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Film and history


Feature films can be an absorbing and imaginative way of exploring the evidence we have of the past. Film can present information rapidly and its strength lies in its ability to convey atmosphere – allowing viewers to 'feel' history rather than to 'think' it.

Since the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers have looked to the past as well as the present to produce stories of the screen. Biblical epics, westerns, biographies of great figures, war movies, costume dramas, adaptations of classic novels and plays all portray our past and present history from a number of different perspectives. Or rather, the films re-present history. What we are seeing did not actually happen, but is a version of what happened, given to us via researchers, a script, a director, actors, special effects and editors.

This provides problems as well as opportunities when using film in your history lessons. What is gained in terms of visualising historical events or people is sometimes hampered by a lack of historical accuracy. The artistic license taken by the filmmakers with events and people mean they perhaps portray events and people in a way that supports their filmic narrative. Some films use fictional rather than historical characters, or even merge several historical characters into one, for different artistic reasons. What is important is to stress with the students that a particular film is only one point of view of an event.

By encouraging students to consider why directors and producers choose to portray an historical event or person in the way they do, you can teach about different historical interpretations and how the purpose of a piece of film, be it a documentary, newsreel or feature film, can affect its view of the past. It is a valuable activity with older or high ability students to compare the interpretation of a film with that of a historian, analysing how a filmic narrative differs from an historical narrative.