Forrest Gump, You’re A Fraud

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?

Team Danny–forever.

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?

If you haven’t watched JoJo Rabbit…you should and let me know what you think as a historian (it’s meant to be satire, as a heads up).

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!

5 Replies to “Forrest Gump, You’re A Fraud”

  1. I love this idea Shae! The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas would be a good movie to analyze. I would also suggest Dunkirk because it takes a different tone than a lot of other war movies.
    (Also, I hated Jojo Rabbit).

  2. Shae–this is an awesome idea! I have to say I am really conflicted about the role of history in film because I do think there is power in visualization, but it is, of course so difficult when there are so many historical inaccuracies. It also does seem like WWII is the most popular historical period for films which is interesting to consider. I really did like the new Midway and The Darkest Hour. It’s difficult to toe the line between exposing the public to history and exposing the public to inaccurate history!

  3. Hey Shae! I think this brings up a really interesting point, especially when we start to think about movie production not just as an art form but a multi-billion dollar industry. Specifically, when companies are dedicated to making money rather than representing the history, do we enter a moral quandary when we think about creating dramatized histories about wartime experiences, slavery, genocide, etc. being made for profit? What stops these companies from using history to their own ends for their own forms of entertainment?

  4. This is a really neat concept! Looking at historical storytelling in film is facaniting and you’ve got a great set of films to explore. One initial thing to think about in this, if you do decided to run with it for your project, is what part of this involves either digital tools for analysis or a study of the effect of digital media in this narrative.

    It’s worth noting that the digital media has itself been transformative in film making itself. There is a great chapter or two on this in the book “Digital Renaissance: What Data and Economics Tell Us about the Future of Popular Culture.” That book has some really powerful info on how the dramatic changes in the costs of producing films and distributing them has played a major role in changing what kinds of films can get made. So there might be some aspect of that you could involve.

    It also strikes me that it might be interesting to consider the way that review data for these films could be used as a context for studying them computationally. For example, there are some projects that have pulled out datasets from sites like Rotten tomatoes that you could use to look at as sources for studying trends in reviews and reactions to the films you are looking at (ex https://www.kaggle.com/stefanoleone992/rotten-tomatoes-movies-and-critic-reviews-dataset and https://www.reddit.com/r/MachineLearning/comments/b5idqk/p_dataset_480000_rotten_tomatoes_reviews_for_nlp/ and http://rstudio-pubs-static.s3.amazonaws.com/336722_2193716117584b63a2a6ebb837217d85.html )

    That is all to say that there are a few different approaches I could imagine for drawing in the digital aspects of this. In any event, this is a really interesting idea and if you do decide to work on it I will be excited to see what you discover and learn.

  5. Enjoyed reading this post, I thought the idea of analytics with film and history and looking deeper into the utilization aspect was cool. I do have some opinions on history and film and they are positive approaches to a new kind of historical learning that can be done using film.

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