Issue 4: Feature Article—The Screenwriter as Historian

Researching historical events, piecing together facts and filling in the blanks to make sense of past events and communicate them to a wider audience. Are we talking about the historian, the screenwriter…or both? The first article in our short series on screenwriter’s roles, takes a look at how the function of the ‘history film’ writer can be likened to that of a historian…

Now, as clever as we are here at RSL(!), this isn’t a topic we’ve conjured up out of thin air; this is a topic of scholarly interest and one that has inspired heated debate in academic circles (believe it or not!).

On one side is the idea that film can never be a legitimate source of historical knowledge. On the other side is that the ‘history film’ can sometimes be a valid source of historical information.

By the way, when we refer to the ‘history film’, we mean films that portray an event or series of events from the past – like Gandhi (1982) (pictured above), Reds (1981) (this week’s analysis), or Argo (2012).

While we try not to be too dry here at RSL, if you’re interested in exploring this debate further, you might like to read the work of scholarly writers who have polarised views on the topic.

In the first camp, we have the likes of Marcia Landy, who disputes whether film can offer any “meaningful representation of the past” and William Guynn, who refers to the history film as “the most fictional of genres”.

In the other camp, there’s Marc Ferro, who commented that “some directors have been able to make original contributions to understanding of the past”.

Then there’s Robert A. Rosenstone (who you can read a bit more about on our resources page and in this week’s analysis of Reds). He’s a key name to be aware of, as he has written extensively on the idea that the history film can be a legitimate source of historical knowledge.

(There’s more in the resources section and references are at the bottom of this page.)

Rosenstone’s work is important because as both a historian and someone who has been involved in film and literature, he takes a very different stance than many academics, who easily dismiss film’s legitimacy as a purveyor of historical knowledge.

In 1995, in his introduction to a book of essays on the idea that film has fashioned a ‘new past’, Rosenstone writes that while they have their “own rules and representations”:

“Visual media are a legitimate way of doing history.”

So, if we start from this point-of-view – that the history film can be source of historical knowledge –  it seems to follow that the history screenplay can be likened to a historical document, and the screenwriter to a historian.

Now, you may well be thinking that this is a strange idea. After all, at first glance at least, it may seem like the roles are diametrically opposed. One spends their time creating new and exciting (ultimately) visual entertainment; the other is concerned with rooting out the cold hard facts of history and writing non-fiction prose. However, consider for a moment…

…Just what are the ‘cold hard facts of history’?

…Is there really one ‘truth’ about events past?

…Does the historian approach their work objectively?

…Isn’t it conceivable that both screenwriter and historian bring their own idealism, prejudices and politics to their work?

That’s a lot of big questions, but they all lead to the idea that any rendering of history is skewed and that the people recounting that history (whether screenwriter or historian) will be influenced by an agenda. As historian EH Carr wrote:

“History is neither objective nor value-free. It’s made in the writing.”

Going further; not only is history made in the writing, but it’s written from the time perspective of the person who writes it. As Rosenstone says: “The mark of the contemporary is on every work historians produce.”

As an example, it stands to reason that someone writing about slavery today would have a different perspective than someone writing about it in the 1920s or 1930s before the Civil Rights Movement, or in the 1860s when slavery was widely accepted.

Indeed, one of the functions of history is to inform and illuminate the present. After all, it’s through examining history that we can see how the world we live in today has developed, why things are the way they are, and the different socio-political forces at play.

Similarly, one of the essential elements of a film is to appeal to and engage with contemporary audiences.

This works regardless of the time period in which the film’s set. Take a film like Selma (2014). Even though it’s set 50 years ago, when it was released, many commentators noted a link to the racial tensions that still exist in the US. To underline the point, at the time the film came out, the troubles in Ferguson, Missouri were in the news, offering a direct reference point to the film’s themes.

So, we have drawn a clear line between the work of the historian, who is infusing their work with their own ideas, opinions and beliefs, as well as the influence of the time they are living in, and that of the screenwriter, who is infusing their historical dramatization with their own themes, value system and contemporary attitude. What’s the end result of all this? Well, in the words of Rosenstone:

“[History books and films] should be treated in the same way; by looking at what they say about the past they describe and the present in which the past has been created.”

So what can we conclude from all of this?

Firstly that the historical screenplay can reasonably be considered a historical document, if it is researched and written as such. This means that if you write, or aspire to write, the fact-based film, you have the opportunity to produce work that has genuine historical value. While by no means an easy feat to pull off:

The history film can legitimately contribute to a wider understanding of historical events. (RSL)

But, secondly, to achieve this, you’ll need to put on your historian’s hat and approach your research the way historians do, with the purpose of rooting out the facts, accurately interpreting them, filling in what’s missing, and figuring out a way to disseminate the information in a compelling fashion that puts across a plausible truth.

From the perspective of the screenwriter, this job is further complicated by the fact that the way of disseminating the information has to comply with the conventions of drama and the screenplay format.

Now all of this assumes that your goal is to produce something of historical value.

But what if your story is contemporary? What if you want to dig deeper than the history books allow? What if you want to really get under the skin of your characters? What if the people you want to portray are still alive?

Well, that requires you to assume a different guise.

So next issue, we take a look at the ‘screenwriter as journalist’.

Issue 5 of RSL is out on 20 July.

References

  • Landy quote taken from: Cinematic Uses of the Past, Marica Landy (2000), p1
  • Guynn quote taken from: Writing History in Film, William Guynn (2006), p6
  • Ferro quote taken from: A Companion to the Historical Film, ed. Robert A. Rosenstone & Constantin Parvulesca (2013), p2
  • Carr quote taken from: What is History?, Edward Hallett Carr (1990)
  • Rosenstone quotes taken from: ‘The History Film as a Mode of Historical Thought’, in A Companion to the Historical Film, ed. Rosenstone & Constantin Parvulesca (2013), pp 71-90
  • Rosenstone additional information taken from: Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past, Robert A. Rosenstone (1995)