Photo courtesy Centropolis Entertainment

Historical epic or epic fail?: In defense of popular history

By Kristy Koehler, November 26 2019—

Midway, the film depicting the iconic naval battle of the same name, recently hit theatres. As predicted, the film was largely panned by historians. As someone who is a massive fan of historical epics on film and television, I lament how few are made. I often wonder if Hollywood doesn’t shy away from them because they’re generally lambasted by serious students of history.

I saw Midway the first week it came out and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Were there historical inaccuracies? Absolutely. Does it matter? Absolutely not. I’m sure my high school history teacher and my university professors are cursing my name after reading that, but hear me out. Personally, I think historians are approaching these films in entirely the wrong way. We need to look at them as a means to attract people to the discipline, rather than cringing at every detail that isn’t perfect.

Locked away in the loftiest heights of the Ivory Tower, some historians are prone to decry anything other than a documentary or a rigorously peer-reviewed academic paper as cheapening to the discipline. I could not disagree more. The popular history defender has logged on. 

Historical epics should be appreciated for what they are — a way to get the average person interested in history. Okay, Pearl Harbour is an absolutely irredeemable film — there’s no denying that. But, in a war epic, I’m not fussed about whether this tank or that plane is shown in exactly the right shade of green or gray, or in a Napoleonic-era saga, whether the jewels in Empress Josephine’s crown are depicted as rubies or emeralds.

History might just be the academic discipline perceived as having the least approachable people working in it. My chosen field of study is rarely mistaken for glamorous or cool — it might get called interesting on a good day. Unfortunately, the stereotype of an eccentric, tweed-jacket clad scatterbrain pushing up wire-rimmed glasses by their bridge while huffing “Well actually, the M4 Sherman was the most widely used medium tank by the United States and Western Allies in World War II,” is pervasive.

In a classroom last year, we were assigned Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World. A lively debate ensued about whether or not the book had any value. I was one of the few to argue its merits. The book is written as narrative history — often called “popular history” by detractors. It’s engaging, easy to read and filled with facts that set the stage for further, more narrowly-focused study should someone so choose. The book, just like the film Midway, makes historical knowledge accessible to people without an advanced degree. 

The meticulously-researched monograph has its place. The five-hundred-footnoted tome with pages that poured off a university press should be applauded as a feat of academic inquiry. The discipline of history depends on this research, but it also depends on enticing enough people to do this research. 

Scholarship must have a benefit to society. What is the point of undertaking research and inquiry if the results and findings are never used for any other purpose than to serve the scholar’s ego? If history is made completely inaccessible to the average person, what’s the point?

My motivation for defending popular history is simple — it makes history accessible to people and attractive to those seeking a path of study. History is my passion. Good fortune, years ago, gave me a high school history teacher who understood that the purpose of teaching history was not to memorize dates by heart and recite facts by rote, but to illuminate the past and, by extension, the present. 

When I got to university, I was also fortunate to encounter incredible lecturers. There are faculty members in the University of Calgary’s history department whose lectures would rival a film for entertainment and engagement. 

I was asked once by a professor why I chose to study history and distinctly remember getting the ol’ eye roll when I gave my answer — that you can’t understand the present without understanding the past. I’m aware of the cliché, but I genuinely believed it then and I believe it even more today. 

We will never understand where we are now without understanding how we got here. And more importantly, we’ll never fix the problems of today without understanding how they came to be. We can’t, as a discipline, alienate people or discourage the proliferation of history in society.

At the risk of quoting the most clichéd historical phrase of all time — and inciting another eye roll by a particular professor —  those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it. I want more people to understand history, to experience it, to be moved by it and most importantly, to learn from it. 

History is anything but boring — everything you can think of has a history. Do you like hot dogs? There’s a history of those. Big fan of skateboarding? Yep, there’s a history of that too. Majoring in sociology? You’ll have to learn about the founders of your field. Guess what that is — history. Political science? Don’t even think about trying to understand the present political situation in a given country without understanding the historical context.

Yes, in a perfect world, 100 per cent historical accuracy would accompany a wildly entertaining film. I will concede that allowing egregious “alternative facts” to spread through popular history is also a disservice to the discipline — and to society in general — but if we’re simply nitpicking about minutia, take a step back and let people enjoy the narrative being played out on the big screen.

If it takes a few explosions on film to get the average person to pick up a book or do a Google search and learn a little more about the past, so be it. If a few fussy Ivory Tower-dwellers and a handful of holier-than-thou grad students are sacrificed at the altar of academia in exchange for getting people interested in history, I’m okay with that. 

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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