John Fairfield, chair of the department of history, discusses America's fascination with movies and historical accuracy in films.
Q. How accurate do movies that portray historical events tend to be? What are some good and bad examples of this?
A. Movies have not been very accurate in their portrayal of history. The most egregious example is D.W. Griffith’s "Birth of a Nation" (1915), which gets almost everything wrong about Reconstruction after the Civil War and substitutes an offensive and incredible racist attack. Sadly, the film was also artistically innovative so it has survived. The films of John Sayles—I’m thinking especially of "Matewan," but people may know "Eight Men Out" better—are pretty good historically. "Matewan" is about a coal strike in the 1920s and accurately shows how the mine operators used both racial and ethnic conflicts to better control the mineworkers.
Perhaps the most important bad example is Oliver Stone’s "JKF," which has probably influenced young people’s understanding of the Kennedy assassination more than any other source. Stone’s conspiracy theory (with LBJ at the center) is pretty much pure fabrication (that’s not to say that there are not reasons to wonder about a conspiracy, but Stone adds nothing of substance to what we know). What’s worse, Stone splices documentary footage into his fictional film, which makes it seem more authentic.
Q. Why do you think that American culture is so captivated by movies? Academy Awards? What trends in cinema have survived the evolution of filmmaking?
A. Americans are captivated by movies, I believe, because they are such a powerful means of communicating ideas and emotions. I think it is sad that we have not captured this power for democratic and civic purposes. In fact, early movie culture (in the 1900-1910s) did intersect with and enrich our civic and political life. Before the rise of the corporate oligopoly that became known as Hollywood, there was a diversity of movie producers conveying a diversity of viewpoints. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, for example (a terrible 1911 fire in a sweatshop in which more than 100 young women workers died), found its way into four different films, each made from a different political viewpoint. The resulting clash of perspectives had the potential to enlighten the attentive and discerning viewer. My use of the term "viewer" above is somewhat misleading because Progressive-era reformers sought to attach both discussion rooms and libraries to movie theaters, to encourage people to read and talk about the subjects they raised, not just view.
Unfortunately, movies have become mere entertainment and a source of profits, losing their progressive edge. Indeed, almost everything has become entertainment, and those things that cannot be turned into entertainment are threatened with extinction (reading difficult texts, for instance).
Americans love entertainment and the celebrity culture attached to it, which accounts for the fascination with the Oscars. By the way, celebrity is something very different than fame. Fame is a well-earned respect for achievement; celebrity is being known for being known. Celebrity doesn’t last beyond the grave, but fame does.
Q. Since the topic of movies is so general, do you have a favorite era of movies or do you watch all genres from all time periods?
A. I’m infamous for being unfamiliar with films made after 1955 (the year I was born). I do wind up seeing quite a few films from recent years, but it takes me awhile to get to them.