Beginning in 1915 with The Birth of a Nation , directed by D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), the historical film has been one of the most celebrated forms of cinematic expression as well as one of the most controversial. As a genre, it has maintained a high degree of cultural prominence for nearly a century, and it has established itself as a major form in nearly every nation that produces films. But it has also consistently provoked controversy and widespread public debate about the meaning of the past, about the limits of dramatic interpretation, and about the power of film to influence popular understanding and to promote particular national myths.
The historical film has often served as a vehicle of studio prestige and artistic ambition, and many distinguished directors have made major contributions to the genre. Steven Spielberg (b. 1946), Martin Scorsese (b. 1942), Oliver Stone (b. 1946), John Sayles (b. 1950), Edward Zwick (b. 1952), Bernardo Bertolucci (b. 1941), and Roman Polanski (b. 1933) have made important and powerful historical films that have reawakened interest in aspects of the past that were not previously well-represented or understood. For many societies, the historical film now serves as the dominant source of popular knowledge about the historical past, a fact that has made some professional historians anxious. Other historians, however, see these films as valuable for the discussions and debate they generate. Films such as Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), and Stone's JFK (1991), for example, have fostered a widespread and substantial public discussion that has contributed to historical appreciation and understanding.
Although several types of film can be grouped under the heading of the historical, Natalie Zemon Davis usefully defines the historical genre as being composed of dramatic feature films in which the primary plot is based on actual historical events, or in which an imagined plot unfolds in such a way that actual historical events are central and intrinsic to the story. This broad, plot-based characterization of the genre captures the specific and unique character of the historical film, which depends for its meaning and significance on an order of events—historical events—that exist outside the imaginative world of the film itself. Within this somewhat narrowed framework, however, there are still large variations in the types of films that can be considered historical films. Because the genre overlaps with other well-established genres, it is useful to consider the historical film in terms of several subtypes. These include the epic, the war film, the biographical film, the period or topical film, and what might be called the metahistorical film—films such as JFK or Courage Under Fire (Zwick, 1996) that present the past from multiple, conflicting viewpoints in an attempt to illustrate the complexity of representing the historical past.