Random Questions about the Past Inspired by Films

Randall Stephens

I've been watching a variety of history-related films in the last few months. (Some loosely based on history, I'll admit!) A few are documentaries. I can't get enough of these, it seems. They include: Michael Collins (1996), Liam (2000), The General (1998), Flame and Citron (2008), Europa Europa (1990), Black Hawk Down (2001), Black Death (2010), Dean Spanley (2008), Great Balls of Fire! (1989), Girl Groups (1983), Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who (2007), Gangs of New York (2002), Secrets of Shangri-La: Quest for Sacred Caves (2009), The Sting (1973). Of course, some of these a very good, and some . . . not so much. I've found, though, that almost all history films bring to mind a number of questions about the past. Why did this or that happen as it did? What can we learn from the past? Perhaps many viewers of these flicks have similar questions. Maybe it's even natural that the visuals of a good costume drama or the narrative arc of a documentary start to make the gears in our heads turn in new ways.

So, what follows are some serious, and some rather ridiculous, questions about the past. The classroom might even be enlivened by some fun questions, sparked by films, about the cultures, peoples, and events of yesterday. (Granted, many of the questions here reflect my own current teaching and research obsessions.)

Why did women's hats become so elaborate and extraordinary in the late Victorian era?

What cultural turns gave rise to facial hair and strange hair styles in different eras. (Think of the turned-down, satirical, post-colonial mustaches of 1967.)

Why did breeds of dogs proliferate so rapidly from the 19th century forward?

Why did Edwardians like ferns and wicker/rattan so much?

Why did 1950s Teddy Boys (or Teds) adopt the fashions of Edwardians?

Why did Mods and Rockers go at each other as they did?

How can we make sense of the widespread acceptance of rock music as a legitimate form in our era and the denigration of it as "trash" by elites in the 1950s?

Why Elvis?

How is it that the west came to dominate world history from the age of exploration forward?

What accounts for the punctuated equilibrium of technological progress in the the 19th and 20th centuries?

Has industrialization and mechanization been largely good or bad for humankind? (This one comes from a bright student in my World Civ class!)

Why did writing develop when and where it did?

What accounts for the development of the world's religions?

Did premodern westerners think about race in markedly different ways than early modern westerners did?

Can historians make predictions about the future based on what they know of the past?