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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