The Hollywood Historical Film (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by John Fidler

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus

Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus

by Robert Burgoyne. Malden, MA, Oxford, U.K., Carlton, Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. 173 pp., illus. Paperback: $31.95.

In his review for The New York Review of Books of the second volume of Derek Beales’s monumental biography of Emperor Joseph II of Austria, the historian R.J.W. Evans refers to the Hofburg, the grand Viennese palace where Harry Lime’s car accident occurred in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Does history influence film and filmmaking or, at least for the last century and change, is the opposite true? Or is film poisoned by history? Do filmmakers spend their time trying to shed history’s tenacious grip on them and their audiences, creating a new view of historical events? Are Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995) historical films? Or films about history? What about producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Longest Day (1962), with its seamless blend of real and fictional characters and fealty to historical accuracy? When a filmmaker is inspired by history, is he telling the same story the same way, a new story the old way or a new story altogether?

Robert Burgoyne touches on these and other issues in The Hollywood Historical Film, a brief overview of the types of historical film Hollywood has produced and the effect they have on the nation’s collective memory of itself. Burgoyne, who teaches English and film studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, works quickly (perhaps too quickly) to set up his examination of seven American films, examples of the five major categories of historical film he considers—the war film, the epic film, the biographical film, the metahistorical film, and the topical historical film. Burgoyne chooses big Hollywood pictures. After all, these are big themes. He begins by borrowing a definition of the historical film from historian Natalie Zemon Davis, that “the genre is composed of dramatic feature films in which the primary plot is based on actual historical events, or in which an imagined plot unfolds in such a way that actual historical events are central and intrinsic to the story.” Folded into Burgoyne’s narrative is Paul Ricoeur’s notion of rethinking the past and taking a “detour by way of the historical imagination.”

For his war film, Burgoyne chooses Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), a film the author credits with resurrecting the genre after its decline following the Vietnam War, even as it depicts with harrowing immediacy the horrors of war. Burgoyne writes: “The war film consistently works into its narrative fabric a certain paradox: the release of violence and aggression, the suspension of civilized norms, the cultivation and training of the soldier’s body as a ‘killing machine’, are continually juxtaposed against the values of civilization, the norms of restraint and self-control.” Saving Private Ryan extends this paradox ultimately by invoking the Holocaust in the fight scene between Mellish and a German SS officer. This and other scenes “yield some meaning beyond the fact of suffering,” as Geoffrey O’Brien has written. Burgoyne realizes that American identity itself is at stake in the film, which redeems the embarrassment of Vietnam by embracing the memory of the Holocaust. For the filmmaker, remembering cannot be betrayed by the passage of time.

The Holocaust is at the center of Burgoyne’s discussion of the biographical film he selects, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). The film for Burgoyne “reinvents and repurposes the biographical film as a modernist form, communicating to a world audience in a popular, comprehensible idiom while at the same time utilizing advanced visual, acoustic, and narrative technologies.” In a particularly appealing and harmonious bit of analysis, something the book could have contained more of, Burgoyne praises Spielberg’s use of “the camera as an independent instrument of commentary and description, rendering the facts of the historical world in concrete detail and articulating the magnitude of the Holocaust in a way that exceeds the frame of knowledge of the protagonists.” In an effective comparison, he then recalls The Birth of a Nation (1915) and D.W. Griffith’s use of an iris shot to show the magnitude of war as a woman and her children watch what the viewer initially thinks is a small group of soldiers.

Burgoyne also delves into the epic film, comparing and contrasting Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000); the metahistorical film, using Stone’s JFK, and the topical historical film, comparing Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006) with Stone’s World Trade Center (2006), films that challenge the notion that it is still too soon after the terror attacks of 9/11 to make films about that day. Up to now I’ve avoided criticizing Burgoyne for the films he didn’t write about, but it seems an obvious blunder to ignore the many fine films about the Iraq war. They demonstrate that not only is it not too soon to make films about yet another unpopular war, but that these pictures, among them Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah (2007), Peter Berg’s The Kingdom (2007), and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) might not have come out soon enough. Comparing the long delay in making films about the Vietnam War to the newsreellike immediacy of the Iraq films would have made a timely and poignant argument. But Burgoyne’s selection illustrates another problem with the book. By choosing so few films to begin with and choosing two pairs of films by the same director (Stone and Spielberg), he constricts even further the scope of his already limited work.

Despite numerous moments of insight and analysis, Burgoyne’s short book succeeds best as a primer on history and film, not as extended analysis. The book has a rushed feel to it. Examples include the lack of a bibliography, the repetition of the same footnote number at the end of one chapter, the misspelling of “resupply” as “resuppy” and Burgoyne’s frequent use of unsourced, unsubstantiated statements, most glaringly, “more biographical films have been produced than any other type of historical film.” Says who? A good copy editor might have caught many of these needless errors. As for the length of the book, Blackwell’s Website tells us that other books in its series, New Approaches to Film Genre, like The Horror Film by Rick Worland, is 336 pages and the book on Westerns, From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western by Patrick McGee, clocks in at 280 pages. We learned in school that term papers should be long enough to cover the topic. Given the importance of history to film and the number and types of historical films made in Hollywood and elsewhere, a scant 173 pages seems hardly enough to cover a subject that had its beginnings when filmmaking began and continues with each week’s release of new films.

To buy The Hollywood Historical Film click here.

John Fidler, an editor and writer for the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., writes about movies and books for Senses of Cinema. He has also written for The Washington Post.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.