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Value of Film in Explaining History

Introduction

Cinematograph has become a powerful medium at storytelling in modern times. Film is a way that allows the viewer to immerse themselves in the context of the setting and story. Since the inception of film as a popular medium, it has used the stories of the past as the basis or at the very least inspiration for the plot. After all, these stories of history hold all the elements of a great movie, with tragic heroes, sacrifice, high values, and actionable plots. At the same time, virtually every movie takes artistic liberties as history is also often dry, and sometimes decades pass between events. Films strive to tell the core of the story while also being a piece of entertainment. This paper will focus specifically on films about Antiquity. It can be argued that despite the shortfalls of adaptation this medium has, film holds much value in explaining the past and often serves as the entry point for the audience to seek out reliable information behind the people and events depicted.

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Cons of Antiquity Films

It is important to address the negatives of creating films regarding history and Antiquity, as many of these arguments are relatively superficial and are potentially disproved by the rest of the paper. One of the biggest arguments is that whenever such films are made, they are grossly inaccurate. Starting from small details in costumes and army formations to severely distorting historical events for the purpose of entertainment value, these errors are inaccurate. Therefore, given that film is such a prevalent medium that influences perspectives of tens of millions of people, it essentially ‘teaches’ history in a completely wrong way via wrongful portrayal. The criticism goes beyond pettiness of arguing that Cleopatra, for example, did not dress as such or act in this manner. This can have an effect on societies, not knowing accurately their own histories, as well as the past and cultures of others. A study from Washington University showed that when facts from a movie contradicted what students learned in class, the students tended to remember the film events in the long-term (Viadero). It creates a misinformed generation with the knowledge of history based on movies for the most part.

For a vocal minority, the inaccuracy of historical films is equivalent to defiling something sacred, it is at the very least offensive and at most wrong. For antiquity films, this often touches the topic of religion, such as some Christians may be offended by the portrayal of early Christians or even Jesus Christ himself. Meanwhile, for other religions, such as Islam, it is absolutely forbidden to depict the Prophet in visual media. However, for films portraying more recent events, it may hurt survivors to see such blatant disregard for what they lived through, it demonstrates complete disrespect. Some films, no matter the era portrayed, take great care in attempting to remain accurate as much as possible and respecting cultures and the subject matter of the film, gaining insight from scholars and witnesses. However, many others attempt to cut corners or choose to represent issues and events the way they see fit.

Pros of Antiquity Films

Films portraying ancient history of Classical or Antiquity films are highly beneficial from an educational and entertainment perspectives. For many, watching these films becomes a means of engaging with the history that they have studied in school and beyond, either passively or actively. Many of the stories told through the film represent the first elements of humanity’s civilization building, it shows the history, the great and horrible events of the past, and brings to screen some of the well-known ‘characters.’ At its core, historical movies are not much different from a fiction based on a book, retelling the basis of the story with some artistic freedoms.

Antiquity and Classics experience continuous re-emergence on screen. The original Ben Hur released in 1959 based on a 19th century novel of the same name was a masterpiece classic. It was one of the first films made in the style of a film epic, lasting almost 4 hours long, but it also secured in place many iconic scenes and representations of the Classical world. One of them is the famous chariot race scene, which rather accurately represented the violence and dangers of the races in Ancient Rome (Snider). Similarly, The Gladiator released in 2001 demonstrated the life of slaves fighting for their lives for the entertainment of citizens of the Roman Empire. Each of the films established some well-known film tropes, garnered significant public interest in antiquity history, and began a short era of other filmmakers producing movies about the era.

Back in 1915, when film just began to emerge, a classical history scholar B.L. Ulman voiced his support for cinematography as a medium. Despite the inconsistencies in film, “the cause of the Classics will be greatly benefited, for the people as a whole will become familiar with classical life and history” (Day 2). Therefore, there is much benefit to keep making films on Antiquity, particularly as film and immersive technology progresses, allowing to create bigger worlds and greater detail on screens than ever before.

Value for the Audience and Drawing Interest

Modern media has a significant effect of influencing many people, largely due to the ‘word-of-mouth’ sharing of experiences on social media. Therefore, when a film or series achieves tremendous popularity, it immediately draws significant attention to the topic on which they focused. It has been recently coined as the ‘Netflix effect’ after the popular streaming service, such as when the miniseries The Queen’s Gambit was released it led to immediate uptick in interest in chess around the world. However, this effect has been in existence long before.

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For example, when the film 300 by Zack Snyder was released in 2007, it became a cultural hit. Suddenly, there was an increased interest in Spartan culture and the historical Battle of Thermopylae. In fact, it is used to this day by many professors of Antiquity history courses as a means to draw interest to the subject, then using the time to discuss the differences between film and reality. As discussed in her article on popular culture and history, Stafford indicates that “cinematic output can be an important vehicle for discussing the values, history, and cultural politics of the classical past” (8).

The film 300 is based on a comic that, in turn, is loosely based on the real-world events. However, the movie’s gory violence, mythical elements, and amazing special effects made it a cultural phenomenon. As a result, it actually drew public interest to Spartan culture. This includes the training of males as soldiers from an early age, being one of the first democratic and gender-egalitarian societies, and being the first resistance to the Persian Empire during the Second Invasion of Greece. These lessons learned through movies and after are just as important as reading a textbook, and for some, may potentially be the only exposure to the information through this medium of film.

Personal Vision

The personal vision of the author of this paper is that films about history should be made. They are often highly interesting to see, a visualization of some of humanity’s highest and lowest points. Furthermore, they play to the fantasy of immersing oneself into those worlds, which is hard to do in other mediums other than maybe video games. It is understandable that accurate films, particularly about ancient times are difficult to make. However, as shown by great masterpieces such as Ben Hur or The Gladiator, it is possible to recreate some level of authenticity (although both stories are only very loosely based in reality). It allows to recreate the costumes, sets, and traditions/behaviors that are known about those times. Most viewers of films realize that they are works of entertainment and fiction, the benefits of these movies are greater than potential harms of misrepresenting reality.

Conclusion

Film is often far from perfect in its portrayal of history, and those who are responsible in creating it, rarely claim that they stay completely true to the actual events. Outside the argument that it is hard for any medium, even historians studying the subject, to tell what happened with such ancient history as the Antiquity period, film has a different purpose. Movies are entertainment, so there will be variations and artistic liberties in each film, as it is impossible to make a true to life motion picture. Instead, moviemakers attempt to recreate an iconic event or an important period of life of a key person, attempting to stay true to detail while capturing the imagination and interest of the audience. In turn, for the modern generation that is more invested in visual media and less about learning history, historical films at least bring some awareness of the events, and for others, interest to learn more on the subject.

Works Cited

Day, Kirsten. “Introduction to Celluloid Classics: New Perspectives on Classical Antiquity in Modern Cinema.” Classics: Faculty Scholarship & Creative Works, 2008, Web.

Snider, Eric. “What’s The Big Deal? Ben-Hur (1959).” MTV News, 2012, Web.

Stafford, Emma. “The Curse of 300? Popular Culture and Teaching the Spartans.” Journal of Classics Teaching, vol. 17, no. 33, 2016, pp. 8–13.

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Viadero, Debra. “The Pros and Cons of Teaching History Through Hollywood.” EducationWeek, 2009, Web.

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