Teaching History Through the Movies

Often the History Channel makes use of movies to teach history. (historychannel.com ) However, the history channel has an expert panel of historians, who help to distinguish between film making, storytelling, creative license, the factual and true or truer history. Or rather, this is best understanding of these experts and professional historians, since the philosophy and discipline of history is like any other philosophy and discipline that has its best understanding and best theories.

There are movies based on almost every historical period. Some of them are based on historical novels or biographies or autobiographies, Some are based on newspaper accounts. Others are original screenplays written by screenplay writers who research the history and write about it. Many of these are fictional versions of history, with much creative license. However, these films can be used to teach history, and to argue the true history.

Even spiritual history is not without debate and reassessment as is found in the controversy regarding The DaVinci Code and like novels and texts and throughout history. These debates have been going on for centuries and probably only appear new to a modern-day audience who thought that these canonical questions had already been settled, among Catholics and Protestants alike. However, biblical and theological historians are continuing their research, and certainly when new documents are discovered and/or rediscovered.

As for historical movies, whether secular or spiritual, we can also discuss, for example, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. This is indeed Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. A movie portrayal of Malcolm X is not necessarily the true Malcolm X. Don Steele (The True Meaning of Malcolm X) has a review of the Spike Lee movie that makes this very clear. It’s available from Lulu Press, http://www.lulu.com/content/86899. No doubt there are other reviews of the movie that make clear the distinction between history and creative license, even though the Spike Lee movie is a tremendous effort and the performance of Denzel Washington is certainly the greatest role of his career and a fine performance. No fictional role can compete with this, and certainly not the role he received an Academy Award for, even though it demonstrates his versatility, as hero and anti-hero, and certainly the anti-heroic is a much a staple of film making, national and international, as the heroic.

We don’t know if the History Channel has ever included Malcolm X among its repertoire (maybe during Black History Month?) and discussed it with historians, but this would be a good movie to discuss, and to discuss the historical veracity, and not just during Black History Month. How much is true history, how much is creative and filmmic license, and how much is just Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, and just Spike Lee’s imagination or lack of imagination. And maybe how much is Denzel Washington’s Malcolm X, although, again, he gives a very powerful performance, and many agree that he’s a leading actor of this generation. Certainly Spike Lee is a notable and talented filmmaker, but as with all filmmaker he has to decide if a project is truly for him–as with Oprah Winfrey’s efforts with the Great Books of African American fictional tradition in her film productions of the works of Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston, both literary icons. It’s acceptable for filmmakers to make movies. Nevertheless, it’s also acceptable for movies to be remade. Perhaps Oprah’s versions, although controversial now, might very well become classics, as is true not only in film history but literary history.

The great Zora Neale Hurston, for example, had to be rediscovered. Although Their Eyes Were Watching God is considered her “canonical” work, many of her other works, such as Moses Man of the Mountain are being re-evaluated also. If Their Eyes Were Watch God is the great feminine (feminist?) text–and has certainly been used by feminists of every variety to promote an agenda; Moses Man of the Mountain might be at some point regarded as the great masculine (masculinist) text, and her truer and more balanced appreciation and knowledge of African American culture and civilization recognized. In her anthropological stories, for example, she collected not only the stories of women of almost every variety and type, but the stories of men of almost every variety and type and throughout the African Diaspora. Her true stature as a novelist, short story writers, playwright, folklorist, anthropologist (student of Franz Boas at Barnard College, Barnard graduate 1928), storyteller and “cultural icon” is probably not just truly known, and many of her works were not even published, as she complained in a famous essay, “What White Publishers Won’t Print.”

There are many Moses movies, as we know; it would be interesting to have a film of this rendition of the Moses story. And if filmmakers were to decide to make this into a comedy it had better be a “Cosmic Comedy.” However, Moses (Moshe) as spiritual archetypal prophet/liberator in the Hebrew pantheon, who ” is the figure who dominates the Torah,” has also had an important role in African American history, secular and spiritual, and their strategies of liberation and rebellion.

When people become “historical figures” so to speak and are no longer perceived as a “threat”–again, so speak–many make great claims. The Moses story is continued to be made and remade and every historical period has a new image of Moses integrated with the original. However, this is the job of ethical historians to distinguish fact from fiction. Even with the great prize fighter Muhammad Ali–who is no longer in his prime, so to speak (an elder can be in their “spiritual prime” however), nevertheless is a great difference now in how people treat and perceive him than in his more controversial youth. He’s no longer the “upstart” young man–again, so to speak. He even has President George W. Bush giving him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and has many people making great claims. For many he’s a contemporary, but he’s also a “historical figure.” And it should be noted that he also has his role in “The Malcolm X Story.” This role might continue to be assessed and reassessed. But you cannot make a movie about Mohamed Ali without mentioned the Malcolm X connection. Read or reread “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” If you only have a recent edition, try to also find the original edition.

