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Frances Ce Liang

Professor Erin Dietel-Mclaughlin

WR-13300-SS13

8 November 2014

The Birth of A Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Glory: Historical Feature Films as A
Valuable Medium for Understanding and Studying US History

Introduction
From the earliest feature film - D.W Griffiths The Birth of A Nation - through Gone
with the Wind, Glory and Adrian Moats groundbreaking documentary Gettysburg,
the American Civil War has been, and remains a potent theme in mainstream films.

Functioning as any other type of historical documents, such historical feature films
serve as reflections upon special moments in history, thus intensely shaping audiences
perspectives of these events in many a way. Unfortunately, due to the dramatic
elements contained and the non-documentary nature of such films, most historians
and history instructors strongly disapprove of their use in academic research or
instruction. However, this notion is as widespread as it is biased. The tremendous
success and profound influence achieved by three landmark films that depict the
American Civil War from various perspectives, The Birth of A Nation, Gone with the
Wind, and Glory, have demonstrated the fact that films could be and should be

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regarded as a valuable tool for classroom and public history instruction as well as a
credible source material for history-related studies.

This research project will primarily examine these three 20thcentury films that were
produced as reflections upon certain historical events occurring during and after the
American Civil War. By examining and analyzing a number of significant scenes, I
aim to find out how these films portray the actual historical events and how they
shape audiences understanding of the American Civil War in general. This project
intends to show scholars studying US history, history instructors, and history major
students how influential these non-documentary films are in shaping audiences
perspectives towards history, in order to persuade them to regard such historical
feature films as another valuable source for history teaching and studying besides
written documents. To achieve this goal, I plan to demonstrate the films advantages
in in-class history teaching by using my personal experiences, discuss how and why
they succeed in sharpening the students critical thinking skills, illustrate the films
power in public history education, and explore the characters that contribute to these
films quality and credibility as a historical source.

Evoking Empathy and Fostering Interest: Films Role in History Class


As visual media, films present actual historical events through motion pictures instead
of words and sentences, thus achieving stronger emotional influence on an audience
than most written documents do. As a result, such films tend to play a more
significant role in evoking the students empathy and stimulating their interests
toward history in in-class history teaching. As an international student whose interest
in US history was largely evoked by films, I would like to use my personal experience

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to elaborate on this claim.

During my senior year of high school, after taking two semesters of US history
courses and spending countless hours memorizing lengthy names and intriguing
historical facts listed in my textbook, I still felt that these events which occurred
decades or even centuries ago, were so far away from my life that I soon lost both
passion and interest, until I signed up for the US History and Films class, in which
we watched and studied a number of non-documentary films depicting US history.
The reason for this change was simple but noteworthy: as Dr. Jeremy Stoddard from
College of William & Mary suggests in his article, in this class, instead of merely
using a film as a textbook which provides visual presentation of history, students
are engaged in developing historical empathy through the medium of film.
(Stoddard 5) In other words, the author implies that a films role as a perfect tool for
teaching history is largely defined by its power in evoking the audiences empathy
toward historical figures and events. Here, the films advantages as a teaching tool
clearly outweigh those of any type of written documents.
For instance, before taking the US History and Films class in my high school senior
year, even though I remembered all the basic information about the war in order to
pass the test, I never had a chance to get to know the roles that black people played in
the overall development of the war, nor did I ever view the war with any personal
emotions. However, my role as a passive viewer was transformed into that of an
active thinker by the 1989 American drama war film Glory, which tells the story of
the first formal unit of Union Army that was made up entirely of African American
soldiers during the American Civil War. When watching this film in class, I was
particularly touched by one scene near the end of the film: as the camera zooms in,

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my attention was directed to both a Confederacy flag flying defiantly and a field of
dead black Union soldiers with bare feet-the attack by the 45th Massachusetts
Volunteer Infantry had failed, and the narrative of the film is brought to a conclusion
with the burial of Colonel Robert Shaw in a mass grave along with the rest of his men.
Clearly, the death and burial of both white and black men serve as a metaphor for the
hard struggle against the racial prejudices. As far as I am concerned, this scene greatly
adds to the films success in fostering my personal indignation towards the cruelty of
the war and slavery, as well as my empathy for the black soldiers who fought bravely
for freedom alongside white men. In other words, it was this class building up the
connections between historical facts and visual art that renewed my overall
understanding of American Civil War as well as US history in general, which used to
be rather vague and uncertain, and stimulated my interest in this topic: the foundation
of this research project.

