Historians in the Movies

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Coming to a screen near you

Colin Coates

This summer season, Active History is providing a series of posts on historians in the movies.  These are not necessarily historical films – although we know as well as anyone that every film is a product of its time and place.  No, these are films that feature historians (and people in allied occupations) as characters.  In some cases, the character is central to the narrative, in others not so much.  If you’re looking for historians writing about the historical accuracy of films and the contemporary implications of historical films, well, Active History has done that too, as do others, like “Historians at the Movies” #HATM.   This series of posts looks at how historians have been depicted on the big screen.

A young male historian, surrounded by stacks of old newspapers, using a magnifying class to read one. The historian is wearing a bowler hat and a waistcoast. He is not cool.

Image of an historian from https://careerthoughts.com/historian-jobs/ .

When was the last time any of us looked this this, or did research using using paper copies of old newspapers??

The inspiration for this series dates back to my visit to my local Law Library (Osgoode Hall, York University) some years ago.  There, on the wall, was a display of the DVD covers for films that feature lawyers.  They had a lot of films.  You can imagine some of these: “Erin Brockovich” (2000), “Legally Blonde” (2001), and so on.  And, although I don’t remember the whole list of films on show that day, the Law Library personnel undoubtedly had enough choices that they could choose films that featured only when they were both central and heroic characters.  Cinematically, lawyers are everywhere.  Statistically, in real life, there are lot more of them than there are of us:  the Federation of Law Societies of Canada states that there are over 125,000 lawyers in Canada.  In contrast, the Canadian Association of University Teachers reported, for 2010-11, precisely 1086 historians at universities in Canada, and surely our numbers have not risen exponentially since that time.(1) There are a lot more lawyers, on screen and off, than there are historians.

The view of lawyer movies got me to thinking about films that feature historians and their work.  I instantly came up with a list of one:  a haunting German film, “The Nasty Girl – Das Schreckliche Mädchen” (1990).  I had imagined that at some point in my academic career, I might teach a historiography course, and I might have used that film to spark debate on how historians deal with unwelcome research truths.  Well, as it turns out, I only briefly held a full-time position in History, and I have not yet taught that course.  I have managed to teach some History courses over the years, but my teaching has usually focused on Canadian Studies, which is by definition more multidisciplinary than History.  And, I’ll admit it, Canadian Studies scholars (an even more endangered breed) are less likely to appear on the screen than historians.  There is a brief in-group reference to a Canadian Studies setting in Italy in “Le Déclin de l’Empire américain” (1986), but that is probably about it.  You probably missed the comment.

Over the years, and with help from my friends, I have expanded the list further.  The number of films I have identified amounts to at least a whopping dozen.  I have decided to include our good friends, the archivists, in this group, and I am sorely tempted to include art historians and archeologists as well.  Perhaps this is not an overwhelming number, compared to lawyers, but it is probably at least as impressive as the number of film-worthy sociologists or linguists. (But have you seen “Arrival” (2016)!?)  Historians may have some advantage because everybody has a vague sense of what we do, even if this may be vastly incorrect – as it often is.  Nonetheless, our profession is used so much more often than some other similar disciplines (I’ve had to leave “English Lit scholars” out of this comparison.)

Just look at this N-gram for some cognate scholars.  Since 1800, the word “historian” has outpaced by far sociologist, anthropologist, and linguist.  They narrowed the gap substantially in the 1960s and 1970s, which is rather interesting, though.  History is on everybody’s lips – or at least a lot of pages.

When people know what we do, they may come to the conclusion that our practices of fairly lonely archival or textual analysis wouldn’t translate well to the big screen.  These films show them how wrong they are.  Or perhaps they don’t.  Can films really capture the archival labour, the deeply contextualized analyses, the rhetorical flourishes, or the precise endnote references that we all take pride in?  You probably know the answer to this question.

So what do historians do when they find themselves on the big screen?  This series will tell us what they do – what they wear, how adept they are at fist fights, and how their incisive logic can help determine the outcome of a thrilling narrative.  It’s pretty obvious that historians are most screen-worthy when they are not acting like historians.  In contrast, at least archivists get to practice their profession on screen.

Over the next eight weeks, colleagues will take account of the films that include historians.  No trailers to entice you.  The series starts next week.  Bring your own popcorn.

(1) CAUT Almanac of Post-Secondary Education in Canada (2013-2014), p. 18.

Colin Coates teaches Canadian Studies and History at York University, but more Canadian Studies.

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One thought on “Historians in the Movies

  1. Iain Stuart

    I will be very interested in what you come up with. I am an archaeologist as well and we have to deal with the Indy/Laura croft approach as well as Time teams three day approach to archaeology. Of course the hard work of research and analysis isn’t shown.

    I wonder how history is shown? Is there an impact from Who do you think you are?

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