History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past. 2nd edition. By Robert Brent Toplin.
Chicago: University of Illinois Press, February 2010. Paper: ISBN 978-0-252-07689-3, $25. 280 pages.
Review by Greta Methot, Rhode Island School of DesignSensitive to criticism that popular cinematic treatments tend to wreak havoc on historical accuracy, in History by Hollywood author Robert Brent Toplin sets out to determine “what happens to history when Hollywood’s moviemakers get their hands on it” (1). As a filmmaker, as well as professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Toplin is well suited to comment on both the film production process, from inception to promotion, and the political and social environs surrounding a movie’s release.
In his introduction, Toplin defends Hollywood filmmakers against charges that they intentionally and unconscionably mislead the public by distorting evidence and inventing facts in the interest of producing profitable entertainment. He concludes that, while these filmmakers are, of course, beholden to the profiteering values of their industry, they nonetheless maintain a genuine curiosity about the past and, more often than not, present history “responsibly.” Toplin goes on to confront specific criticisms frequently aimed at this film genre, in particular the partisanship of historical docudramas. He argues that dramatic films cannot arouse the emotional response of audiences without taking a stand. The conventions of dramatic storytelling require a designated hero and villain, thus the filmmaker must choose sides. Even documentary filmmakers, despite their greater claims to truth-telling, are often bound to narrative conventions which require subjective interpretation.
While Toplin asserts that we should be receptive to the possibility that educational value can be gleaned from historical docudrama, he does urge viewers toward adopting a critical lens. There is such a thing as too much artistic license and, ideally, one would learn to discriminate between “an admirably filmed presentation and a poor one” (17). Sound counsel to be sure, yet by what measure such judgment should be made and how to ensure this informed critical thinking among broad audiences remains unclear.
In the eight case studies that comprise the text, Toplin examines four primary approaches to the cinematic treatment of history: use and abuse of artistic license, the past as relevant to the present, contemporary controversies inspired by the past, and celebrating the “great person” in history. Toplin begins by acknowledging that filmmakers often rewrite history. This, he asserts, is the exercise of artistic license in the aid of communication and manifests in narrative techniques such as the merging of several historical figures into one character, compression of time, and reduction of many complex sociopolitical factors into single causation.
While Toplin maintains that the manipulation of facts in the interest of engaging audiences does not necessarily mean all historical authenticity is voided, he does take issue with the excessive creative license of his first two case studies. Toplin engages with JFK (1991) and Mississippi Burning (1988) and concludes that, while these films succeed in evoking the emotional drama of their subjects, the liberties they take with historical evidence are such that they cannot rightly be said to represent history. Toplin is much more satisfied with the historical accuracy of Norma Rae (1979) and All the President’s Men (1976), though he acknowledges that these films promote a “great person” theory of history problematic in that it emphasizes the impact of individuals and neglects the importance of collective action or social movements as agents of historical change.
In chapters on Sergeant York (1941), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Missing (1982), and Patton (1970), Toplin considers the ways in which cinematic representations of history can offer statements about present-day political and social concerns. Upon their release, these films ignited public debate over contemporary issues such as the social impact of violent media, American foreign policy, and US involvement in Vietnam. Ultimately, Toplin seems to forgive the historical liberties and romanticizing at work in these films given their power to incite debate. There are some drawbacks to the structure of History by Hollywood. Each of the eight chapters focuses on a single film, documenting the specifics of its production and recounting the debate surrounding its historical accuracy. In organizing this discussion into discrete case studies, Toplin neglects to present a clear sense of any evolution in the treatment of history in Hollywood film. One is left wondering how material developments in Hollywood—changes in the studio system, modifications to production codes, expanding commercial markets, etc.—might have impacted the films themselves. What’s more, though each analysis stands well on its own, connections between the films and between decades are left unexplored. Still, Toplin’s essays are generally quite engaging and offer considerable insight into the production process and reception of each film.
Finally, it should be noted that the press blurb for this second edition of History by Hollywood promises the text has been updated with “a fresh look” at recent films and television programming such as, Titanic (1997), Pearl Harbor (2001), The Patriot (2000), and John Adams (2008). In fact, the revised edition offers only the most cursory references to these titles (I found no mention at all of The Patriot) in a moderately revamped introduction. A brief look at the 2003 mini-series The Reagans and Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999) replaces discussion of Quiz Show (1994); otherwise, the majority of the text remains unchanged. This is unfortunate as Toplin, a pioneer in the study of historical films, would no doubt mine rich material from these and other more recent works as he does with the films in the original 1996 edition. Nevertheless, History by Hollywood remains a worthwhile text in the field of historical film criticism.