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From the Affiliated Societies column of the March 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Historians Film Committee at the AHA Meeting

Cynthia J. Miller, March 2009

The Historians Film Committee, with the Center for the Study of Film and History, recently presented a panel, entitled “Why We Fought: America’s Wars in Film and History,” at the 123rd annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City. The session was chaired by Film & History founder John E. O’Connor (New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers Univ., Newark), and featured remarks by three scholars in various fields of the study of film and history: Gary Edgerton (Old Dominion Univ.), Robert Fyne (Kean Univ.), and Thomas Maulucci (American International Coll.). Commentary for the session was given by Dennis Showalter (Colorado Coll.).

John O’Connor set the stage for the session by introducing the audience to the panel’s focus on war, and its ties to the latest volume in the Film and History series, Why We Fought, which he edited with his long-time collaborator Peter C. Rollins. Each of the session’s three presentations was drawn from the volume’s extensive examination of the ways in which film and television participate in military conflicts and the ideologies that inform or represent them, along the historical timeline. O’Connor’s remarks provided a context through which historians might consider the relationship between American society and military conflict, as it is depicted, narrated, and recreated through cinematic and televised images. Films and televised programs rely on narrative strategies and elements that differ from those utilized by written historical texts, but may be fruitfully explored for their social and cultural emphases, the technical strategies used to construct authority, and audiences’ uses or “readings” of cinematic images in their own constructions of the historical timeline and key events.

Gary Edgerton began the panel’s examination of science and science fiction in film, television, and history with “Ken Burns’s Living Room War: The Civil War (1990) as Popular History.” He reviewed the unprecedented popular reception to Burns’s 11-hour miniseries, examining the interlocking factors that contributed to the extraordinary level of interest surrounding the miniseries. Most significant among these, according to Edgerton was the series’ incorporation of the work of a new generation of historians who had already begun addressing the war from the bottom-up perspective, underscoring the role of African Americans, women, immigrants, workers, farmers, and common soldiers in the conflict. The roles of the historian in television, and of television-as-historian, were key elements of Edgerton’s discussion. He noted the complexities of Burns’s status as producer-director and “amateur historian,” and the ways his work serves as a lightning rod for discussion and controversy among professional historians, while at the same time revitalizing historical topics for both television and classroom audiences, spurring some of these viewers to pursue this newly cultivated interest beyond the screen and into other forms of professional and popular history.

Robert Fyne moved the session forward along the historical timeline with his talk “The World War II Combat Film as Historical Document.” Fyne focused on the ways in which combat films function as vehicles for, and creators of, social perceptions of national character, stereotypes, and a fluid, cinematic truth, that changes shape as history is revised and rewritten. Taking as his case in point Clint Eastwood’s companion films, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Fyne explored cinematic portrayals of Japanese servicemen in both films, and in America’s political and popular culture, in an effort to examine the shift from widespread negative postwar stereotyping to the more contemporary cinematic trends toward humanization and complex, multiple, often conflicting, perspectives. Fyne discussed the ways in which these films, and others like them, call into question, and potentially distort historical knowledge and alter public perceptions of events, intentions, and the nature of military conflicts. He noted that these concerns call into question the wider social responsibility of film and television as historical documents that inform, as well as entertain.

In his talk, “Cold War Berlin in the Movies,” the final speaker, Thomas Maulucci, explored how cinematic portrayals of Berlin shifted over time, from a morally ambiguous human landscape in the immediate postwar years, to a source of political and cultural danger from the 1950s through the construction of the Berlin Wall, and then, in the years that followed, paradoxically returned to the more ambiguous themes that characterized the immediate postwar years. Maulucci argued that these highly politicized ways of viewing the divided city played a much less important role in films that appeared after the creation of the Wall, for a range of social, political, and philosophical reasons. While East German filmmakers continued to portray the GDR as a safe haven, and addressed themes like the moral equivalency of both sides in the Cold War, West German films used divided Berlin to explore non-Cold War sources of division. Maulucci examined how these divergent statements on a divided Germany ultimately were overshadowed by the message that differing mentalities had become far more important for dividing East and West Germans than the physical barrier presented by the Wall, a theme still relevant even after the Cold War.

Dennis Showalter’s commentary examined the ways in which the work of all three scholars had contributed to understanding cinematic conversations about war, society, and the making of history. Showalter noted that film and history—which generally means written history—are synergistic, rather than competitive, and that the war film, by its very nature, narrates history in particular ways. Chief among these, Showalter commented, is its address of myth—the presentation of images that assist society in symbolically processing complex events, thoughts, and attitudes on the process of war and the creation of peace—from reconstruction, through reconciliation, to reintegration. This pattern was observable to a varying extent in each of the films cited by the panel’s speakers. Showalter further observed that as academic history increasingly rejects its public role, that role is left, by default, to a medium that by its nature can tell only a limited story.

Immediately following this standing-room-only session, its organizer, Cynthia Miller, director of communications for the Center for the Study of Film and History, and John O’Connor were on hand to promote Film & History at the Affiliated Societies table session, an annual event at the national meetings. During this three-hour time slot, Miller and O’Connor connected with dozens of historians seeking to learn more about membership, subscription to the journal and listserv, the biennial conference, and the submission of articles and reviews. Increasingly, individuals teaching at secondary schools, as well as colleges and universities, were eager for resources and referrals to better integrate films in their teaching of history and related topics, reinforcing the need for a strong and active program of interdisciplinary pedagogical outreach.

Members of the AHA are urged to check this and other activities of the Center for the Study of Film and History at www.uwosh.edu/filmandhistory.

—Cynthia J. Miller
Emerson College