Blogs > HNN > Andrew Feffer, Review of Robert Brent Toplin's "History by Hollywood" (University of Illinois Press, 2010)

Jun 27, 2010 2:50 pm

Andrew Feffer, Review of Robert Brent Toplin's "History by Hollywood" (University of Illinois Press, 2010)

[Andrew Feffer is Associate Professor of History and co-director of Film Studies at Union College. He teaches American cultural and intellectual history.]

Since its initial publication in 1996, Robert Brent Toplin’s History by Hollywood has been a standard in the study of historical film making, against which other works are still measured. In some respects it deserves that status. Toplin’s writing is crisp and direct, uncomplicated by the kind of formalistic analysis that often obscures the basic questions concerning how history makes its way onto the silver screen.

The book, however, is not comprehensive. Toplin covers a mere eight films that he considers representative of Hollywood’s treatment of America’s past. But he is diligent in recounting each film’s production and tells us quite a bit about the way the film industry develops historical film projects. So, for example, in recounting the production of the landmark war film Sergeant York (Warner Brothers, 1941), Toplin methodically traces the complicated negotiations among producers Jesse Lasky and Hal Wallis, the World War I hero Alvin York, York’s family, his community, and the studio over how the particulars of York’s heroic story would be told and how closely the film would adhere to the events as York and others remembered them. Toplin commends the film, which despite the controversy over its interventionist message (on the eve of American entry into World War II) was nominated for eleven Oscars and won Gary Cooper the best actor award, as it “traces the steps in York’s life pretty much as they actually happened.” Toplin’s endorsement of the film’s accuracy is neither interesting nor especially convincing (key incidents were retold to suit Hollywood conventions), but the manner in which dozens of people shaped Sergeant York’s script is a truly compelling story for historians who care about Hollywood’s system of production and its rendering of the past for the silver screen.

But while its merits may be indisputable, even at the time of its original publication Toplin’s book had its shortcomings. Those shortcomings are even more apparent in this second edition, touted as a significant revision of the original book.

First of all, it is not as “newly updated” as the press suggests on the book jacket: The only revised part of the book is the introduction, which barely grazes the surface of the several more recent films about which the publisher claims coverage. Extending Toplin’s study to more films would have been welcome, especially given the proliferation of historical film-making since the mid-1990s.

Moreover, that expansion of the genre complicates the simple questions that Toplin asks about accuracy and “integrity” of historical representation. Since Toplin wrote the book, films like The Patriot (2000), Amistad (1997), Braveheart (1995), the spate of Gulf and Iraq war treatments such as Jarhead (2005), Redacted (2007) and In the Valley of Elah (2007), and the continued examination of the Vietnam war in films like We Were Soldiers (2002) have all raised thorny questions about how Hollywood transfers highly-charged historical and political events, not to mention memoirs and personal histories, to the screen. It is hard to imagine a book on cinematic histories being published today that does not address controversies over the visual and dramatic representation of such events as the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center (as in Oliver Stone’s 2006 film World Trade Center and the plethora of related 9/11 conspiracy films) or the disputed 2000 presidential election (as in the 2008 teledrama Recount).

Secondly, Toplin’s study while historically appropriate (attentive to questions of historical accuracy and interpretation) is analytically weak, incorporating little of the vast literature exploring historical dramatization and verisimilitude on screen. Since the mid-1990s our understanding of how Hollywood renders history has been further enriched by a spate of studies on questions concerning nationalism and identity that are at the core of many historical films. Here I am thinking of Robert Burgoyne’s Film Nation (1996), Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation (1998), the vast literature on race in historical drama, and the equally vast literature on gender and sexuality in film.

