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Short Features

Harvard Sitkoff
Photo by Gary Samson, Casablanca from Photofest
How Hollywood Makes History

Learning how to separate fact from fiction in films

arrow See also the Best and the Worst films about history

The Vietnam War and World War II might as well be the Battle of Marathon as far as Harvard Sitkoff's students are concerned: They're ancient history. Today's college students were born nearly 10 years after the end of the Vietnam War, and their parents were born a decade after the end of the great war that shaped their grandparents' generation.

"History is not emphasized in the lower grades, and students' grasp of world history is truly pitiful," says Sitkoff, a professor of history at UNH. "In teaching about Vietnam, I was coming up against very important cultural forces--TV, film, music--that were having an enormous impact on my students."

So Sitkoff devised a course that would take advantage of students' interest in popular media by using movies to teach not only history but also how to view films critically, rather than passively accepting what's on the screen. In "Film and History: War," students learn about two critical periods in American history--World War II and the Vietnam War--through movies, standard historical texts, dispatches and novels.

One of the first things Sitkoff wants his students to realize is that the movies manipulate not only historical facts but also their own perspectives and emotions. "Different viewpoints and messages are conveyed by action, music, lighting," Sitkoff explains. "Certain filmic devices are used to make us feel a certain way. Students discover how film techniques affect them."

Sitkoff gives moviemakers low marks for their depictions of history. "They get a C-minus," he says. "They're so interested in selling tickets that they jazz up stories until they have little relationship to what actually happened."

Rating the Movies

We asked historian Harvard Sitkoff for a list of the best and worst depictions of history in film. Here are his top picks:


"A Man for All Seasons" (1966)

"Because I'm a sucker for any film about a liberal martyr who dies for a cause."

"Casablanca" (1942)

"As time goes by, the characters become more mythic yet still so human, and we keep realizing anew that the personal problems we make so much of don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."

"The Grapes of Wrath" (1940)

"It etched in American memory the tragic image of the Okies heading west in their broken jalopies like the tumbleweeds blown off their desolate lands."

"Gandhi" (1982)

"A perfect example of a film that, despite many small historical errors, is true to the spirit of the times and the participants."

"Glory" (1989)

"It does a glorious job of giving African Americans their proper due in the fighting of the Civil War, while reminding us of the historical persistence of racism."

"Matewan" (1987)

"This John Sayles film is the best ever about American workers and about the role of class in American history."


"JFK" (1991) and "Nixon" (1995)

"Oliver Stone gets the details right--the suits, the cars, etc.--but is absurdly wrong on the larger themes."

"They Died with Their Boots On" (1941)

"Concerning Native Americans, Hollywood just does not get it, or gets it all wrong as in this Errol Flynn travesty."

"The Green Berets" (1968)

"Its many failures and inaccuracies are by now as legendary as the final shot of John Wayne watching the sun set in the East."

"Ghosts of Mississippi" (1996) and "Mississippi Burning" (1988)

"Hollywood stardom: 10; the civil rights movement: 0."

Oliver Stone, for example, "is a great filmmaker and an embarrassment as a historian. In the worst possible way, he manipulates history to buttress his preconceived notions." It's a less serious problem in Vietnam movies like "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July" than in "JFK," where, Sitkoff says, Stone is "playing fast and loose with the facts," concocting a grand conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy because the president planned to pull troops out of Vietnam. "Kennedy was a cold warrior, a Democrat who understood the danger of being seen as soft on communism," Sitkoff notes. "There was no reason to expect him to have the foresight or courage" to engineer an end to the war.

But Stone is far from the only director to use film to make a political point. The John Wayne movie "The Green Berets" showed the Vietnam War as a grand, patriotic effort. And films made during World War II tended to be all "patriotic uplift, glorification, romanticization of war." In part that was because the Office of War Information provided strict guidelines on the kind of films that could be produced. The "Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry," issued in 1942, urged filmmakers to stimulate "properly directed hate" against the Axis powers.

But that was also what viewers expected. Everyone knew that films generally belonged to a particular genre, and each genre--western, family picture, romantic comedy, for example--had its own conventions that shaped how a story was told. Until the 1960s, Hollywood tended to glamorize and mythologize its material. Yet even in the days of censorship, the images and characters not only reflected the time, but also helped to shape it. For example, the 1944 film "The Negro Soldier" helped to change attitudes toward African Americans, Sitkoff explains.

One of the best movies from the 1940s was the 1946 film "The Best Years of Our Lives," Sitkoff says. It follows three returning veterans, all scarred by the war in different ways, and explores the difficulties faced by returning veterans. A banker returns from service in the Army to find those who didn't serve have profited by the war and won't give veterans a chance. An Air Force captain who became a war hero finds only menial jobs open to him. A sailor returns to his family and fiancée without his hands. There are hints in the film about the dangers posed by the atomic bomb and the uncertainties of an economy no longer buoyed by war, but a larger concern was the fear that men who had been outside American society and trained to kill would be unable to adjust to life at home.

This film was also significant because of its realistic look, Sitkoff explains. Unlike most American films of the time, much of it was shot on location in Cincinnati, Ohio. The men did not wear film makeup, and the clothes came from local department stores. "It's a good film to watch if you want to learn what it was like here in '46. It captures the dreams of the American people after the war," he says.

Perhaps the movie that is most successful at conveying the experience of war, however, is the 1998 movie "Saving Private Ryan." "The depiction of war in that first half-hour is without parallel in its technical sophistication, verisimilitude and savage power," Sitkoff notes.

Sitkoff's favorite war movie is "Casablanca," which he's seen more than 50 times. "It's wonderfully acted, and it pulls on every one of my emotional heartstrings," he says. One year, every student in his class "thought Bogart was a sap," Sitkoff recalls. "They thought he was stupid to give up someone he loved to fight fascism. Sacrifice and idealism weren't part of their vocabulary." That was hard for Sitkoff, who dropped out of college in the early '60s to get involved in the civil rights movement in the South. "'Casablanca' communicates the need to take part in the actions and passions of our time. The characters discover that what gives life its meaning goes beyond personal satisfaction," he says. "That's what I've been trying to teach for 30 years."

--Maggie Paine

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