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Faculty have recently been bombarded with a dizzying array of apps, platforms, and other widgets that may or may not be the Next Big Thing in college education. Though such novel technologies deserve attention, our aim here is to delve into a much older, frequently used, but often misunderstood vehicle for learning: dramatic film. Combined, we have decades of experience teaching cinema-based courses and publishing on the medium. We have a good sense of what students think of dramatic films, as well as academics’ attitudes toward them. Our goal here is to provide insights into approaching this resource successfully and to warn against misuses and pitfalls.
Why do we refer to dramatic film as a disrespected teaching resource, akin to the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s tortured persona? Because faculty often believe that being a subject matter expert automatically makes them authorities on movies depicting their subject matter. Such putative “expertise” frequently manifests as condemnation of, and derision for, Hollywood’s assumed sloppy and opportunistic attempts to present material to the masses.
If only being a subject expert brought such movie analysis abilities! In fact, the film medium operates by its own conventions, just as art and literature do. Until one learns the language of film, it is challenging to fully appreciate, let alone critique, what transpires on screen beyond plot. Yet, lacking such knowledge, subject matter experts can be quick to thump their chests when pointing out a film’s factual errors (Krossa 2008; McNeill 2019), as if these artifacts were created to pass academic muster. The good news is that general and more specific guides to “reading” dramatic films are readily available (e.g., Monaco 2009; Burkholder 2019), but like any area of study, it takes considerable time and practice to gain fluency in this skill.
None of that is to scare away instructors outside film courses from using dramatic film in classrooms but to encourage them to bone up on the medium before judging or vilifying it, especially in front of their students. This is especially necessary because the American public admits to turning to movies and television more than anywhere else as sources for understanding the past. Traditional sources—historical sites, museums, nonfiction books, to name but a few—all pale in comparison (Burkholder and Schaffer 2021, 18). The medium thus offers a tremendous opportunity to meet learners where they are comfortable, even if it means pushing them into new realms of discomfort to better understand cinematic depictions.
Although the public uses dramatic film as a go-to source of information, people admit to being highly skeptical of the medium. For example, when a national survey asked respondents to rank the trustworthiness of 20 sources of the past, dramatic movies and TV ranked 18th, whereas conventional sources like museums, historical sites, and even college professors came in considerably higher (Burkholder and Schaffer, 26).
This inverse relationship between usage and trust can be leveraged for learning and give rise to robust discussions: Why is it that a medium we consult so often is one that we so distrust? Where do those skeptical views come from, and are they justified? Preconception and reflection essays on these issues, bookending a semester, are effective mechanisms both for content and metacognitive growth in learners.
If presenting students with an “expectation failure” is a goal (Bain 2004, 28), then dramatic movies are there to serve. In our video-obsessed culture, learners (and even their teachers) can harbor an assumption that films should reflect “reality,” with any deviation being an unforgivable transgression. But here’s the thing: cinematic depictions can be simultaneously accurate and inaccurate. How can that be?
The paradox is one of “accuracy” versus “authenticity,” which are not necessarily the same thing. Filmmakers have learned that authenticity is most important for connecting with audiences, but what appears authentic on screen is usually more a function of previous movie depictions, not textbook accounts, at least in the case of established genre conventions. Films therefore adhere to storytelling standards even if the latter are, strictly speaking, inaccurate.
Even a motion picture like Edward Zwick’s Glory (1989), which Princeton historian James McPherson called “one of the most powerful and historically accurate movies ever made” about the Civil War (1995, 128), is full of creative license and errors: a slew of invented characters and out-of-season watermelons in Massachusetts in February are just two examples. Yet, it was only through the film medium’s storytelling practices and iconic imagery such as soldiers smoking corncob pipes and playing an archaic form of baseball that Zwick could hope for his work to resonate with moviegoers. Grappling with such inconsistencies can be a real challenge for learners and instructors alike, but it is one that can lead to much deeper insights than a simple viewing checklist of facts and errors ever could.
