Do historical films help or hinder our understanding of the past?History is classed as a movement through time. In its own right is one of the biggest business investments in the film industry. Different directors, actors take their place in history to connect with the past through portraying historical characters which they represent a means of involving the audience.
It’s an exercise of imagination as different interpretation will influence on how a particular film portrays its target timeline. In this essay, I shall be discussing to the extent how the film is a help in our understanding of the past or whether the demand for entertainment may lead to misrepresentation of the targeted timeline. I shall be discussing 2 historical film representation, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ directed by Steven Spielberg and ‘Mississippi Burning’ directed by Alan Parker in their influence on the positives and negatives of how films help or hinder and to what extent.The first movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is a movie based around the battle plan known as Operation Overlord for which allies (British, Canadian, American and French fought their way for 50 miles through Normandy. Known as D-day, it was considered as the beginning of the end to World War 2, success would guarantee the surrender of Adolf Hitler and German forces. Under President Eisenhower creation of the largest invasion fleet in history for which an attack through France and into Germany would be massive. The time length of 4 years, the alliance were able to push through and gain Normandy for which guaranteed success in the war.
This story revolves around the terrors of war; set in June 6th 1944, at Omaha beach as character Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and a small band of 8 soldiers on a rescue mission to bring back sole surviving son of the Ryan family private James Ryan who was reported as missing in France in Normandy France. Whereas Mississippi Burning focuses on the race relations and the investigation conducted by fictional characters agent Ward (Willem Dafoe) and agent Anderson (Gene Hackman) investigating the murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Local authorities refuse to cooperate with them, and the African American community is afraid to, precipitating a clash between the two agents over strategy. As the situation becomes more volatile, the direct approach is abandoned in favor of more aggressive, hard-line tactics.
The use of film as a help of historical understanding is down to its ability to be considered as a cultural artefact. This relates to movies that reinterpret events of history in their own unique form as others movies have such as the James Bond trilogy which illustrates post-cold war anxiety such as ‘Goldeneye’ (1995) or spectre (2015) which specifically base their plot on the aspects of real life international threat, including state terrorism. Saving Private Ryan cultural artefact in to introduce the viewers to the emotions of soldiers in time of war, as the audience is acquainted with feelings such as whether the army should be risking its life to save one man and the challenge of soldiers to stay true to themselves than become cold-hearted killers which is supported by captain Miller stating ‘each time he kills a man, he feels father from home’ for these soldiers were only farm boys and English teachers. Therefore it can be argued as a cultural artifact this is a representation of a majority of soldiers as Steven Spielberg shows in as much realistic value the true horrors of war, to produce an interpretation of the chaos and senseless violence on Omaha Beach whilst serving their country. This is support by film critic Ambrose who quoted “I’m awfully glad this movie has been made, and I hope that every American sees it and I pray that the next time we send our young men off to war that we do it having seen this movie and knowing what we’re putting them into. As a cultural artefact, its indulges the audience to research the current time period, especially with the current generation as a way of making them away of the debt they have towards their grandparents/ parents due to their effort to preserve the freedom the enjoy. Support of Saving Private Ryan as a cultural artefact is the realism of the opening scene which was supported to be an accurate description by soldiers who were there such as Harold Baumgarten, a soldier of the 29th infantry, survivor or Private Henry Basey who was one of the few black soldiers that served as he thought throughout ‘I don’t think I’ll live through it’ or even from Tom Hanks who had to endure a week of boot camp just to get into the feel of holding a weapon.
Actors such as van Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi and Tom Sizemore all played their respective characters to provide a true imagine of the brutality of war. The second movie Mississippi Burning helps the understanding of the past through cultural artefact by presenting a fictional display of broad southern attitude towards the black community and the influence of the KKK. It serves as a reminder of the progress of black people as they were verbally abused through racial identification such as “Negro,” “nigga”, beaten, killed in various ways such as lynching or the destruction of their homes, churches, and farms.
