Masters at the Movies, Take 2
Robert Brent Toplin, January 2008
Under the rubric "Masters at the Movies," this column will feature a variety of articles crafted by some of the most accomplished teachers and scholars in the profession. These authors may engage film in a variety of ways. Some will comment on significant new productions that have appeared recently on movie and television screens. Others will write about several films that were released many years ago and which dealt with a particular theme from history. Some of the contributors will focus on dramas and documentaries that interpret events and portray individuals from the past. Others will write about general entertainment films (rather than movies that are specifically about history). These authors may suggest that a study of feature films illuminates issues and controversies that excited filmmakers and movie audiences years ago.
Some of these contributors will be familiar to the readers of Perspectives, because they have written extensively on the subject of film. Most of the authors, however, may be familiar principally in connection with their outstanding general contributions to scholarship rather than because of their specific work on film. Since our readers rarely encounter these authors' observations about the movies and television programs, these commentaries should be of considerable interest to members of the AHA.
I am pleased that Richard Stites has agreed to make the second contribution to this column (the first essay in the series by John Dower, appeared in the September 2007 Perspectives). Stites is professor of history at Georgetown University, where he has been teaching since 1977. He specializes in modern Russian cultural and social history. Stites's books include The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860–1930 (Princeton, 1978; 1991); Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Social Experiment in the Russian Revolution (Oxford, 1989; 1991); Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900 (Cambridge, 1992); and an edited book, Culture and Entertainment in Wartime Russia, 1941–1945 (Indiana, 1995).
Interestingly, Richard Stites has chosen to focus on a "Hollywood" movie with a story based in the United States rather than on a film about Russian society. The Pawnbroker (1964), directed by Sidney Lumet, features actor Rod Steiger as an emotionally wrought survivor of a Nazi concentration camp who operates a shop in Harlem, New York City. Stites believes this movie serves effectively to arouse our thinking about the Holocaust. He recommends the movie for classroom study along with better-known productions that deal with the Holocaust, such as Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List.
—Robert Brent Toplin (Univ. of North Carolina at Wilmington) is a member of the editorial advisory board of Perspectives on History.