Posts Tagged ‘Historical Films’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day, I made a commitment. Since I will be teaching a Civil War history course in the Fall, I wanted to take a look at the over 4 hour, seriously mini-series-esqe 1939 Hollywood classic Gone With Wind. Yep. Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, gone_with_the_wind_smTara Plantation and all that jazz.  It may seem strange, but I had never seen the film.  Since Gone With Wind is probably the most famous, and most watched Civil War film ever made, I figured I better spend some time viewing it to see what all the fuss is about, and to see if the movie had any classroom usage.

I must admit, I came into this experience with some prejudices.  Though I had never seen it, I knew that Gone falls between the poles of beloved pop-culture icon, and disturbing Hollywood racism.  On the icon side, lines such as ‘Frankly My Dear, I don’t give a damn,’ and ‘As God as my witness, I’ll never go hungry again’ are part of movie lore.  However, you can only romanticize so much. Gone is now famous, or perhaps infamous is a better term, for it’s racism. Racial caricatures are central to the film.

I knew this going in. Coming out the other side, I was even more disturbed than I thought I might be.

First, I want to say that I am no movie critic.  However, I thought the film was really

pretty atrocious.  I have watched films from ‘Hollywood’s Golden Age’ and I would have to say Gone is not one that really holds up well to the modern viewer. I will be honest, I got through about 3 hours, and I had had enough.

But, perhaps the early turn off had to do with the level of offensiveness in the film? Even though I realized the film was racially insensitive, I had no idea just how obscene it really was.

Obscenity may seem like a strange word to use when talking about Gone. The word itself is usually still regarded as a descriptive term of sex or smut, and Gone is lacking in those regards. However, as French historian Joan DeJean pointed out in 2002, the word ‘obscene’ has begun to take on a different connotation in our society.

Of late, obscene seems to be moving beyond the meaning it slowly acquired in early modern French — ‘immodest’, ‘indecent’ — and to be taking on two new meanings: first, any subject that we find hard to look at and therefore do not want to see represented….; second, as a semantic catchall for actions we consider morally indecent.’

And, just like all words, ‘swear words’ change over time.  As Melissa Mohr illustrated in her extremely interesting book, Holygone-with-the-wind-shouldnt-be-romanticized Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, the most taboo words in our society are no longer words to describe sexual acts, or bodily functions. Instead, over the last twenty years, racial epitaphs have become the unholy of unholies. Racialized attack language has the power to disgust, anger and enrage. It has the ability to destroy friendships, get people fired, or ruin political careers. The obscene of today is open outspoken racism.

By this definition, Gone With the Wind is incredibly obscene.  As mentioned, caricatures of African-Americans abound in the film. Black men and women are depicted as fools, cowards and buffoons. Related, and just as disturbing is the historical mythology the film furthers using such stereotypes. The bold-faced lie that African-Americans were happy-go-lucky simpletons who stayed with their masters gladly after emancipation, or gullible tools of aggressive white northerners has a long sordid history. Gone reinforced these harmful, hateful myths for American film goers in the 1930’s. Even more disturbingly, many historically illiterate Americans still undoubtedly accept the film’s depictions of race-relations as truth. With this in mind, you can understand why Chuck D would sing ‘Burn, Hollywood, Burn’.

And, if it’s obscene racism is not enough, the outright sexism in the film is nearly as disturbing.  The women in Gone are depicted as foolish children who need to be told what to do. They sit at home waiting for their men to come home from war, twiddling their thumbs and crying into their pillows. Once their men return, all life has meaning again. Of course, if they get too uppity, such as Scarlett, they need to be knocked down. Rhett will take care of that.

As I watched this horror-show, all I could think was, ‘my goodness, I don’t want to let my girls see this.’  My daughters are 8 and 6 respectively, and this is the type of obscenity I want them to avoid until they are older.  But, oh, the irony!  Gone With The Wind is a ‘classic’. It’s not late night TV for mature audiences only.  Heck, I am sure a great deal of Americans would think the film wholesome.

But, it is not. Not at all. It is marked with an obscenity that I don’t want my children to see.

