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TitleThe filmmaker as historian
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Table of Contents
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		Volume Information [pp.  1450 - 1495]
		Front Matter [pp.  i - x]
			History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History onto Film [pp.  1173 - 1185]
			Am I a Camera? Other Reflections on Films and History [pp.  1186 - 1192]
			Historiography and Historiophoty [pp.  1193 - 1199]
			History in Images/Images in History: Reflections on the Importance of Film and Television Study for an Understanding of the Past [pp.  1200 - 1209]
			The Filmmaker as Historian [pp.  1210 - 1227]
		The Mask of Obedience: Male Slave Psychology in the Old South [pp.  1228 - 1252]
		Junípero Serra's Canonization and the Historical Record [pp.  1253 - 1269]
		Philip and Alexander as Kings: Macedonian Monarchy and Merovingian Parallels [pp.  1270 - 1286]
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		Collected Essays [pp.  1431 - 1439]
		Documents and Bibliographies [pp.  1440 - 1442]
		Other Books Received [pp.  1443 - 1448]
		Communications [p.  1449]
		Front Matter [pp.  1(a) - 58(a)]
                        
Document Text Contents
Page 1

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Page 2

AHR Forum
The Filmmaker as Historian

ROBERT BRENT TOPLIN

IN RECENT DECADES, historians have eagerly turned to an analysis of films for
insights into the changing interests of past generations. They have, for example,
treated dramatic film as a mirror that reflects the conscious and unconscious values
of the producers and their audiences. Historians also have examined film and
television in order to study the history of the entertainment industry and to
understand film's role as an influence on public opinion and as an instrument of
propaganda. ' Robert A. Rosenstone focuses, however, on another area of
investigation-on film as a representation of the past. Surprisingly, historians have
given very little formal attention to this topic. Occasionally, they write reviews of
films dealing with historical themes, but very few have analyzed broad questio is
about film's potential for interpreting history. Consideration of the differen-es
between written discourse and filmed history are noticeably absent, and few
scholars assess the implications of film's new prominence as a popular commu-
nicator of history.

Academicians often look skeptically on the media's renditions of history and for
good reason. They have seen history compromised, stretched, abused, and
fabricated. The strong Nielsen ratings for historical dramas such as Roots (1977),
Holocaust (1978), and Shogun (1980) give them little reason for enthusiasm, since
the producers of these films exploited artistic license to invent scenes, characters,
and dialogue.2 Documentaries, with their supposedly educational format, disap-
point, too, in that filmmakers often construct them with an eye to entertainment
value rather than the priorities of scholarship. Gerda Lerner, in an article in the
Journal of American History eight years ago, acknowledged the popularity of the new

' See, for example, Robert A. Rosenstone, "Genres, History, and Hollywood: A Review Article,"
Comparative Studies in Society and History, 27 (1985): 368-70; Garth Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art
(Boston, 1976); Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York,
1976); John E. O'Connor and Martin A. Jackson, eds., American HistorylAmerican Film: Interpreting the
Hollywood Image (New York, 1979); Ian C. Jarvie, Movies as Social Criticism: Aspects of Their Social
Psychology (Metuchen, N.J., 1978).

'2 For a discussion of the growing popularity of docudramas, see Robert B. Musburger, "Setting the
Stage for the Television Docudrams,"Journal of PopularFilm and Television, 13 (Summer 1985): 92-101;
Joseph P. McKerns, "Television Docudramas: The Image as History," Journalism History, 7 (Spring
1980): 24; Eric Breitbart, "From the Panorama to the Docudrama: Notes on the Visualization of
History," Radical History Review, 25 (1981): 115-25; Thomas W. Hoffer and Richard Alan Nelson,
"Evolution of Docudrama on American Television Networks: A Content Analysis, 1966-1978,"
Southern Speech Communications Journal, 45 (Winter 1980): 149-63.

1210

Page 9

The Filmmaker as Historian 1217

out that facts do not speak for themselves and that the filmmaker must speak for
them. 19

Exceptions to the rule are worthy of study, for a few films take viewers beyond
neatly packaged history and confront them with questions about the way a
researcher obtains evidence and draws conclusions. These films do not usually
accomplish the task through formal instruction in methodology. Rather, they act
as subtle communicators that, by example, illustrate the value of critical thinking.
Radio Bikini (1987), a film about the atomic explosions at the Bikini atoll in 1946,
illustrates some of the possibilities. It challenges viewers to consider the uses of
evidence by showing them a film within a film. Radio Bikini presents a wide
assortment of original films gathered when the U.S. Navy planned to produce a
lengthy documentary about the atomic tests.20 The military brought 104 still
cameras, 208 motion picture cameras, and eighteen tons of film to the sites, and
Radio Bikini's producer Robert Stone uncovered much of the uncut footage
collected for the navy's documentary at the National Archives. The U.S. govern-
ment eventually abandoned plans to produce the documentary when levels of
radiation at the bomb sites turned out to be surprisingly high, and the buildup of
the cold war made atomic weapons an increasingly sensitive issue. For years, the
extensive record of the project remained tucked away, and Stone had to make
considerable effort to gain access to the materials.2'

