What’s your favorite History movie?
Common Sense American History
Should movies be used in American history classes? This writer clearly remembers going on a school field trip to see All the President’s Men in 1976. While it summarized the events of Watergate in a succinct 2 hours and 18 minutes, do you think 13-year-old 8th graders would notice any moments of artistic license to make points? Realize that a character was a consolidation of multiple people?
Historic movies can be a great way to introduce students to historic events, people and concepts, but you should definitely use them with caution. Some movies are notorious in how depicted events are twisted, and distorted. Controversies can surround even the most successful movies like Lincoln, Selma, Zero Dark Thirty, even the 1915 silent movie Birth of a Nation.
So which movies have particularly bad reputations?
Lists of historically inaccurate movies are readily available online, but there are some movies that keep showing up, such as:
JFK (1991) – The conspiracy used in JFK was based on the 1967 spoof, The Case of Jim Garrison, which was revealed to be false in 1972. Oliver Stone’s thriller even managed to strongly imply that Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s successor in the White House, was a driving force behind the assassination, though very little evidence exists to support that claim.
Pearl Harbor (2001) – Michael Bay’s 2001 retelling of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor doesn’t have much in common with reality, apart from the fact that Japan did of course bomb the United States in 1941. The ultimate fictionalization comes when it is revealed that Rafe is not only a master aviator, but well-trained in the ancient art of Origami. An oddity, considering that Origami was only discovered by foreign troops after the war.
Pocahontas (1995) – Disney’s brazen disregard for the truth immediately irked those familiar with the well-known story in U.S. history. Although it may be true, as Smith later said, that Pocahontas intervened to save his life, she was only 10 or 11 years old when she made the gesture — the film depicts them both as adults.
What movies have you shown in class?
Ask your students to select and analyze an historical movie – you might be surprised with what they discover.