The Art of the Historical Film

Don't demand too much

Eric Foner complains that Spielberg's Lincoln is unacceptably reductive. Timothy Burke imagines a film that might be more pleasing to historians:

. . . a terrible, unwieldy film, a towering pile of distracted attentiveness to every single causal argument and every single participant experience that historians can collectively insist belongs in the full, true, real story of how slavery was abolished in the United States. If we’re going to tell the story of abolitionism and the agency of slaves, surely we cannot leave out the larger history of slave revolts throughout the Americas and the changing role of the Atlantic system in the global political economy of the first half of the 19th Century, correct? It would be “inadequate” to assume this is an exceptional American story. Surely we’d have to continue the story into Reconstruction so that viewers don’t misunderstand and think that slavery really, truly completely came to an end? Surely we need to show what industrial labor in the North was like between the 1830s and the 1870s to give the audience a fuller context for understanding labor, freedom and rights? Surely there are other stories of antebellum political and judicial drama that need to be told alongside the story of the Thirteenth Amendment, so that it (or Lincoln) doesn’t appear entirely exceptional. Surely we need still more of the story of ordinary soldiers on both sides? Of the role of gender in abolition and slavery? I am only very slightly kidding here: this is precisely the stuff of scholarly historiography, as it should be. But when we view a film and begin to inevitably see its incomplete nature as ‘inadequacy’, we’re committing a category error on several levels.

I am that person who annoys the hell out of her husband by pointing out every single anachronism in historical films, and whiles away happy hours reading posts on the same topic by others. But Burke is right: for most people, a movie that hewed exactly to the historical period would not be a "better" movie; it would be an interminable festival of nitpickery.

Even nitpickers understand this when they are in the creator role. One of my favorite authors is Jack Finney, who wrote Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the novel that became the movie), but also a great deal of science fiction about time, and time travel. His most famous book--deservedly so--is a novel called Time and Again, about a man who steps out of the 1970s and into 1880s New York.

Finney's historical research was so meticulous that he ended up writing a non-fiction book called Forgotten News just to use up some of his research overflow. Yet when he needed the Dakota apartment building to exist in 1882 New York, even though it hadn't been built until 1885, he happily moved it there. Would it have been a "better" story if he'd insisted on perfect historical fidelity--or if he'd included a 200 page treatise on social change, race relations, and exchange rate policy in 1880s America? I invite you to read it yourself and answer that question. But I doubt anyone would have read the resulting book.

Which would be a great pity because what Finney really excelled at was making you strain to see the physical and social world of 1880, to feel as if it was real and ordinary and perhaps a bit banal. I don't want to say that's more important than a dry, accurate tome that's read by 30 people. But surely there is also an important role for those who can kindle the intellectual fires, even if the fire will ultimately require more fuel.

Obviously, we can and should ask that such works not be wildly inaccurate, or untrue to their subject. But demanding that they function as the equivalent of an academic lecture is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role they play.