This is a first example of teaching history and “historical figures” via film and also the problem of distinguishing filmmic reality from so-called reality. It is not our role in this essay merely to introduce this topic, but it is something for the teachers of history and the professional historians and those who participate in history and connect to “historical figures” to consider. Also, people who meet so-called historical think that this means they “know” them; this just means that they meet them. It doesn’t mean they “know” them. However, they can present their assessments. No doubt there are many people who meet Muhammad Ali and think they know him. Maybe many who interview him and think they know him from some interview. These people probably don’t know him at all, nor do they have a true means of getting to know him. They have to try to be honorable historians and honorable historical journalists.

There’s a question on the history channel website of whether journalists embedded with the troops in Iraq can be objective. Possibly not. Nor can most of the other American journalists. Nor can Iraq’s journalists be objective. Perhaps many think they are and pretend to be. An objective journalist would have to be a journalist neither American nor Iraqi, nor an ally of either.

That’s like imagining a cowboy journalist to be objective when they’re going after Geronimo. Maybe many many generations later. Also, few Native American would be objective, neither the ones helping the cowboys to capture Geronimo, nor the ones fighting with Geronimo. Think about it. Every generation has its “cowboys & Indians.” Every nation has its “cowboys & Indians.” Think about it. And, by the way, who’s your “Geronimo”?

Part of the history of immigrants and pilgrims has been people trying to escape the “role” assigned to them of having to play “the Indians.” Almost every group has had to play “the Indians,” in somebody’s history. And someone has also had to play “Geronimo.” Think about it.

Guillaume Apollinaire in one of his masterpiece short stories, which we roughly translate as “A Passerby in Prague,” and which a staff writer roughly translates, makes use of the myth of the “wandering Jew,” and the roles that Jews have plays in many society, including America, which is notable in the film “Gentleman’s Agreement.” Although this is fiction it is also history. In an monologue excerpt, we read:

“The second procession was that of a Jew whom they’d caught. With the yelling crowd and those drunk on beer, I walked up to the gallows. The Jew had his head covered with an iron mask painted red. This mask simulated a diabolic figure in which the ears were, to tell the truth, in the form of horns which are the ears of the ass that one puts on the head of naughty children….”

“You’re an Israelite, aren’t you?” I asked simply.

“I am the Wandering Jew. You’ve no doubt guessed that. I am the Eternal Jew–that’s what the Germans call me. I am Isaac Laquedem.”

This Wandering Jew talks about all the names that people have for him–“The Italians call me Buttadio – in Latin Buttadus: the Bretons, Boudedeo; the Spaniards, Juan Espere-en-Dios. I prefer the name Isaac Laquedem, under which one often sees me in Holland.”

He speaks of how he got the name “Wandering Jew,” and also the great authors who’s works he has inspired including Goethe and Schubert and many others.

This story is a great metaphor and this role is a great metaphor. Some peoples have only played the “Indians” in their own histories. Some have gotten to play the “Indians” in many peoples histories. Irish? Africans? Who else? Much of the struggle of peoples, including Europeans, is to avoid having to play “the Indians.” Of course. This is a role that almost every nationality gets to play in somebody’s history, and history always has poignant reminders of this. The question is always, Why don’t people learn anything from history?

And since nobody likes playing “the Indians,” why don’t we learn something?

Spiritual Philosophers have been teaching the same lessons century after century, generation after generation. Even historians, who are not on the level of these have been teaching the same lesson just by teaching history, and for whatever reason, people seem not to learn. Great novelists and writers like Leo Tolstoy and others have been teaching the same lessons. When the elders of civilizations can not be duped and deceived anymore, usually the young, the impressionable young, are recruited. And many times the impressionable elders also. The Great Teachers are correct when they try to teach people to transcend the world of appearances and authority figures. They’re correct. The world of appearances and the world of authority can be honorable or it can be corrupt. Think of Nazi Germany, think of the Romans at the height of their worldly corruptions. Think of Egypt at its most corrupt, or the Greeks. Think of the Moors when they were the conquerors. The great conquering Indian nations. The great conquering Africans–and yes, Africans too, have been conquerors, although their role today is very different, and so the role of Native Americans–who have also had their days of conquest, andn conquering other Indian tribes and peoples. We are not being specific here, because it’s just a matter of reading and learning the histories of all these peoples. Every now and then you have writers of the true histories of nations and peoples. And of course you have the honorable men and women of nations, and those who come closest to the divine ideal and societies idealizations of themselves and their peoples. But at some point societies and civilizations are going to have to take true and honest looks at themselves. They are going to have to do so. And that’s everybody. Every nation. Every civilization. Not just pointing the figure at others. At some point every nation, every civilization is going to have to take a true and honest look at itself, like when Leo Tolstoy tried to take a true and honest look at Russian society and civilizations through his great novels, including The Resurrection.

