Movie series explores deeper meanings found in historical films

Release Date: 2/16/2012

For many of us, an evening at the movies is time that we really look forward to. There's just something about watching a story unfold on the big screen that draws us in, bringing out powerful emotions such as joy, sadness, or fear in a way that few other forms of entertainment can. But through a special film series here at Ozarks, a night at the movies can do even more...it can also change the way we look at the history of mankind.

"Historians at the Movies" is a series of movie nights organized by Dr. Steve Oatis, Ozarks associate professor of history, and Dr. Karen Frank, Ozarks assistant professor of history. As the name implies, the series features screenings of historically themed movies - normally six such films each semester. Each film screening is followed by an informal discussion which delves deeper into the characters, the plot, and the accuracy and significance of the history portrayed in the film.

"The idea was originally Judy's," said Oatis, referring to Dr. Judy Walden, a former Ozarks history professor. "She thought film was a way to emphasize different things, so she started holding movie nights the second or third year we were here." Oatis said that although Walden selected the films and arranged for their showing, he would occasionally come in to help commentate on a film or lead a discussion. When Walden left Ozarks, Oatis said he wanted to grow the idea she had started. He approached his new colleague, Dr. Karen Frank, to see what she thought about continuing the movie program or even expanding it further.

Frank was quickly on board with the idea. "This was something that I had done as a grad student as part of Phi Alpha Theta, which is the history honor society, at University of Akron," she said. "What we would do was organize the series, then invite professors to come in to present the movie and comment afterwards. To me, that was something that was really exciting."

With the basic concept for the series established, Oatis and Frank set themselves to the task of selecting movies for the series' inaugural semester. What type of films might one expect to see at one of the movie nights? According to Oatis, the movies selected have to be related to history in terms of their content. "You have to be able to tie it in with something that's part of the curriculum," he explained, "either world civilization, or U.S. history."

The first year brought to campus some movies which had seen big success at the box-office, including Braveheart (1995), Last of the Mohicans (1992), and Gladiator (2000). But because the concept for the series was still developing, Oatis said he decided to experiment with some films that hadn't achieved blockbuster status, including a film that he now says has become one of his favorites: The Alamo (2004).

"When The Alamo came out, they tried to promote it as a blockbuster, and it just fizzled pretty quickly," Oatis said. "I had read some reviews of it, that made me think it might not be that great, but I was looking for a movie to show, and time-wise and content-wise, this movie fit pretty well, so I thought I'd give it a go." As the movie played, Oatis he knew his selection had been a good one. "Watching it, I thought 'this is a really good movie.' I think the students liked it too," he said. "It was very dramatic, and very gripping as far as the story went. And it was very watchable - it was an action movie, and was very stylized, and had some good acting in it." But what Oatis said impressed him the most was something that the average movie-goer might not notice. "I could tell that the people who did it - I could tell that they went out of their way to do a good job," he said, referring to the movie's attention to historical detail. "It mattered to them to try to be even-handed and fair. A lot of times that's what you're looking for. Even if they get some things wrong, if they're just trying to do a good job. I thought the people who made that movie were trying to do a good job and they did do a good job."

Do all the movies shown have to be historically accurate, with the careful attention to detail shown by the producers of The Alamo? According to Oatis, the answer to that question is "no." "It doesn't have to be an accurate depiction of history," he said. "Even in a very good historical movie, they're going to make some embellishments and changes. That's one thing we emphasize to the students - that history in movies is an interpretation of history. Sometimes inaccuracies are unavoidable, sometimes they're intentional. To study a film critically is very important. You have to try to get a sense of what's going on, and why they might be doing something that way."

One of Frank's movie selections illustrates this point in a way that perhaps no other movie could. "I chose the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail," she said with a laugh. But while the absurd wit in the Monty Python films might seem entirely out of place at a series featuring historical movies, Frank said it is actually a perfect choice. "First of all, I love Monty Python," she said. "A lot of historians do. The writers really 'get' what's going on in the different time periods they're talking about." She continued, "The best historian is not the one who knows the most, per se, but the one who understands what's important, and why it's important, and can explain that." She said that helping students understand this difference in "knowing" and "understanding" was one of the reasons she chose the Monty Python film. Her students who watched the movie on their own almost all said "this is the worst movie ever made! Who picked this?" while the students who watched the film at the screening, and took part in the discussion afterwards could see how, through hyperbole, the film was making points about the middle ages. "So they really are, I guess, sort of pulling the main threads of the culture and putting it together, and laughing about it, but in a way that makes a comedy, because the violence of the middle ages was just so horrific," she said.

