A scene from "Titanic," winner of Best Picture in 1997.

Real to Reel

History at the Movies

Six of this year’s nine nominees for Best Picture at the Oscars are films based in history. That may seem like a lot, but for the past 40 years, the majority of Best Picture winners have had an historical bent. On this episode we ask what makes history such a popular subject for American filmmakers.

From the early days of film — when people thought movies would replace textbooks in the classroom — to the Cold War — when the government and Hollywood thought they could control behavior through film — the Backstory hosts look at the impact of history on celluloid culture, and at how movies have made and remade history. They also debate the merits of current Oscar nominees (Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Django Unchained) and consider the ways those movies reflect contemporary thinking about history.

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BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh. It’s Oscar week, and six of the nine films nominated for Best Picture are films about history. And just in case you think that’s exceptional, for the past 40 years the majority of Best Picture winners have had an historical bent. And so this week BackStory goes to the movies.

We’ll look at how Josef Stalin tried to use film to rewrite history.

TODD BENNETT: One of the great stories is he regularly called Soviet directors in the middle of the night with, quote, “suggestions” on how to improve their film.

BRIAN: We’ll figure out which movie better portrays the past, Lincoln or Django Unchained. And we’ll talk about one of the worst genres in historical film, the Revolutionary War pic.

MARK PETERSON: They have not been big hits. They have not been great box office successes. They have never won Academy Awards. And in my own highly amateur judgment, they are bad.

BRIAN: History on Film, today on BackStory.

PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American history guy.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century guy. And I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: 19th century guy.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us, the one and only–

PETER: 18th century guy.

BRIAN: All right, lights, camera, action.

ED: In March of 1915, The Birth of a Nation opened in New York City. Today, we know it as a piece of racist propaganda that glorifies the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. But in 1915, it was big business.

ROBERT JACKSON: It may actually be the most successful, profitable film in the history of the medium.

PETER: This is Robert Jackson, a cultural studies professor at the University of Tulsa.

ROBERT JACKSON: It’s a film that cost $2 in a period when a trip to the movies might cost you $0.05 or $0.10. And people not only paid it, but they went back over and over and over again.

BRIAN: The film’s producers hired special trains to bring moviegoers into New York City from New Jersey and Connecticut. They plastered Times Square with billboards. They even had extras dressed up in Klan regalia riding through the city streets on horses.

PETER: The Birth of a Nation was a hit in other parts of the country, too. Its initial theatrical run lasted for years and was released again and again. You could catch it in theaters up until the 1950s.

BRIAN: Now, the film itself was a sprawling historical epic, a silent historical epic. Otherwise, we’d play you some clips. But it told a story of two white families before, during, and after the Civil War.

One family was from the North, the other from the South. In the end, the two white families are united by marriage, and the pain of the war is forgiven. But before the story gets there, the film depicts images of chaos ushered in by the South’s defeat.

ROBERT JACKSON: The major part of the story is set in a small Southern town, in which the authority of white people had been overthrown by the loss of the war and then by this post-war political movement installing black politicians who are portrayed to be incompetent and corrupt. So the rise of the Klan is presented as this very organic movement, a kind of grassroots radical political movement, that seeks to restore balance, to restore authority to white people.

ED: The film’s director, D. W Griffith, didn’t see his film as historical fiction. He saw it as history, plain and simple. When the NAACP protested that The Birth of a Nation was grossly inaccurate, Griffith was shocked.

SPEAKER: He actually offered a sum, I think it was $10,000, as a sort of reward if anyone could find a single detail in the film that wasn’t historically accurate. And when he was confronted with some actual events– the taking hostage of a young white woman in order to force her to marry a black lieutenant governor from a Northern political movement– he became very dismissive and sort of rejected out of hand the suggestion, but never quite dealt with the evidence presented against him.

PETER: No amount of evidence apparently could shake Griffith’s belief that film could narrate history without bias, that it could give viewers the experience of actually being present at past events, that it could revolutionize the way Americans learned history.

ROBERT JACKSON: He thought that movies might even replace textbooks in schools. Griffith was really a kind of literary guy who had read the Bible, and Shakespeare, and the classics, and had been a stage actor himself and was familiar with all kinds of histories of art and literature, and believed that film was probably the most important medium ever created for educational purposes. And this is not something that he is alone in believing. There’s an entire movement of educational filmmaking that proliferated really from the earliest days of the medium all the way into the 1930s.

ED: Around this time, Yale University decided to translate a 50 volume academic history called The Chronicles of America into film. Yep, it sounds like a real blockbuster. The project planned to make an astonishing 33 films going up through the Civil War. But it ran into financial difficulties somewhere around the American Revolution and stopped at number 15. By the ’30s, Hollywood figured out that the serious money lay in entertainment. The era of big budget educational films was over.

