Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood / Edition 1

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History has been fodder for cinema from the silent era to the blockbuster present, a fact that has seldom pleased historians themselves. As pundits increasingly ponder "how Hollywood fails history," Robert Toplin counters with a provocative alternative approach to this enduring debate over the portrayal of history in film.

Toplin focuses on movies released over the past sixteen years—during which twelve historical films won the Oscar for Best Picture—and argues that critics often fail to recognize the unique ways that fictional films communicate important ideas about the past. A trenchant extension of his highly regarded History by Hollywood, Toplin's new work establishes commonsense ground rules for improving critical analysis in this area. Citing films like Gladiator and Braveheart, Gandhi and Nixon, he underscores the pressures placed on filmmakers to simplify and alter historical fact to conform to the demands of an extraordinarily expensive mass medium.

Toplin demonstrates how a historical epic like Glory may contain "creative adjustments" that worry historians but shows how its distortions communicate broader and deeper truths about the Civil War experiences of African Americans—just as Saving Private Ryan presented little factual detail about World War II and yet effectively conveyed the experience of combat. He also shows how other films—such as Mississippi Burning, Amistad, and The Hurricane—contain so many elements of fictional excess and oversimplification that they deserve the criticism they receive.

Toplin deliberately steers a middle course between tradition-minded critics who castigate films for artistic liberties and cinema scholars wedded to pure aesthetics. He also draws upon his own experiences in film production and takes direct aim at recent writing about film dominated by jargonistic theory and empty rhetoric. He urges film studies scholars to move beyond their preoccupation with formal aesthetics and recognize that, in historical films, content does matter.

In engaging prose that will appeal to any moviegoer, Reel History helps build bridges between defenders and detractors of history-by-Hollywood and enlarges our understanding of film as a communicator of truths about the human condition.

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Editorial Reviews

Douglas Brinkley
Without question most Americans today learn—or mislearn—history by watching movies. Toplin brilliantly grapples with the advantages and dilemmas brought about by this stark fact in a well-written, sober-minded analysis of the enduring power of cinematic history.
Mark C. Carnes
Toplin's good common sense promotes a salutary (and long overdue demystification of Hollywood-made history.
Peter C. Rollins
A new and major contribution to the study of film and history.
Jeanine Basinger
An excellent, well-written, clearly argued, and important book.
Library Journal
Toplin (history, Univ. of North Carolina, Wilmington) picks up where he left off in his History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past. He extends his argument for clemency in judging Hollywood's interpretations of history and thoroughly investigates its serious limitations and fabulous opportunities to construe history. Writing in a jargon-free and very accessible style, and using very recent films (including Titanic, Schindler's List, and Pearl Harbor) as examples, Toplin argues that Hollywood productions, particularly in the last 30 years, have been able to bring richly detailed impressions of past eras to a much wider public than have conventional history books. Those who find fault with filmmakers' tendencies to manipulate situations, personalities, and timelines are asked to consider the difficulties of condensing highly complex sequences of events, often happening over a long period of time, into entertaining two-hour dramas. Toplin makes his point eloquently, if somewhat repetitively, and builds a strong case for Hollywood's overall success in bringing certain aspects of history to life. This will interest historians, film critics, and readers who enjoy catching Hollywood out. Recommended. Andrea Slonosky, Long Island Univ., Brooklyn Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700612000
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Series: Culture America Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 1,213,622
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


1. Cinematic History as Genre

2. Judging Cinematic History

3. Awarding the Harry and the Brooks

4. Screening History: A Test Case

5. The Study of Cinematic History

6. Impact




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