Dancing about Historiography: At the Movies with a Methods Course

Randall Stephens

It's very difficult to find movies to show in a historiography or history methods course. Think about it. Reminds me of the line: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." How many major motion pictures deal with historical interpretation or portray scholars "doing" history. (Lord Macaulay reading intently. A Franz Liszt piece wafting in the background. "The Dutch archives and the French archives must be ransacked," shouts the actor playing the Baron. Or, a shot of a tweedy, pipe-smoking C. Vann Woodward delivering his UVA lectures that will become The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Pan out on the audience of white southerners.) Real movies. Unlikely.

Still, I've found some films and interviews that get the conversation going in a methods course I teach. I'm using a selection of clips from the play-adapted-to-screen History Boys (2006). Questions about truth, value in history, and E.H Carr-like "What is History" head scratchers animate several scenes. The film admirably moves the viewer into some epistemological water without any major trouble.

Charlie Rose interviews with historians or on history-related topics can work well enough. Though the average student will slip into a boredom coma. The Roger Mudd American Heritage series Great Minds of History (VHS, 1998) is similar, but not limited to the Charlie Rose spartan set with darkly lit room. UC Berkeley's Conversations with History program, now available on YouTube, features several interviews with prominent historians. I've also tried showing bits from the Matt Damon-hosted Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train (2004). That's quite good for analyzing the historian as advocate. A similar film, produced by Alabama Public TV, is the Gospel According to Wayne (1993), a bio of the southern historian and Christian activist Wayne Flynt.

Feature films like The Return of Martin Guerre (1982), Name of the Rose (1986), Cold Mountain (2003), or any number of others could get students to think about the use of evidence, narrative arch, and pacing.

For the first time this year I'm going to use episodes from PBS's History Detectives, an ongoing series "devoted to exploring the complexities of historical mysteries, searching out the facts, myths and conundrums that connect local folklore, family legends and interesting objects." I'll be selective in how I use it. Some episodes are better than others, to paraphrase The Smiths.

Students relate to films in ways that they don't to books and articles. (That is doubly true of the reading material in a methods course.) Fifteen to twenty minute clips work best for me and open class discussions up in unexpected ways.