Categories
historicism philosophyofhistory

Can we learn History from Films?

First I have used capitals for both History and Film. This is to mark them out as proper nouns. Can we learn or do History in Film? I think the question is far more complicated than it looks and that the conclusion will surprise you.

First I think that Film is an excellent medium for History. I am firmly in the camp that History is an Art and not a Science. Film is an artistic medium so manifesting an art in an artist medium poses fewer problems than presenting an art in a scientific medium. History as Science is like wearing a stiff collar in Church, uncomfortable, unnecessary and for someone else. That being said all art must guard against being a tool of the propagandist. Good art is didactic and welcomes comment and criticism, the propagandist brooks no contradiction.

Second, and I have experience of this, a Historian in a movie theatre must shut up and let other people enjoy the film when non-professionals are present. The problem with film is that the story must take priority over the facts and ‘authenticity’. Film is not History in the same way an essay or a journal article is History where facts and details are important. The story is the most important element and swords, bluebells or rabbits are much less important. Now where that story reflects the historical reality of events we can learn history. A story about the last hours in Hitlers bunker that draws on diaries and interviews can be a useful history compared to a relentlessly authentic medieval survey drama about the Peasants revolt putting modern Marxist thought into the mouths of 14th century peasants. If a film does not accord to the best possible knowledge of the story then we move from history into fantasy and for some narratives, and valuable stories, fantasy is the best medium.

Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

Finally Film is a historical product and one which is part of our inheritance as citizens of a democracy. These are stories we choose to validate by using our time to watch and our money to buy. As active citizens in our democracy we must know where we have come from to understand why the present is as it is and for many film is how we do that. The importance lies in us choosing to watch and spend money on this because it becomes our product and not a propaganda fostered on us by the elite. Such an elite history you can find in museums and art galleries across Britain and see just how attractive they are to the public.

Photo by Maria Pop on Pexels.com

Ultimately all history is for the public and film is probably the most democratic artistic medium available in the current age. The impact of historical film can be seen particularly well in Scotland where the SNP gained a boost from the Braveheart (yes I know.) film and Scottish democracy has been supercharged. The SNP are enjoying the trade wind of popular nationalism not stirring it up which separates them from other nationalist movements. Talking of Braveheart this is an example of a fantasy film with a glancing relationship with history. Its a film which I have never watched but also one that if I did I would be very quiet and let the non-professionals just enjoy it. Do these films have value? Yes I think that they do and if they perpetuate myths, as long as they are benign myths, then I see no problem. If they are malign, the film should be cast out, but myths can be dealt with in articles and journals by professionals. Scientific and professional history needs to stay in the professional realm and let art flourish in the artistic realm and by accepting the opportunities and limitations of film we can create the conditions for valuable history that engages the active citizen to make our world a better place.

Categories
historicism History

What is history about?

Today I have been running a history workshop in a fantastic school. During the lunch hour I spoke to the dinner ladies who told me how much they loved history. This has posed the question, what is this all about?

History is a complex intersection of a number of components. These components are the building blocks from which history is constructed. It is a mistake to think that history and the past are the same thing. The history is a reconstruction of the past from the traces that have remained.

These components are the facts. Facts are the building blocks of authoritative history. Here I would like to contrast postmodern history and pseudo history, such as conspiracies, from mainstream authoritative history. Mainstream history lives and dies by its own rules. The facts must either support the argument or bury it. In postmodern history the argument is more important than the facts and in conspiracy history the facts are of no importance whatsoever ever.

Buildings, books, archaeology and other remains from the past are, like the paper weight in 1984, messages from the past. They have messages that need to be understood and communicated. Its this role that justifies the existence of the Historian. Such people bury themselves in the past to understand it and communicate it to those who are fascinated by stories from ancient times.

But what is the history about? What is the prime mover. I know marxists who would point to class war, I know some people, even now, who believe in the zeitgeist or even some liberals who talk of progress. I am a liberal humanist and skeptical of such things. As I chatted to the dinner ladies I realised that what engaged them was exactly the same the true prime mover of history, people.