Movies and History

The death of Tony Curtis today reminds me of a movie we used to see all the time on TV as kids: The Black Shield of Falworth.  Curtis plays Miles, a young man of noble birth raised as a commoner, becomes a knight etc etc. It’s famous for Curtis in tights pronouncing his lines in a New York accent. I remember him saying, at one point “Thou mistaketh me for someone who cares.” My brothers and I could all repeat whole chunks of dialogue when we were kids. Even as elementary school kids we knew campy when we saw it.

Historians always notice the obvious things that Hollywood gets wrong–not just details like costuming or setting, but depictions of events that either did not happen or did not happen in the way depicted. But beyond that Hollywood histories usually put modern words and sensibilities in period costume, so the person looks more or less like a medieval knight but speaks thoughts and words that would only come from a modern person.

It’s obvious that some directors are aware of this, and they try to have their characters not just look like but be characters from whatever era is being modeled. But these efforts always fail, and always will, because the structure of Hollywood movies creates a “form of subjectivity” that just did not exist in earlier periods. That makes “realism” a moot point.

Take for example the opening of Saving Private Ryan, praised for its realism. It’s an extraordinary piece of movie making. But it’s not at all realistic. No soldier could be simultaneously in the water, and under the water: no soldier could by, as are when we watch the movie, in multiple impossible places at once, in the action and above it, behind the German machine guns, in the landing craft, and 20 feet above it, hovering just in front. There is nothing at all realistic about it, in the sense that it does not conform at all to how a soldier could experience the D-Day landing. It’s an impossible, god-like form of subjectivity. You are everywhere and everyone and no one.

Opening Scenes from Saving Private Ryan

The genius of Hollywood was figuring out how to make this magical form of subjectivity feel “natural” and real. It took a while–the earliest movies just don’t tell stories the way we want them to. The famous example is Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film Life of an American Fireman:

If you’re impatient, skip ahead to about 3:08

Porter either doesn’t know how to tell a story the “right” way, the way we expect, or he’s unwilling. He actually produces a more realistic film than Saving Private Ryan, in the sense that in real life no one can be in the room and outside the house at the same time. Porter’s storytelling technique is still used today: you see it all the time in instant replay of a football play.

In real life I am not in your head and you are not in mine, looking through different eyes, and neither of us is some distance away looking at both of us.  Hollywood makes a radically new form of subjectivity seem normal. So it seems to me that “realism” is not the term to use regarding any modern Hollywood drama: realism left the barn as soon as the editing began. What we have instead is vividness.

Vividness is kind of alarming to a scholarly historian, because it substitutes feeling for fact, effect for evidence. The usual defense of this is to say that truth is found in feeling, that if it feels true it is true: it misses the particulars to get at the larger truth. But that of course what people argued about the KKK riding to the rescue in Birth of a Nation:

KKK rescues Lillian Gish

It’s really difficult for historians to take movies seriously as historical argument. They always depend on this impossible, modern form of subjectivity, so they are always reproducing a mindset which was alien to the time period. It’s wrong from the start. I can enjoy a movie, but generally not as much if there’s a lot of period costuming.

Unless it’s just campy, like Black Shield of Falworth.


  • […] the movie, because a sin­gle per­son can’t be in all those places: real life isn’t like that. I’ve blogged about this before. Who are you, and where are […]

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