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With History gaining more popularity and attention in the modern era (that is the techno-scientific era) in which all information is easily obtained through the internet, Television and the various other types of mass media which can present information as quickly as a few minutes through use of these, more readily available servers (internet) or channels (video feed), the question of whether these new technologies present better insight or cause more problems in the study, in which this case is history or not has become a key subject of debate. This essay will look at the question of whether it helps or impedes historical research of the past. Though there are some benefits to modernising technology and how it helps us to understand the past it also brings a large question of interpretation into it, can we trust what we see? How much of it is real and how much of it is dramatized? Is it supposed to support historical study or is it just for the viewers’ pleasure? These are questions that need to be answered and of course it will provide (hopefully) the answer to if History on film does, or does not offer new insights to the past, or whether it raises more problems.

During the late 19th century and the early 20th century film, which was usually very short and silent gained rapid popularity and in 1915 as film became even more rapidly popular, director D.W. Griffith directed his first and arguably the original historic film or the first film based on History ‘Birth of a Nation’, the film was based on the American civil war the film chronicles two families one from the North and the other from the South, though the characters played are fictional the battles and where they took place were real, the film also covers the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Though the film was not well received by the general populace and was also argued by historians because of some of the inaccuracies of the historical content it led to growth in the idea of historical films, and films such as ‘Fire over England’, ’Zulu’ and the ‘Charge of the Light brigade’ owe solace to D.W. Griffith and his ‘Birth of a Nation’. As films grew in length and popularity, in particular, historical films they tended to become more dramatized and glamorized which catered for the audience but grew further from what historians would find relevant to their field of study, Rosenstone also states that ‘Films were originally short but as they grew in length during the second decade of cinema, they fail to become serious about the kinds of questions that usually concern historians.’[1] The interest in the Historical film has led to a rise in interest in History, though not as an academic profession ‘That for every person who reads on a historical topic about which a film has been made especially a popular film such as ‘Schindlers List’ (1993), many millions of people are likely to encounter that same past on screen’[2] notes Robert A. Rosenstone with so many people interested in History, due, in no small part to cinema, is it really a bad thing? This brings us to the question as historians to whether it is accurately depicted? Is it ‘real’ history? Though historians will constantly argue about their different interpretations on their valuable (usually very time consuming), primary and secondary sources, supported by their contemporaries and historians job is to research the past and as accurately as possible bring the past to the present in the form of essays, books and journals and in labelling a film ‘historical’ a historian will approach it as if it were supposed to be a ‘historical’ object. Films are generally aimed at the public, for the public’s satisfaction and of course for ratings in which to gain capital. This makes a historian’s job, which may look at whatever ‘historical’ film of the past difficult since any film will have a directors own images, in which fictions or glamorisations will be added, some films use of a historical setting in a fictional story for example and is used to please the viewer. So a historian has to meticulously separate the fiction and the fact, James Chapman gives us a clear example of such a thing using ‘Fire over England’  ’The difficulty of assessing the relative balance of fictional and historical elements is exemplified by looking at a film such as ‘Fire over England’ (dir. William K. Howard 1937)’ [3]Fire Over England’ was a film based on the time of the Spanish Armada in which a young Don Miguel after hearing of his father’s execution as a heretic travels to England and speaks to Queen Elizabeth and urges her to fight the Spanish which ultimately leads to the defeat of the Spaniards and their armada by the English Naval forces. This film used the war as a backdrop to their fictional story in which England fights against the Tyrannical Spanish due to a plea from a young Spanish man and by proving of his loyalty by exposing some traitorous knight led to war. Such things are often seen in ‘historical’ feature films or ‘historical dramas’ so as a historian using such films as a primary source would be problematic as they would need to research the event in as great a detail as possible which could lead to longer time compiling relevant information to bring forth in their research of the event. However these are not the only concerns to which cause problems of a film being advantageous or problematic sources in which historians can use to understand the past the use of sounds and portrayal of emotions gives the audience a romantic sense of being a part of the film, though generally not a bad thing these acted out emotions or well-timed music cues give you a sense of being there experiencing it which can skew the historical significance or bring a historians research into question. This is undermined when Rosenstone claims that the film wants you to feel not just learn the experiences of the past ‘Film does more than want to teach the lesson that history hurts, it wants you, the viewer, to experience the hurt (and pleasures) of the past’[4] It is indeed a nice thought but for an objective or detached study (a study where you are not emotionally attached to the subject) this can be a major problem particularly in a study of the past as we cannot physically be there and so any research done with this feeling of being there is questionable, as it is possibly more imaginative than factual. Though historians are ultimately selective of the sources they wish to use, they are so by intellectual interest, not emotional attachment to a particular subject (though this is arguable). To end this section on History as historic film, it is best to use Rosenstone again and finish it with this statement ‘Film-makers create films, not theories about film, let alone about history, which means it is to their finished productions rather than their stated intentions that we usually go to understand the historical thinking we find on screen.’[5]