BRIAN: Of course history didn’t disappear from the silver screen, far from it. So today on the show, we’re asking what makes history such a popular canvas for American filmmakers. We’ve got the story of a US film that set out to sanitize people’s understanding of Soviet history. We’ll look at how two recent films attempt to deal with American slavery. And we’ll find out why there are hardly any films about the American Revolution and why the ones that do exist are so awful.

ED: But first, we’re going to return to the early-20th century. A moment ago we were talking about The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 blockbuster that retold reconstruction as a story of reconciliation between the white North and the white South. Thinking about that film got us wondering, what would the same history have looked like in the hands of a black director?

PETER: Handily enough, there is actually a movie that helps us answer that question. Five years after The Birth of a Nation took the country by storm, another silent film called Within our Gates turned Griffith’s reading of history inside out.

ED: The film was made by Oscar Micheaux, a prolific black director. Like Birth of a Nation, Within our Gates follows a romance that unites North and South and depicts a violent unrest of reconstruction. The difference is, in the Micheaux film, the hopeful lovers are black and the violent criminals are white.

PETER: To understand the differences between these two interpretations of history, we asked Robert Jackson to walk us through two parallel scenes of lynching in the films. Let’s take The Birth of a Nation first. In that story, the victim of the lynching is a young black soldier, Gus, who’s come to town as part of the federal government’s occupation of the defeated South.

ROBERT JACKSON: And he sets his sights on this young girl, who is the daughter of a prominent white family, and essentially asks her if she will consider marrying him, which she takes as the most horrifying possible idea that has ever been presented. So the dramatic sequence that follows includes a kind of chase sequence. And Gus finally chases this young girl to the top of a rocky cliff where she flings herself off rather than being captured by him and, presumably, rather than being raped by this guy. So that precipitates then this enormous event of violence in which Gus is ritualistically lynched by the emerging force of the Ku Klux Klan, an event that’s presented in pretty graphic detail.

ED: In this so-called history, the problem is black men’s sexual aggression toward white women. The solution is community justice administered by the heroic Klan. And as twisted as that sounds today, in 1915 this attitude was a pretty mainstream view among white Americans both North and South. And in fact, Birth of a Nation gave rise to the modern Ku Klux Klan, which emerged across the entire United States in the 1920s.

PETER: OK, so let’s turn to Within our Gates, which takes a similar event and constructs a totally different narrative. Here too we have a narrowly averted rape and a lynching. But this time the story is told us a flashback, narrated by a black woman rather than from Griffith’s omniscient perspective.

And here the sexual aggressor is a white man and the victim is a black schoolteacher named Sylvia. The white man is never punished. Instead, it’s Sylvia’s innocent parents who are lynched for a separate crime, which they did not commit.

ROBERT JACKSON: And Micheaux is very clear to cut from the scenes of lynching that are presented in horrifying detail to the sort of root cause of the problem in race relations. And that is never over-reaching black sexuality, as it was in Birth of a Nation, but instead the kind of sense of ownership that white people continued to feel for African Americans, and specifically as attempted rape by a powerful white man of a young black woman who is defending herself as heroically as she possibly can. So in this case, lynching is revealed to be not a tool for bringing civilization into being, but instead something that tears apart civilization.

ED: The key to making this argument is the way Micheaux cuts between scenes of the lynching and Sylvia’s fight against her would-be rapist. Look, he’s saying, the problem is not that black men are attacking white women. The problem is that white people are attacking black people, both men and women. Ironically, that technique of cutting between simultaneous events was popularized by none other than D. W. Griffith.

ROBERT JACKSON: But Micheaux turns that process into something entirely different, in which he’s demonstrating his knowledge of Griffith’s style but reinventing it for his own purposes. It really demonstrates, I think, the way that history can be viewed from all sorts of different perspectives with the same grammar, that two filmmakers as different as Griffith and Micheaux could share so much.

PETER: Some people have called Micheaux the black D. W. Griffith. Jackson says that’s not really fair. Micheaux never had anything close to Griffith’s budget. He could only show his films in a handful of segregated theaters. And he had to contend with censors who claimed his stories would stir up racial hatred.

Within our Gates’ impact was nothing like that of Birth of a Nation. But it did suggest a different way of portraying history on film. Micheaux didn’t strive for unbiased omniscience the way Griffith had. And he didn’t claim to be writing history as it had actually happened. Instead, he brought the story down to the ground and captured something of the experience of the people who lived through it.

BRIAN: Helping us tell that story was Robert Jackson from the University of Tulsa. He’s currently writing a book about Southern film in the early 20th century. As we mentioned, both The Birth of a Nation and Within our Gates are silent films. But 25 years earlier, Americans had figured out how to combine moving pictures with sound. They just hadn’t done it in a particularly luxurious way.

What you’re hearing now is the sound of the oldest surviving film with synchronized recorded audio. The Dixon Experimental Sound Film, as it came to be known, was made some time in late 1894 or early 1895 at Thomas Edison’s studio in New Jersey. In it, William Dixon, the film’s creator, plays a violin into a giant horn that’s attached to a wax cylinder off-screen. That’s where the sound is being recorded.