However, it focuses on the deaths of all 3 activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Signs which reinforces racial tension that if you fight for the coloured people, you are an enemy of the KKK, which is why both Goodman and Schwerner were killed as racial tensions flowed through Mississippi with FBI agent Anderson describing it as ‘a war before we even got here’. On the other hand, films do hinder our understanding of the past especially in the fictionalised characters of Mississippi Burning as it could be argued some context used could have been used for entertainment purposes to lure the audience in.
An example of this shown at the start when we watch the murder of the 3 young activists as the real-life story tells a different tale. The fictional tale interprets their death as a chase by 3 cars for which they were stopped and all 3 shot with the driver being first, however, real life indicates their deaths were at the hands of KKK members after being handed to them by Deputy Price, who withheld them for speeding. This redefines how movies normally focus on the dramatic incident and frothy detail which is, in this case, the murder of the 3 activists.
CORE and NAACP created ‘freedom Summer as efforts to allow blacks, people, more education which would result in an increase of votes. This was potentially seen as the trigger for KKK violence towards the black community as due to social mind-set already in place which at the time didn’t require Klan rule by terror. Saving Private Ryan to an extent can be said was filmed on an entertainment value rather than a factual value due to its questions on the main plot itself.
Because recreation of terror can never be 100% expressed so it may hinder historical understanding of the past as the real story itself was not as dramatic as the media portrays. This is a role of a film maker to play on the subject matter as Rosenstone regarded their work ‘the rules of engagement of their visual works with the stuff of the past are and must be different from those that govern written history’. This statement refers to the idea that entertainment value may govern and manipulate the real details of that particular time line, an exchange of factual evidence for entertainment value. Furthermore, reviewer Steven Isaac viewed as family-night entertainment, “Ryan” is a casualty. But as a morality tale underscoring the horror of armed combat, it accomplishes its mission brilliantly. Reviews on Mississippi Burning stated the film as a ‘semi-documentary realism’ therefore elaborating the hindrance in terms of understanding the past.On a more positive advantage, the use of films as help to understand the past lies within the academic debates for which it provokes. This means that movies based on a historical past may influence the audience to go do some personal research in order to develop their own personal views on the subject.
Such as in movie 1, it brought forward the history of the Sullivan Law. A law crafted to stop men of the same family serving in the same hostile territory as an attempt to ensure the continuously of family bloodlines. This came about after the tragic death of 5 Sullivan brothers led to the implementation of the law as they were commended for their family loyalty quoting ‘when we all go in, we want to go in together’ said the oldest brother George with his brothers Frank, Red, Matt and AL. it was recorded Al, Matt, Frank, and Red died upon torpedoed impact, with approximately 100 men surviving impact including George who disappeared 4 days after the event in search of his brothers who went down with the ship. Their legacy led to the introduction of the Sullivan law, a navy law that has been in place since 1942. Whereas Mississippi burning presents the discussion of race relation in the USA especially southern district for the treatment of black individuals by white supremacists. It’s provided the arguments such as whether separate but equal was the correct move is justified.
It presented the real intentions of the police in their efforts to protect their citizens as the movie saw the collaboration of local police and Ku Klux clan in their efforts to spread fear. Even in the current time period, academic arguments come to live especially after all the killings of numerous innocent black males such as Alton Sterling in America by the law enforcement. A real question if the KKK influence politically and in law enforcement still works. The movie, therefore, is a vehicle for historical representation for which still exists in the current society. In this believe, filmmakers are viewed as historians for which they use their works to emphasise the time period by using evidence to conduct their work, same as a book.In conclusion to historical films can be classed as means to helping understand the past more than it is to hinder as a result, the film is another secondary source of information about the past, it can incite a whole generation to remember and research the time period which the movie is based on.
Both Saving Private Ryan and Mississippi Burning bring emphasis to the timeline which they focus on. This is down to the power it has to spark academic debates or used as means to be used as cultural artefacts. Yet its powers to hinder our understanding still play a role as we must be able to differentiate entertainment from fact.