Lost Cause Films: Films as Useful Tools Helping Students Comprehend


History in a Broader Social Context
Although 150 years have gone by since the outbreak of American Civil War, it still
remains a highly controversial and potent theme in mainstream popular culture. The
films depicting this debatable event, which are subjectively written, directed and acted
by those who hold varying viewpoints towards the nature and morality of the war,
could be regarded as multi-angle cases showing students the complexity of American
Civil War. Thus, they serve as perfect teaching materials enabling students to
understand the causes and results of the war in a broader social context and to think
critically.

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Generally, the American Civil War has long been regarded as a righteous war that
saw the reunion of a divided country and granted freedom to millions of slaves
struggling in pain. However, according to my personal experience as a high school
student learning US history in class, any class discussion regarding the American
Civil War required some understanding of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, which
is usually defined as an ideology that reflects white Southerners conviction in their
causes righteousness. (Levin 33) As a result, certain historical feature films
depicting Civil War from the perspectives of Southerners may help students better
understand this ideology and provide insight into the complex nature of this war.
For instance, the popular 1939 production of Margaret Mitchells bestselling novel
Gone With the Wind is an example of the Lost Cause Narrative. As stated by Bostonbased history educator and author Kevin Levin, while neither Scarlett OHara nor
Rhett Butler embody strictly defined Lost Cause stereotypes, the movie offers
opportunities to explore depictions of slavery and racial relations.(36) Here, the
depictions of slavery and racial relations (36) Levin emphasized can be located
throughout the film. In the film, slaves are portrayed as docile and faithful members
of the OHara family, even remaining loyal after the Union Army emancipated all the
slaves in Tara and risking their lives for the survival of the family. The relationship
between Scarlett and Mammy, in particular, provides opportunities to explore the
complex interaction between masters and slaves in Old South.

Obviously, this unique portrayal of the black people in Civil War greatly differs from
both the demeaning depiction of former slaves in The Birth of A Nation, which I will
discuss later, and the glorified representation of black soldiers in Glory. This
difference, in particular, provides teachers a perfect chance to have the students

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engaged in a case study exploring the social origins of these varying perspectives
towards blacks role in the Civil War. Also, as a history educator, Levin suggests in
his article that one of his approaches in class is to supplement these scenes with
primary and secondary sources that offer a deeper understanding of antebellum
plantation life and encourage students to assess the discord between the movies
depiction of slavery and the wide range of responses slaves had to the war. (37) Here,
by affirming on the films quality as a teaching tool offering deeper insight into the
war, Levin provides the history instructors and teachers with possible approaches to
combine historical elements in the films narrative with in-class discussion, thus
further demonstrating the practicality of teaching history through the examination of
historical feature films. In one sentence, examining historical films could be, and
should be regarded as a vital part of history education in class, and when it comes to
Civil War films, in particular, teachers should encourage their students to view films
as cultural texts highlighting varying perspectives on race, society, and national
identity.

Outside the Classroom: Films Roles in Public History Education


Viewing the influence of American Civil War in a broader social context, we would
naturally observe that it is the modern media, films in particular, that maintain the
public interests toward Civil War and related historical figures and events. In other
words, such films have achieved more remarkable success in public history education
than any type of written documents. From early Hollywood films Gone with the Wind
and The Birth of A Nation, to the recent epic historical dramas like Lincoln, the Civil
War has been and remains a potent and long-lasting theme in mainstream culture. The
reason for this noteworthy social phenomenon has been revealed by Gloria Goodale

