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How Can We Study History in Film?

Vintage Film Projector. (2011, October 25). [Photograph]. Wall Street International.

Historical films are examples of how popular media represents the past. Films are easily accessible and enjoyable mediums by which the general population ingests historical discourses. Therefore, it is essential to investigate how to study history through film. First, we must consider whether historical films are sources of history, and if so, how do we analyze them compared to written history? Introduced here are two analyses offered by Robert Rosenstone: the implicit and explicit approaches. Both approaches come with their problems, indicating that further discussion is needed on studying history in film.

Rosenstone (1995, p. 46) has expressed the concern that we live in a "postliterate world," which is described as a world where people can read but choose not to. For Rosenstone (1995, p. 46), the popularity of historical films is a "disturbing symbol" of this reality. If we live in a postliterate world, where people abandon history books, how can we use film to study history? First, we must assess whether historical films are sources of history. Hayden White has named the study of historical representations in film' historiophoty.' White (1988, p. 1193) explains historiophoty as: "the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse." White articulates historical films as a separate field of study to written history, similar to Rosenstone's understanding. Rosenstone (2006, pp. 8-9) identifies historical films as a "separate realm of representation and discourse," providing "metaphoric truths" rather than the empirical truths written history is said to represent. White and Rosenstone locate historical films as a source of history, but that needs its own study parameters.

Hughes-Warrington (2007, p. 12) rejects the views held by Rosenstone and White, arguing that historical films "are not a source of history, but are history." To accept that historical films are part of history but not a source of it, we must articulate how to analyze them to understand the past. Hughes-Warrington (2007, p. 2) notes that one of the barriers to studying history on film is the assumption that films require "minimum effort," whereas history (with a capital 'H') has a specialized set of skills required to access the past.

Routledge. (2017). History on Film/Film on History book cover [Photograph]. Routledge.

To study historical films as history, do we need to adopt a new set of rules for analysis? As argued by Rosenstone and White. Or can we apply the same analytical tools to cinematic discourses as we do to written histories? This is the critical question that is being answered in the literature world today. In this question, we encounter one of the main problems of studying film as history: is the use of written histories a reliable cornerstone on which to base our assessments of the past? Arrow (2013, p. 597) notes that historians criticize historical films because they are disregarded as a medium that simplifies or misrepresents the past. Rosenstone (2006, p. 1) emphasizes Arrow's argument that film is "not a real world" nor "that other historical world" that is captured in history textbooks. Written history is not an infallible source of the past; it is unwise to judge cinematic histories against written histories as a source of 'truth.' White (1988, p. 1194) recognizes that "written history is a product of processes of condensation, displacement, symbolisation." Written histories, as well as filmed representations of the past, can be misrepresentations. Understanding that written histories are not dissimilar from cinematic histories means that one barrier to studying history on film is removed. Circling back to the main question plaguing the discussion: exactly how do we analyze history on film? Rosenstone offers us two approaches: implicit and explicit readings.

The implicit approach identifies a film as a "[history] book transferred to the screen" (Rosenstone 1995, pp. 48-49). For example, we could take Sarah Gavron's Suffragette (2015) and ask how accurately it depicts the Suffragette movement in Edwardian England. Similarly, we can ask how Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998) represents the D-Day landings from the American perspective. Rosenstone (1995, pp. 48-49) outlines that an implicit approach to historical films requires the same skills to analyze written histories. The problem with the implicit approach is that written history is used as the quality standard to judge cinematic histories. Rosenstone (1995, pp. 48-49) emphasizes how this leads to written history being seen as the only way of understanding the past. This is inaccurate; there are many ways of understanding the past beyond written history, such as oral history. Furthermore, we have identified that written history is not the definitive truth of the past, and it is unwise to see it as such.

Topical Press Agency & Getty Images. (2018). Millicent Fawcett, president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, addresses crowds in Hyde Park, London, in 1913. [Photograph]. History Extra.

Macdiarmid, P. & Getty Images. (2018). Suffragette movie still [Photograph]. The Week.

The explicit approach is another way to study history in film. Rosenstone (1995, p. 48) explains it as "reflections of the social and political concerns of the era in which they were made." In this way, the explicit approach aligns with a historiographical tracing, examining how the present impacts the ways we record the past. An explicit reading of Josie Rourke's Mary Queen of Scots (2018) can reveal contemporary anxieties surrounding women's professional and private lives. Themes of leadership and motherhood are experienced in a dichotomy, reflecting present concerns over how women feel when they need to choose between parenthood or a professional career. Pinto and Boucher (2006, pp. 14-15) have applied an explicit approach to Gregor Jordan's Ned Kelly (2003) to show how the film represents a crisis in masculinity in the early 2000s. In these examples, personalities of the past have been revisited to express contemporary concerns of identity. The problem with the explicit approach is that any film can be situated "historically" (Rosenstone 1995, p. 48). This means that there are no distinctions drawn between films and 'historical' films. This indicates that further debate on how we can teach history through films is needed.

It has been identified that representing written history as a 'definitive' understanding of the past is irresponsible. Instead of judging cinematic histories against written histories, we should be looking to develop new analytical tools to investigate representations of the past on the screen. Rosenstone's implicit and explicit approaches provide us with two analysis routes; however, both are not without their issues. Ultimately, more discussion is needed on how we can learn about the past through film: it is an exciting horizon for the discipline of history.


Arrow, M. (2013). 'I Just Feel It's Important to Know Exactly What he Went Through': In Their Footsteps and The Role of Emotions in Australian Television History. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 33(4), 594–611.

Hughes-Warrington, M. (2007). History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film (1st ed.). Routledge.

Macdiarmid, P. & Getty Images. (2018). Suffragette movie still [Photograph]. The Week.

Pinto, S. & Boucher, L. 2006, 'Fighting for legitimacy: masculinity, political voice and Ned Kelly.' Journal of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies: JIGS, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 1-29.

Rosenstone, R. A. (1995). The Historical Film: looking at the past in a post literate age. In Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to our Idea of History (pp. 45–54). Harvard University Press.

Rosenstone, R. A. (2006). History on Film/Film on History. Longman Publishing Group.

Routledge. (2017). History on Film/Film on History book cover [Photograph]. Routledge.

Topical Press Agency & Getty Images. (2018). Millicent Fawcett, president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, addresses crowds in Hyde Park, London, in 1913. [Photograph]. History Extra.

Vintage Film Projector. (2011, October 25). [Photograph]. Wall Street International.

White, H. (1988). Historiography and Historiophoty. The American Historical Review, 93(n), 1193–1199.

1 Comment

Nov 21, 2021

How Richard III was represented in the film was so meaningless…

That is actually pretty dangerous. British culture is divided between two;

The ones who read the history and the ones whom watch the film and people are still not sure which to follow.

Films can be historical ut they shouldn't impose wrong information ı believe.

This leads to problems and even cultural division.

Very dangerous game to play on public...

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