The trouble with a history course centered around film is that one has to rely on Hollywood’s warped sense of historical accuracy. Generally speaking, reality doesn’t sell as well as something written by a halfway-creative studio ferret. In addition, directors, writers, and producers often have their own agendas to push through their work, so much of the accuracy gets distorted in the intricate process of filmmaking. However, one does the best that one can do with the arguably massive cinematic library that has been produced in the past hundred years or so. Even so, there are still some good picks and some not-as-good.
Besides being one of the most brilliant pieces of cinema ever created, Unforgiven made a place for itself as a revisionist western. Instead of romanticizing the pragmatic struggle against the elements—taming the land, and carving out a space for oneself on the frontier, the film shows the truth of life in the American wilderness: the lawlessness, the corruption, and the sheer danger encountered in the Old West. Until this point, the Western genre had mainly focused on the shimmering, wide-eyed optimism that almost reverberated tones of original “Go West” advertising campaigns that proliferated throughout the Eastern Seaboard of the 19th century. Gone, now, is the swaggering, lonesome hero in favour of the more historically-accurate pragmatist just trying to survive. In addition to being an excellent film, this—to me—makes Unforgiven particularly effective at exemplifying life on the American frontier and illustrating the historical context of the push westward.Pictured: Hardened street thugs.
In The Heat of The Night is another particularly brilliant piece of cinema that also quite effectively highlights historical issues prevalent in the time period that it was made and set. Sydney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs is thrust into the middle of a murder case in a small Southern town, which, adding insult to injury, happens to be quite contrary to the idea of a black man being so competent in the ways of homicide investigation. Initially, Tibbs is arrested on suspicion of murder solely by virtue of his being alone in a train station in the middle of the night with a pocket full of cash—something no innocent “negro” would be able to possess. The folly of the Sparta police department is further exemplified by their constant jumping to conclusions and arresting the wrong suspects while Tibbs digs further into places “he doesn’t belong” such as the local town Boss’s personal life. Tibbs’s struggle to obtain (and subsequently maintain) legitimacy in the eyes of the local police reflects the struggles of black people at large to obtain equal status in the eyes of the white majority not just in the South, but all across the country. At the same time, Tibbs also earns the respect and even the friendship of the chief of police. Eventually, the corrupt, old-world establishment is overturned, and things in Sparta begin to show signs of hope and change for the better just as the sixties and seventies did for the majority of blacks in America.
Although it is probably one of my new favourite films, and certainly worth watching for its cinematic merits, There Will Be Blood showed less about the pragmatism and pioneer spirit of the Westward Movement and more about the corruption and deceit of “Big Oil” and the megalomaniacs that allegedly run such “Big” industries: oil, steel, the railroad, and even modern entities like broadcast media. To me, the movie was more an allegory about the dangers of rampant, unchecked capitalism which came about after the West was “won.” Prime example is the fact that the plot is mostly set in the early years of the 20th century and centers around a man who doesn’t simply wish to survive, but who wants to build his own little revenue empire and—quite literally—wipe out all his competition. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview did, at first, embody the pragmatic and individualist mindset of the Old West (note his surely-excruciating crawl back to town after breaking his leg in a mining accident), but as time moved on, his wealth and power began to corrupt him until he became a twisted wreck of a man with no family beating a clergyman to death with a bowling pin. “I’m finished!” Finished growing (as a country), and finished exploring (as a people).“How, Chief! Heap-big White Man bring-um your lines. Your motivation be-um non-threatening, still-face, and help-um White Man win-um White Girl. Ug.”
The Last of The Mohicans probably sits at the top of my short list of films that did not effectively communicate the historical era they were intended to highlight. The Last of The Mohicans felt more like it belonged on The Wonderful World of Disney alongside Davy Crockett and other purely adventure serials. In addition to being a particularly sub-par film overall, the plot focuses mostly on how insipid the British are. In fact, the only real example of the pragmatism and willingness of the American spirit is in Daniel Day-Lewis’s Hawkeye providing a foil to the British army commanders. Hawkeye emphasises retreat and regrouping that will allow American settlers to tend their homes and farms in opposition to the British mandate that all able-bodied men be conscripted to fight the French (who ultimately win, anyway). Overshadowing the clash between the two ideologies and adding fuel to the already hot fire, is the apparent cockfight over the attraction of the female lead—both sides trying to wrench power in order to demonstrate their prowess and win the hand of the trope maiden. The only thing that makes this melodrama even remotely about early America and the Westward movement is the fact that it incorporates Native Americans into the plot and setting. Unfortunately, they are—as Mark Twain eloquently put it—“Cooper Indians,” one-dimensional characters that really only serve as an enhanced setting element. If this were a science-fiction film instead of a “Western” (when it really isn’t, it’s a melodrama), then the Mohawk would be Star Trek’s “red shirts” and the Huron are Star Wars’s Stormtroopers. Both are essentially faceless and serve only to advance the plot and provide some level of authenticity to the weak battle scenes.
As noted before, There Will Be Blood, is not only my favourite film sampled in this course, it is also on my list of all-time favourites. The cinematography is unparalleled at capturing the desolation of early California and the music resonates just enough to send a chill down your spine. Outside the dialogue, the viewer already knows that there is something not to like about Daniel Plainview, and, as the plot develops, he understands why the film imparts such a creepy vibe. Within the script, the film has already spawned such quotable lines as “I drink your milkshake!” and “I’m finished!” while the overall tone of the film warns us of the dangers associated with “big” industries and unchecked capitalism.
Throughout the course, the film I liked the very least was Far From Heaven. As a retrospective period piece, the film took a harsh look at “WASPy” New England society in the 1950’s, and deconstructed it to study the human element behind the masks of propriety. The characters where highly stereotyped, and it just felt like watching some kind of dance by grotesque caricatures. In the end, there was no feeling of sympathy for any of the characters, no sense of development, and certainly no sense of loss from the deconstruction of their lives. Everyone just lives on, moderately content ever after. Such lukewarm films serve no real purpose except as an exercise in cinematography, which is what the film felt like—an internship piece for a budding director of photography.