Honest Injun: Hollywood, History, and the Great White Lie

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The most serious problems the historian has with the past on the screen arise out of the nature and demands of the visual medium itself. Each is a well-made, emotion-filled work that has exposed a vast number of people to an important but long-buried historical subject, one previously known largely to specialists or to old leftists. Each brings to the screen a wealth of authentic historical detail.

Each humanizes the past, turning long-suspect radicals into admirable human beings. Each proposes — if a bit indirectly — an interpretation of its subject, seeing political commitment as both a personal and historical category.

Each connects past to present by suggesting that the health of the body politic and, indeed, the world depends on such recurrent commitments. Despite their very real virtues, their evocations of the past through powerful images, colorful characters, and moving words, neither of these motion pictures can fulfill many of the basic demands for truth and verifiability used by all historians.

Far more unsettling is the way each compresses the past to a closed world by telling a single, linear story with, essentially, a single interpretation.

Such a narrative strategy obviously denies historical alternatives, does away with complexities of motivation or causation, and banishes all subtlety from the world of history. This sort of criticism of history on film might be of no importance if we did not live in a world deluged with images, one in which people increasingly receive their ideas about the past from motion pictures and television, from feature films, docudramas, mini-series, and network documentaries.

Today, the chief source of historical knowledge for the majority of the population — outside of the much-despised textbook — must surely be the visual media, a set of institutions that lie almost wholly outside the control of those of us who devote our lives to history.

Certainly, it is not farfetched to foresee a time are we almost there?

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To think of the ever-growing power of the visual media is to raise the disturbing thought that perhaps history is dead in the way God is dead. Or, at the most, alive only to believers — that is, to those of us who pursue it as a profession.

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Surely, I am not the only one to wonder if those we teach or the population at large truly know or care about history, the kind of history that we do. Or to wonder if our history — scholarly, scientific, measured — fulfills the need for that larger History, that web of connections to the past that holds a culture together, that tells us not only where we have been but also suggests where we are going. Or to worry if our history actually relates us to our own cultural sources, tells us what we need to know about other traditions, and provides enough understanding of what it is to be human.

Perhaps it seems odd to raise such questions at this time, after two decades of repeated methodological breakthroughs in history, innovations that have taught us to look at the past in so many new ways and have generated so much new information. Despite the success of our new methodologies, I fear that as a profession we know less and less how to tell stories that situate us meaningfully in a value-laden world. Stories that matter to people outside our profession. Stories that matter to people inside the profession.


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Stories that matter at all. Enter film: the great temptation. Film, the contemporary medium still capable of both dealing with the past and holding a large audience. How can we not suspect that this is the medium to use to create narrative histories that will touch large numbers of people.

Yet is this dream possible? Can one really put history onto film, history that will satisfy those of us who devote our lives to understanding, analyzing, and recreating the past in words? Or does the use of film necessitate a change in what we mean by history, and would we be willing to make such a change? The issue comes down to this: is it possible to tell historical stories on film and not lose our professional or intellectual souls? Thirty years ago, Siegfried Kracauer, a theoretician of both film and history, dismissed the historical feature as stagey and theatrical, in part because modern actors looked unconvincing in period costumes, but in larger measure because everyone knew — he argued — that what was on the screen was not the past but only an imitation of it.

This is more than one can say of recent scholars. Despite a great deal of professional activity concerning history and the visual media — the articles and monographs, the panels at major conventions, the symposiums sponsored by the American Historical Association, New York University, and the California Historical Society — I have encountered but two discussions of what seems a most basic question: whether our written discourse can be turned into a visual one.

Raack, a historian who has been involved in the production of several documentaries, is a strong advocate of putting history onto film. Indeed, in his view, film is possibly a more appropriate medium for history than the written word. Philosopher Ian Jarvie, the author of two books on motion pictures and society, took an entirely opposite view. Clearly, history is a different creature for each of these two scholars. Raack saw history as a way of gaining personal knowledge.

He is certainly right that, more easily than the written word, the motion picture seems to let us stare through a window directly at past events, to experience people and places as if we were there.

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The huge images on the screen and the wraparound sounds overwhelm us, swamp our senses, and destroy attempts to remain aloof, distanced, critical. In the movie theater, we are, for a time, prisoners of history. That, for Jarvie, is just the problem: a world that moves at an unrelenting twenty-four frames a second provides no time or space for reflection, verification, or debate.

