Before anyone asks me to step outside for a fight, I will begin by saying that I actually love Forrest Gump. It is an entertaining and fun movie that almost always makes me cry a little bit. However, our loveable Tom Hanks does not teach us history. If you’ve never seen Forrest Gump, it follows the life of one man who ends up witnessing or being a part of the majority of historical events in the latter half of the 20th century. He fights in the Vietnam War, reports the Watergate scandal as he watches it happen through a glass window, and comes in contact with John Lennon, Elvis Presley, JFK, and a bunch of other famous icons. I’ve had multiple people tell me that it’s a great movie about history. The entire thing is a work of fiction–the historical events that “occur” mostly center around popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s, and are kitschy recreations of the war and American life. All of this to say that the question I’ve been asking myself recently is:
Are we doing history a disservice by translating it into film?
What is the purpose of utilizing history in film? Is it a backdrop for a love story (Pearl Harbor)? Is it an attempt to educate about certain events or individuals (Hacksaw Ridge, Unbroken)? And why do so many of our movies somehow end up involving World War Two?
I am proposing to analyze the different uses of history in film making, with a specific focus on the prominence of World War Two movies. Historians can have a role in filmmaking as advisers, but their recommendations are often compromised. The American Historical Association seems to be optimistic about the future of historical consultants in the media industry:
“An increasingly sophisticated audience is demanding greater historical integrity in media productions. Producers of documentaries, dramatic films, and educational programming often hire historical consultants to advise on costumes, scenery, props, dialect, and content accuracy. Most television networks and large production companies will require the services of a historian, and some consulting firms specialize in media productions and the entertainment industry.” Are they really, though?
The questions I will be answering are as follows: Does fictional filmmaking ever do history justice? How much historical inaccuracy is acceptable in a film? Can film teach history, or is it always doomed to fall into speculation and fabrication? What role does the historian have in critiquing, supporting, or condemning “historical” films?
I will be using a variety of popular films for analysis in addition to the writings of historians in defense of film (or in opposition to film as a medium of history education). I am hopeful that the audience for this type of research will be broad–I think the appeal lies in using well-known films and keeping the research questions wide enough to interest a large and diverse audience.
Let me know what you think! Do you have strong opinions on the role of history in film? How does the translation of history into a digital and visual medium benefit us? Are there any World War Two movies that you loved? Any that you hated? Drop them in the comments below. Looking forward to your recommendations!