If History is Any Judge, the History Movie is a Big Winner at Oscar Time

Culture Watch


Robert Brent Toplin, Professor of History (retired), University of North Carolina, Wilmington, has published several books on history, politics, and film, and he operates a website, www.politicsoftheusa.com. His film-related books include "Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood," "History By Hollywood," and "Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy."

During much of the year, history-oriented movies do not command much attention from the cinema-loving public. In the summer, especially, audiences rush to see special effects-driven blockbusters. Moviegoers also embrace horror films, romantic comedies, and hyperviolent crime sagas. But when Oscar time rolls around, cinematic history is in vogue.

Historical films compete strongly for the Academy Awards because they have gravitas. Filmmakers are able to enhance their standing as serious artists through involvement with them.

Three qualities among many distinguish the historical film.
First, these movies usually feature a strong moral theme. They draw our attention to oppression, prejudice, military aggression, and other problems. Chariots of Fire and Schindler’s List reminded audiences about anti-Semitism, and Driving Miss Daisy recalled racial prejudice in the South. Titanic had a lot to say about class prejudice, and it endorsed feminism.

Secondly, these movies offer a strong point of view. Ordinarily, they do not present balanced views of the past. To accentuate their interpretations, the films portray heroes (and heroines) struggling against powerful villains. Viewers of Braveheart had no difficulty recognizing that the Scots were the good guys and the oppressive English were the heavies.

Finally, historical films deliver plenty of visual stimuli. They feature lots of evidence that suggests a bygone era—clothing, furniture, cars, buildings and other background elements. The characters’ language and mannerisms also communicate a sense of the past. In these ways art directors try to establish the audience’s feeling for a different time and place. Shakespeare in Love had an engaging story, but it also succeeded as a stunning visual and aural representation of Shakespearean England.

When movie critics began to speculate recently about Academy Award contenders for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, and other distinctions, they focused especially on stories set in the past. Critics pointed to the achievements of The Artist, with a story set in the time when movies changed from silent films to the “talkies.” They praised The Help, which portrays the experiences of black maids working for white families during the early 1960s, and they raved about Meryl Streep’s impressive performance in Iron Lady, which depicts the life of Margaret Thatcher. In Midnight in Paris,Woody Allen transports a dreamer back to the 1920s, where he meets several famous artists and intellectuals who partied in the French capital. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is set against the backdrop of 9/11; My Week with Marilyn references the life of Marilyn Monroe; and A Dangerous Method looks at the tense relationship between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. War Horse depicts the horrors of the First World War, and J. Edgar portrays the controversial FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Historical movies are almost always strong competitors during the awards season. In recent years they received the top prize (The King’s Speech won last year). Historical films usually score well, too, when the Motion Picture Academy announces prizes for stellar acting, directing, screenwriting, editing, and art direction.

The prominence of history-oriented movies at awards time suggests that moviegoers still display considerable interest in the past, and film directors have discovered many intriguing ways to tap that curiosity.

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