Yester's Favorite Historical Movies

Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 "There Will Be Blood" is based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel titled "Oil," which in turn was based on the American oil boom of the early 20th century, which itself was led by small time businessmen like John D. Rockefeller and his little known outfit, Standard Oil. No matter how you slice it, "There Will Be Blood" is one of the best films of this young century and Daniel Day Lewis turns in his usual hugely impressive performance.

The film does a good job of capturing the dangers of the industry and the evolution of the methods used by the first oil men (remember the opening series of scenes wherein a young Daniel Plainview sketches out a drill?). The film even makes a nod to the silver and gold rush that brought prospectors to California in the first place.


Surely there are some historical inaccuracies that pop up. For example, there was never a Daniel Plainview who became an oil baron in the early 1900s. However, the famed "I drink your milkshake!" line was indeed lifted and paraphrased from the testimony of US Senator and Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, who used the metaphor of a straw to describe the maneuverings of parties involved in the oil-related Tea Pot Dome Scandal of 1920-1923.

I think we should outright acknowledge this is sort of a loaded question. I'm sure that anybody's answer holds some of the same subjectivities and biases that inform their choice of favorite movie or favorite media of any sort, for starters. 


And also there's this: What exactly is an historical movie anyway? My first instinct here is to say "All the President's Men," which was indeed historical by the time I watched it sometime after 2000 in school. But the film was made in 1976, fresh off of the then-current events that defined its contents. In that way I'd argue the film is more of an artifact than it is a movie *about* history.


OK. So. Those are two caveats that help me get to my answer. This film shares the distinction of being my favorite historical movie with the distinction of being my favorite movie overall, and that movie is "O Brother Where Art Thou?", the hilarious tale of three depression-era escaped convicts who traverse rural Mississippi in seeking a great treasure promised by the band's well-spoken leader Ulysses Everett McGill.


The movie plays (intentionally) on stereotypes and, I'm sure, is rife with inaccuracies in a number of its presentations of the Depression-era south. But it also addresses and ponders — albeit in broad strokes — a number of shifts that came in that time period, from the rise of mass communications in politics to the hope brought on by high(er) technology to increasingly-warped views on celebrity culture — all while hitting on important ideas about race, governance, and justice.


Except that's not all it is. It's also, very plainly, a retelling of the Odyssey. ("Damn! We're in a tight spot!", John Goodman's cyclops, "He's a suitor!", and the list goes on and on and on.) 


In this way, it harkens back to the past on two fronts — both to one of humanity's oldest and most revered stories, and to an important era in American history. Things like purpose and fictionality be damned — "O Brother" is a terrific story that draws on history in order to be told. And it's hilarious and has a kick-ass soundtrack to boot.


Adam, you raise an interesting point about what defines a "historical" film. Its a blurry line, but I think the filmmaker has to be portraying a setting that is at least 20 years in their past.  In my opinion, this is enough distance to render a setting into "the past."  For instance, I think Black Hawk Down would be a very different film if it were made today, more than 20 years after the battle in Mogadishu.  
Matt, I'm with you on the 20 years caveat when considering if the movie is historical or not. When I stop and think about what happened 20 years ago today (Green Day released "Dookie," someone stole "The Scream" in Oslo, the Rwandan genocide, Mandela is inaugurated, OJ's Low-Speed-Bronco-Chase) initially I don't really see those as historical.


However, we must remember that 20 years is generally the accepted time period for one generation.

So, as long as the youngest generation has no first hand experience with the event at time of filming, then I'm labeling it as historical. 


Now, when considering that, the main difficulty that film makers encounter is that they must make their film appeal to (at least) an entire generation that has no experience with the event. This leads to all sorts of unnecessary theatrics ("300"), inaccuracies ("Gladiator"), and other period fallacies ("Braveheart"). Don't get me wrong, I was immensely entertained by these films, but when students ask me to show them in class, I scoff.


So my rule of thumb is this: if I were to pick a film to show high school history students to learn about a particular event or period in history, would I be OK if they remember nothing but that movie? (Hopefully my teaching skills are decent enough that they recall something else, but this is a worst case scenario.)


My answer then falls to the movie I am showing clips from this week: "The Pianist."


Elements of the film I love:


1. Told from the point of view of the Polish people (namely Władysław Szpilman), not the American liberators.


2. Depicts the Warsaw ghetto, not the normal cinematic focus on concentration and POW camps


3. The film is full of brutal scenes, and one might think these are pure theatrical fluff. However, the film follows the autobiographical accounts of Szpilman, so scenes like the one where Szpilman tries to save the boy crawling under the wall are straight from the book. "I pulled at his little arms with all my might, while his screams became increasingly desperate, and I could hear the heavy blows struck by the policeman on the other side of the wall. When I finally managed to pull the child through, he died. His spine had been shattered." 


4. The movie does not glamorize war, nor does it completely dehumanize the Nazis. The German officer portrayed at the end of the movie, Wilm Hosenfeld, not only was real, but shows even the Nazis had a heart, a element rarely seen in any other film depicting WWII.

"Favorite" is an inherently subjective term, but I try to grade historical movies with the following (subjective) question in mind: Does the film use the past in an interesting and unique way to tell an entertaining story?

1.  "Seven Samurai"- Akira Kurosawa uses a period of turmoil in Japanese history to tell a riveting story of desperation and comradeship. The details about peasant life and the samurai are insightful and help elevate it to the level of archetype. You are watching THE noble warrior help THE defenseless villagers fight THE outlaws.


