What Makes for the Best Historical Movies? (part 1)

I’m not planning to blog this week, while I join my family on vacation on Minnesota’s beautiful North Shore. But over at The Anxious Bench, my regular Tuesday post kicked off a new series on historical movies like this summer’s Civil War/Reconstruction epic, Free State of Jones.

At the end of the series, I’ll reveal two of my favorite examples of the form. But first, I’m going to use a couple of posts to suggest criteria that we might use to evaluate historical films (and TV series). Today I reflected on what it means for such motion pictures to be truthful (verisimilitude might be a better standard than accuracy), but I started by backing up and asking about their purpose:

We shouldn’t go too far without first underlining that histories and historical movies are different literatures. Both attempt to make meaning of the past, so both are fundamentally acts of interpretation. But as they interpret, say, what happened in a Mississippi county whose disenchanted citizens revolted against the Confederacy in 1863, historians and filmmakers necessarily go about their task in fundamentally different ways.

…But we can’t hasten past this fact: historical or not, any good feature film does need to be entertaining, in ways that aren’t required of histories published by tenured academics through nonprofit presses. It does need to be “gripping” — and moving, evocative, engrossing, and more. (And yes, it needs to take much less time to complete than a historical monograph.)

We tend to think of “entertainment” in terms of its second Webster’s definition: “to provide amusement,” to serve as a fleeting diversion that distracts us from weightier concerns. If that’s all a historical film does, it won’t meet most of my other criteria. But to entertain is also “to have people as guests,” and I think the two meanings converge in a well-done historical movie, since it diverts our attention from our world by inviting us into another — perhaps in ways that an academic history cannot.

Read the full post here. Then stop back next Tuesday for the third and fourth criteria, and on the 26th for the reveal of my two favorite current historical movies. (Well, TV series actually, but still, moving pictures.)

Read part 2 of this series>>

3 thoughts on “What Makes for the Best Historical Movies? (part 1)

  1. Tracey Mckenzie did a great review of the movie on his blog- which I’m sure you saw- and addressed some of the same potential issues with “historical” movies – looking forward to seeing it as well as what you think are the top forms currently running today

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