This past section has been solely on History as film and has shown (fairly I believe) that historical films present more problems than not and our understanding of the past seems to have become a glamorised and manipulable subject. If this is historic film what of documentaries, which claim to be solely factual as, stated in the name it is a documentation of facts or an investigative report, in which the research is done and the facts are reported. Though the documentaries generally are factual, they are still recorded and aimed at a popular reception and this in itself has problems, which will be explained further, in this section. The first difference between a historic film and a documentary is that most documentaries have shots of ‘real’ surviving artefacts and documents of the past and most of the field shots are of ‘real’ not staged land ‘Unlike the dramatic film, the majority of its images are not staged for the camera (though occasionally some are), but are gathered from museums and from photo and film archives’[6]. It can be argued here that documentaries are ‘clear-cut’ images of the past and that these are solid historical sources in which there is no question of its authenticity. This can also be said about old war propaganda in which will be established further in the following. The use of propaganda films were made simply to portray a message in which they would gain support for the political regime of whoever is running for office or their (in which I will structure this argument) military campaigns but it also portrays messages that were designed to ease the anxieties of the people during war. Propaganda film was created to be as ‘real’ as possible in which many filmmakers would use national myth or events of success to undermine the moral of their enemies particularly in totalitarian regimes such as Germany and the Soviet Union argues Chapman ‘In Totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union propaganda films used historical stories to make explicit parallels with the present’[7] so as primary sources on history this, again mixes fiction with fact, though as a source that provides insight into the social situation of society at that time it can be very useful. The Propaganda itself argued Major David Niven (of the Rifle Brigade) stated by Robert Murphy in his book British Cinema and the Second World War ‘Propaganda lies not on the surface of the film but in the structure of the film.’[8] Here is another aspect of what a historian can look at, instead of taking the film at face value, a historian must look at the underlying message within the film in which they could understand what state of mind the audience may have been feeling at that current time and gain some insight to the social instability of society, this is particularly useful to Anthropologists. Though it is good for Anthropologists, what of other disciplines such as the economist or the historian interested in the actual event of that time, in this it becomes slightly more difficult to use the economists would gain little aside from the title and it’s prophet gains (sales of tickets, empty seats etc.) but that in itself would give some inclination of the economic situation. The war historian could also gain some insight with the propaganda films that used actual events to portray the successes of the army as well as possible insight to the state of the damage wrought upon the landscape (destroyed buildings, bomb craters etc.). So in studying propaganda a historian can learn much in terms of social mentality, economic (to an extent) situation and an idea of the events of what had occurred and the damages wrought.