And just in front of Dixon, two young men dressed in work pants, vests, and bow ties are dancing a waltz. In the final seconds of the film, a stray worker wanders into the frame from the left, like he’s looking for something. He’s completely unaware that he’s just become a character in one of the most important films in history. You can watch the Dixon Experimental Sound Film, all 15 seconds of it, at our website www.backstoryradio.org.

We’re going to take a short break. Grab popcorn. And when we come back, we’ll see how Joseph Stalin felt about being the subject of a Hollywood film.

TODD BENNETT: It became a bit of a parlor game to decipher Stalin’s grunts. He apparently grunted several times during the showing of the film. And so people we’re trying to figure is this a good grunt, is this a bad grunt, what’s going on?

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute. We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hello.

PETER: and Brian Balogh.

BRIAN: Hey, how are you?

PETER: Pretty good. Today we’re talking about history in the movies. We’re looking at different ways filmmakers have used history, whether that be to teach history or, in the case of the next story, to rewrite it.

BRIAN: During World War II, Hollywood studios were experiencing something of a golden age in moviegoing. After a decade of economic depression, people were finally ready to shell out for the big screen again.

TODD BENNETT: I think the figure that best illustrates that is throughout the war years 85 million Americans, 85 million, attended movie theaters each and every week. And this was at a time when the US population totaled roughly 130 million.

BRIAN: That’s a remarkable statistic.

TODD BENNETT: It is remarkable.

BRIAN: This is Todd Bennett.

TODD BENNETT: And I’m an assistant professor of history at East Carolina University.

BRIAN: And Bennett says that along with this massive surge in movies’ popularity came the idea that they could have a very profound influence.

TODD BENNETT: There was this sense that movies, in particular, could change the way people thought and even behaved.

BRIAN: So it’s the early 1940s. The US has just entered World War II, fighting on the same side as the Soviet Union. The Soviets are supposed to keep the Nazis busy in the East, while the US and other European powers take care of business in the West. But the American people, they’re suspicious of the Soviets.

One of the biggest fears being that the Soviets would sign a peace treaty with the Nazis like the one they had just signed a few years earlier– a pact the Nazis broke. But around this same time, an interesting character comes along, Joseph Davies, former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. And in 1941, Joseph Davies writes a memoir.

TODD BENNETT: Entitled Mission to Moscow.

BRIAN: About his time as an ambassador.

TODD BENNETT: And he did it, in his own words, to improve American views of the USSR and to support Roosevelt in his glorious crusade, I think he put it, to win the war by trying to build some kind of a viable alliance with Joseph Stalin.

BRIAN: And so the next year, either Davies or the presidents of Warner Brothers studios–

TODD BENNETT: Harry and Jack Warner devise the idea of turning the book into a film largely because they wanted to serve a political purpose, which was, again, to increase American support for their new– to use the word at the time– Russian ally.

BRIAN: And obviously that’s true of Davies. Is that true of the Warner Brothers, as well?

TODD BENNETT: It is. You know, Warner Brothers was known as the Roosevelt studio. And they supported the President’s both foreign and domestic policies.

BRIAN: The thinking was, with these 85 million people going to movies every week, maybe this was how to get people to see the USSR in a new light. In other words, Hollywood was getting into the business of persuasion.

JOSEPH DAVIES: If I were down there in the audience with you, there are certain things that I would want to know about the man who is telling the story–

BRIAN: This is from the preamble to the film.

JOSEPH DAVIES: And his bias or his lack of bias.

BRIAN: Joseph Davies himself sits in a chair looking directly into the camera.

TODD BENNETT: He basically assures you that, although you’re about to watch a pro-Soviet film, that he himself is no communist.

JOSEPH DAVIES: There was so much prejudice and misunderstanding of the Soviet Union, in which I partly shared, that I felt it was my duty to tell the truth about the Soviet Union as I saw it, for such value as it might have.

TODD BENNETT: So it’s a really weird way to start a film, which should indicate that Warner Brothers realized that the film would be controversial and that they needed to allay concerns.

BRIAN: The film was controversial. Critics claimed Davies whitewashed recent Soviet history, that he used his position to legitimize a history Stalin was inventing. One scene from the film recreates Stalin’s famous show trials, in which Stalin convicted a handful of Soviet officials of trying to overthrow the government.

MALE SPEAKER: And what was to happen to Comrade Stalin and Europe official administrators of the Soviet government?

MALE SPEAKER: They were to be removed.

MALE SPEAKER: Removed? What does that mean?

MALE SPEAKER: Removed means killed.

BRIAN: And in order to legitimate these claims–

TODD BENNETT: Walter Houston playing Davies, who was a lawyer in real life, Davies, explained to the American viewers–

SPEAKER: What’s your opinion, Mr. Davies?