Advertisements

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Over the last couple of weeks I have been slowly watching, and greatly enjoying, the HBO miniseries John Adams.  HBO always does  historical dramas well.  The Pacific, Band of Brothers and Rome are all worth your time, if you can take the violence and heartbreak.  Though not as violent, or heartbreaking, John Adams is also well worth a viewing.

As someone who teaches history, I am always looking for realism when it comes to film/television drama.  I have written about this on the Turtle before, so I won’t go into it too much, but suffice to say, the thing that independence-03-1024concerns me about verisimilitude in drama is not historical minutiae. I can get over an anachronistic hairstyle, or an incorrectly used musket.   What  I can’t forgive is when filmmakers/TV producers create anachronistic mentalities for their historical characters.  An out of place, or out of time, character’s worldview can ruin the reality of a piece.  Anachronistically transporting our ideals onto the past may make audiences like characters more, but it muddies up historical reality.

John Adams does quite well in it’s portrayal of early American mentalities.  For instance, the first and second episodes of the series vividly portray how the Revolutionary generation, and Adams in particular, struggled with the decision to break with England.  Though not usually taught in our schools, most men and women of 1776 loved England and the King. They generally saw themselves as children of the mother country.  In fact, it is not too far fetched to state that many of the arguments for revolution sprang from the notion that America and Americans were the true heirs of what it meant to be English. The revolutionaries viewed the English Parliament, and the King’s advisors, as attempting to take away the freedoms inherent to being an Englishman. The colonists believed they were being enslaved (yes, they used this word with no irony). As Englishmen, the revolutionaries believed it was fully just to rebel. Rebellion against oppression was a natural right of being English, and Adams and Jefferson and Washington thought of themselves as such.

This seemingly odd, but very much true, mentality is front and center in John Adams.  The love of Albion is obvious for these men and women, as displayed by their actions and their words.  And not just the words they speak, but how they speak those words.  The newly minted Americans in John Adams often have a tinge of an English accent, and though we can’t know how the Founders sounded, it seems ‘realistic’ that the men and women of the Revolutionary generation had a definable and recognizable English ‘twang’. Watch the short clip below for an illustration.

My question, which may be unanswerable, is when did Americans lose this accent?   At which point did Americans living in what used to be British territory stop sounding British themselves?  And, perhaps even more interestingly, why did this occur?

There may be no one to answer  for the first question.  Perhaps we could closely read the extant writings of men and women who were not well educated during the early years of the Republic in order to see how they spelled phonetically, and hence, catch a glimpse of a fading English speech, but that seems questionable at best.   I just don’t know. Maybe some linguist already has theorized an answer I am not aware of?  If that is the case, and you, Turtle readers, know the answer or source, feel free to clue me in and enlighten my dark ignorance.

One thing is clear however, and that is the fact that in today’s America we don’t sound much like Brits any longer.  Why this change occurred seems obvious.  The history of immigration to America must be the key to our American accent/accents. The years and years of immigrant groups bringing their languages, their accents and their dialects into this nation has caused our language to become the hodgepodge that we now know as American English.   It seems to me this makes sense.  And, as I did a little research on this subject, I came upon this fascinating CBS News story about a small fishing/tourist community on the Outer Banks of North Carolina that strengthened my notion.

The ‘brogue’ these island natives speak obviously has a bit of Irish-ness to it.  This must be the shadows of their ancestors’ speech. With few newcomers flooding the islands, and a roughly homogeneous ethnic poplulation, it seems this little island kept an ‘old-world’ sounding accent. As more and more outsiders come to the island, the accent disappears.

But, I have one last question on this topic?  If the brogue can still exist on that island, can we still see the remnants of the ‘old English’ accent at play somewhere in the nation?  Let’s look: The New York/New Jersey/Pennsylvania corridor?  No, I don’t think so.  The Midwest seems to be a no.  You can throw the Southwest out as well. But, what about the South?  Perhaps we can still hear the English accent in some southern twangs?   I have always thought so, and this quick two minute video seems to provide the proof.

Just a little something to add even more romance to the old Southland.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The other evening, I drove past our local movie theater and noticed an intriguing movie poster under the ‘coming soon’ sign.  With just a glance as I passed by, I saw “Monument’s Men”, and the names George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray.  I did a quick double take, and made a mental note to look up the movie when I got home, hoping to find a preview.