This following paragraph returns to the ‘documentary’ as a historical source, as stated earlier in this section the documentary is mostly factual or at least any ‘good’ documentary is. The following discussion is based solely on film that is labelled ‘documentary’ before that it is indeed important to clarify ‘what’ a documentary is. The general term documentary is an investigative report of ‘findings’ (in loss of a better word) that essentially document truths (artefacts, materials, layouts etc.) of, not necessarily historical but essentially anything real, in other words a documentary can be on an event happening now (civil war in Syria, the passing of Margaret Thatcher or recently the election of a new U.S. President) or a documentation of ‘facts’ from the past that have lead us to our understanding of whatever ‘it‘ is today (the destruction of the Great wall of China, the collapse of a building or even the cause of a great earthquake). Just like a ‘historical’ film a documentary has to have some actual facts, and as this essay is on history will say from here onwards that all the ‘facts’ will be used as a historical context. The documentary unfortunately has different branches as well, in other words documentaries are not as ‘clear-cut’ as stated earlier in this section, and documentaries are just as misdirecting and misinterpreting as historical films. Drama-documentary is one label, the title explains itself but a drama-documentary has the tradition investigative methods but as implied it is dramatized. This type of drama-documentary uses the narrative type of history in which it provokes debate on the events or occurrence. As stated in ‘Docufictions Essays on the Intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking’ ‘This type of TV program/film comes from traditions of investigative journalism. It uses the events from real historical occurrence or situation, and identities of its principal protagonists, to underpin a film script intended to provoke debate about the significance of the events/occurrence.’[9] There is also the Documentary drama which falls in line with propaganda, in which the use of real footage is implemented and joined with ideology/fictional excerpts.  Then there is the ‘faction’ documentary in which history is being used and real events and characters are also used to create a fiction, for example ‘Washington Behind closed doors’ (1977) in which the Watergate scandal and the corruption under President Nixon was presented. So as shown ‘documentary’ as a label is not complete fact. Though the documentary is generally labelled ‘factual’ modern technology gives the filmmaker the ability to cut out, implement or alter footage, this ability, though useful for drama and fiction films presents the historian with another problem in analysing what it is they see and what they can gather from film as a source since the same altering, cutting and implementing can be used on any recorded footage as Hayden White presents in his article ‘The Modernist Event’ ‘The modern electronic media can manipulate recorded images so to literally as “explode” events before the eye of the viewers’[10] The problems with film as a source are incredible, to say the least, but that is not to say that film, as a source is altogether ‘bad’, with live footage and the ability to record history as it happened/happens is useful indeed, but a historian studying film as a source would have to be mindful and cautious of what they label as important/real and dramatized/fiction. As Rosenstone put in his ‘History on Film, Film on History’ ‘film can impress upon a people as much truth of history in an evening, as many months of study will accomplish’[11] cited from D. W. Griffith.

The modern technologies do not necessarily apply solely to film, documentaries and recorded images but it also includes the internet, in this final section the discussion will revolve around the internet and how it can be used in the study of history as well as the problems with using it. As the world continues to modernise the usefulness of the internet increases and a lot of professionals in all fields of study are using it to publish their articles, journals and research. The first problem with history on a ‘digital’ medium is the loss of originality, by this it is meant that a digital representation of, say, a medieval script is the loss of ‘actual’ solid ‘primary’ evidence, though it may be an exact copy, the style in which it was written on what it was written (papyrus for example) undermines the value and understanding of how society of the past communicated. As stated by Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig ‘It may be impossible (or at least very difficult) to move from analog to digital with no loss of information; what you really need to ask is the cost of representing the original as closely as possible. In other words, not only does digitization mean a loss (albeit in some cases a very modest one), it also incurs a cost.’[12] This particular value can obviously be digitally labelled (i.e. the original was written on papyrus {insert image} small explanation of the time, etc.) but this can also become victim of ‘edit’, ‘alteration’ and so on. This particular problem would present any historian great difficulty of interpretation. There are other problems with history on the internet aside from the potential loss of information, digitising information is very expensive and not all historical documents will be put in an online archive this is especially true for local historians, those interested in their local history again this is stated by Cohen and Rosenzweig ‘Local historians would ecstatically greet a fully digitized and searchable version of their small-town newspaper, but it would not justify hundreds of thousands of dollars in digitizing costs. Nor would it make much sense to digitize a collection of personal papers that attracts one or two researchers per year.’[13] The actual studying of history using the internet is also a major problem for historians let us take, for example, the wondrous and highly acclaimed Wikipedia. Wikipedia is just as problematic as it is useful for any historian or person interested in just about anything, that does not mean Wikipedia cannot be used for research but one must be extremely careful and cautious of what they read, simply because anybody in which, any computer literate person, that can use the internet and type, can add, alter, or even completely remove any information on the site. The use of the internet and modern technology for historical research has many advantages; an example of this is the use of actual photographic imagery of artefacts from museums which would generally be difficult to study due to their fragility, these are uploaded to a website which would allow access to the said artefact by anybody ‘It can mean new access, for example, to historical sources that are otherwise unavailable because of their fragility’[14] Also due to the ease of access to the internet those historians who would usually focus their study somewhere else because of the difficulty of getting access to the desired source can look it up on an online archive and study the document or artefact in its digital form. Other benefits to using the internet for research is the simplicity of gathering particular information, where large volumes of research can be searched through without the laborious exercise of flicking through pages over a volume of books, it becomes a click away and in some cases the volumes and chapters are accessed through hyperlinks. The use of digital searching most notoriously the ‘Google’ search engine allows people to search anything they wish to study, though in some cases this can present its own problems. The use of digital searching does not only apply to the World Wide Web it can also be used in documents though the means are different for example you can look for particular words or people in a document which will allow any researcher to find specifically what they are looking for without spending a long time skimming through paper texts ‘Most obviously, digital word searching is orders of magnitude faster and more accurate than skimming through printed or handwritten texts.’[15] The potential uses of research through the internet is immense but the ability and possible abuses of it, that is the ability to adjust, cut, and delete particular information and the loss of authenticity through digitising of the source makes the internet extremely useful, but superficial and questionable, these particular problems may pose major problems for any historian or researcher of any field.

