The motion picture has its own history, one that allows us to see the development of a popular art form by examining existing films from the late nineteenth century to the present day. The earliest films have captured moving pictures from over 100 years ago, allowing us to see pieces of history in motion.
Hollywood has investigated history as fiction by attempting to create period pieces set in different times. Art direction, costume design, and other externals attempt to offer as much authenticity as historical documents will allow us to study.
Robert Burgoyne’s book The Hollywood Historical Film (Blackwell Publishing) takes a look at some of the more noted examples of American movies that investigate historic events and persons. And in a rather scant 175 pages, this book provides an informative, critical, and appreciative look at American movies that present eras of history, from the swashbuckling epics of the silent screen, to more recent films that depict events as near to us as the September 11th tragedy. D.W. Griffith’s consistently brilliant and maddeningly controversial Birth Of A Nation (1915) is a a good early example of a film depicting the Civil War by one whose childhood allowed immediate access to those who experienced the era. And while his prejudicial presentation is now catalyst for serious discussion, the film itself is an achievement borne of passionate ambition.
Films that chronicle events that have happened within a few short years of the cinematic process are interesting in that they depict a time immediate to the filmmakers that will be appreciated by future generations with little more than written or filmed documentation. How will future generations view, say, Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) many years from now when those of us who actually lived in the Kennedy era have gone?
Burgoyne collects a handful of historical films that are also achievements, and analyzes the depth of their success. Breaking the text into six categories: The War Film, The Epic Film, The Biographical Film, The Metahistorical Film, and the Topical Historical Film; Burgoyne gives special attention to such noted recent historical dramas as Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, Spartacus, Schindler’s List, JFK, United 93, and The World Trade Center while making comparisons to a myriad of earlier films in the same sub-genre. The accuracy or lack thereof is addressed, as well as how filmmakers often play with facts and authenticity in order to create a more feasibly entertaining drama for a mass audience.
The Hollywood Historical Film is an exceptional study, offering insightful analyses and significant points to illustrate the importance of using film to better appreciate and understand historical eras and events. It is a book that should find itself in any library that attempts to be comprehensive.