TODD BENNETT: That based on 20 years trial experience–

SPEAKER: Based on 20 years of trial practice, I’d be inclined to believe these confessions.

TODD BENNETT: That these defendants were in fact guilty of treason.

BRIAN: But even a rewritten history does not necessarily make for a good story.

TODD BENNETT: The movie was terrible. The critics were extremely harsh, for the most part. Maybe the harshest critic was the well-known educator John Dewey. Dewey, in an influential letter that was published in the New York Times, called Mission to Moscow, quote, “the first instance in our country of totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption.” Now, I don’t know whether that’s true.

BRIAN: Ouch.

TODD BENNETT: Ouch, absolutely. But I think the final measure is that Warner Brothers lost money on the project because people didn’t go. But not all viewers received the same message, I suppose.

BRIAN: See, the film wasn’t just intended for an American audience. Back in April of 1943–

TODD BENNETT: Just before the film premiered.

BRIAN: Ambassador Davies took a copy to the White House.

TODD BENNETT: And he and Roosevelt viewed the film together at the White House.

BRIAN: That being President Roosevelt, FDR. And the two of them said to themselves, you know who would really love this movie? Joe Stalin.

TODD BENNETT: Stalin was a movie fan. Stalin was highly involved in the production of Soviet films. One of the great stories is he regularly called Soviet directors in the middle of the night with quote, “suggestions” to improve their film, which must have struck fear into their hearts. I cannot imagine.

BRIAN: If Mission to Moscow was supposed to convince Americans to love Stalin, FDR hoped it might also convince Stalin that, hey, America’s on your side. We don’t have any axes to grind.

TODD BENNETT: And so Davies went to Moscow on what he called a second mission to Moscow. Again, the first being his stint as ambassador back in the ’30s, flying, I should say, on a plane emblazoned with the words “Mission to Moscow” on the side of the plane. But the film is shown in Stalin’s private movie theater in the Kremlin. Davies watches it with Stalin, with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and other Soviet officials.

BRIAN: So thumbs up from Stalin? How did he react?

TODD BENNETT: Maybe a grunt up. I’m not quite sure. It became a bit of a parlor game to decipher Stalin’s grunts. He apparently grunted several times during the showing of the film. And so people were trying to figure out, is this a good grunt, is this a bad grunt, what’s going on?

BRIAN: But after the grunting subsided, it seemed safe to say that Stalin liked the film, because–

TODD BENNETT: Soviet officials decide to release Mission to Moscow to the public.

BRIAN: In the Soviet Union?

TODD BENNETT: Yes. And that’s [INAUDIBLE]. What that means is that Mission to Moscow became among the first American films to play in the Soviet Union, before popular Soviet audiences, in over ’20 years.

BRIAN: Do we know how the Soviet public responded?

TODD BENNETT: Yeah, that’s a good question, too. And as you well know, gauging popular reception in the United States is hard enough. Gauging popular reception in the Soviet Union is even harder. What we do know is that popular Soviet audiences teased out meanings from the film that were not intended by either Davies, the Warner Brothers, Roosevelt, or certainly even Stalin.

BRIAN: When they watched the film, the Soviet public didn’t much care about the political propaganda in it. But what they did take notice of was it’s portrayal of everyday life in the USSR. According to the movie, Moscow was filled with fancy department stores and luxury cars.

TODD BENNETT: They bore no resemblance to reality in the USSR. But instead to these people, fancy automobiles, the high fashion, all of the wonderful material goods in this department store that’s supposed to be in the Soviet Union said something real and important about American audiences, the original audience for the film. They said something about the higher standard of living in the United States compared to that in the Soviet Union.

BRIAN: So this film, intended by its producers as pro-Soviet propaganda for American audiences, was picked up as a pro-Soviet propaganda film by Stalin before eventually being interpreted as pro-American propaganda by the Soviet public. You following this? And as if that weren’t enough, there’s one final twist to the story.

A few years go by. The war ends. And relations with the Soviets start to sour. They stop showing American films in the USSR entirely. But back in the States, Mission to Moscow gets an encore performance.

TODD BENNETT: Investigations of Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which began in 1947, are of course seen as a Cold War drama. But the roots of that investigation are located firmly in World War II. Among the first witnesses to be called to testify was Jack Warner, who was essentially asked to account for his studio’s wartime production of pro-Soviet films, Mission to Moscow included. And HUAC investigators pressed Warner, for example, on whether he considered Mission to Moscow quote “pro-Soviet propaganda.”

And Warner answered, I think, in a really interesting way. He said, well, look when we made this film in 1943, we did this as a patriotic gesture. Because we were at war at the time. And the purpose was to solidify our relations with the Soviet ally to win the war. That’s right.

But none of us, Warner essentially said, could have looked into the future and expected the Soviet Union and United States to be mortal enemies in 1947. The essential point was, yeah, now this film is seen as being bordering on treasonous. But in 1943, it was patriotic, the same film. The movie hadn’t changed, the context had.

