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American History Film Research

The goal of this American History Film Research Project is to stimulate you to think critically
about how movies inform our view of history.

It is a simple-minded belief that students learn everything they need to know about history in a
classroom, from the boring facts that spill forward across the pages of mind-numbing textbooks.
We live in a visual age, and as a historian whether I like it or not – students learn a lot of history
from films. Films are infinitely more interesting that the thick textbook that students buy each
semester. Truth be told everybody watches films, everybody! As a historian I believe that it is
imperative that we ask crucial questions about these “historical films,” questions such as who are
the historians creating these films? Whose histories are they telling? Are there histories they are
not telling? Are we as a society shaped by historical films, if so how?

For this project you will chose a film from the list of films about American History. The film you
choose must have a specific historical trail that you can study, assemble, investigate, and
immerse yourself in just as the people making a historical will do.

There must be a trail that you can follow, so this means that not every film will work. There must
be sources that you can document. The film must deal with American history, not simply a person or event so chose a film that you believe should be a part of our national or cultural
memory, something that should be studied in school.

Below you will find a series of questions that can be used as prompts to start you on the path of
gathering information. There are general questions about history and specific film and historical

General Questions:
How do you define history?
What is the role of history in culture?
Do Americans need to know their history?
Why is history a required subject in school?
Is history to create national pride and individual identity? Or should history just be about the facts?
Is history political?
What is cultural memory, popular memory, and collective memory?

Specific Questions:
How do you define cinematic history?
Why do film-makers make historical film, what is their agenda?
What do films about history tell us about the past?
What questions or answers did the film-maker bring to the film-making?
What questions or answers does an audience take away from such films?
What is the relation between “fact” and “fiction” in such films?
How do such films deal with “evidence” when it is there?
What if there is little or no evidence?
Do films qualify to be called “history”? Can film-makers be called “historians”?
Does creativity destroy authenticity?
What do professional historians think of historical films?
Why do some historical films troublesome professional historians?
Why are professional historians not more involved in making historical films?
Why should people interested in American history see historical films?
What can we learn about history or the making of history through film?
To what extent do such films present history with “integrity”?
When is a film-maker “responsible” when dealing with historical subjects? When is a film maker irresponsible?

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