If most academic historians are likely to feel closer to Jarvie than to Raack, it is still necessary to ask to what extent his arguments are true. Some scholars claim not only that an image of a scene contains much more information than the written description of the same scene but also that this information has a much higher degree of detail and specificity. Such an assignment could easily fill many pages, and if this is the case with a single shot, how much more space would be needed to describe what goes on in a sequence of images? And it is true that each and every work of history takes its place in a discourse that consists of preexisting debates, and the very meaning of any new work is in part created by those debates, even if they are not acknowledged within the work itself.

The question for history on film, however, is not whether historians always, or usually, or even sometimes, debate issues, or whether works take their place in a context of ongoing debates, the question is whether each individual work of history is, or must be, involved in such debates and involved so overtly that the debate becomes part of the substance of the historical work.

To this, the answer is no. We can all think of works that represent the past without ever pointing to the field of debates in which they are situated; we all know many excellent narrative histories and biographies that mute or even moot debates by ignoring them, or relegating them to appendices, or burying them deep within the storyline. Yet this need not be so.

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In principle, there is no reason why one cannot make a dramatic feature set in the past about all kinds of historical topics — individual lives, community conflicts, social movements, the rise of a king to power, revolutions, or warfare — that will stay within the bounds of historical accuracy, at least to the extent that one need not resort to invented characters or incidents. If, by its very nature, the dramatic film will include human conflict and will shape its material in accordance with some conventions of storytelling, this does not entirely differentiate it from much written history.

One may argue that film tends to highlight individuals rather than movements or the impersonal processes that are often the subject of written history, yet we must not forget that it is possible to make films that avoid the glorification of the individual and present the group as protagonist. This was certainly one of the aims and accomplishments of Soviet filmmakers in the s in their search for non-bourgeois modes of representation. To represent history in a dramatic feature rather than a written text does involve some important trade-offs.

The amount of traditional data that can be presented on the screen in a two-hour film or even an eight-hour mini-series will always be so skimpy compared to a written version covering the same ground that a professional historian may feel intellectually starved. Yet the inevitable thinning of data on the screen does not of itself make for poor history. If short on traditional data, film does easily capture elements of life that we might wish to designate as another kind of data.

Film lets us see landscapes, hear sounds, witness strong emotions as they are expressed with body and face, or view physical conflict between individuals and groups. Without denigrating the power of the written word, one can claim for each medium unique powers of representation. It seems, indeed, no exaggeration to insist that for a mass audience and I suspect for an academic elite as well film can most directly render the look and feel of all sorts of historical particulars and situations — farm workers dwarfed by immense western prairies and mountains, or miners struggling in the darkness of their pits, or millworkers moving to the rhythms of their machines, or civilians sitting hopelessly in the bombed-out streets of cities.

Yet, in doing all this, in favoring the visual and emotional data while simultaneously playing down the analytical, the motion picture is subtly — and in ways we do not yet know how to measure or describe — altering our very sense of the past. The other major type of history on film comes under the label of documentary. This point cannot be too strongly emphasized. All too often, historians who scorn dramatizations are willing to accept the documentary film as a more accurate way of representing the past, as if somehow the images appear on the screen unmediated.

Yet the documentary is never a direct reflection of an outside reality but a work consciously shaped into a narrative that — whether dealing with past or present — creates the meaning of the material being conveyed. In this film, as in any war documentary, when we see an image of an artillery piece firing followed by a shell exploding, we are viewing a reality created only by a film editor. This is not to say that the shell fired by the gun that we saw did not explode somewhere or that the explosion did not look like the one that we saw on the screen.

But, since no camera could follow the trajectory of a shell from gun to explosion, what we have in fact seen are images of two different events spliced together by an editor to create a single historical moment. Returning Carlisle students found themselves stranded between two cultures, and not accepted by either. Some rejected their educational experiences and "returned to the blanket", casting off white ways. Others found it more convenient and satisfying to remain in white society.

Most were able to adjust at least partially to both worlds. Luther Standing Bear was a musician and played the classic coronet and military bugle calls.

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I had to get up in the morning before the others and arouse everybody by blowing the morning call. Evenings at ten minutes before nine o'clock I blew again.

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Then all of the boys would run for their rooms. At nine o'clock the second call was given, when all lights were turned out and we were supposed to be in bed. Later on I learned the mess call, and eventually could blow all the calls of the regular army. On May 24, , Standing Bear led the first "real American" band to cross the Brooklyn Bridge at its grand opening ceremony. English was the only language permitted at Carlisle, which presented a problem for Standing Bear when his father visited in He had to write a note to Captain Pratt for permission to speak to his father in Lakota.

When the elder Standing Bear returned to Carlisle, visibly impressed with the power of whites, he told his son that he must study hard and learn the white man's ways.