BRIAN: Todd Bennett is an historian at East Carolina University. His latest book is One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, the Allies, and World War II. This is BackStory. And today we’re talking about American history in the movies.

ED: hosts, you’ll have noticed that two of the biggest names in American film, Spielberg and Tarantino, have movies out sort of walking all over history. And I have to say, they’re 19th century.

BRIAN: What a surprise, Ed.

ED: I know. Django Unchained is a Quentin Tarantino movie that’s a fantasy about revenge of an enslaved man who gets a chance to overthrow the entire system of slavery with dynamite and revolvers. Lincoln is the story of how the 13th Amendment comes at the end of this horrible Civil War and sort of redeems the nation from slavery.

And you read the press about these things as I have, and people are arguing about which of these movies is a better representation of slavery. So let’s start with Django. What do we make of that?

PETER: Well, I call it a kind of cartoon, a pornographic cartoon. The violence is over-the-top. It’s highly stylized. I don’t think it tells us anything really about slavery.

Yeah, slavery’s terrible. It’s based on force. But does this give us any sense of the lived experience of slavery? I think this movie’s problem is that it’s too easy to like. It’s pushing all of our buttons now.

BRIAN: Peter, you call it pornographic. I do think it’s graphic. And the visceral nature of Django really conveyed to me– and granted, I’m not an expert in this field– but it conveyed to me both the totality of slavery and just how ingrained it was in the tiniest movements of life. And I think about that enslaved man who is cowering in a tree because he’s refusing to fight other African-Americans for the profit of slave owners. And he finally comes down from that tree and is ripped apart by dogs.

I think about the woman who has run away. Her punishment Is to be literally almost baked to death in a hot box.

ED: And Brian, does it matter to you that both of those would never have happened in those ways?

BRIAN: It doesn’t, Ed. Because to be reminded, yes, albeit in cartoon-like fashion, that this is a system of human labor that rests on violence 24/7, I thought, was a really useful corrective too– let’s think about the other films, after all, we have to think about film history– a corrective to Gone with the Wind, or a corrective to the oeuvre movie, not about slavery about post-slavery, Birth of a Nation. And I think, look, we talk about revisionist history. Well, this is revisionist history of film.

ED: I think, Brian, you’re right that he does pillage all the other movies of the past just like he does in every other movie he makes. And it is winking. And it is funny.

And he has himself blown up with dynamite. It’s all hilarious. But I would say Tarantino does not actually respect history. He does not actually respect the resistance of actual human [INAUDIBLE].

PETER: Yes, yes.

ED: If it had been possible to blow slavery up, it would have been blown up. There’s a reason that this injustice went on for generation after generation after generation. And you would know less about it after watching this movie than you would have before it.

BRIAN: Ed, Peter I can’t argue about the historical reality. And in fact, I have read at least some of the same books about slavery that you have. But here’s the thing, none of them evokes the kind of emotional response that Django evoked for me.

Now, Peter, you call that pornography. I call that accessing an emotional place that only art can access. And I do want to remind you these are films. This is art. This is not history.

ED: But, Brian, it’s what emotions do we want to access? And what Peter is saying, these are cheap emotions.

PETER: Too easy. That’s what I’m telling you.

BRIAN: I’ve always been called a cheap date. This is true.

ED: This is the flip-side of a sentimental movie. What you don’t see is the ingrained violence that does not actually require the infliction of violence.

PETER: I think it’s the violence that is built into slavery. And if it’s this kind of violence, this Tarantino violence, then it’s not only too easy to like, it’s also too easily resolved. Because all you have to do is kill the people, and plenty of people get killed. In fact, I wondered where all those white folks were coming from in that plantation to get slaughtered. How many white people are there on a plantation?

BRIAN: OK, Peter. We got it. But guys, I am curious to know whether you think that Lincoln, the film, is a more useful portrayal of the problem of slavery.


ED: I’m sorry. Here is a case where slavery is entirely offstage. You have a chamber drama in which the great evil is never seen, which is the evil of slavery. And the drama of the story is can these white guys find a way to change the fundamental law of the land.

PETER: And they have similar logic, Ed. That is, you kill people in Tarantino, and then we can move into post-slavery. You pass the 13th Amendment, then we can move into post-slavery. It’s as if, whoa, isn’t this wonderful? It’s a Hollywood ending, isn’t it?

BRIAN: You leave the movie feeling, hey, it’s fixed.

ED: And this is where Lincoln could use some more Tarantino in it. The violence that you see in Django Unchained is far more characteristic of the period after the 13th Amendment than it would have been under slavery, where it simply would have been impossible. But after slavery’s end, you have guerrilla warfare breaking out in the South.

