understanding that the American Revolution was glorious and the British were evil oppressors of American freedom- a rather one-sided understanding.
She goes on to say that mainstream films present history as a story of individuals- either already renowned or made to seem important as in the case of Benjamin Martin the protagonist in The Patriot. Braveheart’s William Wallace already a popular figure has become infamous, deserved or not. This focus personalizes the films and the history, perhaps making it more accessible, something that in my experience it seems students are coming to expect. Moreover, this emotionalizes history, something we as historians are taught to avoid and yet again students seem to be looking for an emotional personal past.
Mainstream film also presents history as a complete, simple past.  There is no discussion of alternatives, no room for interpretation. The imagery in X-men Origins: Wolverine is definite, there is no room for questioning, nor, for example is there any real discussion of British Loyalists in The Patriot. American’s were patriots or they were the enemy, the movie does not accept that there were many American’s whose loyalties were torn by the conflict.
So, what then are we left with? We believe in William Wallace, the British were evil abusers in American, and men went valiantly to their deaths aboard the Titanic. But does film not have its own uses in the history classroom, much like art, and music? I believe it does if we teach students about the limitations and constructions of film. History is often dry, boring, historical film, and literature for that matter provide an opportunity to engage with history. In particular, we have a long history of engaging with heroes, gods, goddesses, and the ordinary man who when faced with adversity has the power to stand up and fight. I believe, as Rosenstone asserts, that historical film is a new form of history much like oral history and folktales.

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