First published May 2018.
I estimate that I have seen Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves over 100 times in the last 15 years. And that's not including the times I watched it on VHS when it came out in the 1990s. It's one of my favourites despite the dodgy 'British' accents, questionable storyline and many historical anachronisms, it has a great castle attack scene at the end that shows how the buildings were set up for defence. In addition the tempo of the film is perfect for the attention span of your average Year 7 with alternate periods of high octane action and quieter, reflective scenes. In all, its a nice way to round off teaching the Castles unit and giving me a few lessons relative peace.
(For the record I only like the UK release version that is cut shorter and doesn't have the rubbish about the Celts being bought off or the 'witch' using all the peep holes - the extended edition is actually pants!)
Anyway, I am a firm believer in using movies to illustrate historical things to our students. The big screen can help them to visualise a time period, a person or understand an event more clearly than written text or pictures alone. However they must be used in conjunction with lessons on the limitations of drama as an historical source. Students have to be aware that the prime purpose of a film is to entertain and not to educate. This generally works well and is a great way to introduce the ideas of utility, accuracy and reliability to younger history classes!
But as I say, movies can illustrate some things in short hand that a written source or lecture would spend ages explaining.
Some of my personal favourites to teach with are:
Robin Hood (2010 Russell Crow version)
This is a different take on the traditional story and appropriates random bit of history for the sake of a gripping story. For example Robin's father actually wrote the Magna Carta as a political manifesto... But it does have a very good siege example at the start of the film which I use when doing my 'Attack the Castle' lesson. It's pretty accurate and illustrates methods used at the time.
Again this one plays a bit fast and loose with the historical time line cramming several events from her lifetime into the earlier part of her reign. I make my students aware of this and use th scene (that never happened) between Elizabeth I and Mary Tudor to analyse interpretation. This leads on marvellously to analysing contemporary portraits of Elizabeth and royal propaganda during the Tudor period.
(Though make sure you fast forward the sexy scene! To many times I've forgotten and had to stand in front of the TV while fighting with the remote control in a hurry- and this is decidedly harder with interactive whiteboards these days!)
A wonderful series that inspired a generation. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alex Haley it follows the life of Kunte Kinte from his home in Africa to his being stolen and transported as a slave to the colonised USA and his decedents. The series does not shy away from any aspect of the horrors of what happened and can be graphic. It brings the massive and horrendous story of slavery back to the experience of individuals that the young people can relate with and despite being a tv series somehow makes it less abstract and more real. Using Roots to illustrate what my classes have been learning in lesson works particularly well for me; completing an evidence DBQ activity and then watching the corresponding part of or whole episode.
Oliver Twist (1948)
The the original 1948 David Lean version. This film has worked for me for both History and English, providing context when studying the poor law and crime as well as 19th century literature. Although there have been several adaptions with wonderful production values this is still my favourite for the classroom. Somehow the black and white atmospheric cinematography cuts through to the heart of the story as it was made for a less sophisticated audience and there is less to distract. When the lightning strikes and the workhouse is illuminate for the first time, you know its a terrible place without having to know all the history behind it. There is somehow less to decipher and for a generation not brought up on black and white films it actually offers them something different!
The Pianist (2002)
A triumph of humanising a dehumanised period of our history. Knowing that it is based on a true story from the beginning grabs the attention. This film is set in Warsaw from just before the Nazi invasion in 1939 to its liberation by the Red Army, following the experience of Wladyslaw Szpilman and his fight for survival as a Jewish man in the Warsaw Ghetto. It doesn't shy away from the absolute horror of the Holocaust and therefore you need to know your students and how they may be affected by watching it. The British age rating is 15 so I only use this film with GCSE students. I show this film in its entirety over two lessons and the students are engrossed, disgusted and outraged. There are gasps of horror, shouting at the screen and tears.
Hitler - The Rise of Evil (2003)
This is a long one to show in its entirety - I have only managed that once- but for key parts of the Nazi's rise to power in Germany it has been fantastic. As its a miniseries the writers have been able to go into detail on things like the Munich Putsch AND the subsequent trials. It has given my students a more comprehensive of the charisma of Hitler at that time. It really helps with understanding chronology too.
All quiet on the Western Front
I am a firm believer that we should look at the experience of both Allied and axis soldiers during the First World War. On field trips to the battlefields of Flanders we always visit allied and German cemeteries as much to pay respects as to compare the different feel and purpose of the spaces. The film All Quiet on the Western Front shows how the soldiers on both sides had a lot in common and in a curriculum that can sometimes focus on winners and losers, its important to remember that they were all people.
Remember you can choose which version you show based on your students reading ability and attention span - subtitles aren't for everyone!
And finally, for a laugh, recommended by my history movies club kids - Bill - the life of William Shakespeare as told by the Horrible Histories crew! I wasn't expecting much when we sat down to watch this one film club lunchtime but I loved it. Full of jokes and a smattering of history I would recommend this tale of Shakespeare before he was famous to any age!
All of these are shown over a period of several lessons. All have massive historical flaws, not least condensed time lines, characters created or erased from history and in some cases inaccurate costume and accents. But overall I believe the benefits outweigh the disadvantages when we prepare our students to take some aspects with a pinch of salt.
I hope my random musings on movies has been of some use. After all, Bryan Adams said it best for 13 weeks in the charts "Everything I do, I do it for you"!