You really would have had gangs of whites and blacks fighting each other like this. You would have had the Ku Klux Klan, basically terrorists, trying to break the political will of black people. And you would have had black men with guns resisting this. And I’m with you, Brian, why can’t we imagine, rather than Lincoln going off into a vapor into eternity, the chaos that’s unleashed as America tries to fight through the violence at the heart of slavery?

BRIAN: Well, and perhaps the deepest irony is that near century of violence that you refer to, Ed, is brought to an end through non-violent resistance used by civil rights protesters at lunch counters around the South, for instance.

ED: And one of their most powerful weapons are the very amendments that we see Abraham Lincoln and his colleagues instituting after the Civil War.

BRIAN: It’s time for another break. When we get back, Annie Lennox makes a cameo appearance in the American Revolution.

MALE SPEAKER: The movie was called Revolution. When I tried to go find it, the only copy I could get was a DVD where it was either a Portuguese or Brazilian distributor.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. And we’ll be right back.

BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today, we’re talking about movies, movies about history to be specific. But what exactly qualifies as history when making a movie? Sam, a listener in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania left us that question on our website. So we invited her on to talk about it. Welcome to the show, Sam.

SAM: Hi there.

PETER: Would you mind sharing your question again?

SAM: OK, well, I’ve been thinking about Zero Dark Thirty lately. I saw it, and I was reading commentary about it. And a lot of people asked, would this movie have been better– or should it have been made five to 10 years in the future when it feels less like news and more like history?

Which got me thinking, well, why isn’t it history now? Where’s the cutoff? And are movies actually better at depicting things as they get further from those actual events and eras?

ED: Well, that’s such a great question. I think it points to several different things that history is. One thing that history is is evidence. It’s a way of incorporating lots of pieces of reportage, memoir, primary documents, whatever into a sort of tapestry. That’s one thing that history is.

The other thing that history is is perspective, in that we’re able to see things in multiple angles the greater distance we get on it. And that’s kind of in the spirit that you’re asking. Wouldn’t it be better if we had more perspective?

PETER: Well, two things are going on here, I think. To some extent a film is an artifact of its time. And it immerses us in a particular moment. And the filmmaker is also trying to immerse us in a particular moment.

And I think these two different perspectives get confused and conflated. That is, I think 50, 30, 40 years from now, you’ll look at Zero Dark Thirty and say, well, I can see why that was made then and what questions were being posed. And what seemed so compelling at that time, with the nature of torture and interrogation, well, we got a different perspective. It looks differently.

And I think, Ed, you would agree that history is trying to negotiate between too much information and too much interpretation. But you’ve got to somehow simplify and reduce enough so that it’s manageable. And I think we live in our present moment in a world of, by definition, too much information.

ED: Well, the only reason, really, Zero Dark Thirty is imaginable is that it’s already a story with a limited number of characters. And what Zero Dark Thirty does is compress the number of characters even more. It compresses time even more.

And so what you’re finding, I think, is that it is as close to a journalistic account. I mean, I don’t think of it as history. I really think of it as a journalistic account. I don’t know, have we gotten anywhere toward addressing the substance of your question, Sam?

SAM: Yeah, I like that you called it journalistic. Because to me it really was trying to depict something very specific that happened, even if it is kind of recent.

ED: Sam, it’s interesting too to think about the other movie that Kathryn Bigelow made, the director, Hurt Locker, which is not a true story but based upon events that we’re unfortunately watching on the news every day of the people who are dismantling the bombs along the roads on our battlefields. Did you think that that seemed less problematic, because it did not claim to represent a true event.

SAM: I guess so, that it was made to feel a little bit more contemporary. But I still think that 20 years from now, kids could be watching either movie in history class.

BRIAN: Yeah, and Sam, I’ve just got to say a word about journalism. In fact, there is what was called the “new journalism,” which emerged in the late ’60s and 1970s, Tom Wolfe and those kinds of journalists. And the idea there was to evoke a set of feelings from one’s journalism, not simply to say who, what, where, when. And so I think that new journalism merges really quite well with the kind of films in relatively real time that we’ve been talking about today. Evoking a feeling and perhaps not getting every fact right, whether it claims to be a real story or not.

PETER: Well, Sam, thank you for shedding light on this dark subject.

BRIAN: Thank you, Sam.

SAM: Thanks, guys.

ED: Thank you, bye bye.

PETER: All right, give yourself five seconds and try to think of one film about the American Revolution. OK, there’s The Patriot with Mel Gibson. And then there’s– well, OK. The Patriot is probably the only one most of us can think of. Recently, I sat down with fellow early-American historian Mark Peterson to try to figure out why Hollywood has been so unkind to what would seem to be the most important moment in America history.

MARK PETERSON: I mean, there are certain historical genres that get played up enormously in the movies, the Western, of course, being the biggest one. And everyone could probably rattle off a dozen World War II movies off the top of their head. But Hollywood has tended to stay away from the American Revolution.

