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American History Through Hollywood Film

From the Revolution to the 1960s


Melvyn Stokes


London: Bloomsbury, 2014

Paperback. viii+299 p. ISBN 978-1441175922. £19.99


Reviewed by David Roche

Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès



American History Through Hollywood Film is not the first book to deal with the representation of American historical events in Hollywood films. Wendy S. Wilson and Gerald H. Herman’s American History on the Screen (2002) offers chapters on individual films, Peter C. Rollins’s The Columbia Companion to American History on Film (2004) is an edited volume, and Trevor McCrisken and Andrew Pepper’s American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film (2005) deals exclusively with contemporary films. But Melvyn Stokes’s book is the first monograph with such a broad scope and impressive corpus.

It is comprised of a concise introduction, ten chapters, fifty-one pages of notes and an index. The first five chapters adopt a diachronic approach in order to focus on the American Revolution, slavery, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and its legacy; special attention is paid to The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915), a film on which Stokes published a mammoth study in 2007, Gone with the Wind (Selznick International, Victor Fleming, George Cukor and Sam Wood, 1939), The Patriot (Columbia, Roland Emmerich, 2000), Amistad (Dreamworks, Steven Spielberg, 1997), Abraham Lincoln (United Artists, D.W. Griffith, 1930), Young Mr. Lincoln (20th Century Fox, John Ford, 1939), Lincoln (Dreamworks, Spielberg, 2012) and Glory (TriStar, Edward Zwick, 1989), among others. Chapters six to ten explore a given topic in one or a pair of films: (6) the "Good Indian" in Dances with Wolves (Tig/Majestic, Kevin Costner, 1990); (7) third-wave immigration in Hester Street (Midwest, Joan Micklin Silver, 1975) and The Godfather Part II (Paramount, Francis Ford Coppola, 1974); (8) the Great Depression in The Grapes of Wrath (20th Century Fox, John Ford, 1940); (9) the HUAC hearings in The Way We Were (Columbia, Sydney Pollack, 1973) and Guilty by Suspicion (Warner, Irwin Winkler, 1991); and (10) the 1960s in Mississippi Burning (Orion, Alan Parker, 1988) and JFK (Warner, Oliver Stone, 1991).

Chapter one reveals how, after a cycle of silent films from Washington at Valley Forge (Kalem, Gene Gauntier, 1908) to The Spirit of ’76 (Continental, George Siegmann, 1917), which foregrounded the figure of George Washington and created a cultural myth out of the Revolution, Hollywood films dealing with the topic repeatedly failed at the box office, including Revolution (Goldcrest, Hugh Hudson, 1985) which takes into account “several strands of historical analysis” [28], until the action-packed The Patriot (2000), which used the war as a background for an epic duel between two men. Chapter two shows how American films generally avoided the issue of slavery, resorting to stereotypes of African Americans from the 1910s to the late 1930s, before displaying some ambivalence in films such as The Foxes of Harrow (20th Century Fox, John M. Stahl, 1947), Band of Angels (Warner, Raoul Walsh, 1957) and Slaves (Slaves Company / Theater Guild, Herbert J. Biberman, 1969). Twenty years after the mini-series Roots (ABC, 1977) that offered more historical veracity than its cinematographic predecessors, Amistad was heavily criticized, notably because it avoids the question of domestic slavery and is an “African rather than an African American story” which “demonstrat[es] that the judicial system designed by the Founding Fathers ultimately worked” [50]. Chapter three analyzes how the figure of Lincoln has adapted to fit the needs of the time at which the films were made: both Lincoln the merciful—in The Birth of a Nation—or Lincoln the visionary—in The Iron Horse (Fox, John Ford, 1924)—grew out of representations common in late 19th-early 20th-century popular culture; during the Great Depression, Lincoln was a figure of unity meant to reinforce belief in democratic ideals; Spielberg’s Lincoln is a strategist capable of overcoming gridlock in Congress [6]. Chapter four points out that few Civil War movies were made—the civil war is sometimes a backdrop in Westerns—and few were successful, making blockbusters The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind all the more exceptional; recently, Glory constructed the story of an all-black regiment as, in the words of Robert Burgoyne, “the genesis . . . of a black consciousness,” but in so doing, “much of black history itself was effectively sidelined” [103], while Cold Mountain (Miramax, Anthony Minghella, 2003), like The Patriot, uses the war as a mere backdrop for a personal story (of doomed romance). Chapter five examines first the way The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind mainly promoted Lost Cause ideas—that plantation life was characterized by gentle white masters and happy well-treated slaves, that the Civil War involved gallant white men from both factions, and that the South was doomed to lose—though a few scenes tend to undermine these very ideas; the second section then explains how Griffith’s film both contributed to the re-emergence of the KKK and benefited from Klan publicity stunts in the South, before offering a synthesis of the representation of the KKK in later films.

