Above (left) Richard Bernstein's article in The New York Times in 1989, and (right) Bernardo Bertolucci in the Forbidden City during filming of The Last Emperor (1987).
Class engagement self-assessment survey
Essential questions for Unit III:
Film and history:
Start today with the third question. In small groups, brainstorm how your assigned medium can provide unique perspective on “truth” about the past:
Next, we’ll bring film into the conversation. We’ll start by reading a short excerpt from Richard Bernstein, “Can Movies Teach History?” in The New York Times (26 November 1989). Once you have finished reading the excerpt below, discuss, with a partner:
Something strange—not new, but ever more conspicuous—haunts the cultural landscape. Movie makers and television producers have become our most powerful, though perhaps not our most careful, historians. It seems fair to say that more people are getting their history, or what they think is history, from the movies these days than from the standard history books. The phenomenon is probably unavoidable, yet, if the history as presented by the movies turns out to be a muddy blur of fantasy and fact, the consequences cannot be good. In the 16th century, Francis Bacon said that history makes men wise. It follows that bad history, trivialized history, history distorted and sensationalized, can make them foolish.
There have been history movies for decades, of course, from Eisenstein's “Ten Days that Shook the World” (with its famous—and unhistorical—scenes of Kerensky hiding under his couch) to “The Babe Ruth Story.” But the latest examples have been particularly big-budget affairs, [including] Bernardo Bertolucci's “Last Emperor.”
In a world dominated by Top Guns, Lethal Weapons and Police Academies, the mere fact that some directors concentrate on critical episodes of our past is in its way heartening. At the same time, there is something disconcerting about the tendency of movies-as-history to construct Technicolored and sound-tracked edifices of entertainment on the slender foundations of what appear to be actual events, or, at the very least, to mingle fact with fancy, history with imagination, in such a way that the average viewer has no way of sorting out one from the other. . . .
Mr. Bertolucci got the costumes splendidly right in “The Last Emperor,” which won nine Academy Awards two years ago [in 1987], but he fashioned a biography designed originally in China’s Propaganda Department to show the benefits of Maoist-style re-education. . . .
One obvious question about this is: Why shouldn’t the film maker, like the novelist, have license to use the material of history selectively and partially in the goal of entertaining, creating a good dramatic product, even forging what is sometimes called the poetic truth, a truth truer even than literal truth? The artist, one could argue, is an interpreter, not a reporter, a seeker after meaning, perhaps a prophet, but not a scribe; so the invention or rearrangement of details doesn't matter. Indeed, the question could be put this way: Does it matter if the details are wrong if the underlying meaning of events is accurate? Or, conversely, does it matter if the details are correct if the underlying truths remain twisted and unsubstantiated?
These are not easy questions to answer, especially given the difficulty, even for historians, of knowing exactly what is the underlying truth in the first place. But any answer has to take into account two things. First, even “poetic truth” is a mere handy justification for historical fabrication if it derives from a willful disregard of the facts of history. We live, after all, in a time shadowed by the great falsifications of the dictators, reflected in literary form by Orwell’s memory hole, or by Milan Kundera’s concept of forgetfulness. The recent past does suggest the sacredness of scrupulous, sober remembering, of the need to treat the past as a vessel that cannot be filled with whatever combination of truth and falsehood can compete with “Top Gun” at the box office.
Second is the plain fact that the movies and television are our most powerful media. “The difference between movies and novels is the fundamental illusion of photography,” says Richard Slotkin, a professor of history at Wesleyan University who has written about the movies-as-history genre. “Even when you know that something didn’t happen, movie photography gives you the illusion that it did.”
Armed with their special persuasive power, many of the latest history movies deal not with distant events but with the central episodes and actors of our era. They deal with colonialism and war, freedom and civil rights, corruption and malfeasance in office—the events and issues, in short, on which public consciousness is forged. And so if you believe with the historian Wilhelm Dilthey that man can know himself only in his history, then the distortion of the past, particularly for motives of profit or politics, becomes a matter for serious contemplation.