Recently there was a news item about American kids learning Chinese. Why do you think so many American kids are learning Chinese? Why do so many Americans want to teach their children Chinese and while they are still little children? Think about it. Some Americans remember the time when everybody felt the need to learn Spanish? Japanese? English? Think about. Un poquito? Think about it. Un poquito? And why is the language of international business English? Suppose there’s a time when the language of international business is Chinese? Or Spanish? Or, another language? What about Swahili? Think about it. Certainly in science fiction stories and novels, science fiction writers think about such scenarios all the time.

But in this essay we’re talking history, not science fiction, although there are some science fiction writers who deal with the subject of history, like Octavia Butler, the great African American science fiction writer. If you don’t know of her works, read them. And, the hero or heroine of a science fiction novel could also be a historian.

Certainly history (spiritual and secular) is a necessary subject and historians are necessary in every society. Now, what do we learn from films? And how and why can films be used in teaching history? And then how do we review those films, both their artistic craft and their historical veracity? How do we make use of historical films in a classroom? How do we make use of historical films as filmmakers and moviegoers? What is the role of history in film? What is the role of film in history? These are some of the questions. Of course this essay can not answer all of these questions. The essay introduces these questions. These are the type of questions that a history teacher can ask? Or that those watching historical movies can ask themselves?

When teaching history, teachers of no matter what educational level, from elementary school to graduate and post graduate school can use movies to teach history. Parents can also buy DVDs to teach their children about history. Like with books, there are historical movies for every grade level.

Of course, teachers and parents have to do like the history channel. They have to discuss the historical realities and make distinction between those and the creative license of movie makers. That have to make it clear to children and other who watch historical movies, that historical movies are not necessarily history. We began by mentioning the Malcolm X movie. Certainly some children not of the Malcolm X generation might have thought that they were watching a real history. Parents, of that generation, certainly had to make it clear that this is just a movie. Also, this is where it is necessary if possible to include documentary films. Even though documentary films can be selective and have a point of view, nevertheless documentary films should also be included in the use of films in teaching history. But mainly we are discussing the creative films and the fictionalization of history, which most of them are. Our source mainly for this essay is the Hollywood movies and the American movies.

One can find historical movies on almost every historical period. A website which lists them in chronological order–mostly the American movies and perhaps the Americanization of history is vernonjohns.org.

There are movies dealing with Ancient History through various Biblical histories through various modern histories. There are also movies that deal with histories of different countries and civilizations, like England, Russia, China, Japan, Israel, Ireland, etc. There are various political histories.

Some samples include: From Ancient Man, Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), from Old Testament Biblical History, Esther and the King (1960), from the Greek City States, Troy (2004), from the Roman Empire to Early Christianity, Hannibal (1960) and the various movies about Spartacus, the rise of Christianity is represented by the various Jesus movies including The Passion of the Christ (2004); Gladiator (2000) also represents this historical period. Attila (1954) represented the Fall of the Roman Empire. The El Cid movies and Mohamed, Messenger of God (1977) represent Islamic history. These are just a few.

Then there are many other movies to represent historical period; these are the further categories at this website:

  • England in the American Revolution
  • France to French Revolution
  • Italy, Sweden & Austria, Sweden
  • Russia & Turkey to French Revolution
  • China
  • Medieval Japan
  • Age of Discovery
  • America & Canada to American Revolution
  • American Revolutionary War
  • French Revolution, 1789
  • Napoleon
  • USA: Early Years
  • Crimean War
  • American Civil War
  • USA–Reconstruction & Separate But Equal
  • USA–Cowboys
  • & Indians
  • Victorian England
  • France & Austria
  • Imperialism: Spanish-American War
  • Imperialism: Africa
  • Imperialism: India
  • Imperialism: China
  • Italy: Before WW I
  • USA: Before WW I
  • WW I
  • Russian Revolution
  • Independence for Ireland
  • USA: 1920’s
  • Gangsters: Prohibition
  • Great Depression USA
  • Black History: Great Depression to Civil Right Movement
  • Hitler’s Rise
  • Pre-War Japan
  • Spanish Civil War
  • Rise of Mussolini
  • World War II–Germany
  • Soviet Union
  • Germans Kicked Out of Africa
  • Allied Invasion of Italy
  • Russian Front
  • Allied Invasion of France
  • German Counter-attack
  • Air War
  • Others
  • Hitler’s Last Days
  • Holocaust
  • World War II–Japan
  • The War in China
  • The USA Finally Gets into the War
  • USA Strikes Back
  • Post-War Japan
  • Post-War China
  • Post-War Germany
  • USA: The Home Front and the Soldiers Return
  • Independence for India–1947
  • Anti-Colonialism Against the French
  • USA–Loss of China, Korean War & McCarthyism During Cold War
  • Teen Rebellion and Rock & Roll
  • Civil Rights–USA
  • JFK, president 1961-1963
  • USA Struggle to Stop All Leftists in Latin and South America
  • Vietnam War
  • Hippie Era
  • Backlash: Nixon & the 70’s
  • Godfathers & Serial Killers
  • Civil Rights: South Africa
  • Civil Rights: Northern Ireland
  • Civil Rights: Canada
  • Civil Rights: Australia
  • Israel
  • Recent Politics
  • Worries About the Environment

