Movies in the Class
In today’s society, it’s easy to see that young Americans are influenced by the visual media that constantly bombards their daily actions. Walking through a junior high or high school, you don’t need studies to inform you that kids are influenced by what they see on television more than ever before. They use television in order to form perceptions of events and to make decisions in their daily lives. Everything from the actions they take to the clothes they wear is influenced by what they see through advertising and visual stimuli. Our history is being passed to future generations through a variety of media, including Hollywood films, television documentaries, and the Internet (Percoco, 1998). This influence of the media could be harnessed by the classroom teacher and used to spark interest in subjects such as history through movies and other popular sources.
In May of 2000, the American Historical Association conducted a study that represented a cross section of the entire population, consisting of over one thousand Americans. Their results showed that over forty percent of all Americans cited movies and television programs as among the most influential means in which they connect to history and the past (Weinstein, 2003).
The results of this study show a trend indicating that movies and other forms of visual media have quickly become one of the primary methods of presenting historical messages in America . More studies need to be done on how the classroom history teacher can use films in the classroom to successfully influence student learning. It is surprising to find that not many of these studies exist, when movies and television are so influential on the American public today.
As many history teachers and professors know, major Hollywood motion pictures often lack historical accuracy. However, teachers can use even the most far-fetched representations of history constructively in their classrooms. There are several methods a teacher can use when showing films to their students. Allen Yarema, (2003), suggests that instructors assign selected readings on a particular subject to be studied, then after showing the movie, discuss as a class how the film portrayed the historical event. This can be a very effective way to pose historical questions to students and promote further investigation of a subject.
Purpose of Movies in the Classroom
To me, the most important aspect of using film in the classroom is showing students a reconstruction of the past they can’t fully obtain through a textbook. Films show the way in which historical figures lived their lives in a way books cannot match. Being able to see the living conditions of a Civil War soldier in camp, or the streets of Charleston the night South Carolina seceded from the Union can leave students with a mental picture they would not otherwise receive from a short reading in the textbook.
In the following pages I have reviewed six Civil War films and included my ideas on how they can be used in the classroom. For each film, there are limitless possibilities on how to use them, whether by showing a movie in full, or using selected scenes. For films that wouldn’t work in their entirety, whether due to length of time or subject matter, I have tried to include a description of particular scenes that teachers may find of use in their lessons. I hope that these breakdowns will help teachers incorporate the use of movies into their Civil War curriculums.
Movie : The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns
Narration : David McCullough
Release Date : 1990
Synopsis : This Ken Burns masterpiece covers the entire conflict between the states in extensive detail. Burns takes primary sources including photographs, letters, and journals, along with interviews from leading historians, and weaves them together into a wonderful and compelling story. Burns attention to detail in the music chosen for each piece of the documentary and the people chosen to do voiceover narration is what separates his documentaries from the others. This nine part series is put out by PBS in both a VHS and DVD format.
Use in the Classroom : No unit on the Civil War would be complete without exposing students to parts of this documentary series. In my opinion, this series is the perfect classroom tool, and can be used in so many ways that I can’t list them all. Having students watch selected clips from the series after briefly reading about it in their books can add a depth to the information being covered in a fun and entertaining way. This film can be useful as an anticipatory set to start discussions on a topic to be covered or as a conclusion to a lesson. After watching a clip from the film, having students free write for ten minutes about what they have seen can also be an effective way for them to learn the material.
Starring : Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman
Release Date : 1989
Synopsis : Glory tells the story of the 54t regiment of Massachusetts , the first all black regiment to fight for the Union in the Civil War. One of the only motion pictures portraying the experience of African American soldiers during the war, Glory received three academy awards, including Denzel Washington as Best Supporting Actor for his role as a runaway slave fighting within the unit.
Use in the Classroom : Most history textbooks can overlook contributions made during the war by African Americans, which is why it is important that films such as Glory make it into the Civil War curriculum. However, this film is not without flaws, and has been attacked for its representation of the historical events surrounding this unit of African American soldiers. Still, it is one of my favorites, and can be an effective teaching tool.
The only way I would use this film is by devoting the class time needed to show it in its entirety. It would make a good introduction into a unit on African Americans and their involvement on both sides during the war. I would also recommend showing beforehand the brief documentary, The True Story of Glory Continues, put out by Tri-Star pictures as a supplement to the movie. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, it explains some of the actual history surrounding the fiction of this film, and can be found on the DVD Special Edition of Glory. Information on this documentary can be found in the following pages of this packet. Used together, discussions are sure to take place with the students in your class on this topic.
The Pepsi Company has released a filtered version of Glory, which is rated R, making it appropriate for use in the classroom. They have dubbed out brief scenes involving language and gory violence, without losing any of the movie’s content and flavor.
Movie : Gettysburg
Starring : Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, and Sam Elliott
Release Date : 1993
Synopsis : Based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Killer Angels, this movie covers the battle of Gettysburg in extensive detail. Nearly four hours in length, this epic film gives an almost skirmish-by-skirmish account of the three-day battle that would turn the tide of the war. Thousands of Civil War re-enactors were used during the filming of this project, done on location in Gettysburg , PA.
Use in the Classroom : Highlights from the movie include a speech given by Col. Laurence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) to a group of over a hundred mutineers he is given command on the day before the battle. The speech does an eloquent job of summing up the cause of the Union during the Civil War. The entire scene takes about ten minutes in length, and would be a very effective introduction to a unit on the Civil War.
Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top on the second day of battle is given extensive time. The scene first explains how this unit was the extreme flank of the Union position, indicating the importance of what took place. Charge after charge from Confederate soldiers are repelled before Chamberlain’s men begin running low on ammunition, forcing him to order the infamous “swinging gate” charge down the hillside, taking the Confederates by surprise. The vivid scene will leave students with a lasting image of what took place that no textbook can duplicate.
During the last fifty minutes of this film, Pickett’s Charge comes to life, using very unique aerial photography of the Confederate units marching across the mile of open field. Students will have a clear understanding of the difficulties these men faced in the doomed attack after watching this scene. More or less time can be spent on this, depending on whether or not the planning stage of the charge is covered, which I recommend. The film does an accurate job explaining the impossibility of victory, as General Longstreet, (Berenger), tries to convince General Lee, (Sheen), why the attack should not be made.
To do this movie justice, having students read Shaara’s book before watching this film would be an ideal situation. Due to time constraints within the Social Studies curriculum, this may not be possible. However, an optional extra credit assignment or project alternative could be developed using the book and movie together.
Movie: The Birth of a Nation Director: D. W. Griffith
Release Date : 1915
Synopsis : The Birth of a Nation is widely considered one of the classic silent movies in American film history. However, it is also one of the most controversial movies ever created. The film depicts the life of two families, one from the North, and one from the South, and takes place during the Civil War time period and Reconstruction that followed. The film is best known for its very racist and pro-confederacy views towards the Civil War and the social issues of this era. Part 1 covers the Civil War to the assassination of President Lincoln, where Part 2 focuses on Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
Use in the Classroom : The film is lengthy (154 minutes), but that is not the only reason for cautioned use in the classroom. The controversial nature of the film’s subject matter and the distorted views presented in this movie make it impossible to recommend for classroom use in its entirety. The simple fact that it is a silent movie might deter the interest of most students as well. However, the scene at the end of part 1 depicting the assassination of President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre could be useful as a short video clip to introduce or reinforce a discussion of the event. An extra credit assignment could also be created from this film, asking students to compare historical truth to the history presented by this movie.
Movie : North and South
Starring : Patrick Swayze, James Read, Lesley-Anne Down, Kirstie Alley
Release Date : 1985
Synopsis : This miniseries was created from the John Jakes novel and produced by the director of Roots. The story involves the friendship of two men, Orry Main, (Swayze), from South Carolina and George Hazard, (Read), from Pennsylvania who meet at West Point in the years before the Civil War conflict. The six part series shows the growing relationship between the two men, and their families, as the political and social climate of the United States changes and the country heads toward the Civil War after the election of Abraham Lincoln.
Much of this film is overpowered by the love stories surrounding the characters involved, but the authenticity of the time period displayed in the series is very accurate. This miniseries can be of use in the classroom, but needs to be screened carefully by the instructor before use. Several scenes depicting the overall climate of the country in this time period can be found, of which, a few are listed below. Each one is under ten minutes in length and could be used as an anticipatory set of a subject or a wrap up of a discussion.
I have found that there is yet another six parts to this series titled North and South-Book II, but I was unable to find copies in order to review them. Book II would most likely be more helpful in teaching the Civil War itself due to the fact that the six episodes I reviewed end with the start of the war and Book II picks up at the start of the war.
Use in the Classroom : Episodes 1 & 2- Selected scenes could be used to show the social and political issues surrounding the country in the years before the start of the war. Episode 2 covers the prelude to the war with Mexico .
Episode 3- There is a scene at the beginning of this episode depicting an abolitionist meeting in Philadelphia . Another scene later in part three shows a duel between two Southern Gentleman.
Episode 5- A short scene near the beginning of Part 5 shows a New Orleans political rally in support of succession in which the participants sing Dixie before concluding the meeting. Later in this episode, following the scene of the train station at Harper’s Ferry, northern abolitionists sing “John Brown’s Body” in the street outside the insane asylum cell of a woman who took part in the train holdup. They are mourning the recent execution of John Brown. Near the conclusion of episode 5, a political rally before the presidential election is shown in Charleston , SC.
Movie: Glory- The True Story of Glory Continues
Narration : Morgan Freeman
Release Date : 1990
Synopsis : The documentary describes the true story surrounding the men of the 54th Massachusetts regiment depicted in the motion picture Glory. Selected scenes from the movie accompany historical quotes and photographs, all while being narrated by Morgan Freeman, one of the stars of the movie.
Use in the Classroom: This documentary is the perfect companion to the motion picture. It helps fill in the holes left by the screenplay written for the movie portrayal. It will give students more information on the regiment, for example, both of Fredrick Douglass’ sons fought in this regiment but were not in the script. It also gives a full account of the regiment’s actions, much of which is left out of the original movie.
By using this documentary after viewing the actual movie, the instructor could lead a discussion or debate on why the movie depicted the famous African American regiment in the manner it did. In addition to this documentary, I also recommend a section of the book titled Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, by Mark C. Carves. There is a section analyzing the movie “Glory” for its historical accuracy that is quite helpful for use in a classroom discussion used with the information presented in this documentary.
Additional Movies to Consider for use in the Classroom
North and South- Book II – (1986) Warner Studios- Patrick Swayze, James Read
Shenandoah – (1965) Universal Studios, James Stewart
The Red Badge of Courage – (1951) Warner Studios, Audie Murphy
Andersonville – (1996) Turner Home Video
Songs of the Civil War – (1991) Sony/Columbia.