The question as to whether modern technologies offer new insight to the past or raise more problems is an open question. This article (hopefully) has shown that the new technologies provide as many problems as they do insight to the past, but arguably the actual answer to the question is how one ‘interprets’ the source and how cautiously they go about doing it. The particular subject on history and the compatibility of history with the present technological age is still extremely arguable, for Historical feature films the argument of the accuracy of the ‘historic’ representation of an event is always in conflict between the historian and the filmmaker with the historian claiming that the filmmaker uses history to tell a story rather than establish historical fact, as Chapman presents ‘The charge that historical feature films misrepresent history in the interests of telling a story has persisted’[16] Vivian Sobchack claims that history in the present is lost and is also misrepresented in the interest of monetary gain and general consumer interest ‘At the present moment the loss of a determinate historical object and the correspondent and conscious hunger for history has led to the most disheartening and hopeful of conditions. On the one hand for most cynical history has become a commodity-something to be “fixed” according to maximum consumer desire (that is, not only made secure, but also “neutered”, “altered” and “doctored up”).[17] These two examples argue that history and technology are incompatible since the ‘historical’ aspect of these is forgotten in the interest of capital gain and in essence are not really justifiably ‘historical’. Rosenstone believes that history and technology are compatible, Rosenstone claims that film, that is the documentary gives viewers direct access to the past ‘The implicit claim of the documentary is that it gives us direct access to history. That its historical images through their indexical relationship to actual people, landscape and objects can provide a virtually unmediated experience of the past.’[18]  So as to the question in which this essay has attempted to answer, just as there are problems with all types of evidence that give us insight to the past, there are also many benefits and it inevitably comes down to how one approaches and interprets what it is they wish to use.

[1] Robert A. Rosenstone, ‘History on Film, Film on History’, p12

[2] Robert A. Rosenstone, ‘History on Film, Film on History’, (Pearson education Limited, 2006) p12

[3] James Chapman, ‘Past and Present: National Identity and The British Historical Film’, (I.B. Tauris and Co. Ltd, 2005), p3

[4]   Robert A. Rosenstone, ‘History on Film, Film on History’, p16

[5]     Robert A. Rosenstone, ‘History on Film, Film on History’, p19

[6]     Robert A. Rosenstone, ‘History on Film, Film on History’, p17

[7]      James Chapman, ‘Past and Present: National Identity and The British Historical Film’, p1

[8]      Robert Murphy, ’British Cinema and the Second World War’, (Continuum, 2000), p71

[9] ‘Docufictions: Essays on the intersection of Documentary and Fictional Filmmaking’, (edited by Gary D.Rhodes and John Parris Springer), Docudrama and Mock-Documentary: Defining Terms, Proposing Canons (by Steven N. Lipkin, Derek Paget and Jane Roscoe), p15

[10] ‘The Persistence of History’ [edited Vivian Sobchack] (Routledge, 2005) ‘The Modern Event’ (Hayden White), p23

[11] Robert A. Rosenstone, ‘History on Film, Film on History’, p12

[12] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, ‘Digital History: A guide to Gathering Presenting and Preserving the past on the Web’, Digital History | Becoming Digital

[13] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, ‘Digital History: A guide to Gathering Presenting and Preserving the past on the Web’, Digital History | Becoming Digital

[14] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, ‘Digital History: A guide to Gathering Presenting and Preserving the past on the Web’, Digital History | Becoming Digital

[15] Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, ‘Digital History: A guide to Gathering Presenting and Preserving the past on the Web’, Digital History | Becoming Digital

[16] James Chapman, ‘Past and Present: National Identity and The British Historical Film’, p5

[17] ‘The Persistence of History’ [edited Vivian Sobchack], ‘introduction’, p7

[18] Robert A. Rosenstone, ‘History on Film, Film on History’, p17

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