And when it has made movies about that time period, they have not been big hits. They have not been great box office successes. They have never won Academy Awards. And in my own highly amateur judgment, they are bad. They tend to be quite terrible movies that don’t last in the theaters, and people don’t remember having seen.

PETER: To understand why there are so few films about the Revolutionary War, Mark says you have to think about how most historical films work. Typically, they present complicated politics as a family drama, think brother against brother in dozens of Civil War films or the manipulative mother, brainwashed son dynamic in the Manchurian candidate. But when you try to do the same thing with the Revolutionary War, you run into a problem. It’s already a family story, and a kind of problematic one.

MARK PETERSON: I think the big problem is that, essentially, it’s a family story of patricide. It’s of the children killing the father figure. And in my own estimation, the relatively conservative world of Hollywood filmmaking is not particularly comfortable with putting a patricide story on the screen.

Well, let me rephrase that. They might be comfortable with it if it weren’t patricide leading to the birth of a free and prosperous nation, that is you have to kill off the father in order to create the United States. And, essentially, that’s what the family story of the American Revolution comes down to. And so what you find, and I admit not many people have done this, because they aren’t wonderful movies to watch.

PETER: No, I admire you, Mark. You’ve got great courage.

MARK PETERSON: I know. Well, someone has to do the dirty work. And I guess that’s me. So I did. I found a half-dozen or so of these. And I got them from Netflix and wherever and sat down and watched them. And as I looked at these, and as we talked about them in class, a certain pattern emerged because they’re so strange.

And the pattern is this. In order to have it be a revolution story, the patricide element is inescapable. But a whole bunch of these movies figure out plots to make patricide tolerable, or acceptable, or even admirable.

And the way that they do it is this, they set up the conflict in the movie as a conflict between a bad father, who almost always represents the British government in some way, and a good father who has to step in and prevent his own children being mistreated by the bad father. So what it gets turned into is a war in which bad patriarchy is overturned and got rid of but in order to reinstall or reaffirm a good kind of patriarchy. And it’s remarkable that these varied movies, produced in different eras by different directors, actors, et cetera, tend to resolve themselves around this very same plot in one strange version or another.

PETER: OK, let’s talk about some of the particular shows that you found particularly horrible.

MARK PETERSON: At the top of my list is the Mel Gibson movie, The Patriot, which came out at around 2000.

MALE SPEAKER: I understood you to be a patriot.

MEL GIBSON: If you mean by patriot, am I angry about taxation without representation, well, yes I am.

MARK PETERSON: And it is front and center an example of exactly the same kind of plot that I’m talking about. The Mel Gibson character is a kind of thinly-disguised version of South Carolina’s Frances Marion, who was a real figure, a military leader in the rebel side in the American Revolutionary War. And his story is that he had fought in the Seven Years’ War and had witnessed so much violence, and it was so horrible and disturbing that he is now a pacifist. And he has sworn off violence of all kinds.

And when the conflict that begins the American Revolution starts heating up, there are these scenes where he’s standing up in the South Carolina provisional legislature and saying, I am not going to fight, and this is not a time to fight again, and all this kind of stuff.

MEL GIBSON: I will not fight. And because I will not fight, I will not cast a vote that will send others to fight in my stead.

MALE SPEAKER: And your principles?

MEL GIBSON: I’m a parent. I haven’t got the luxury of principles.

MARK PETERSON: But he also has this large family with many sons. And the oldest and the most hotheaded of the sons, who has not lived through the violence of the Seven Years’ War, does want to go off and fight. And so he joins the continental soldiers. And then the War passes by Mel Gibson’s plantation. And that’s where everything changes, because here appears the bad father.

MEL GIBSON: This is a uniformed dispatch rider and carrying a marked case. He cannot be held as a spy.

MALE SPEAKER: Well, we’re not going to hold him. We’re going to hang him.

MARK PETERSON: This utterly despicable, incredibly violent and sadistic British officer. And he has taken the eldest son of Mel Gibson captive in the fighting. And they’re taking him away. And one of the younger sons comes up in protest against his brother being taken away. And the sadistic British officer just shoots him down in cold blood.

MALE SPEAKER: Gabriel, run!

MEL GIBSON: Thomas! Wait! No!

MARK PETERSON: Right, and so we have it, a bad father figure destroying the son of the good father figure. And this instantaneously changes everything for Mel Gibson. And he gives up his pacifism and becomes the most ferocious warrior that you’ve ever seen in your life.

And he gathers all of his sons that are still alive. There seem to be an unlimited number of them together. And they go off and they wreak vengeance against the British army in general and against the sadistic officer in particular. And so the movie can’t end until he’s finally killed the bad father in solo combat and made everything right again.

PETER: So, Mark, let’s put one other movie on the table. Let’s go back a little bit, though. Is there something from an earlier period, an effort to make sense to the American Revolution?

