Book Review: American History through Hollywood Film: From the Revolution to the 1960s by Melvyn Stokes

Stokes, Melvyn American History through Hollywood Film: From the Revolution to the 1960s Pp. 312 London: Bloomsbury, 2013. £17.99

9781441175922The subject of the ways in which American historical events have been represented in mainstream, popular cinema is one that has been considered often, and rather more frequently in recent times, from Andrew Pepper and Trevor McCrisken’s American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film (2005) to J.E. Smyth’s edited collection Hollywood and the American Historical Film (2012). The field has developed somewhat over the years, shifting from a preoccupation with the accuracy and verisimilitude of representation (Hollywood, it must be said, often comes up short in this regard), towards an appreciation of the place the historical film in wider considerations of historiography, popular myth, and national identity. Stokes’ recent volume elegantly and efficiently explores these ideas in relation to a series of episodes from the American past.

As a scholar of film and television rather than history, I have often been uncomfortable with the ways in which moving images are treated by historians, as either uncomplicated windows into the past or a means to demonstrate the historical ignorance of Hollywood filmmakers. There is often scant regard for the film as a film: an artform with its own particular properties, generic preoccupations and iconographic traditions. The historical film is not, as so many people appear desperate for it to be, a rigorous historical account magically brought to life, even when the people producing it intend it to be so.

Any such concern when approaching Stokes’ work is largely unfounded, as he weaves the various threads neatly together to provide a cohesive but often rightfully separate consideration of the films, the traditions from which they were drawn and the personnel involved, the historiography concerning the period, and the ‘facts’ (whatever they may be).  Indeed, one of the book’s major strengths is to consider the reception of each of the films discussed, relating the concerns of contemporary critics about historical accuracy without necessarily making judgements of this ilk about the films themselves. In so doing, the book moves towards chronicling the anxiety that exists surrounding historical cinema and the role it plays in wider debate about the past. Hollywood, as Stokes notes, is subject to the pressures and industrial concerns of a major industry dedicated to making profit.

While Stokes quotes Robert Rosenstone’s claim that historical films should be judged within the ‘ongoing discourse of history’, he does so rather more carefully than this statement would suggest, taking into account the fact that Hollywood, unlike the historian, is not solely dedicated to the realisation and dissemination of historical truth. While Stokes perhaps belies some of his discomfort with popular cinema in his rather swift dismissal of films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, 2012) and Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012), this is not a defining feature of the book. More common are critiques like that of Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990), with Stokes rightly identifying and lauding the film as the first major mainstream release to portray Native Americans sensitively, while still remaining aware of the problematic imagery the film puts forward of the ‘noble savage’, and some infelicities in its use of native languages and locations.

Dances_With_Wolves

‘Dances with Wolves’ (Kevin Costner, 1990)

A major strength of the book is that it does not try to do too much, providing a highly readable and succinct account of particular pressure points in the American experiment: the American Revolution, slavery, the Civil War, the Great Depression, the McCarthy era and the tumultuous 1960s, as well as exploring broader themes of immigration, the treatment of Native Americans and the significance of Abraham Lincoln. If that seems rather selective, the book is self-conscious in this approach, seeking to offer broad discussion in conjunction with close analysis to provide illumination of each period, person or group in question. This approach is strongest in Stokes’ discussions of Abraham Lincoln and his changing image over the decades, and his analysis of The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940) and its representation of the Great Depression.

The Grapes of Wrath

‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (John Ford, 1940)

In the case of Lincoln, Stokes provides an interesting account for his popularity during the Great Depression and relative decline in significance as the ‘Great Man’ theory of history was challenged in the 1980s and 1990s, demonstrating the impact of historiography on popular filmmaking through a pertinent case study. In relation to The Grapes of Wrath, Stokes’ analysis of the ways in which the ending of Ford’s film was changed to ensure that traditional moral values were reinforced over the novel’s more progressive, reformist agenda (and the ways in which this shift was received by critics) is an illuminating and important example of the ways in which Hollywood wrestles difficult subjects into its own particularly rigid frameworks of storytelling.

Young Mr Lincoln

‘Young Mr Lincoln’ (John Ford, 1939)

The aspect of the book I found most intriguing is its frequent discussions of what elements of American history are absent from mainstream cinema at particular points, providing compelling accounts for their lack of representation in Hollywood: the decline in films about the American Revolution during World War I because of sensitivities about the portrayal of the British, the almost complete absence of films about slavery until relatively recently (with the most significant exploration of this troubling episode from the American past having emerged on television in the form of Roots (1977)), and a perceptive exploration of the reasons why HUAC investigations have not proved a particularly rich avenue for investigation in mainstream cinema, to name but a few. As Stokes reveals, the reasons why Hollywood does not produce films about particular episodes in history is often as significant to our understanding of both the industry and the history it doesn’t represent as it would be if every aspect of the past were consistently repurposed, repackaged and shown on the big screen.

Overall, American History through Hollywood Film is most valuable as a broad introduction into the subjects explored, with rich areas introduced that can be explored further. Each chapter provides a concise and strong discussion of the salient issues in each historical period identified, and provides important accounts of how, why and when some of these films were produced. At a point in American history in which mainstream filmmakers appear drawn to stories about the nation’s past that attempt to reveal and neutralise some of the more traumatic episodes of the past 250 years (for example, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) are all about slavery and they are generically, tonally, and iconographically very different, but they all fall back on that most American of figures – the heroic individual – as the guiding light towards freedom and salvation), it is vital that scholars remain engaged with the reasons why certain elements of the past are persistently redrawn in films, and what this might say about the people, the industry and the nation that produced them. Sophisticated in its analysis, this book is well worth reading for any scholar of the subject and a valuable resource to anyone looking for a useful way into a subject that preoccupies academics, critics and audiences alike.

Django Unchained

‘Django Unchained’ (Quentin Tarantino, 2012) Image: The Weinstein Company

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About Greg Frame

Gregory Frame is an early career researcher in Film and Television Studies. He was awarded his PhD from the University of Warwick in 2012 and is currently teaching political cinema and television at the University of York. There is a much broader investigation into the dynamics of the female presidency in film and television in a chapter entitled ‘“Having it Allen”: Motherhood, Domesticity and the Female Presidency in Commander in Chief’ in his book The American President in Film and Television: Myth, Politics and Representation (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014).
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