While the movies are normally shown in the film screening room in the university's Walker Hall, Oatis said that for two of last year's events, those in attendance got a special treat, when university President Dr. Rick Niece and First Lady Sheree invited them to watch the movies at the president's home. "Rick and I truly enjoy movies - as noted by the movie-theme decor in our big room," Mrs. Niece said. "Last year, we had such a great attendance during the Historians at the Movies, we ran out of popcorn! (Five batches tend to go a long way in the popcorn machine.)" She said that she and Dr. Niece believe that movies provide an excellent medium to learn from and produce discussions, and they loved having the students and professors at their home for the event. "Hanging out in our big room allows for students to relax and enjoy the setting and think about what they are seeing. The follow-up discussions have been most interesting, bringing about new insights and points of view, perhaps more easily shared than if they were in a typical classroom setting," she said.

The discussion sessions Mrs. Niece refers to are, perhaps, the key to the growing popularity of the movie series. "I think that what we try to do afterwards is ask them questions they haven't thought about," Frank said. "I have to say this…Dr. Oatis is incredible at doing this. He lets the students talk, give their reactions - it's sort of what you might figure from what they just saw. And then he says 'well, let's think about the deeper issues and let's look at historically, what's really happening. Now what do we think about this situation and what kinds of things can you pull out.'" She said that when she leads the discussion, she tries to follow that same approach. "I did that the other night with the movie Amazing Grace," she said. "Somebody brought up the idea that when she gave up sugar, her father went nuts. So I said 'Let's talk about that for a second. Why did she give up sugar? Why was she boycotting it?' Then I led them into a discussion about the deeper implications of the slave trade…that just giving up sugar wasn't going to get you out of it. The clothes she wore, the house she lived in, every part of European society was really connected in some way to it. That's why I think they benefit from having these discussions. First they get exposed to the period, but then we try to help them think about things in terms of deeper implications."

Now in its fourth semester, "Historians at the Movies" has grown from just an idea into a popular bi-weekly event on campus. "I think it's become a success," Oatis said, "and I think the more we make it part of the institutional culture, that's going to be even more successful. I think it's already something that people look forward to and take part in." He said that while the events have been well-attended for the most part, he's even more pleased when he considers the potential impact the series has on the people who attend. "I think part of the education here is aimed at helping the students to critically examine anything they come across in life, whether it's a political television ad, or an advertisement of some kind, or a public letter," he said. "We want them to understand that anything they're subjected to needs to be understood critically, and thought about. There's a time for entertainment and escapism. Movies are a great form of escape. I love movies. I don't necessarily go in and try to find what's wrong with them, break them down. But to be able to think about things, from maybe a little different perspective is important."

Frank agreed, adding her observations about the value the series has brought to campus. "History is full of violence," she said, "and human beings doing awful things to each other. There are some good things there too, but some awful things. With the ancient stuff, there's a tendency for us to be able to distance ourselves from it emotionally. I don't know if that's good or bad, but it just is. But when we begin talking about things as painful as slavery, it is still very emotional. World War I was an incredibly devastating war, as was the cold war and its effects in Germany. All these things are very recent. One of the things I hope to achieve through this film series is to show there's a link through humanity. There are some pretty brave individuals who are able to stand up to things in society."

With five film screenings still remaining this semester, Oatis notes that the remaining films cover a wide array of topics, and encourages members of the campus community - not just students, but faculty and staff as well - to come watch the films and take part in the discussions. Frank points out that several of the upcoming films are set in recent times, and feature events that some faculty or staff may remember living through. She said the perspective these individuals have about the events portrayed in the films would be something she would love to bring into the follow-up discussion.

"Historians at the Movies"  continues next week, with the film The Molly Maguires (1970). In this film, the struggle between American labor and American capital is on display when a secret society of Irish immigrant coal miners in Pennsylvania use terrorism and sabotage to combat the ruthless and exploitative mine owners. The screening is scheduled for 7:00 pm on Wednesday, February 22 in the film screening room in Walker Hall.

For more information about the "Historians at the Movies" series, or to learn more about the Ozarks history major, contact Dr. Oatis by email at soatis@ozarks.edu or email Dr. Frank at kfrank@ozarks.edu.

Historians at the Movies

The "Historians at the Movies" series features six historial films each semester. For the Spring 2012 semester, the movies are "Amazing Grace" (2006), "The Molly Maguires" (1970), "A Very Long Engagement" (2004), "Casablanca" (1942), "Thunderheart" (1992), and "The Lives of Others" (2006).