How Historians Read Film (Part 1)

The following is the first of several posts that I am using for my course, History through Film. I am currently developing the website, which is online at

When you arrive in college, one of the first things that you will notice is the diversity of schools — schools devoted to medicine, arts, communication technology, and more. And, within these schools are departments with faculty members who represent dozens of different fields. Within a school of liberal arts might be a department of history with faculty who specialize in fields such as the history of gender, the history of science, or the history of France — or possibly a combination of all three.

Once you take enough classes, you will notice two more things. First, you will see that each department (and faculty member within these departments) is not only studying different subject matter, but they are often taking completely different approaches to analyzing it. They have different methodologies, assumptions, and ways of knowing.  Second, you will begin to realize that each field has at least one, if not many, different professional organizations and journals that link them to national and international networks of scholars. At times, it can seem that academia is no more than a cacophony of scholars with competing grant proposals, claims to truth, and citation styles.

The fact is that there are historical reasons for this. Schools of law, medicine, and theology have existed for hundreds of years while most academic disciplines and professional schools are products of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At different moments in their histories, some have been more prominent and received more funding while others have been marginalized. Each discipline or profession developed at different moments to answer different questions or needs, and consequently they often have varied methodologies, goals, and expectations.

Knowing this, it will not surprise you that when people from distinct disciplinary backgrounds approach the same source — an artwork, a book, or a film for example — they usually ask different questions and have different assumptions about the best way to answer them. This is both a strength and a weakness, and in the last several decades there has been an increased emphasis on “interdisciplinarity” — working across the disciplines, sometimes in multidisciplinary collaboration.

Some subjects lend themselves to interdisciplinarity more than others. The study of film happens to be one of these. Not only does film rely on a variety of digital and analog technologies, but it requires artists proficient in sound, narrative, performance, and image. The creation of a film is embedded in complex socio-cultural, economic, and political contexts, both responding to and shaping them. Producing a film requires the collaboration of many people with different expertise, and it serves many societal needs — cultural, artistic, and financial for example.

In sum, film is a rich medium, and because of this, it can be “read” in many different ways. An art critic and a business professor might agree on the merits of a film, but the questions that they ask of it and the ways that they determine those merits might be completely different — perhaps even at odds.

In this class we are going to read films as historians. We might be interdisciplinary in our approach — borrowing from film studies, art criticism, literature, sociology, and more — but we are likely going to ask the types of questions that historians tend to ask. What is the historical context of the film? What is the historical content of the film? To what extent does the film adhere to or diverge from what we think we know about the past? How is the filmmaker attempting to represent the past? What agenda does this representation serve? How is the film commenting on other films or other media? How have different communities responded to the film? In what ways has the film shaped thoughts and actions? These questions represent just a small sample of those that historians ask.  And, certainly, other disciplines might ask the same questions. However, there is little doubt that few historians would ignore the above questions since, in many ways, they are central to our discipline — a consequence of the historical process that helped determine the methodologies, goals, and expectations of professional historians in the 21st century.

Think about these questions. What other questions might historians ask? What if you were a historian who specialized in the history of gender, race, class, science, or art? How might your questions be different? What questions might other disciplines ask of the same film? What questions might a musician ask or a cinematographer, a writer, a political scientist?

Having done this, watch the following two film clips. The first clip is from John Sayles’s film Matewan (1987). The second is from Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Miserables (2012). How might different disciplines approach them? What questions might they ask? What questions might they be able to answer if they worked together? Using the perspectives from different disciplines and fields, what ways might these scenes be in dialogue with each other?


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