So are there any good historical movies?

Mr smarty pants critic, thea­poretic, thinks Twelve Years a Slave is a bad movie, and thinks he proved why, with­out hav­ing actu­ally seen the movie, quite an absurd posi­tion indeed. Crit­i­cism is easy–are there any good his­tor­i­cal movies?

Thea­poretic, hav­ing a nine year old child, does not go to the movies much because babysit­ting. But think­ing back, what his­tor­i­cal movies are good? Off the top of my head, I really liked Pirates of the Caribbean, the first one. The sequels were bloated and tire­some. I liked O Brother Where Art Thou a lot, and still do. I think the key for me is the degree to which the film maker is will­ing to aban­don realism.

His­tor­i­cal movies and aca­d­e­mic his­to­ries both tell sto­ries about the present, using the past as mate­r­ial. As men­tioned, direc­tor Steve McQueen likes to call Twelve Years a Slave “a story of today.” Sim­i­larly his­to­ri­ans always write about ques­tions that ani­mate the present, so a mod­ern book about Pirates will con­sider the way gen­der roles played out and pay a lot of atten­tion to Anne Bon­ney and Mary Read, and a book about bank­ing writ­ten in the last twenty years will be about reg­u­la­tion. So both his­tor­i­cal movies and aca­d­e­mic his­to­ries are always really about the  present moment.

I gen­er­ally think that should be made really obvi­ous, not hid­den. As his­to­ri­ans, we should make it clear that our work is engaged with the present and ask­ing ques­tions use­ful to the present, not pre­tend that we are writ­ing from some posi­tion out­side space and time where the real truth is revealed.

eswannPirates of the Caribbean is a ridicu­lous movie, a mod­ern fan­tasy of piracy. Like recent aca­d­e­mic his­to­ries of piracy, it stresses mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and demo­c­ra­tic anti-authoritarianism. But it takes them to absurd lengths. I’ll focus on one aspect, the role of women in the movie. Yes, there are two known cases of women as pirates in the caribbean. And prob­a­bly com­mu­ni­ties that tolerated/encouraged pri­vacy didn’t care too much about respectable gen­der pro­pri­ety. Upper class women aban­don­ing a life of respectable ease to be pirates? Umm, no.

But that’s ok, because the movie is always shar­ing its jok­i­ness with its audi­ence. It’s loud and extreme. The his­to­ries of piracy that dis­cuss women as pirates are of neces­sity qui­eter and much more mod­est, because the exam­ples of women as pirates are qui­eter and more mod­est. But in both cases what we are con­sid­er­ing is “what can women be and do” by imag­in­ing what they might have been and might have done in the past.

obrotherO Brother Where Art Thou is a broad farce with great music. Like Pirates it’s his­tor­i­cally “real look­ing” but at the same time obvi­ously fan­tasy. It enacts the famous obser­va­tion that although Amer­i­can for­mal polit­i­cal cul­ture has usu­ally been viciously racist, Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture has always wanted to mix and “mis­ce­genate.” The cli­max, where a race-baiting politi­cian fails to con­vince the audi­ence to reject a racially mixed musi­cal group, reverses what actu­ally hap­pened in the 1930s, which is that race-baiting pretty much always worked. The film is a fan­tasy of the power of art in his­tory. And it’s ok, because just as there were some female pirates, there were some cases where art trumped the pol­i­tics of seg­re­ga­tion, and art does some­times trump politics.

You’d be fool­ish to take O Brother or Pirates for accu­rate accounts of life in those times, but I don’t think the films encour­age their audi­ences to do that. They encour­age the audi­ence to think of the past as a field of dif­fer­ence, where alter­na­tive iden­ti­ties might be possible. This appeals to me for the same rea­son his­tory appeals to me–it’s a record of alter­ity, of rad­i­cal difference

This seems to me to be the best use of his­tory in movies, to dra­ma­tize alter­ity. When movies present them­selves as real­is­tic or accu­rate, then the prob­lems begin. I wrote before about the absur­dity of con­sid­er­ing Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan “real­is­tic.” It may or may not be a good movie, but from the open­ing sequence, “real­ism” is out the win­dow. You can­not see the scene from 12 dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, includ­ing both the per­spec­tive of the nazis and the Amer­i­can sol­diers and call it real­is­tic. You can call it “vivid.” But there’s a nar­ra­tive struc­ture to movies which under­mines the claim to real­ism.

You could argue the same thing about his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, and I’d agree: his­tory often claims a degree of “real­ism” that it can’t ever deliver. Good his­to­ries don’t do this–they make the con­tin­gency and “con­struct­ed­ness” of their claims really appar­ent. As with the films men­tioned above.




As I think more about it, prob­a­bly the first two god­fa­ther movies are good his­tor­i­cal movies. They aren’t good accounts of orga­nized crime–they are prob­a­bly ridicu­lous on that score. But they dra­ma­tize the prob­lem of immi­gra­tion and assim­i­la­tion. I gave Spielberg’s Lin­coln an hon­est B an Amis­tad an hon­est B+, prob­a­bly because they tried hard and did some research. But I couldn’t get with Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan, the Spiel­ber­gian sen­ti­men­tal­ity and phony real­ism was too much. I kind of like The Searchers because it’s overheated. I thought There Will be Blood was ridicu­lous because inco­her­ent. Gangs of New York ter­ri­ble every way: morally inco­her­ent, his­tor­i­cally inac­cu­rate, bloated and self impor­tant, dumb. Admit­tedly, this is not a very coher­ent or deeply thought list.


  • Randolph wrote:

    Black Robe is quite good, although not with­out its problems

  • I have to admit my cri­te­ria for good is a lit­tle vague. Campy and far­ci­cal is clearly not enough. Good his­tor­i­cal movies have all the things that good movies in gen­eral have, coher­ence, orig­i­nal­ity, com­plex­ity, but I would want them to make their his­tor­i­cal choices really clear, I guess, not hide them under a claim to acur­racy or real­is­tic experience

  • My stan­dards and expec­ta­tions are (unsur­pris­ingly) low, and I am happy enough even with the results I’ve had from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, just because it encour­ages stu­dents to think about the court as a place that might con­tain human beings instead of only par­a­sitic car­i­ca­tures. Spoiler alert: they were in fact par­a­sitic human beings.

    In gen­eral I’m more inter­ested in some­thing that’s atmos­pher­i­cally “accu­rate” and am will­ing to tol­er­ate all but the most absurd plots.

  • And I’ll cast a vote for Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God.

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