Whether it be through the use of a time period as a setting, or the adaptation of a Victorian novel, the past is constantly adopted to attract viewers everywhere. We have been inundated with the likes of Downton Abbey, The Crown, Jackie, Victoria, The Kings Speech and Dunkirk, but people still cannot seem to get enough of them.
The past certainly holds a unique attraction for cinema and television viewers. One of the reasons for this is cited as the sense of escapism that the past creates, in a way that dramas or comedies set in the present cannot. With the increasingly hectic and anxiety-ridden lifestyle of the 21st century, it is no wonder people enjoy watching television set in a completely different era. Spending your Sunday evening worrying about the consequences of the scandalous love affair of Lady Mary Crawley can take you away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and leave you in an ostensibly simpler time for an hour.
“history can sometimes be simplified to a dangerous extent”
The attraction to the past for its sense of escapism can however pose problems in modern day society. With some quite controversial periods being turned into straightforward narratives for film, history can sometimes be simplified to a dangerous extent. For many people film and TV are the only ways in which they learn about history, and narratives which turn a historical debate into a straight line can lead to a false perception of history among the general public. In some cases, films are being used as a substitution for actual teaching in schools. It is normal to show films in order to enhance the understanding of students, but in some areas such as Wisconsin it has been reported that 93% of teachers use some portion of a film each week. Films naturally exaggerate and dramatize history, which can lead students to misinterpret key historical events.
Take Lincoln, for example. The 2012 Stephen Spielberg film received insanely positive reviews, and attracted the public in the millions to watch the dramatic story of how Abraham Lincoln rallied for the abolition of slavery in the United States. However, the film also received criticism for its simplification of the story of the fight for emancipation. There is an immense amount of historical debate surrounding the factors which led to the 13th Amendment, of which this film really only demonstrates one viewpoint. It highlighted the importance of Lincoln in securing the abolition, but failed to place enough weight on the campaigning by African-Americans. If taken as a realisation of history itself, films such as Lincoln can provide people with a skewed perspective of the past. This is not saying that films need to be completely accurate, but that they must not be understood as a complete truth.
On the other hand, Lincoln is of immense value as part of the historical discourse itself. Films provide an interpretation of the past in the same way that other forms of historical writing cannot do, beneficial in providing the public with accessible interpretations of the past. Dunkirk, for example, is immensely important in highlighting the significance of the battle in the Second World War, and triggered extensive engagement with the war in the public. Encouraging an interest and respect for history is crucial to emphasising the importance of the past in new generations.
“films should not be understood as a complete truth”
There is also a danger, however, that films can rewrite history if people take it as a realisation of what occurred in a given period. This provides the writers, producers and directors with an immense power over the public, which becomes an issue if it is used as a form of propaganda. Film as propaganda is not a new concept. The Second World War was dominated with films that portrayed heavily a pro-war perspective, attempting to increase support at home for the war overseas. The 1942 classic Holiday Inn, clips of Nazis and the American home front are shown during a patriotic musical number, in order to increase support for America entering the war. This is still arguably an inherent part of film today, whether writers are consciously or sub-consciously using their platform in order to portray a point of view. Even Man of Steel has been cited as propaganda, with the contrast between two aliens, Superman and General Zod supposedly arguing that immigrants should abandon their culture in order to be accepted by society.
There are therefore dangers in using the past as settings or stories in both film and television, but if viewers acknowledge and are aware of these dangers they can really do no harm. As long as film is understood as an interpretation of the past, with artistic license, they can engage audiences in historical debate, and encourage an interest in history. Film and television all have motivations in their production, which audiences must acknowledge.