I was afraid ‘Monument’s Men” might be a second-rate superhero flick, instead of a reference to a little known story of WWII.  In 1944-46, a small group of American soldiers traveled the liberated areas of Hitler’s Europe looking for the great works of art that Hitler, Goering, and their underlings had looted from both the museums of Europe, and the personal holdings of ‘racial and political undesirables.’  These soldiers nee art historians, archeologists, historians, and artists were known as the Monument’s Men. Their stories have been told in several books, including Lynn Nicholas’ The Rape of Europa, and more recently, Robert Edsal’s Monument’s Men.   I was relieved that the preview of the upcoming movie dealt not with space aliens wearing capes, but with real heroes, in real life situations.  Have a look:

I must say, I am bit conflicted by this preview.   This movie has some promise, with good actors in Clooney, Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and John Goodman.  Also, Clooney is a highly praised director.  But, I am always a bit concerned when a serious subject gets the silly humor treatment from Hollywood.  This preview makes it seem that this movie may be littered with such moments.  Also, when Clooney and Damon are sitting in the bar, having their o so charming conversation, it seems like a scene from Ocean’s Eleven.  Regardless, I am sure I will see the film both for entertainment, and possible educational purposes.

The story this film will tell is incredibly important, and yet, largely forgotten.  Most educated Americans realize Hitler had dreams of being an artist, but few appreciate the centrality art always had for Hitler’s worldview, and how he and his Nazi pals both wanted to ‘cleanse’ the ‘degenerate modernist art’ of the day, and loot all great works of Western Civilization for the people of Germany.  Hopefully this film deals with that aspect of the story in a serious, entertaining fashion. What surprised me most as I watched the preview is how long Hollywood ignored this story.  It is really a romantic adventure tale that is made for celluloid.  The Monuments Men were solving mysteries that would make Indiana Jones jealous.

This makes me frustrated.  I want to call the movie studios and yell, ‘darn it Hollywood, stop neglecting history! You are ignoring obviously incredible tales in order to produce Star Trek 50, Iron Man 24 and the Hangover 4.”

bill-and-teds-excellent-adventure-napoleon

How Hollywood has depicted Napoleon

To help alleviate this issue, I shall present for the imaginary film producers reading this post a short list of ideas for future projects:

  • Napoleon – There has been a strange paucity of films dealing with the life, accomplishments and crimes of General/Emperor Bonaparte. Now, I do realize there was an influential 1927 silent film done by Abel Gance dealing the life of Napoleon, but not much has come afterwards.  For a guy who so central to the shape of our modern history, Napoleon has been a neglected figure in Hollywood….Bill and Ted not withstanding.
  • The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand – Some historians have argued that the killing of Franz Ferdinand by Serbian terrorists in July of 1914 is the most important event of the 20th century.  The murder of Franz was the spark that ignited the First World War. The First World War was central to the rise of Fascism, Nazism and Bolshevism. And, WWII.  Then the Atomic bomb. Cold War. And on and on. Make a movie about this day.  The story of how it happened could make for an incredible thriller.

    princip460x276

    Artist’s rendition of the assassination

  • Female soldiers in the Civil War – Many women slipped into the ranks, and fought side by side with men during the American Civil War.  Many lived to tell the tale, and others died on the battlefield, giving their comrades an shock.  Such stories would be made for our age, as women become more common on American battlefields.

Just a couple of ideas. If any big time movers and shakers read this, then let’s do lunch.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time in years. I think it is fair to say that Steven Spielberg is America’s most famous, if not most popular director. This is a bit surprising since  Spielberg’s oeuvre the last couple decades provides evidence that he is obsessed with history, a subject American’s are notoriously NOT obsessed with.  Since 1993, he has released films such as Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, War Horse, and Lincoln. Surprisingly, each has been commercially successful.

Indiana_Jones

Raiders of the Lost Ark: What Spielberg does well.

