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History Films [edit]

For other uses, see History Film (disambiguation).

History Films (a version of documentaries, but usually depicted as drama with a narrative structure where the real life historical figures are portrayed by actors) showcase important events and people as entertainment. As distinguished from films that use historic events as the backdrop for the narrative action (see, e.g., All Quiet on the Western Front, Dr. Zhivago, Saving Private Ryan, Atonement) history films focus on the historic events themselves and the real life personalities who shaped them.

These films have a long tradition in Hollywood. Oftentimes they are based on books, but they can also be based on plays and other source material (such as documentary films). Frequently, the history film is augmented with dramatic elements to spice up the action. They can be focused on minor players surrounded by larger events (see, e.g., Pearl Harbor, Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump), or, as is the case of docu-dramas, showcase the behind-the-scenes human dynamics of the major players to augment what otherwise would be dry recitations of historical facts (see. e.g., Patton, The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Thirteen Days, Schindler’s List). In some cases, history films can engender controversy, as when a film attempts to make a political point or one is made by someone who may have a reputation for playing fast and loose with the facts (see, e.g., JFK, Nixon).

History films walk a fine line and can be challenging to pull off successfully, as many in the audience may already know the outcome of the historic events and the future of the historic figures. However, for many who fail to remember history, ignore it, or are too young to know of certain historical events and figures, these films can help promote a general interest in history, curiosity of the specific events and people, and can be thrilling and exciting entertainments in their own right.

Recent history films tend to be fairly straightforward renditions of historical periods and thus have become more like personality studies of the major figures than showcases for the stories of the historic events themselves. Three such films include Milk, Frost/Nixon, and Valkyrie.

Personifications [edit]

The recent historical films Milk, Frost/Nixon, and Valkyrie are all focused mainly on the principal historical characters influencing the events depicted in the films. In the case of Milk, actor Sean Penn (born August 17, 1960, an Academy award-winning American film actor and director) personifies Harvey Milk (May 22, 1930-Nov. 27, 1978, an American politician and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors). Penn so inhabits the role — taking on the look, mannerisms and jovial demeanor of Harvey Milk — that it represents a new level of achievement of fictional depiction of a historical figure. It is worthy of an Academy Award.

That new standard of dramatic personification is also reflected in Frank Langella’s (born Jan. 1, 1940, an American stage and film actor) performance as U.S. President Richard Milhous Nixon (Jan. 9, 1913-April 22, 1994, he was the 37th president of the United States (1969-1974), and the only president to ever resign the office) in the film Frost/Nixon. Like Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk, Langella steps into the role with a particular sense of the physical presence and vocal style of the former president.

Less effective is the performance of Thomas Cruise Mapother IV (born July 3, 1962, better known by his screen name Tom Cruise, an American actor and film producer) as Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (Nov. 15, 1907-July 21, 1944, a German army officer and Roman Catholic aristocrat who was one of the leading officers of the failed July 20, 1944, plot to kill German dictator Adolf Hitler and remove the Nazi Party from power in World War II Germany, he was one of the central figures of the German Resistance movement). To be fair to Cruise, potential viewers are not likely to be as familiar with Stauffenberg as they will be with Harvey Milk and Richard Nixon. This allows Cruise the freedom to depict this figure as he sees fit. Regrettably, he seems to inflect his characterization with the same heroic determination, swagger and charisma that inhabit many of his previous film roles (although he does bear a striking resemblance to Stauffenberg).

Suspense [edit]

The outcome of all three history films (Milk, Frost/Nixon, Valkyrie) are all well known, the intricate details of which can be found on Wikipedia (a web-based encyclopedia that contains more than 2.5 million entries and can be edited and reviewed for accuracy by visitors to the site). As a result, there is a real risk that the films will lack the suspense and surprise that most fictional dramas possess.

This historical determinism notwithstanding, each of these films succeeds in creating a palpable sense of suspense as we watch the familiar events unfold (the assassination of Harvey Milk, the “confession” of President Nixon, the failure of Stauffenberg to

assassinate Hitler). This is due in large part to the tremendous acting by the principals, but also by the supporting players. It is also due to the pacing, editing and attention to period detail. The result is an engrossing experience.

Historical accuracy [edit]

History is a specialized field. It is also open to interpretation and adjustment based on the discovery of new facts. Historical events are so rich with nuance that there is also a risk that the point-of-view of a historical film can bias the impression of events. Students and experts on the historical events and figures depicted will no doubt come to their own conclusions on the accuracy and potential bias in these three films.

Nevertheless, there are some clear historical reference points that are well-established that can be used to assess these films (the news clips and record of Harvey Milk, the actual footage of Frost’s interview of President Nixon, and the diaries and record of the failed attempt on Hitler’s life). It seems that each of these films took great pains to be as accurate as possible, using the actual locations where some events took place and copying the details of the events themselves.

As with any attempt to dramatize complex and lengthy historic events, shortcuts are taken. These are usually attributed to the constraints of film (although historical purists are likely to be annoyed and, in some cases disappointed, with such discrepancies). Two specific aspects to note here include the distracting non-German accents of the international actors playing roles in Valkyrie, and the questionable drunken late night phone call that Nixon has with Frost before his “confession” session/interview in Frost/Nixon.

These flights from accuracy notwithstanding, these films are all top-notch entertainments and fine examples of the history film.

Doug Young is The Statesman’s outstanding film critic. He also works for Senator-elect Mark Udall as an environmental policy advisor.