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About this book

This definitive interdisciplinary collection by leading scholars probes the theoretical and historical contexts of films made about the American past, from silent film to the present. The book offers a fresh assessment of studio era historical filmmaking and its legacy across a range of genres.

Table of Contents

1. Film and History: Artifact and Experience

For most historians films are first and foremost artifacts, human-made objects for particular human use much like the many other objects with which man fills his environment. For some historians these artifacts, again like many others, can become, in the historians’ limited special vocabulary, “documents” or “sources”—works that can be read in such a way as to provide knowledge of the history of the people who make and use such objects. Not all historians are comfortable with such sources: they appear too slippery, too easily manipulated. Others confine their use to service as additional evidence confirming what they have already learned from the use of “harder” data: films of the Depression era “document” social tensions that historians know initially from social surveys; science fiction films of the 1950s “demonstrate” the anxieties of the period of McCarthy and the Cold War, already common knowledge as the result of research on Congressional investigations or detailed study of newspapers.
Warren I. Susman

2. Film History, Reconstruction, and Southern Legendary History in The Birth of a Nation

The timing was right: 1915 was the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War. D.W. Griffith’s notorious film masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation, purports to reveal the truth of America’s Civil War and Reconstruction from 1861 to 1877. The film is mostly set in a small town in the Piedmont part of South Carolina, although there are scenes which take place in Washington, DC, and a series of battles which purport to show some of the bitterest parts of the war, such as the burning of Atlanta or the final siege at Petersburg, Virginia. The film itself was shot entirely in California, so its geographical location is at best intended to suggest an approximate terrain. There are no location shots, although a number of scenes, such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, are taken—intertitles insist—directly from actual historic engravings or photographs.
David Culbert

3. The Hollywood Western, the Movement-Image, and Making History

The Hollywood Western from the silent era through the Second World War is, in many ways, the pre-eminent genre to trace the rise and fall of a mode of American history-making through cinema. Key pre-Second World War Westerns—The Covered Wagon (Cruze, 1923), The Iron Horse (Ford, 1924), The Virginian (De Mille, 1914; Forman, 1923; Fleming, 1929), Stagecoach (Ford, 1939), and Destry Rides Again (Marshall, 1939)—are tied to a historical project of nation-building. These films convey a form of historicizing based on the nineteenthcentury faith in the constancy and universality of Truth, the efficacy of enlightened moral action, and chronological progress invoking the ultimate aim of history. Historians Francis Parkman, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Theodore Roosevelt were the most eloquent exponents of Western history and its powerful ties to American nationhood.1 In the first few decades of the twentieth century, their vision of the Western frontier world was expressed onscreen through an organic montage that inspired awe and confidence in the imperative of moral purpose through progressive action on the natural and social environment. By the late 1930s, if not earlier, a lack of confidence in cinema’s capacity for transforming the world through action became evident. Certain Westerns—The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and the 1946 version of The Virginian—are symptomatic of an uncertainty, if not loss of belief, in national unity, identity, and ethical purpose symbolized by the frontier.
Marcia Landy

4. Ripping the Portieres at the Seams: Lessons from Streetcar on Gone with the Wind

In the course of researching Hollywood’s re-imagining of national and regional U.S. identities in the mid-twentieth century, I spent considerable time with the run of popular films throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s adapted from the work of Tennessee Williams, a run that effectively began with A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).1 My primary project with the Williams films was to confront what I’ve come to call the “leaky” forms of white subjectivity and cinematic space that riddle them, in order to understand how those forms fuse together a then re-imagined screen South and a range of “slightly queer” identities, and the implications of their having done so precisely during the Civil Rights era.2 In the course of that work I made an unanticipated discovery, the subject of the present chapter, also relevant to the complex representational histories of identity embedded in the history of popular moving image culture. What I also learned from Streetcar came when I next taught Gone with the Wind (1939), upon watching it again with my students. For I then recognized, with a level of awareness and precision I had acquired through its deconstruction in Streetcar, a familiar cinematic syntax for conjuring white subjects in “Southern” space and the tremendous work it does in the 1939 film—a national and international blockbuster in its day that still ranks domestically as the best-selling film of all time (including multiple theatrical re-releases over multiple decades), in addition to its history of popularity in the home video market with multiple editions (e.g., “Collector’s,” “Anniversary,” “Deluxe Box Set”) in every key format from Betamax to Blu-ray.3
Susan Courtney