No dramatic film sets out to offer “the” truth—perhaps “a” truth, an interpretation of facts, a different perspective, a way to revisit events, literature, and issues, but not “the” truth. Seen purely in terms of content, a film may provide a different way to look at something. Constantin Costa-Gavras’s 2003 film Amen (based both on historical facts and a 1963 play by Rolf Hochhuth) shows the desperate attempt of a chemist, head of disinfection services for the Waffen-SS, and a priest to make public their knowledge of what is happening in concentration camps. Both clash with the unresponsiveness of foreign diplomats, including Pope Pius XXII. The film’s strength lies not so much in making known that such people existed as in eliciting a strong emotional response from viewers, hopefully making them reflect on how easy it is to dismiss hatred, “final solutions,” and political apathy as things only of the past. Used as a teaching tool, dramatic cinema can highlight ethical dilemmas, and provoke viewer reflections, in ways that other course materials may not.
When a film is an adaptation of creative fiction, the problem that detractors seem to dwell on is not so much one of accuracy as of faithfulness to the original novel, poem, or play. This presents a problem of false equivalency because film is its own medium with presentation and interpretive conventions that differ profoundly from the written word. In literature or cultural studies courses, where classics like Shakespeare’s or Jane Austen’s works are often supplemented by cinematic adaptations, basic plotlines may track between mediums, but the films inevitably differ from the original texts.
This pertains not only to highbrow literature. Consider an example with which most people are familiar: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), both derived from Mario Puzo’s 1969 homonymous novel. It is undeniable that Coppola’s two films edit Puzo’s novel by cutting parts and adding characters who are not in the novel, even though Puzo worked with Coppola on the script. Film studies courses aside, where Coppola’s directorial choices deserve in-depth study, these two titles are useful in cultural studies classes, where they can be appreciated for their ability to capture a period spanning the turn of the century to the 1960s, if not for historical or literary value.
Part II offers a particularly verisimilar portrayal of European immigrants’ arrivals at Ellis Island, as well as oblique but important references to the drug trade in Cuba and the involvement of Meyer Lansky (named Hyman Roth in the film); Fidel Castro’s coup, which terminated the island’s viability as a distribution corridor for drugs from Colombia to the US and Europe; and the 1963 McLellan hearings (a.k.a. the Valachi hearings, named for the key mafia whistleblower). The story of the Corleone family provides evidence of the ruthlessness of an association that punishes even blood relatives to protect its existence.
Few scenes in cinema are more memorable and effective in illustrating this mafia practice than the baptism sequence at the end of the first film, when Michael Corleone renounces Satan while his associates brutally murder his rivals and enemies. The cinematic device of crosscutting to present simultaneity of actions is key to comprehending the profound irony of the situation, but only a detailed discussion of the scene’s editing and its cultural, historical, and pictorial references can do it justice and unlock deeper, underlying meanings for students.
Rodney Dangerfield was actually a celebrated stand-up comedian; chronic disrespect was all part of his schtick. In the same vein, we hope that educators might reexamine how they view and use dramatic films. After all, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is not a naturalistic depiction of war, but few paintings are as effective in showing the destructive power of armed conflict. Such artifacts offer tremendous learning opportunities for students and teachers alike—but only if treated with the empathy and respect they deserve.
Bain, Ken. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Burkholder, Peter. 2019. “How to Read a Historical Film.” World History Connected 16 (2): https://worldhistoryconnected.press.uillinois.edu/16.2/forum_burkholder.html
Burkholder, Peter, and Dana Schaffer. 2021. History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey. Washington, DC: American Historical Association. https://www.historians.org/history-culture-survey.
Krossa, Sharon. 2008. “Braveheart Errors: An Illustration of Scale.” Medieval Scotland. http://medievalscotland.org/scotbiblio/bravehearterrors.shtml.
McNeill, John. 2019. “Historians Go to the Movies,” Perspectives on History 57, no. 7 (October): https://www.historians.org/research-and-publications/perspectives-on-history/october-2019/historians-go-to-the-movies.
McPherson, James. 1995. “Glory.” In Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, edited by Mark Carnes, 128–31. New York: Henry Holt.
Monaco, James. 2009. How to Read a Film. Fourth edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pete Burkholder, PhD, is professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he served as founding chair of the faculty teaching development program from 2009 to 2017. He has published studies on such cinematic topics as medieval warfare, dramatic speeches, child soldiers, and Jewish children in the Holocaust. He is on the editorial board of TheTeaching Professor and the national advisory board of the Society for History Education.
Gloria Pastorino, PhD, is professor of Italian and French at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she also teaches film, theater, English, and world literature. Her publications include books and articles on Italian cinema, cinema and migration, zombie films, Italian theater, mafia and masculinity, and translations of Italian and Spanish plays.