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History at the Movies

This course is expected to run but has not yet been scheduled.

Course Description

Whether historians like it or not, most people learn about the past at the movies. Historical movies, from Birth of a Nation (1915) to Lincoln (2012) and The Butler (2013) have larger audiences and greater cultural impact on public perceptions of history than the most celebrated and well-known scholars. Traditionally, historians have grumbled about filmmakers’ who encroached on their territory, dismissing historical cinema as at best inaccurate and at worst dangerously misleading. More recently, historians have begun to set aside their concerns about “accuracy” and to think more deeply about what historical films do, how they do it, and why they matter.

In this course, we will use film as a way to grapple with big questions. What is history? Who are its heroes and villains, and how do we know the difference? What do the stories we tell about the past say about the present? Can stories help us deal with traumatic aspects of our past such as war, genocide, and slavery? We will seek answers to these questions by watching and discussing an array of different films that use and represent the past. We will consider why historical films remain popular, how movies can be seen as historical documents from the time they were produced, and how films can immerse us in the experience of the past in ways that written history cannot. Films treating similar historical moments and phenomena will be juxtaposed to explore different filmmaking techniques and draw attention to the politics of different modes of representation. In addition to watching the films themselves, we will read historians’ analyses of particular movies and more general explorations of historical films as a genre.

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

• Engage critically with historical films and written histories as representations of the past
• Analyze the ‘arguments’ and theories of history that films offer
• Confidently discuss filmic techniques and offer original interpretations of their use in historical film

A familiarity with American and European history would be useful but is not required. No background in film studies is necessary.