2. "Last of the Mohicans"- Michael Mann adapts a James Fenimore Cooper's 19th century best seller into a thoroughly awesome action flick built around the fall of Fort William Henry. It takes makes some questionable alterations to the historical record (General Montcalm certainly did not order the Native American attack on the surrendered British soldiers and Colonel Monro did not have his heart eaten by his sworn enemy), but its all in the service of creating scenes of breathtaking violence, tragedy, and beauty.


3. "The Wild Bunch"- I'm fascinated with the aspects of the Mexican Revolution that Sam Peckinpah weaves into his tale of the end of the American West. I've always wanted to know more about General Mapache's past, his German military advisers, and the Indians who fighting their own war. How do the surviving characters interact with Pancho Villa and how do they react to Pershing's expedition into Mexico?  Its the mark of this film's greatness that the setting and side characters are as interesting as the main protagonists.

Adam, you picked Mitt Romney's favorite movie.
Then Mitt Romney has great taste in film.
What constitutes a “historical” film? You all have come up with some decent criteria when considering supposed factual accounts. But I think, going back to Chris’s response about "There Will Be Blood," that there is also an entirely other category of films that are relevant to history, and therefore suitable for showing in high school history classes, as Jeremy concerns himself with. These are films which speak to the historical context in which they were made.

Film is like literature. Some films purport to re-create events as they occurred,  while others are more novelistic works of fiction. But it’s important to remember that historians at the high school, college, and graduate level assign novels as part of their coursework in addition to the myriad non-fiction. That’s because novels tap into a particular zeitgeist. For example, Ralph Ellison’s "Invisible Man" may not recount actual events that a living person really experienced, but the very act of letting go of the confines of reality permits the author to craft a more meaningful narrative reflecting what it feels like to be black in America in a certain period. In this way, novels fulfill a function just as relevant to history as do factual accounts.


I contend that plenty of films serve this same function.


As a brief example, I’m thinking in particular about a movie that my adviser shows in his undergraduate classes: "The Godfather." Set in the immediate postwar period, Francis Ford Coppola’s classic gangster film traces the development of Michael Corleone from a young soldier with a world of opportunity in front of him to a crime boss that takes the reigns of his “family” from his father.


At first glance, this tale yields little historical analysis. Yes, it includes a fictionalized re-imagining of Frank Sinatra’s reputed use of his mob connections to land the lead role in "From Here to Eternity" (1953), revitalizing his career. But that’s mere trivia.


And yet, this core story speaks to a key theme occurring not in the period depicted, but while the filming was taking place, a theme Thomas Sugrue referred to as the “white ethnic strategy.” In the economic turmoil of the early 1970s, as the civil rights movement turned to busing, and busing turned to affirmative action, many white Americans grew frustrated with the amount of their taxes that went to reversing the historic inequities of African Americans. In reaction, Polish, Italian, Greek, and other “white” ethnic groups formed their own enclaves, seeking solidarity through their own ethnic identities. This amounted to an overt rejection of the “melting pot” conception of America, according to which all immigrants were to become “Americanized.”


OK, wait, you ask, what does this have to do with "The Godfather"? Having taken this detour to understand the white ethnic strategy, consider again Michael’s story. A young soldier coming home from fighting in World War II, Michael is an outsider in his own family at the outset of the film. As opposed to his brother, Santino, Michael is thoroughly Americanized, with his non-Italian girlfriend, and is not involved in any criminal activity. But this is not to last. Through the trials he faces, Michael trades-in his American allegiance for family allegiance, thereby choosing ethnic heritage over American legitimacy. Seen from this light, The Godfather is the story of the failure of the American ideal of the melting pot, a trend many Americans in the early 1970s would have understood well. In that sense, it captures a zeitgeist in the same way as Ellison’s novel does.

Dave, that's a very important point you raise about the historical context in which a film is made.  I think part of what makes the 1970s a high point of American film is that many of the directors were responding to the political climate in different ways.  "The Godfather Parts I & II" uses notable events from then recent Mafia history (the Kefauver Hearings, the fall of the Batista regime, and numerous mobster assassinations) to make points about the immigrant experience in America.  Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" is a dark and gritty look at the American frontier that serves as a counterpoint to the idealized depiction of the Old West.   Speaking of Altman, how how do you feel about "Secret Honor"?
Yes, that's an excellent point about "The Godfather"; the background of the Cuban revolution in Part II is absolutely brilliant, as it taps into Americans' exploitation of Cuba before the Revolution. This brings up the very important topic of historical memory, which is particularly relevant to "The Godfather." There is a whole subfield of history devoted to studying how Americans (for instance) remembered certain historical events in their past in the past. 


For example, Lincoln became an important labor hero during the anti-trust movements in the early 20th century (Teddy Roosevelt's "Square Deal" speech being the most famous invocation of this depiction). The point of this field is to glean something about the society that remembers rather than learning anything about what they remember. Confused yet? Going back to film, "The Godfather" is a perfect example of this subfield, as a film made 40 years ago about the period 30 years before that. It's interesting to think about how Coppola viewed American imperialism in Cuba and whether it was en vogue to recall those dirty aspects of our relationship when the film came out. It certainly isn't now!


"Secret Honor" is a whole other kettle of fish. Probably mostly because it's an adapted play, but the film always reminded me of the Samuel Beckett play, "Krapp's Last Tape." I highly suggest it if you haven't had the pleasure. Also worth noting is the renaissance in Nixon literature in the historical profession, trying to portray him as a liberal who accomplished much.

And so Dave shows how he's the one among us going for the PhD. Cool stuff.
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