Historical Films


Many important historical films center on a particular incident or focus on a specific period rather than on the grand narratives of war, heroic individual action, or the emergence of a race or nation in the form of the epic. The topical, or period, film is exemplified by such celebrated works as Rossellini's Rome, Open City and Paisan , Senso (Luchino Visconti, 1954), La Marseillaise (Jean Renoir, 1938), Danton (Andrzej Wajda, 1982), Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981), and Titanic (James Cameron, 1997). Two other notable examples, Eight Men Out (1988) and Matewan (1987), are the work of the independent film-maker John Sayles. Commenting on Matewan , Sayles explained that, rather than recreate an entire fifteen-year period in American labor history, he focused on the Matewan Massacre, an incident in the mining industry, as one episode that epitomized that period. Similarly, Eight Men Out , a film that focuses on the Black Sox scandal of 1919, in which several players conspired to throw the World Series, dug under the surface of the incident to show the period as a moment of cultural transition in which sports, advertising, public relations, gambling, leisure, and mass communications were beginning to transform the nation from an agrarian culture to an urban, commodity-based society.

Other historical films are important for their exactitude of period detail and for their deep understanding of the difference between the past and the present. Such films fully express a cultural order that, organized according to different allegiances and beliefs, has become remote. These include Le Retour de Martin Guerre ( The Return of Martin Guerre , Daniel Vigne, 1982), Black Robe (Bruce Beresford, 1991), and Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991). Black Robe centers on the challenges facing Jesuit missionaries in French Canada in the 1600s, in particular the attempt by one young priest to travel to a distressed mission in the Ottawa River Valley, a journey that becomes an ordeal. The film captures the strangeness and sense of otherness that the priest experiences while traveling among the Algonquins who serve as his trading partners and guides, but it also gives us the perspective of the Indians and effectively opens a window onto their cultural sensibility. Each culture is presented to the viewer in its unfiltered strangeness, as it was to the other in 1634.

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