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in her article From 'Glory' to 'Gone with the Wind,' Fascination with Civil War
Endures. In the article, Goodale suggests that the general public's perception of the
American Civil War is significantly shaped by popular culture on the subject, largely
because it is virtually the only exposure they have to the subject matter. (Goodale 42)
Here, Dr. Goodale is insisting that to the people who are not quite well-educated, thus
hardly having chances or even abilities to read and fully understand formal academic
documents chronicling intriguing historical events, such historical feature films serve
as the only path through which they could get an idea of what actually took place in
the countrys history.
Whats more, as a commercialized modern media as well as an art form, films tend to
present historical events in a dramatized yet relatively more attractive way. To be
more specific, as a distinguished author argues in his article, although many historians
perceive Hollywoods historical drama from a strictly professional way, the viewers
by contrast react quite positively because such films also satisfy their story
expectations. (Schermaul 226) Thus, such films have successfully fostered
audiences fascination with history and defined their historical outlooks in general.
Recalling my early argument that historical feature films could serve as perfect
teaching materials for in-class discussions, we might reach another conclusion that
such films work not only as a major educational resources through which the public
comprehend, interpret, and appreciate history, but also a credible source of
information for historians and sociologists studying the publics responses to certain
historical events, wars or movements.

The Birth of a Nation, A Controversy as a History Itself & Ways Films


Work as Valuable Historical Sources

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Merely viewing such historical films as passive observers, many people may reach to
a false conclusion that all movies reflect good history. However, certain films, which
are inspired by the highly biased and emotional viewpoints of those who create them,
directors or screenwriters, may express prejudiced views toward certain events as
controversial as Civil War is, thus evoking strong public responses and even leading
to the outburst of later events. As a result, they serve as valuable historical evidence
indicating popular perceptions from a specific group of people during a specific
period of time, as well as the incentive causes of later events.

The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 film directed by D.W Griffith, serves as a perfect
illustration of this. Over the past 100 years, the film has been praised for its technical
virtuosity and criticized for its demeaning and racist depiction of black Americans.
Differing from a large number of Civil War films which depict the struggles of slaves
and emphasize the righteousness of the war, The Birth of A Nation recounts the
history of the Civil War and Reconstruction through the eyes and experiences of
Southern whites who vehemently opposed the political and social progress made by
newly freed African Americans after the war. Though the film was produced 50 years
after the end of Civil War, the director Griffith, as a southerner, could recall the
bitterness of Reconstruction through the stories told by his father and others. As a
result, the film ended up depicting the post-war period as a time when Northerners
destroyed the natural order of society by giving blacks the franchise and equality with
whites until the glorious Ku Klux Klan reversed the depredations.

As a three-hour-long silent video, the film is brought to a climax by a scene showing a


southern girl named Flora jumping off a cliff when pursued by a former slave who

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wishes to marry her. The racist message conveyed is quite clear even death seems
preferable to the marriage with a black man. This depreciation is even climaxed when
the southern Cameron family is helped by two former Union soldiers when fleeing
from a possible arrest for having Klan costumes, with the famous and controversial
inter-title stating, "The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense
of their Aryan birthright." (The Birth of A Nation Griffith, 1915) From these two
scenes, together with the remarkable artistic and commercial success achieved by the
film, we can easily figure out the reason why historian Thomas Cripps has
characterized The Birth of a Nation as at once a major stride for cinema and a
sacrifice of black humanity to the cause of racism. (Cripps 22)

As the results of such demeaning depictions, the film initiated a series of black
protests which largely set the tone of the whole decade: even as Griffith completed
The Birth of a Nation in Hollywood, black leaders began laying plans for a
nationwide protest campaign. In the week prior to President Wilsons screening of the
film in the White House, the Los Angeles branch of the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also attempted to call for The Birth of a
Nation to be banned in Los Angeles. The way by which the film stirred these
nationwide events clearly demonstrated the films power in presenting debatable ideas,
generating various public responses, and even promoting the development of future
movements. In other words, it is these traits of this all-time classic that compose of its
overall quality as a valuable historical source which provides insightful evidence for
the scholars studying the southern unrest in the post-war Reconstruction period as
well as the black protests in 1910s.

