The Importance of film in the history classroom

by Brian Bushnell on November 10, 2017 - 12:06pm

What purpose does film serve in the history classroom or in the telling of history?


Film can serve a very useful purpose in the history classroom. Watching a historical event unfold on the movie screen can stimulate one’s senses more that reading about the same event in a textbook or listening to someone talk about it. The combination of the moving visual imagery and sounds can help a student remember a particular part of a history lesson and can give a better sense of the time period.

An example of giving context to a historical event, is a film that I recently saw again when it was on television the other day. The Imitation Game (2014), is a story about Alan Turing and his team of fellow mathematician code-breakers that were attempting to solve the German enigma machine. In a textbook, the attempts of the team would be the main focus but in a film, the viewer can get a better understanding of the circumstances that people were living with during the early 1940’s in London. People were calmly (yet with a sense of anxiety), walking down into the tubes during a German bombing raid over London, as you could sense they’ve done many times before. The sexism of the time is shown when Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightly) shows up to take a math exam for a job as a code breaker. She is at first told that the secretaries are upstairs and then is questioned if someone helped her solve the crossword that was a requirement to take the test. The sounds of the bombs exploding as people are in the tube or the sneer on the man’s face as he questions a women’s mental capacity come across more vividly than a textbook or lecture can bring across to a student.

Now, with that being said, film on its own can’t be the only way that a student learns about history. It can be a great supplement in conjunction with textbook material and classroom lectures. Even just showing a scene of a film can help get the point of a lesson across. If teaching about WW2 and the D-Day invasion, showing the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan (1998) can enhance the student’s understanding of the event. Men weren’t bravely charging out of the landing crafts on the beach, they were scared and felt a sense of helplessness and that comes across quite effectively when watching the scene on film.

 There can be inaccuracies or things that didn’t occur that are put in the film for entertainment purposes and these should be pointed out by the teacher. Discussing these inaccuracies before or after viewing the film can help clear up misconceptions.

One also must consider, the time that the film was made because there could be certain things in the film that reflect attitudes of the time the movie was filmed. In a lot of movies filmed in the 1960’s, the characters have hair styles of the 60’s as opposed to the time period that they are supposed to be about. Attitudes of the time can change as well, and this can come across in film. The view of Indigenous people in films made during the 30’s, 40’s or 50’s is different from today. If you compare movies like The Last of the Dogmen (1995), Dances with Wolves (1990) or Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) to a movie like The White Squaw (1956), it’s obvious that attitudes have changed towards Indigenous people.

Having a historical event be shown in a film can also bring attention to it that may otherwise have gone unknown by many people. The films Battle of Algiers (1966) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2013) were two events that I wasn’t aware of until I saw the films. I knew of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon but did not know of the massacre that occurred until I saw the film Waltz with Bashir (2008). Each film was around two hours long which made learning about these events in the classroom easier and more memorable than reading about the same events in a textbook.

In conclusion, film in the history classroom can enhance a student’s understanding of historical events, bring awareness to previously unknown topics and leave a longer lasting impression. At the very least, sequences of a historical event should be shown to supplement textbooks and lectures.


About the author