As in Davis's Hearts and Minds, Stone presented evidence without use of a
narrator or host. He included original film footage along with excerpts from radio
broadcasts and newsreels and interviews with just two individuals: a "chief" of the
Bikini islanders and a navy veteran who had been present for the tests. Most
important, he showed that the original producers staged many of the scenes from
the "Operation Crossroads" project. By including the original "takes" (complete
with clapboard and scene calls) as well as outtakes and shots of the photographers
and cinemagraphic equipment at Bikini, Stone reminds audiences that people
stand behind the images that make up a historical documentary. The cinematog-
rapher or the director, driven by personal goals or the purposes of the sponsoring
institution, often selects scenes and interviews by design rather than by randomly
choosing evidence from the scene of history. Radio Bikini shows that "facts" in a
documentary are not neutral, and the configuration of choices affects the structure
of interpretation. This message comes across powerfully when the film displays
several "takes" in which a military officer changes his delivery so that he can more
persuasively tell the islanders (in a speech rehearsed on film) that the atomic bombs
will do "something good for mankind." Radio Bikini allows us to witness the making
of propaganda, and it challenges us to ask what we can believe about filmed

19 Hayden White's remarks on written history relate to this discussion. See Tropics of Discourse: Essays
in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore, Md., 1978), 121-30. Also see Bill Nichols, Ideology and Image: Social
Representation in the Cinema and Other Media (Bloomington, Ind., 1981), 237.

? For a discussion of the purposes of the tests, see W. A. Shurcliff, Bombs at Bikini: The Official Report
of Operation Crossroads (New York, 1947). David Bradley, a medical doctor assigned to the testing site,
expressed concern about the dangers of radioactivity in No Place to Hide: 1946/1984 (Hanover, N.H.,
1983).

21 Interview with Robert Stone, May 23, 1988.

Page 10

1218 Robert Brent Toplin

evidence. It raises pointed questions about fairness to the exiled islanders and the
safety of the sailors who were transported to the radioactive ships near ground zero
shortly after the explosions. Stone effectively uses the navy's own documentary
footage to call into question the very conclusions the U.S. government wanted
viewers to reach.

While Stone's film works splendidly as an imaginative examination of propa-
ganda, its structure and dramatic production techniques reveal the interpretive
style of the filmmaker in bold relief. As producer, director, and editor, Stone made
conscious decisions that shaped the film's conclusions. For instance, he selected
only two individuals for present-day interviews-both of them victims of the U.S.
presence at Bikini. The presentation of archival film footage also is selective. It
consistently shows U.S. military, medical, and political figures in awkward
performances. The personnel deliver their rehearsed lines badly and show
non-spontaneous behavior. In contrast, the footage showing the islanders almost
always portrays a happy and serene people living in an unusually beautiful setting
that is about to be destroyed. Sweet Marshallese music accompanies several of these
scenes. Raising questions about these techniques should not suggest a defense of
the atomic tests at Bikini. But the analysis is useful for considering the ways in
which a producer carefully chooses samples from thousands of feet of film to
establish a thesis. Radio Bikini's exciting approach to the original source material
draws attention to questions about interpretation and persuasion.

THE PUBLIC DOES NOT EXPECT AN INTRODUCTION TO HISTORIANS' debates when
watching a film about the past. Rarely do films point directly to historiographical
questions, and they almost never give specific attention to the scholars who are
behind them. Yet films, by their presentation of evidence and attempts to draw
conclusions, take sides. Through example, they contribute to the controversies that
animate historical writing. Indeed, many producers fashion their films as state-
ments on these debates, for they draw their conclusions from the theses of
influential monographs. The connection, then, between media and print-oriented
interpretation is often significant, even though film reviews rarely take note of the
relationship.

Peter Watkins's The Battle of Culloden (1966) provides an interesting example of
the interconnectedness between film and print. For a number of years, "Bonnie
Prince Charlie" had been the subject of romantic depictions in historical writing,
novels, poetry, and song. A Hollywood film showed him sailing into the sunset at
the end while a tearful Flora MacDonald waved from a windy hilltop. Watkins
borrowed ideas from John Prebble's popular narrative, Culloden (1961), to make
an unusual docudrama. His BBC production assaulted the legends about Charles
Edward Stuart, showing him to be cowardly and indecisive in the famous battle
near Inverness, Scotland. The Battle of Culloden, though a film, stirred debates in
scholarly circles, and Susan MacLean Kybett, in a lengthy new biography of
Charles Edward Stuart, admitted that the television film excited her interest in

