Thinking Allowed

I’ve always loved the stories of the past. From a young age I absorbed family stories from a great storyteller, my great aunt, who crafted vibrant and poignant tales that moved from small Sicilian villages to the cane fields of country Queensland, whilst weaving in references to New York and South America as well. The tales were exciting and vivid, sometimes sad, and sometimes filled with joy. They were also, at times, contested, as my grandfather would interject when he believed that family history had strayed into family story, challenging a point when he felt that an imaginative or creative element had been added for dramatic purposes! These stories, and the debates, discussions, questions and challenges that accompanied them, were my introduction to historical empathy, perspective and contestability, key concepts that underpin a study of History.

Television was another childhood hook that drew me to the stories of the past. Watching with my family in the 1980s “must-see” period or historical mini-series piqued my curiosity and left me wanting to find out more about the past and people being portrayed. In a pre-Google era, this would involve me reaching for a trusted encyclopaedia to see if what I had just watched really happened in the way that it was depicted. And encyclopaedias aside, there was nothing I loved more than finding historical fiction when perusing Library bookshelves ... and the “history” I read on the pages would often have me reaching for the encyclopaedias again to find out more! Whether on the page or on the small screen, these narratives about the past led me to ask historical questions and introduced me to key research and inquiry skills!

Film is another powerful way that we can engage with the stories of the past. It is often noted that history has been vital source material for cinema from its very beginnings; for instance, one of the world’s very first feature films was the 1906 Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang. Indeed, it would be a rare film viewer who had not seen a film featuring an historical person, society, event or era at some point in their own history as a film viewer. Historical films are often our first introductions to historical people and events and can shed light on little known or previously hidden histories - the aptly named Hidden Figures (2016) comes to mind. As another medium that delves into the stories of the past, film can spark our historical thinking and curiosity and can encourage us to ask historical questions, leading to new or renewed interest in a topic area. And the digitisation of history makes it so much easier to engage with the process of historical inquiry today ... online access to historical sources and databases allows us to follow-up screen history from home more comprehensively than my encyclopaedia searches ever could!

Historical films can encourage us to think about aspects of the past in a way that can complement our understanding of written history by incorporating elements not immediately obvious on the page. Through use of historical sites, scenery, music and dress, camera angles and lighting, films can provide insights into the look and feel of the past, its colour and its sound. A film like Marie Antoinette (2006) can transport us to the historical site of Versailles, where much of it was filmed, while the WWI film Beneath Hill 60 (2010) invites historical empathy by its audio-visual focus on the experiences of the miners who tunnelled under the trenches of the Western Front.

In addition to its ability to connect us with the look of the past and engage us with empathetic understanding in relation to its people and societies, film can extend and challenge our thinking of what history is. Thinking about film as a representation of history, as we are currently doing in a Year 11 Modern History unit of work "The Representation of the Past through Film", provides an opportunity not only to think about the history being represented in our selected films, but also to introduce us to key historiographical issues in relation to how history is represented and constructed, a way of thinking that is at the heart of our Year 12 History Extension course. It allows us to think about key ideas in relation to “Academic History”, “Popular History”, and “Public History”; to debate the purpose of different forms of history; to evaluate how the producers of different forms of historical communication grapple with issues in relation to selecting, synthesising, and sequencing information about the past; and to consider where film history fits in relation to oral history and written history.

During our Year 11 unit, we have considered differing interpretations of the question “Has Hollywood Stolen our History?” (BBC History Magazine, August 2004) and have thought about this in relation to key ideas like “who owns the past?”. Drawing on the works of historians like Robert Rosenstone, Natalie Zemon Davis and Marnie Hughes-Warrington, we have explored film’s powerful ability to shape our understanding of the past, its role in the democratisation of history by making history accessible to a wider audience, and its increasing significance in a post-literate age, where we can read but often gain our meaning from sources other than written texts. We have debated issues in relation to the ‘Disneyfication’ of history and the implications of presenting a simplified and sanitised version of the past to a young audience, and we have pondered the impact that the choice of actor can have on how we think about the historical personality being portrayed. We have also thought about film as a cultural artefact, and its potential to provide historians with rich insights into the values and attitudes of the society that made it and viewed it. Thus, the study of historical films can allow us to consider broader issues in relation to the study of history and its meaning and place in our world today.

Thinking about film as a source of history can also help us to engage with questions like “can a filmmaker be an historian?”, “what role does invention and creativity play in film history?” and “what obligations do filmmakers have in presenting an “accurate” vision of the past?”. Through this process of questioning we are able to engage with scholarly interpretations about the construction of history; for example, Hayden White’s concept of “historiophoty” or “the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse” (“Historiography and Historiophoty”, The American Historical Review, 1988), and Robert Rosenstone’s challenge to assess film history with different criteria to that which we use to assess written history. (“Inventing Historical Truth on the Silver Screen”, Cineaste, 2004). By engaging with these ideas, we can have valuable discussions about changing approaches to history and different forms of historical representation.

So just as my Aunty Ev’s stories (a form of oral history) captured my attention and created an early interest and emotional and empathetic connection to the people and events of our family’s past, and my early viewing of mini-series like Kennedy Miller’s Bodyline (1984) and reading of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) led me to encyclopaedias to find out more about Donald Bradman and Richard III, historical films can awaken an interest in the history that they represent. But beyond that, they can help us to think deeply about how history is represented, providing an entry point to engage us with big historiographical, and indeed historiophotical, questions, like the key questions of the History Extension Course:

o Who are historians?
o What are the purposes of history?
o How has history been constructed, recorded and presented over time?
o Why have approaches to history changed over time?

Rebecca L'Estrange
Head of History