Historical movies can provide a fun and engaging emotional hook for students, helping them to make deeper connections with stories and people of the past. But many movies purporting to tell true stories take great liberties with events, often modifying them for dramatic effect.
While teaching about the Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam, I hesitated to show the movie We Were Soldiers (2002) because it featured a sequence depicting fictionalized portions of the battle. While undoubtedly exciting, the events never occurred. I nonetheless decided to show the movie.
Afterward, I asked the students to compare the real battle with Hollywood’s version. They gave me interesting responses that demonstrated both a knowledge of history and many well-thought-out opinions as to what may have prompted the filmmakers to fictionalize the battle.
Instead of ignoring Hollywood’s idealized version of the past, educators can use historical inaccuracies in movies as an opportunity to delve deeper into real history. Moreover, these portrayals offer students the chance to explore the way media interpret complicated and often morally equivocal moments in our past.
Provide students with enough background on the topic prior to watching the movie. After students appear to have a satisfactory understanding of the material, broadly point out some of the more glaring instances of artistic license. This gives students a better chance to identify the points where the movie deviates from the historical record. Of course, be careful not to give too much of the plot away.
This preparatory phase offers some creative possibilities. Ask students to speculate about how they would present the story if they were a filmmaker or writer. What would they add or exclude? Are there real-life sequences of high drama that lend themselves perfectly to the screen? Is there anything about the characters that modern audiences may find strange or problematic?
Question the Filmmakers’ Choices
Once the class has viewed the movie, investigate when, how, and why the filmmakers chose to abandon or change historical truths. Determine what editorial choices the writer and director made, and encourage students to reflect on how those decisions affected the story.
The post-viewing phase provides an opportunity for the teacher to ask higher-order questions. What can students infer from the editorial choices about audience expectations for movies? How do those same editorial choices reinforce or contradict a nation’s perception of itself?
For example, controversy erupted over director Damien Chazelle’s decision to omit a scene of astronauts planting the U.S. flag on the moon in First Man (2018). Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, characterized the decision as “lunacy” and a “disservice” to the American people. Ryan Gosling, the film’s star, responded that the moon landing had been a “human achievement.” Such a debate offers a compelling inroad for learners to discuss the philosophies informing the way we study and portray America’s accomplishments.
Incorporate Outside Sources
Provide students with reviews of the movie that scrutinize its veracity, particularly reviews written by professional historians. Such analyses can give students a richer and more nuanced view of a film’s events.
Historian Howard Zinn, no stranger to controversy, wrote a critical review of Mississippi Burning (1988), a film that depicts the FBI’s investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers. Likewise, historians entered into a scholarly debate as to whether Cinqué, the leader of the slave revolt made famous in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), had himself become a slave trader after gaining his freedom.
Students frequently struggle when using primary sources, but connecting them to characters on the screen may foster greater interest. Consider using primary sources to pair the words and deeds of historical figures with those of their cinematic counterparts. Help students use the sources in an investigatory manner, attempting to detect anomalies in the fictional narrative with real-life artifacts.
Time is always a factor in classroom instruction. Warn students against getting lost in the thicket of historical minutiae. Discovering that certain clothes worn in a period piece are not entirely authentic to the era, while interesting, may not be the most fruitful use of time and resources.
Instead, encourage students to explore the big picture—the way the filmmakers have manipulated history to advance particular ideas and themes. In Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), there is a moment early on when Union soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address from memory. Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer characterizes the scene as “inconceivable.” Still, what better way to show the profound impression Lincoln made on the common man?
Examining a historical movie for accuracy allows educators to get creative. Students might write a review of the film with an eye for discrepancies between the real history and the fictional history. For example, the movie The Patriot (2000) features Mel Gibson as an American colonist who takes up arms against the Redcoats during the American Revolution. Gibson’s character is loosely based on several real-life militia soldiers who employed guerrilla tactics against the British. Student film reviewers could compare Gibson’s character with the revolutionaries on whom he is partially based, analyzing the unconventional warfare they used as well as their relationships with both slaves and Native Americans.
Another strategy is to ask students to rewrite a scene to better reflect what actually occurred or to act as an expert consultant on a film adaptation of a historical event. Thinking through different interpretations of the same set of facts helps students understand how art can shape an audience’s view of the past.
Refocus on the Content
Used judiciously, movies can be a powerful teaching tool. However, sometimes teachers avoid discussion of historical inaccuracies or changes in movies. Mistakes, embellishments, and omissions can be embraced as opportunities for students to learn not only about the real history of an event, but also about the ways in which history is interpreted and packaged for popular consumption. Hollywoodized history can prove both entertaining and educational.