History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film

Marnie Hughes-Warrington,
History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film.
Abingdon: Routledge, 2007.
ISBN: 0 415 32827 6 (hb) US$90
ISBN: 0 415 32828 4 (pb) US$28.95
(Review copy supplied by Routledge)

Marnie Hughes-Warrington is a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at Macquarie University. Her book is not an historian’s account of how the movies get history wrong, or an extended recital of the superiority of historians’ approaches to the study of historical film in comparison to those working in the discipline of cinema studies. Rather, Hughes-Warrington seeks a reconciliation, or integration, of the methodologies and approaches of historians and cinema studies practitioners towards the study and analysis of historical films. This is one of the five gaps in the discussion and understanding of historical films she identifies in the Introduction: an approach that “unite[s] the often quite separate efforts of film scholars, historical film scholars, historians and historiographers” (6). The other gaps she mentions constitute her assessment of the ambit and range of publications on historical films. Hughes-Warrington argues that: few publications take into account the impact on new technologies; analysis is usually concentrated on the diegesis or “text” of historical films, with insufficient attention given to the promotion and reception of these films; bringing her corollary argument that there is an imbalance of studies of actual historical film viewers by comparison to those that construct hypothetical viewers. Her remaining claim is more properly a question of balance: that of judging historical films both in terms of how they select and represent historical evidence and as aesthetic expressions.

The first chapter, “Words and images, images and words”, introduces her focus on historiography, a focus which recurs throughout the book, with a section of each following chapter devoted to historiographical questions. Hughes-Warrington adopts the term Hayden White sought to bring into circulation in 1988: historiophoty, which he defined as “the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse” (1193). Following White, Hughes-Warrington argues that rather than trying to define and stress the differences between written history and filmic history, fitting them into a hierarchical structure, viewing them both as history is more fruitful. To Hughes-Warrington, because viewers are more likely to be aware that films are constructed representations (by comparison to other history media such as museums and books), historical films offer a particularly rich medium with which to study historiography.

Hughes-Warrington raises an interesting point when she discusses her decision to include a large number and range of films in the book. In the practical sense, it facilitates reader accessibility, and it can encompass issues of different cultural contexts and varying audience sizes. She takes up John Gaddis and David Christian’s comparison of histories and maps; both capable of different scales, levels of detail and purpose. Most historical film studies, she argues, are restricted to analysis of either one film or a small number of films. Her approach, the larger view, “is like taking a step backwards and being rewarded with a new perspective on familiar terrain” (8). Siegfried Kracauer, the German film historian, offered a strikingly similar image in History: The Last Things Before the Last, when he wrote of historians considering a vista from different distances, alternating long shots and close ups, to take an analogy from film. Kracauer developed his analogy by pointing out the consequences of deciding to concentrate on long shots or close ups, macro or micro history: the range of intelligibility. “The higher their [histories] magnitude, the more of the past they may render intelligible. But the increase of intelligibility is bought at a price. What the historian gains in scope he loses in terms of (micro) information.” (1969, 129) This is not to suggest that Hughes-Warrington is unaware of this problem. Her thoughtful discussion of the question of how many (and which) films to include in a scholarly work makes this unlikely.

The “Genre” chapter offers strong support for Hughes-Warrington’s choice. She discusses how Indian “masala movies” – a little something for everyone in the one movie: action, romance, comedy, drama, tragedy, music and dance – challenge Western scholarly tendencies to shoehorn films into one generic category. Indeed, she includes reproductions of posters for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (USA 1936), Pearl Harbor (USA 2001) and The Three Musketeers (USA 1939) to show that they were promoted to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and to show that “historical films”, if such a genre exists, make up a church both high and low. Another genre that is rarely analysed or considered as part of the historical film tradition is animation, whether it be Disney’s Pocahontas (USA 1995), a rendition of the Russian Revolution in Anastasia (USA 1998), or Japanese anime. Hughes-Warrington briefly discusses two anime that focus on a recognisably historical past, World War II: Hadashi no gen (Barefoot Gen, Japan 1983) and Hotaru no haku (Grave of the Fireflies, Japan 1988). It would be pointless, or perhaps even a misreading, to wish that Hughes-Warrington had included more extended analyses, when she stipulated that she was trying to break away from offering close readings of individual films.

More troubling is Hughes-Warrington’s tendency to generalise about the work of others in an overly reductive, not to mention critical, fashion. For example, from the “Genre” chapter: “Is it right to assume, as historical film scholars have done, that works they label as ‘historical films’ will be recognised as such by producers, distributors and viewers?” (37). Later: “Here I would simply like to note the paradox that scholars’ positioning of themselves as apart from – and able to observe – the effect of institutionally produced texts on unsuspecting subjects has led them to describe film genres in a writerly manner” (51). Which historical film scholars have made these assumptions? In which works? Without sources, these claims lose their ability to convince. Unfortunately, this tendency, which pervades History Goes to the Movies, serves to undermine the good aspects of Hughes-Warrington’s work. She is convincing when making the point that history is not readily located or defined, not tidily contained in book(s), film(s), authorial intentions, reader or viewer reception. “Yet historical film scholars and historiographers routinely select one of these aspects and treat it as representative of the whole concept. Furthermore, they assume that these aspects of history can be described transparently, devoid of any reflection on the assumptions and purposes imbued in their work.” (54)

Yet … Historiography is concerned with questions of the legitimate selection and use of evidence. Selectivity should not automatically invite suspicion. Any writer, any historian, any filmmaker, selects from a plethora of material. Without selection there can be no finished, coherent work. The act of selection contributes to the narrative and/or argument and as such is worthy of analysis. A great challenge for historians, film historians included, is to find the right balance between establishing the evidence and producing a coherent narrative with adequate explanatory power. Inevitably, and rightly, the outcome – the finished work – will be open to dispute, given that we are engaging with matters of subjective judgment.

A list of “recommended resources” for further reading is provided at the end of each chapter, facilitating the reader’s access to another scale or perspective on the issues Hughes-Warrington raises. It is an act of scholarly good faith that, if extended throughout the book, could only have strengthened its claims.

Mas Generis,
Melbourne University, Australia.

Works cited

Kracauer, Siegfried. History: The Last Things Before the Last. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
White, Hayden. “Historiography and historiophoty.” American Historical Review 93(5), 1988, 1193–1199.

Created on: Saturday, 2 June 2007

About the Author

Mas Generis

About the Author

Mas Generis

Mas Generis lives in Melbourne where she reads library books and goes to the movies.View all posts by Mas Generis →