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Advantages Outweigh the Doubts: Characters that Make Nondocumentary Feature Films Credible Sources for History Studies

After examining three films and presenting all my arguments, I still have to accept the
fact that even though they are aware of the tremendous success and profound
influence achieved by these three historical films featuring American Civil War, a
great majority of scholars and history major students would probably still remain
skeptical of the films and other visual documents quality as legitimate sources of
history due to the dramatic elements contained. In other words, as a distinguished
author Anirudh Deshpande states in his article, historians tend to ignore such
visual evidence in favor of documentary sources (Deshpande 4456). However, the
relationship between historians and films has been proved to be solid and
indispensible by a great number of scholars, and the voice affirming the films quality
as legitimate sources of history has become stronger during the past decade.

If historians choose to only stick to documentary sources, they end up limiting the
scope of their enterprise (4456), stated by Deshpande in an article in which he argues
for a relatively new relationship between film makers and written historians. Here,
Deshpande emphasizes the fact that merely focusing on written documents, historians
tend to miss large numbers of crucial facts in visual sources of both past and present.
For instance, they might miss out on crucial facts recorded by the motion picture
industry during the Second World War, the Vietnam War, and most recently, the
September 11 attack - and ironically end up completing their history researches
lacking a considerable amount of useful information. Moreover, if we consider this
issue more deeply, we would even reach another conclusion that the feature films

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could be considered a more important source of history than documentaries. The
reason is, in fact, that a number of history feature films were produced within a short
period of time after the events they depict took place; they are, in other words,
contemporaries of these events. As a result, such films provide the historians with
large amounts of visual information about the social environment at a time that is
really close to the time when actual events occurred. Also, in the Article Films as
Historical Sources or Alternative History. Deshpande concludes that when the
camera records history unintentionally, we get to see geographical or social reality
despite careful editing. (4458) In other words, a film might display significant
historical details pertinent to various aspects of social, urban or rural history.
Carefully studying these valuable details instead of merely criticizing such feature
films for their plots that are somewhat dramatized, historian may be able to get a
deeper insight into the social environment of the specific period of time they study.

Conclusion

After examining the ways in which the mainstream films fuse filmic and non-filmic
discourses in order to stage the American Civil War on screen, I am able to make the
claim that although a great many people may still remain skeptical of the notion that
history can be studied without or with only partial reference to written documentary
sources, they cannot negate on the fact that films, or other forms of visual recordings,
have proved to be a vital source for both history education and history-related studies.
On the one hand, such films depict the controversial historical events from various
perspectives, thus assembling a historically and culturally meaningful narrative about
America's past for contemporary viewers. On the other hand, they vividly visualize

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actual historical events together with a broad social context, providing the historians
with large amounts of first-hand historical evidence. Taken together, the nondocumentary historical feature films could be, and should be regarded as valuable
sources that greatly assist the students, the public, and the scholars in comprehending
and studying the US history in general and the Civil War in particular.

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Works Cited
Deshpande, Anirudh. "Films as Historical Sources or Alternative History." Economic
and Political Weekly, 39.40 (2004): 4455-4459.

D. W Griffith [David Wark], The Birth of A Nation, Chatsworth, Calif. : Image


Entertainment distributor, 1998, 1 videodisc (187 min.)
Goodale, Gloria. "From 'Glory' to 'Gone with the Wind,' Fascination with Civil War
Endures." Christian Science Monitor, (2011): .
Levin, Kevin. "Teaching Civil War Mobilization with Film." OAH Magazine of
History, 26.2 (2012): 33-36.
Schermaul, U, and VEB VERLAG ENZYKLOPADIE. "Mainstream Movies and the
Reimagination of History in 'The Patriot' (2000)."Zeitschrift Fur Anglistik
Und Amerikanistik, 53.3 (2005): 225-238.

Stoddard, Jeremy D. School of Education, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg,


USA. "Film as a thoughtful Medium for Teaching History." Learning, Media
& Technology, 37.3 (2012): 271-2

Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942 (1977)