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In this Article I will be talking about the relationship between the historian and film, as well as exploring the use of film as a historical source, by analysing some examples of social issues and race relations which developed and changed within World War Two, and the interwar periods. This was a time of upheaval, as societies became plagued with issues of control, and the value of peoples’ lives began to change. I also will be talking about how film can be viewed by the public, the academics, and bridging the gap between the social classes. Propaganda is also an important factor concerning how film can be used as a historical source, and I want to explore the positives and negatives of how propaganda engages within a community through the medium of film.


Traditionally the relationship between historians and filmmakers has been uneasy. This is likely to be down to the mixture of intellectual snobbery amongst historians, and a suspicion of any new medium contributing to academic research amongst academics, since film is a relatively new source and as such is not taken seriously. However, there is evidence of a changing relationship, and since the 1960s film has begun to be taken more seriously, and is recognised and respected as a potentially valuable additional historical resource.


Fiction-based films are an interesting source for historians to research because there are many elements of cultural, social and economic issues to pick up on; references to everyday societal habits, attitudes and concerns. These elements can be useful to the historian, as they capture bits of the past that perhaps cannot be found in the text of a book. Costumes, dialogue, as well as the overall mise-en-scene, provided that the film makers have chosen to keep them authentic, are all useful tools to gain access, and insight, to the past.


Film history forms an important basis around what has happened within society, specifically from the small differences that occurred within the interwar periods; 1919 to 1939. Due to the immense instability, depression and change that happened in Britain, and Europe as a whole, as well as globally, the film history industry collectively suffered devastating effects.


One important feature which I think is essential to the analysis of film history are the ‘newsreels’, which served a very important function before the First World War, as they would show much information and the daily live events that was happening social and political and government [1].Because this generated a lot of interest in the public, there was a change in the film preferences and more pressing matters were in demand, such as a history of a country; the great depression the economical downfall of the world’s markets.


Film, like other mediums of historical analysis, enables the historian to observe, understand and analyse the change and development that the nation underwent. Within film, this is done through themes, as well as the portrayal of certain issues and attitudes; the improvements and prejudices within social class, women gaining more rights and eventually working, the role of men and women in the Second World War and how this impacted gender roles – fighting, factory and industrial work and paying taxes. The ever changing affects of film and history go hand in hand.


Another way in which film can be used as a historical source is through the records of ticket sales. These not only document how many people went to the cinema, which collectively show its rise and fall in popularity, but also the various prices, especially in addition to the statistics of how many open house cinemas they had in London, which is all very important in charting social habits.


The cultural aspect of cinema growth was at is height around the Second World War, because they used the cinemas for the sense of ‘escapism’ especially for an generation of Brits in the world war two it was a hard and turbulent time because of the harsh condition and surroundings.It is important to see the social change in film because the change of social eruption between wars and times and poverty and the hard change of financial problems that have many trends of the era.


Film can in fact be viewed as a valuable additional historical source, which bridges the gap between public and academic history, and gives an insight into the everyday lives of people in the past. In support of this argument, Aldgate and Richards refer to Arthur Marwick, who claimed that the more popular a film is, ‘…the more a film is likely to tell us about the unvoiced assumptions of the people who watched it’, and it is in fact ‘…the tedious documentary ,or the film financed by subscription, which tells us least. [2] Although there is no doubt that feature films can be invaluable sources for the historian, Marwick fails to appreciate that many feature film may also contain major propaganda. One only has to look to feature films made during World War Two to see this.[3] For example, films such as, ‘Millions Like Us’ and ‘One of Our Aircraft is Missing’ were definitely intended to engender a pro-British feeling amongst the general population.


Robert Stone talks about how films may be a history as a vision, but it enhances the experience of analysing a historical source. Historians must learn to work with the visual medium in order to make use of their skills, and gain an even deeper understanding of the past. There is much that can be learned from film; the social working condition in the work class during the World War was interesting film to look at because it shows the real life issues of how much responsibility of ‘gender’ had involved and to what extent . The movie shows the real life events of that era what happened and the development of social relationship between families, race, class, politics, you see a mass change in trended within cinema and society as well.


Stone understands from what the mass that is this is important to a historian because the amount of censures reports they have done in the past to show the differences in the trend of movie booming; film plays with reality and illusions. “Film may be history as vision, but it is not vision alone, for it provides a layered experience of moving images enhanced by language and sound.”[4]


According to the film historian Aldgate and Richards they talk about the cinema having an important role within society. “But cinema can also act as a potent means of social control, transmitting the dominant ideology of society and creating for it a consensus of support.”[5] The reason why this is an important factor is because it shows how film can be used as a film historical source by seeing the different factors of how society, political ideological has implemented on the masses. “First, films provide images of the lives, attitudes and values of various groups in society, created from recognizable but carefully selected facets of such groups.” [6]Another relevant point to mention that how society has played in an important way of live of how people virtues, ways of thinking make them different but in sense all have a national unity within Britain.


“Film audiences have a tendency to regard as accurate depictions of places, attitudes and lifestyles of which they themselves have no first-hand knowledge.”[7] This quote from the historians Aldgate and Richards, it talks about how much knowledge people who view the film and what circumstances it is in its interesting that how the historian would use the various skills from not first hand basis of historical analysis.


Propaganda ‘perhaps the greatest problem with films is to distinguish deliberate propaganda from…unwitting testimony, the hidden assumptions and attitudes, rather than the conscious, and often biased, message has played a role within world war propaganda talks in U.K. because they had a sense of unity and for the country and the ‘hard working’ people. Bring a sense of togetherness and raising the heighten British nationalism and what it is to be British. Most movies have elements of fiction, but there can also be factual truth in a movie and it is important to realisation of the movie in the 1940s of how historian can use in micro history sense.


In conclusion, I have discussed the different types of films that historians can use as historical sources to the best of their abilities as academics with a visual medium. I have explored different implications of film, and different motives they have from various elements of social, political agenda and economic problems. I have also spoken about propaganda and collectively, I think these points show that film is a viable historical source.








Robert. A. Stone, Revising History: Film and the Construction of a New Past (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995)

Anthony Aldgate, Jeffery Richards, Best of British Cinema and Society from 1930 to the Present ( London: I.B. Tauris & Co .Ltd, 1999)

Paul Smith, The Historian and Film(London: Cambridge University Press, 1976),

Tony Miller, Robert Stam, A Companion to Film Theory (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1999)

Andrew Higson , Dissolving Views Key Writing On British Cinema Rethinking British Cinema ( London: Cassel, 1996)

Jeffrey Richards, The Age Of The Dream Palace Cinema And Society In 1930s Britain ( London: I.B. Tauris & Co .L.t.d , 2010)


[1] Paul Smith, The Historian and Film(London: Cambridge University Press, 1976),p.56.

[2] Anthony Aldgate, Jeffery Richards, Best of British Cinema and Society from 1930 to the Present ( London: I.B. Tauris & Co .Ltd, 1999).p.2

[3] Anthony Aldgate, Jeffery Richards.p.2.

[4] Robert. A. Stone, Revising History: Film and the Construction of a New Past (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995), p.10.

[5] Anthony Aldgate, Jeffery Richards.p.2.

[6] Anthony Aldgate, Jeffery Richards.p.2

[7] Anthony Aldgate, Jeffery Richards.p.2.
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