Page 18

1226 Robert Brent Toplin

WHILE ACADEMICIANS HAVE AMPLE REASON TO EXPRESS DISAPPOINTMENT over the
many poor efforts to portray history on film, their suspicions about the funda-
mental handicaps of filmed history vis-a-vis written history appear exaggerated.
The case studies suggested here represent only one sampling of dramatic and
documentary films that, in one way or another, make a contribution to our
thinking. Numerous other entries could receive consideration, including the
products of filmmakers in Latin America, Asia, and other regions, in a different
sampling of visual perspectives that can illuminate questions about the past. I

believe Rosenstone is essentially correct when he suggests that the new visual
history is not really a foreign, distinct field of study but a field that shares much
with the traditions of written discourse. Films use different techniques to explain

the past, but the truths conveyed in images are not necessarily in conflict with the

truths conveyed in words. Films may not deliver precisely the gift of understanding
that we expect of written scholarship, but they show exciting potential for
providing their own insights. As a stimulus for thought and feeling, as a visual text

addressing broad problems, as a foray into historiography, or as a sensitive
reconstruction of times, places, people, and events, films can promote new ideas.

Perhaps, then, film does not represent a formidable challenge to the historical
profession through substitution of visual interpretation for written interpretation.
The two modes of telling historical tales are different but related, and the goals

of the storytellers are-or ought to be-related. Perhaps a greater problem is the

separation of the storytellers in two different worlds. Very few historians are

significantly involved in the making of historical films, and very few filmmakers
are themselves impressively literate in the scholarship on subjects they address in
film. This division of territories, with one group assuming charge of written activity
and the other of visual representation, has disturbing implications in the age of

the electronic media. Filmmakers, assuming the role of historians, are interpreting
the past for ever larger audiences in the late twentieth century. Academicians often

bemoan this state of affairs, troubled by a sense that flashy salesmen are intruding
on their turf and marketing colorful packages to gullible clients. They fear for a

future in which the public's historical "literacy" will be drawn from superficial
products of the media.46 But expressions of anger and contempt will not make

filmed history go away; the public's enthusiasm for it is likely to grow in the decades

ahead. Historians can deal with the crisis by becoming filmmakers themselves, but

this option is realistic for only a few, and representatives of the media, not the

academy, will always dominate the field of film production. What should be done?

One of the first tasks for consideration is to recognize producers, directors,
writers, and editors for what they have become-historians. Their techniques of

communication are different, yet in many respects their tasks are similar to the

ones faced by interpreters who employ written discourse. And if filmmakers are,

46 For a discussion of the way producers rather than professional historians dominate the media's
interpretations of history, see James C. Curtis, "Clio's Dilemma: To Be a Muse or to Be Amusing," in
Ian M. G. Quimby, ed.,Material Culture and the Study ofAmericanLife (New York, 1978), 202-03,2 14- 15;
William H. Cohn, "History for the Masses: Television Portrays the Past,"Journal of Popular Culture, 10
(Fall 1976): 286.

Page 19

The Filmmaker as Historian 1227

in effect, historians, some of the questions typically posed about authors are
applicable to them. We need to know, for instance, how the filmmaker operates
within the context of historiography. It is unfortunate, of course, that producers
often work without the broad exposure to relevant scholarship that is expected of
academic historians. Nevertheless, producers do frequently operate under the
influence of specific works in print. When the academician analyzes a film, it is
helpful to appreciate which books made a strong impression on the historian-
filmmaker and to consider how the theses in those works sornetimes affected the
filmed interpretation. In examining Vietnam: A Television History, for example, it
is useful to know that George C. Herring's America's Longest War (1979) served as
a bible to some of the producers or that David Bradley's No Place to Hide inspired
Robert Stone in his work on Radio Bikini. It is important, too, to understand how
filmmakers operate in the context of other media productions. Like the historian
who models a monograph on the technique or structure of an influential work,
filmmakers often approach their subject with a seminal example of film in mind.
When Peter Davis produced Hearts and Minds, for instance, he was deeply
impressed by the example of The Sorrow and the Pity (1972), a powerful documen-
tary about French collaboration with the Nazis. Stone found a model in the film,
Atomic Cafe (1982), which compiled original footage concerning the U.S. atomnic
testing program. An understanding of "filmography" as well as historiography can
throw light on the interpreter's perspective and technique.

Consideration of the filmmaker's approach represents one step toward a larger
task for academicians. If filrned history is to receive greater public attention in the
years ahead, historians will want to place its products under greater scrutiny. The
profession lacks a broad dialogue about the criteria for judging the media's
perspectives, an extensive discussion of what is expected from film as well as what
is not. Historians have devoted considerable time to viewing film as a symbol that
reflects the conscious and subconscious thoughts of people in earlier ages, but they
have given surprisingly little attention to its promise and shortcomings in
re-creating the past. Until they more aggressivelyjudge the filmmaker as historian,
they will leave much of the field of popular interpretation, by default, to people
who operate free of the pressures that monitor scholarship. I am reminded of the
words of a responsible filmmaker who expressed surprise at the latitude a
producer enjoys in rendering history to the public. "Nobody is watching us," he
said.

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