5. Hollywood about Hollywood: Genre as Historiography

For much of its existence, Hollywood’s indifference toward its own past could be summed up in two words: old product. Old product, save for the rare re-release and the occasional silent comedy compilation, could only be an impediment to new product’s screentime. It sat in vaults and was mined for remakes. If you really wanted to see old product, there was the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue, and not much else.
Robert Sklar

6. Some Like It Hot and the Virtues of Not Taking History Too Seriously

From the very start of Some Like It Hot (1959), writer, producer, and director Billy Wilder took the conventional apparatus of the historical film and used it for a gag. Sirens suddenly wail as a police car gives incongruous pursuit to a vintage hearse. Both vehicles careen through wintry streets, skidding around sharp corners. Thuggish “undertakers” pull out concealed sawn-off shotguns, smash the back windows and fire at the cops, who hang off the side of their vehicle shooting back. As the police car crashes into a fence, the hearse escapes; but geysers of liquid now spurt from bullet holes in the coffin in back. This is explained when the hoodlums lift the lid to reveal not a body, but shattered bottles of whiskey. Only then do the words “CHICAGO, 1929” flash up on the screen—the “text signifier” of place and time so traditional in Hollywood’s history films, now rendered wryly comical by coming after this chase, as if a cinema audience could possibly mistake such a scene for anyplace, anytime else (Illustration 6.1). As the film’s star, Tony Curtis, says: “like it could be Orlando in 1974! I thought that was a wonderful set-up for a joke.”2
David Eldridge

7. Vico’s Age of Heroes and the Age of Men in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Vico, the father of historicism, discovered that the nature of man changes: the archaic man feels, think, acts in a way completely different from modern man. In Vico’s scheme of the necessary evolution of every culture, three phases are distinguished: the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men. The age of gods is characterized by a theocratic government: it is anterior to any differentiation of the various aspects of culture such as religion, politics, or art. The age of heroes, on the other hand, is dominated by the conflict between classes, the heroes and the plebeians. This age does not yet have a state: therefore, force and violence reign. The right of the stronger is the main ground of legitimacy. Two types of relations are characteristic of this age: the relation between enemies who fight each other, risking their own lives and those of their combatants, and the relation between master and servant. The duel, a fight between two heroes accompanied by their servants, is the symbolic action of the heroic age. In it the value of a person is proved, even constituted. Relations toward wives in the age of heroes are clearly asymmetric: women are not yet recognized as having the same human nature as men. “Love of ease, tenderness toward children, love of women, and desire of life” are alien to the heroes, so Vico once sums up his view of the heroic age.2
Mark W. Roche, Vittorio Hösle

8. Anatomy of a Shipwreck: Warner Bros., the White House, and the Celluloid Sinking of PT 109

At around 2 a.m., August 2, 1943, the powerful Japanese destroyer Amagiri, ploughing through the sea off the coast of the Solomon Islands, struck and sank a flimsy American patrol boat, PT 109. For the surviving members of the PT crew, it marked the beginning of a week-long struggle as they clung to the wreckage, sought refuge on a succession of desert islands, and waited while their commanding officer swam to get help. It was only one of many stories of endurance to emerge from that ocean that year. What made it newsworthy was the identity of their heroic commanding officer: Lt. (j.g.) John F. Kennedy, the second son of millionaire businessman, sometime Hollywood mogul and Ambassador to the U.K., Joseph P. Kennedy. Ambassador Kennedy pulled strings to maximize coverage for the incident, getting Reader’s Digest to abridge and reprint “Survival,” John Hersey’s dramatic account of the episode for the New Yorker.1 The PT 109 story became an essential element of JFK’s postwar political campaigns all the way to the White House. With this level of emphasis on the story, it was only to be expected that the wartime accounts would be supplemented by new versions to reflect the destiny of Lt. Kennedy. So it proved.
Nicholas J. Cull