MARK PETERSON: Well, it’s interesting, because the next movie– if we’re going sort of backwards in time– that takes this up is a movie that came out around 1980 that Al Pacino made. The movie was called Revolution. And it too pretty much died in the American box office.

In fact, when I tried to go find it, the only copy I could get was on a DVD where it was either a Portuguese or a Brazilian distributor. And it was paired with some other movie. And there were subtitles in Portuguese on it. It’s really did not succeed.

PETER: Very cool. That’s exporting democracy, isn’t it?

MARK PETERSON: Oh, yeah. But its failure is not for the lack of a good cast. Because in addition to Pacino, it has Donald Sutherland in a major role. And it has the lead singer of the Eurythmics, Annie Lennox, in a walk-on cameo role. So it had star power for the time. But it also had one of these convoluted plots.

So the way this story goes is that Al Pacino plays this upstate New York small farmer boatman who happens to sail down the Hudson into Manhattan just as all hell is breaking loose. And just like Mel Gibson at the beginning, he has nothing to do with it. It’s not because he’s seen so much violence. It’s because, and he says this again and again, he says, it’s not my fight.

AL PACINO: Fight the whole of our life to get born, to stay alive. Fight nature to gain food and [? warmth. ?] Fight our faults to stay decent. And now to fight someone else’s [BLEEP] fight that I have no understanding of, no reason for.

MARK PETERSON: He doesn’t know what the stakes are. He doesn’t know why people– he’s not from there. He just wants to sell his stuff and go home. And with him is his little boy, a son who’s maybe 12 years old or something.

The son is unwillingly dragged into first the Continental Army. But then he gets out of that. And then he’s dragged into the British army. And while he’s in the British army, he is seized by Donald Sutherland’s character who plays a Master Sergeant.

And in a series of really ugly, although kind of vague scenes, the suggestion is made that the Donald Sutherland Sergeant is sort of the procurator for an upper-level officer who likes to prey on young boys. And so Al Pacino’s son is clearly abused by both the Sergeant and whoever this officer is. And Pacino finds out about this and comes to rescue him. And he does. And he rescues him.

And there’s all kinds of crazy scenes of the son being healed by Heron Indians off in the woods. And there’s a lot of strangeness to this movie. But this basic story is set up again that a sadistic, evil father figure, in this case, Donald Sutherland, has abused the son of a good father who now knows that he has to fight. He no longer says it’s not my fight. He’s now going to take revenge.

And the rest of the movie plays out in terms of Al Pacino hunting down Donald Sutherland just the way that Mel Gibson had hunted down the evil British officer in his movie. It’s just striking how, even though the politics of the movies are completely different, the people who made them have different ways of looking at the world, the same store is at the heart of how this works.

PETER: So I wonder, Mark, if what we’ve lost is the ability to tell the story in the terms that, well, some of the revolutionaries would have told it in that they wouldn’t have talked about killing the father figure. But they would talk about overturning despotism. And aristocracy would be a key word. Is it impossible to make a moving picture about the struggle of democracy against aristocracy.

MARK PETERSON: Oh, no. I don’t think so at all. But I think it would have to come up with some kind of plot structure that was more complicated and probably more ambivalent about the nature of authority than movies about the Revolution tend to be.

There isn’t, compared to a lot of other historical events in the United States, I don’t think there’s much willingness to imagine that the public is going to be able to think about the pros and cons of the American Revolution. It’s something that people see as an unequivocal, positive good. And so it’s not an easy world into which you can introduce a lot of ambiguity or have negative patriot characters and beneficent loyalists and that type of thing.

PETER: Imagine that you were an indie auteur kind of guy and you’re into ambiguity and conflicted loyalties, you’d have a field day, wouldn’t you?

MARK PETERSON: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The material is there. I think it’s just the willingness to believe that the American public is ready for it or a willingness to put it on the screen that prevents people from going there. But I think there’s an amazing array of potential stories there.

PETER: Mark Peterson is a professor of American History at University of California, Berkeley. If your appetite for terrible Revolutionary War films is not yet sated, you can hear Mark’s take on a third movie at our website www.backstoryradio.org.


BRIAN: That music is our queue to exit stage right, guys. That’s going to do it for us this week. To see our staff picks for the best historical films of all time, visit www.backstoryradio.org. You can also listen to all our past shows and can get a peek at what’s coming up in the next few weeks. That’s www.backstoryradio.org.

ED: You can also find us on Facebook, Tumblr, and we’re tweeting at BackStory radio.

PETER: We’ll be back next week. Thanks for listening. And don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jess Engebretson, [INAUDIBLE], and Eric Mennel. Jamal Millner is our technical director. Alan [? Chin ?] is our intern. Our senior producer is Tony Field. And our executive producer is none other than Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN: Special thanks today to the Academy, our agents, to our loving wives for always being so supportive. Am I forgetting anybody?


PETER: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein properties, the WL Lyons Brown, Junior Charitable foundation, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.