Chapter six draws attention to some of the incoherencies noted in Dances with Wolves, a revisionist Western that, by turning Michael Blake 1988 novel’s Comanche Indians into Lakota Sioux, conveyed, according to Wayne Michael Sarf (1993), false notions that the Sioux were ecological and not violent [145]. Chapter seven assesses the degree of historical veracity in the portrayal of the lives of Eastern European Jewish and Italian immigrants in New York; the films have in common that they omit the actual journey, depict the neighborhoods fairly realistically, but make the living quarters more palatable than they actually were. Chapter eight insists on how exceptional The Grapes of Wrath’s social awareness is, in spite of the toning down of certain aspects of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel. Chapter nine suggests that the omission, in The Way We Were, of the names of famous members of the CFA who flew to Washington for the HUAC hearings is, no doubt, symptomatic of Hollywood’s embarrassment at its own responsibility in the matter, though the film depicts a communist character, Katie Morosky, in a positive light, while Guilty by Suspicion loses much credibility in terms of character motivation because its protagonist David Merrill is not a communist, and thus completely misunderstands the aim of the hearings, which was to purge. Chapter ten underlines that, regretfully, Mississippi Burning makes the civil rights movement the affair of white people by making most of the black characters passive, while the multiplication of plots in JFK makes it so that everyone—and thus no one—is guilty in the end.

An expert on both American history and American film history and a practitioner of reception studies, Melvyn Stokes is, no doubt, the ideal scholar to write such a book. I thought chapters one, three, four, six and eight were particularly strong, but each chapter exemplifies the various ways cinema and history can be related productively. More than veracity, the operational word is context. Stokes states the following in his introduction:

Determining how accurate and original the filmic view of history is can only be done through research in other historical sources. Yet part of the fascination of historical films is also to do with how and why they present the view of history they do at the time they are produced. [6]

The number of fictions depicting a historical event at a specific moment in time (the civil war films of the early silent era) or, on the contrary, the quasi-absence of such films (the civil rights movement of the 1960s in subsequent Hollywood films) or their lack of success (the majority of films about the American Revolution) can tell us a lot about the way the historical event was perceived. The evolution of the representation of a given event may reflect changing views, but can, in turn, contribute to influencing reality (the case of the KKK). The history of a film’s reception is especially instructive when assessing the relevance of the representation of a historical event in context. Examining the circulation of ideas and attempting to identify their source are, in this respect, rich venues for historians, whether it be the influence of popular culture (on representations of Lincoln, the Civil War and the Lost Cause in American cinema of the 1900s-1930s) or that of historians on revisionist fictions (like Roots or Revolution). One common ambiguity in these films is that research has been conducted in order to build up the visual authenticity of these films, notably with attention to costumes and stage props [4], yet the films often forsake historical realism and even indulge in anachronisms to avoid censorship, cater to audience taste or abide by genre conventions—for instance, the immigrants’ comfortable apartments in Hester Street are an ideal setting for melodrama [169]. Clearly, social and psychological realism is rarely a priority in Hollywood cinema. “Hollywood for a century now has been a major force in how Americans view their past” [3], Stokes says in his introduction. His book ultimately confirms the power of a popular medium like cinema to reinforce myths and stereotypes.

American History through Hollywood Film is a very useful book. The range of topics and films covered, Stokes’s knowledge, rigorous methodology, precise style and experience teaching this topic [2], make it an indispensable book for a class on American history in Hollywood cinema and a book that should be recommended as an example to all students writing theses or dissertations on the representation of history on film or the relationship between history and cinema. The overviews it offers on each point will provide a good starting point for any student or scholar interested in pursuing them. For all of these reasons, I cannot recommend Stokes’s book enough.


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