The past week of my Western Civilization III class has consisted of some very interesting student presentations. The assignment: compare and contrast two films set at roughly the same time in history and analyze their connection to historical events, their skill in representing the facts, and their usefulness as teaching tools. Whether the films are accurate or not, they provide a great opportunity for students to dig deeper into the story of the past. On the whole I’m pretty pleased with my students’ findings, and would recommend such an assignment to other college history professors (especially in required general education classes).
We had some interesting results, including:
- A film I’ve never heard of: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. It is a 1983 Japanese film that tells the story of POWs held by the Japanese during the Second World War. My student paired it with Bridge on the River Kwai, which made for an interesting discussion.
- Three great pairings: 1) The King’s Speech & The Sound of Music (the rise of Nazism and the coming of WWII), 2) Inglourious Basterds & Schindler’s List (resistance to Nazis and the Holocaust) and 3) Doctor Strangelove & The Manchurian Candidate (Cold War paranoia and commentary at its best).
- Best example of pandering: My favorite movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was paired with the film Downfall, which focuses on the last days of Hitler’s life. Both films feature der Fuehrer at vast different points in history.
- Most surprising discussion: One student watched Mary Poppins and Around the World in 80 Days and used the films as an opportunity to launch into extended commentary on the height of the British empire, the suffrage movement, the power of the Bank of England, and the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Pretty impressive.
Hearing about all these movies last week inspired me to watch an old one over the weekend. Motivated by news of the recently released spy film Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy based on a 1960s novel by John la Carre, I took the opportunity to watch an adaptation of his book The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965). In moody black-and-white, the film couldn’t be more opposite from James Bond if it tried. In short, a much more realistic depiction of Cold War espionage and possible addition to any course on the period.
So then: which historical films strike your fancy?