As historians, it is important to study films because they are primary sources. Just like diaries and other primary sources reflect the world in which they were written, films reflect the society in which they were made. It is vital for films to reflect society because that is what makes them appeal to their viewers; people relate to films. Thinking back to the first full film we watched, Amarilly, people could relate to her because she was a poor girl who was struggling to work her way up. She found love and then finally succeeded, along with her husband, in achieving upward mobility. Amarilly was very symbolic during her time because many Americans, especially immigrants, desperately yearned for upward mobility in order to fully grasp the American Dream.
Films also convey messages. Think of all the times a character has stared straight into our souls during a vehement monologue. Dr. Welky never fails to urgently ask us “Who’s he talking to!?” The answer is always “the audience.” General Patton’s speech is the most recent example. Characters like Patton and John (the black man from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) are appealing to us to make a decision, take a stand, or to adopt views similar to theirs.
Other ways films convey messages is through propaganda, which is obviously very common during war time, especially the Cold War. Films are able to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) portray the enemy as bad and convince the people to support the war cause. Not only do films provide a negative portrayal of the enemy, they provide the opposite of American soldiers as seen in Sahara. These factors not only shape public opinion, but they also reflect society’s (often subconscious) need and desire to have the two sides of war reinforced while getting an inside look of what war is like.
Genres of movies and their turn out rates are important to study because they are indicative of popular culture. In our most recent example from class, Western movies rose because there was no longer a “west” but Americans still had inklings of Manifest Destiny. Then, Western movies gave way to superhero movies. Today we relate to urbanized heroes much more quickly than a guy in a cowboy hat, on a horse, toting a pistol (Batman’s toys are much, much cooler). Also, it’s important to look at turn out rates for films. Did a film do poorly in the box office merely because of lack of publicity or was it because of lack of interest? Furthermore, if it was caused by lack of interest, what led to the lack of interest? Perhaps the film didn’t show Americans what they wanted to see.
Films are historic mementos that provide us with a vast array of knowledge about the past. By watching and interpreting movies with the benefit of hindsight, we can learn so much about the history of America and American citizens. We can learn about American’s reactions to events at home and abroad. We can learn about American ideals at different times throughout history. In every history class I’ve taken, it’s always been emphasized that there is more to history than just