The above are the categories of many movies on this page. This is excellent research of these different historical periods and the principle movies. Of course, most of these are just the American movies. Those interested in doing this type of historical movie learning, should also put together a collection of the international movies made during these important historical periods and should also compare them to the American movies.

The defining of history according to these periods tells a great about viewpoint and history, and why earlier we mentioned the “Americanization” of history. If the 20th century is the “American” century, then certainly history is “American.” That’s why it’s important for American to watch international film and international television and to learn about other peoples histories and from other peoples points of view. Certainly they might prefer their own point of view, but they need to learn of others and other points of view. Suppose China were to become the next greatest civilization as some pundits think. Then wouldn’t Americans want their point of view to be heard? Of course. But to continue our discussion of history and the movies.

Let’s say you’re dealing with Imperialism & Africa or with Germany. What are the movies made by the Africans and Germans during these periods? That’s the same with the other historical periods. In India, what movies were the Indians making? Are these movies also available.

Also, the philosophy of history should be discussed with the class. What is history? How do historians research and select historical facts and historical information. Why is history continuing to be re-researched and rewritten. What is the role of the so-called common people, the so-called masses in history vs. the great historical figures? What is the role of women? What is the role of minorities? What is viewpoint and history? Is history ever truly objective?

This website is great for initial research. Then the researcher must consider movies made by others than America and Hollywood. Brown University, for example, in 2005 held an Africana Film Festival, including many of the great African movies, like Cosmic Africa, about African Astronomy. A list of these movies can be found at the following website:


When study African history, for example, movies made by Africans should also be included. This is the same with all these other histories and historical periods.

Have Native Americans made any movies about their history. If not, then go to the books written by Native Americans. When considering making Native American movies, for example, filmmakers are going to help to start looking to the books written by the great Native American writers. If filmmakers don’t know them, then research them. James Welch, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko, and the lesser knowns. Why not consider making movies not just from the Hollywood imagination, but there are many great Native American authors. Not as many known or published as there should be. But there is great wealth here.

Recently a staff writer was wondering why not a movie based upon the great Ralph Ellison novel Invisible Man. A great novel of the 20th century. Maybe among the greatest. And by Ralph Ellison, not only a great novelist, but an artist, musician, photographer. The staff writer read a review of Terrence Howard’s pimp flick. Not very commendable, although the review finds Terrence Howard a talented actor and a fine performance. But the role? Why not have a great actor like Terrace Howard play one of the greatest roles for an African man called Invisible Man?

There are other great historical roles–Hannibal–not the Anthony Hopkins movie, but the original; and what of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Once there was to have been a movie of Toussaint L’Ouverture and there was a great controversy because Anthony Quinn was to be considered for the role. Although Anthony Quinn is among the great actors, and certainly made many great movies, nevertheless when one looks at the historical documents, he is certainly no Toussaint L’Ouverture, and it would be excellent to have a dark-complexioned African playing this great role, and not always pandering to the “American aesthetic.” For a photographic image and historical account of Toussaint L’Ouverture go to pbs.org .If the wife of Moses is truly Ethiopian, then why not have an Ethiopian play the role? And what of the original and ancient Jewish people–not the Europeanized Hebrews?

There are many historical movies and there is much historical movie work to do–and this is for all ethnic groups, who must all deal with the virtues and the vices of their various histories. Certainly for Terrence Howard it’s exceptable for him to play a pimp, since there are such types, but that should not be the only type for him to play.

We know that Oprah Winfrey has a commitment to making movies and plays (The Color Purple on Broadway) by African American women, but there are the great books by African American men also. The Old School and the New School.

All of these ideas should be considered when dealing with movies and history. Great that Hollywood has made so many historical movies of so many different historical periods. However, when truly wanting to teach history through the movies, we have to all consider the non-Hollywood movie makers, and also the great works, historical and otherwise, to help to enhance American history and everybody’s history through the movies.

These are all questions for those learning and teaching history through the movies to consider.

Historic movies online can also be found at: