The Historical Film
From the advent of cinema to the present day, history has been brought to life on screen in many striking ways that have advanced motion picture technology and forged new relationships between viewers and the historical past.
Historical films offer a privileged site for scholars of cinema, media, history, and many other disciplines to interrogate a nation’s relationship with the past. How cinema engages with the past, whether recent or distant, provides interesting case studies for how successive generations renegotiate cultural memory and understandings of how the past shapes the present.
Historical films can bring into relief hidden or competing histories that either challenge or compliment prevailing narratives and authoritative accounts of the past, asking the viewer to consider the present as being shaped by multiple histories, rather than by one history. Historical films also suggest new ways of understanding the past, and, as a consequence, they also present new ways of understanding the present.
Lastly, historical films can perform thought experiments about the past, deliberately departing from the historical print record in order to pose a different set of questions about a nation’s relationship with history. As such, historical films have garnered a tremendous level of scholarly interest, covering a broad range of research foci and subjects that are very useful in expanding discourses on national identity and historical memory.
By Dr. John Trafton
[Lecturer in Film Studies at Seattle University. This text is from his article “Historical Film”, published in Oxford Bibliographies, 2019]