As a history teacher, I definitely understand Spielberg’s love of history, and I appreciate that he utilizes his considerable influence to create and produce films about historical events.  That being said, I need to make an unlikely request. He should stop making historical films, and  stick with his true calling:  Fantasies, adventures, and feel good dramas.  His films like Jaws, ET, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Catch Me If You Can and Jurassic Park are great fun, and I, like most people, enjoy them. The issue I have is that the methodology Spielberg uses for such lighthearted fare is the same he uses for his serious historical films.   He directs films about the Holocaust or the Atlantic Slave Trade in an oddly similar fashion to his films about dinosaurs and aliens.  In adventure/fantasy films, his methods work splendidly.  In historical dramas, they are overbearing, saccharine and misplaced.  Here are three examples:

  • Too Much Mood Music: Perhaps Spielberg’s repeated use of overly-emotional music is not that surprising, considering some of his early successes.  Just try to think of a shark at this point without humming the song from Jaws.  The heroic tune for Indiana Jones is almost as iconic.  Of course, in those movies such music works; but in a historical film, music must be carefully selected since it can create quick, and intense emotional reactions that can cloud the complexity of history.  Spielberg evidently can’t help but use soaring, emotive scores for his films, which has the tendency to transform Abe Lincoln into Indiana Jones, or Oscar Schindler into ET.  Spielberg’s music is so sentimental, and ubiquitous, that it becomes overbearing. This is most notable in his 1997 film Amistad, during which the emotional music was almost constantly played during the 2 1/2 hour film.  Each scene of that film had harmonies that pushed your feelings into the director’s desired corridor.  Scene on the slave ship: Ominous music.  Scene in the Supreme Court: Uplifting music.  Such easy emotional ploys simplify the human complexity of the past, creating good and bad guys by use of a melody. (See Lincoln Preview below for a taste of Spielberg’s methods)
  • Misplaced Humor: Spielberg can be a master of understated humor.  In Jurassic Park, Jeff Goldblum’s sarcastic zingers are worth the price of admission alone.  However, in historical films, Spielberg’s understated, sometimes goofy humor falls flat.  You can see this most clearly in Spielberg’s most critically acclaimed, and serious film, Schindler’s List.  On the whole, the director avoided such moments in his 1993 masterpiece, except for one instance of strange, awkward levity.  Early in Schindler’s List, we see a large number of Jews being forced into the ghetto, while Polish children yell at, and women spit on, them as they pass. One rich Jewish family grabs our attention, since they are so obviously shocked by the hatred they face.  In the next scene, the rich couple settle down in their enforced apartment, and the wife says the housing situation could be worse. The husband screams in reply, “How could it possibly be worse!?!”  At precisely that moment, five or so Hasidim men and women walk into the apartment, each saying hello to the couple one at a time with bows and raised hats.  Up until this moment, the audience had been focusing on this couple’s loss of privacy, freedom and dignity.  After this goofy representation of cultures clashing (rich/poor; non-practicing/Orthodox; Western/Eastern), the audience is transported into a dour ‘Laurel and Hardy’ sketch.
  • Monologue Speeches:  Last November, I saw Spielberg’s Lincoln in the theater. The movie felt like three hours of monologues.  Most characters in the film had at least one emotional, individual speech, while Abe Lincoln had too many to count.   When Lincoln pontificated about slavery or the war, every character in the room went silent, and listened to the wise sage.  No one argued. No one moved. The camera came in close, and the audience was made to listen and learn. Immediately after I walked out of the theater, I just assumed Spielberg had done what so many others had done before: Transformed Lincoln into a brilliant martyr who evidently understood the future of humanity. Part politician, part cherub. But, after watching Private Ryan, I realized Spielberg imparts monologues in most of his serious films.  In Ryan, there were two to three scenes that were blatant examples that had me rolling my eyes. For instance, in the scene linked below, George C. Marshall reassures some of his doubting underlings that American troops must be sacrificed in order to rescue Private Ryan.  Marshall waxes poetic by reading a letter by none other than Abe Lincoln to prove the necessity of a rescue operation.  The music swells, the camera zooms, and we now have our moral lesson.   How predictable. How ridiculous.

So, Mr. Spielberg, I plead with you, focus exclusively on aliens, spaceships, dinosaurs and comic-book archaeologists.

What’s that?  You have plans for an Indiana Jones 5?  Excellent.