9. The Long Road of Women’s Memory: Fred Zinnemann’s Julia

In a corner of one of his pages of film notes on Julia, Fred Zinnemann wrote, “I am in a totally false position,” and then circled it for emphasis. Part of a tapestry of sketches for camera set-ups, script jottings, commentary, and phone numbers written in several varieties of his handwriting, it is initially very difficult to see the small note. There are hundreds of pages of the director’s production notes in his archive. But as with all of Zinnemann’s films, every detail counts. When Zinnemann signed to direct Julia, he had already made two other films about the history of the European resistance to fascism (The Seventh Cross, 1944; Behold a Pale Horse, 1964), and six others about the Second World War and its aftermath (The Search, 1948; The Men, 1950; Teresa, 1951; From Here to Eternity, 1953; The Nun’s Story, 1959; The Day of the Jackal, 1973). Julia’s 1930s Resistance context was perfect Zinnemann material, and was destined to become one of Hollywood’s most complex and powerful historical films about women. He had one problem, however: Lillian Hellman. Although adapting Hellman’s “memoirs” posed significant difficulties for the film as a traditional Hollywood biopic, Zinnemann’s discomfort, articulated in his production notes, enabled him to explore the very real struggle for historical legitimacy plaguing women’s history in film.
J. E. Smyth

10. Inventing Historical Truth on the Silver Screen

The problem is that we historians have it backwards. Or sideways. At the very least, seriously out of alignment. What I am talking about is the relationship between the historical film and written history. Particularly the dramatic historical film. And because we can’t get it straight, nobody else can either. For the notions of what constitutes history held by the culture—and here I include film critics, reviewers for newspapers and magazines, politicians, pundits, TV talking heads, students of cinema studies, high school teachers, students, and the general public (at least as sampled in letters to the editor columns)—are entirely consonant with, and no doubt derive from, the assumptions underlying the college and university courses that we teach. And what we have been teaching is not so much wrong as, simply, a particular view of the past that insists on a certain kind of historical truth and tends to exclude others. We may pay lip service to the oral tradition, to good historical museums or especially noteworthy exhibits, even to the occasional film, usually a documentary. But we have little doubt that historical truth resides in a certain kind of empirically-based discourse, one that developed over the last two centuries, was drummed into us in graduate school, and is constantly reinforced by the norms of the profession.
Robert Rosenstone

11. “This Is Not America: This Is Los Angeles”: Crime, Space, and History in the City of Angels

Movies about Los Angeles have been characterized by their bleak, noirish urban landscape, circumvented by larger-than-life loner detectives, glamorous femme fatales, and sociopathic underworld crime bosses. The characteristic distinctions of the people inhabiting Los Angeles have been metaphors for the extremities of the city itself; at once sexy, famous, and full of possibilities, but offset by bleak back streets, tired and tatty neighborhoods, and desperate low-lives running from someone or something. But these characteristics also highlight something else about the kind of films set in Los Angeles: they frequently attempt, through character, place, and time, to convey a sense of the city’s fractured pasts, heightened by its image of an urban frontier town and site of detective fictions and film noirs. As David Fine points out, “Crime fiction is one place that foregrounds history,” yet Los Angeles and the West’s mythology is often predicated on an escape from another past and the construction of a new identity.1
Ian Scott

12. Between Nostalgia and Regret: Strategies of Historical Disruption from Douglas Sirk to Mad Men

Recently, I had occasion to view a 1978 photograph by the artist Laurie Simmons entitled “Woman Listening to Radio.” The black-and-white print presents a miniature scene: a model radio, TV, and rug, in a model room, all recalling a 1950s past (Illustration 12.1). On a miniature couch within that room sits a plastic doll, her short legs not touching the floor. The stillness of the room is palpable, surely because of its constructed nature, a quality that paradoxically stirs memories and encourages reflection. The light from the supposed window, for example, fills the space with a sense of the warmth of day, while the allusion to music in the title brings a faintly audible, although imagined, tune into the represented space. A quality of returning to a long-receded space and time is created, a place of childhood perhaps, most specifically, a 1950s childhood.
Vera Dika
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