Historical Films


Epic films made in Italy between 1910 and 1914 were the first to capture the spectacular power of the cinema to recreate the past, and the first to extend the screening time of films to two and three hours or more. Films such as Quo Vadis? (1912), Cabiria (1914), and Spartaco (1913) were vast, sweeping depictions of the ancient world that united spectacle, lavish set design, and narrative in a way that had an enormous influence on film style, and that brought an extraordinary amount of publicity to the

Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) is a metahistorical film.
films even prior to their release. The Italian epics of the early silent period were a particular incentive to D. W. Griffith, who after seeing Quo Vadis? in 1913 decided to make a two-reel biblical film, Judith of Bethulia (1914). The grandest of the Italian epics, Cabiria , by Giovanni Pastrone (1883–1959), commanded such public attention for its length, epic form, and massive sets that just hearing about it prompted Griffith to begin planning his own epic, The Birth of a Nation (1915). And after seeing Cabiria , Griffith began planning an even larger-scale narrative that would interweave four historical periods, resulting in the ambitious Intolerance (1916).

The Birth of a Nation is generally credited with inaugurating the genre of the historical film in the United States. Although films that used historical settings and included historical characters were fairly common by 1915, they could not be considered serious attempts to understand or explain the past; rather, they consisted of romances, costume dramas, tales of adventure, or small historical vignettes set within larger dramatic narratives, such as the scene in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903) with Little Eva looking down from heaven on the divisive events of American history. The Birth of a Nation , on the other hand, attempts to offer an explanation and interpretation of the most troubled and divisive period in US history; despite its offensive stereotypes and obvious racism, it poses serious questions and makes serious interpretations about the meaning of the past.

In its ambitiousness, notoriety, and insistence on presenting a serious, if deeply flawed, interpretation of the meaning of the past, The Birth of a Nation brings into relief the distinctive characteristics of the genre and provides a blueprint for the future development of the historical film. It melds an elaborate family romance with a story of national trauma and national reconciliation; it employs a visual vocabulary consisting of wide panoramic shots, elaborate cross-cutting, and the use of close-ups as a form of historical commentary and analysis; and it insists on the authenticity of its representations by closely imitating battlefield daguerreotypes, by asserting the fidelity of its depiction of Lincoln's assassination, and by dwelling on the lived spaces of the historical past, the porches, picket fences, and dirt roads of the South. Although it was challenged at the time, its depiction reflected the beliefs of the most powerful school of American historians of that era, including President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), who after a private screening purportedly commented: "It's like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."

The negative publicity generated by The Birth of a Nation intensified Griffith's ambition to make a great historical film. Intolerance , over three hours long, combines four stories set in different time periods and inter-weaves the stories in a complex arrangement, like a musical fugue. The thematic link among these stories is the idea of intolerance through the ages and its overcoming through love. By cutting these four stories together through parallel editing—which up to that time had been used strictly for cutting between parallel actions in the same time frame—Griffith tried to articulate a universal historical patterning, one that linked the story of Christ's crucifixion with a modern story of injustice, together with the fall of ancient Babylon, and the story of the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre in sixteenth-century France. This innovative use of parallel editing to link and harmonize four separate historical narratives was a dazzling conceptual breakthrough, but the film was not well received by the public and became a massive commercial failure.

Griffith's influence on the development of a cinematic style of historical narration is perhaps best seen in the Soviet cinema of the 1920s. Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) expanded on Griffith's formal innovations in editing to create an even more advanced visual aesthetic known as montage editing, a style characterized by rapid, dynamic combinations of shots of very short length. Eisenstein used this style to create a history or, better, a foundational mythology for the fledgling Soviet Union. In Bronenosets Potyomkin ( Battleship Potemkin , assistant-directed by Grigori Aleksandrov, 1925), Eisenstein takes a small-scale historical incident—the mutiny by a small group of sailors on board the battleship Potemkin during the czarist period—and turns it into a stirring dramatization of the power of the proletariat to overcome oppression and create a revolution. In Oktyabr ( Ten Days that Shook the World and October , assistant-directed by Grigori Aleksandrov, 1927), also known as Ten Days That Shook the World , Eisenstein presents the turbulent events of the ten days of the Bolshevik Revolution. The film combines close attention to the actual events with an elaborate set of visual ideas including the use of visual metaphors, repetition, humor, and a highly charged sense of movement and dynamism.

The Soviet filmmakers were experimental in their treatment of the historical past, exploring ways of creating a revolutionary historiography for a revolutionary time. The style of historical narration that they pioneered had an impact on the Latin American cinema of the 1960s and, later, on Stone's JFK and Nixon (1995).

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