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Teaching Tips: Teaching U.S. History with Movies

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 7/12/2012

Lights, camera, action! Movies have captured people's attention since the first reel spun through a projector. When moviemakers began epic tales of history, a new learning tool became part of our culture; however, learning from film needs critical thinking to separate fact from fiction.

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    American History

    The United States is relatively young in comparison to many of the other nations of the world. However, in a few hundred years, our history is filled with triumph and tragedy, hope and despair, peace and war and great moments of discovery and shameful times of deceit and deception. This, of course, is the stuff that Hollywood and filmmakers around the world scoop up in creating movies. Teaching with movies about the past few centuries allows educators to provide visuals that catch students' attention.

    Early movies are more fictionalized than many of the more recent film. Documentaries on different events in American history provide the most factual data, but often students find them dry and uninteresting. Nevertheless, films such as Ken Burns' Civil War (made for the Public Broadcasting Service) give a wealth of well-researched data that is sure to enhance the lessons plans of any history class.

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    Best Films

    The list I have assembled here is an amalgamation of several lists available on American History Films.

    Early AmericanGeorge-Henry-Boughton-Pilgrims-Going-To-Church 

    • The Crucible - Screenplay by Arthur Miller - 1996 - A love story entangled in the Salem Witch Trials of Salem, Massachusetts.
    • The Plymouth Adventure - Screenplay by Helen Deutsch - 1952 - The harrowing tale of the journey made by the Pilgrims to the New World.
    • Last of the Mohicans - by John Fenimore Cooper - 1992 - An epic tale of the Native Peoples of Early America and their conflict with the European settlers.

    19th Century

    • Glory - Screenplay - by Kevin Jarre - 1989 - An account of the trials and tribulations of an all-black regiment of Union soldiers lead by a Col. Robert Gould Shaw.
    • The Molly Maquires - Screenplay by Walter Bernstein - 1970 - A tale describing the often-violent confrontation between the works in the Pennsylvania coal mines and the owners.
    • Gone with the Wind - by Margaret Mitchell - 1939 - A panoramic account of the conflict between the North and South.Gone With The Wind title from trailer 

    20th Century

    • The Grapes of Wrath - by John Steinbeck - 1940 - An emotional portrait of an American family suffering through the Great Depression.
    • Ali - by Gregory Allen Howard - 2001 - An biographical account of the great American Boxer, Mohammad Ali and his struggles during the Vietnam Era.
    • The Right Stuff - by Tom Wolfe - 1983 - The story of Chuck Yager, who broke all the records for air/space travel at the time of the Space Race between Soviet Russia and the United States.

    The movies above are suggestions for teaching the history of those particular periods. There are copious movies available. Using them as teaching tools, the educator must be aware that while the historical accuracy of some of the films is better than other films, accuracy is not the focus of most Hollywood films.

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    Critical Literacy

    Critical literacy is an essential component to teaching U.S. history while showing films. Educators can prepare students prior to viewing to ask questions that look deeper than what is obvious within the movie chosen for their particular unit.

    For instance, students watching Ali should understand what was happening in the world at that time. They will need to know the significance of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, as well as the controversies around pacifism during the Vietnam era. Furthermore, for movies like Gone with the Wind, the students should be asked to consider if the movie would have the same impact on the viewer if the sweeping cinematography and music were removed. In addition, they could consider the role of women as portrayed in this film compared to what they know of the role of women today.

    The year that movies are printed and released plays a huge role in the message with which viewers leave the theater. How would Grapes of Wrath change if it had been made in 1980 instead of 1940 or, if Glory was shot in 1953, who would have starred as the heroes?

    Educators can prepare questions as prompts for discussion. The point of critical literacy is to look at the "who, what, when, where, why and how" of the text, which means examining a given text (in this case the movies) from as many angles as possible to discover where fact and fiction exist, overlap or run parallel to the story.

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    Happy Endings

    In history class, teaching with the movies is not about giving students a two-hour break from learning. Movies about American/US history taught through the lens of critical literacy are a way to connect students with the past in a manner that allows for questioning, reflecting and discovering the world around them.

References

Movies Used in Teaching

This series will give ideas on how to incorporate movies into the teaching of history, literature and social studies.
  1. Teach WWII History With Flags Of Our Fathers & Letters From Iwo Jima
  2. Teaching Tips: Teaching U.S. History with Movies