So, for instance, Toplin’s production history for Martin Ritt’s portrayal of a “feisty” union organizer in Norma Rae (1979) is well-informed by historian Jacqueline Dowd Hall’s studies of “disorderly women” in the Southern textile industry. But, he apparently learned nothing from the foundational work of Laura Mulvey, E. Ann Kaplan and others on the “male gaze” – which would have explained a lot about the substitution of the sexually alluring Sally Fields for the more mundane and ordinary historical figure, Crystal Lee, whom she represented. One can imagine the kind of film that Barbara Koppel would have produced on the same subject (as she had hoped before Ritt and the producers of Norma Rae beat her out to Lee’s story). It would have been a documentary, of course, but one untroubled by the conventional Hollywood inclination to sustain the sexually fixated interest of male audiences in a woman’s story. How much, I wonder, did Field’s cleavage and the melodramatic fantasies of male viewers contribute to the “integrity” of Ritt’s rendition of a mill-worker’s story? Don’t get me wrong. I like the film, for many of the same reasons Toplin likes it. But Mulvey’s are the sorts of questions that film historians (and writers on Hollywood’s grasp of history) should be asking.

Finally, Toplin argues for a kind of “balance” between fact and interpretation in historical film that one seldom finds in written history, and in the process vaguely situates himself as a moderate between “angry criticism and enthusiastic praise” in the debates about the integrity of historical cinema. Yet, he applies that principle of moderation unevenly: he is oddly tolerant of Oliver Stone’s wild historical distortions in JFK (1993) (on the grounds that the film is “innovative” and a “creative docudrama” that “provoked audiences with stimulating hints about the many possible sources of a conspiracy”, yet demands a much higher standard of integrity for (and much more placid approach to history from) Constantinos Costa-Gavras’ Missing (1982), about the execution of an American expatriate by the military during the right-wing coup in Chile in 1973.

At the same time, this “balance” (again, touted by the press) is undone by Toplin’s failure to update his evaluations of historical accuracy and “integrity” throughout the book. Thus, History by Hollywood condemns Costa-Gavras for not achieving a “valid and fair reading of the past, because the film-maker portrayed the United States government systematically destabilizing the Allende regime, actively fomenting the coup, and playing some role in the disappearance and execution of Charles Horman, the young American at the center of the story. Toplin approvingly quotes Nathaniel Davis, U. S. Ambassador to Chile at the time of the coup, in condemning Missing as a film vulnerable to “questions about authenticity.” “Ambassador Davis,” Toplin contends, “appears to be correct in his claims that the movie represented ‘an assault on the integrity of the U.S. government, the Foreign Service and the military’ without sufficient justification.”

Yet, Toplin’s position, on the film and on the history, while barely plausible in 1996, would be almost impossible to defend now, after the release in 2000 of the massive collection of secret documents about General Augusto Pinochet’s coup, his systematically repressive regime and American involvement in both. Those documents included further revelations about the Horman case. It is even more unfortunate that in the name of an inconsistently applied principle of historical balance, Toplin endorses (against Costa-Gavras’ version of the history) the very justification for the coup promulgated by the Nixon administration: “The polarization of Chilean society made the military increasingly nervous, and the evidence that some leftist groups were stockpiling weapons brought pressure on the army to intervene before the country exploded in a civil war.”

If Toplin had bothered to read just a few of the State Department and CIA documents released in 2000, including telephone conversations between Nixon and Henry Kissinger disclosing direct American involvement in destabilizing the Allende government (they are on line at the National Security Archive:, or the history written from those documents (for instance, Peter Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File) then he might have revised his scathing judgment of Costa-Gavras’ film.

This shortcoming in the book follows not just from Toplin’s failure to update the history, but also from the book’s murky concept of historical “balance.” Toplin appears to confuse his ostensibly moderate position on the spectrum between fact and interpretation, for another kind of “balance,” one that is political and which largely concerns the application of both evidence and reasonable inference to the interpretation of specific historical events. Some of Toplin’s “moderate” interpretations are not especially controversial or in need of drastic revision (for example, his take on late twentieth-century Southern labor history). Others, however, are not appropriate to the immoderate character of the history itself, nor timely, given our evolving knowledge of the past.

Wherever Toplin employs this notion of balance, it confuses and undermines what are otherwise solid and quite useful studies of film production and its employment of history. Even with such weaknesses, History by Hollywood stands at least some of the tests of time. It is still worth reading, but at this point, certainly, it does not stand alone.

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