A college semester is actually a surprisingly short period of time, which can be further compressed into shorter condensed seasonal mini-semesters during the summer and winter. I find it difficult to make use of good documentaries let alone tap into fictional historic films or mini-series in the three hours or so a week I actually spend with my students. I will tap into the handy Monty Python excerpt, but largely for levity as opposed to valuable information, and even then only briefly. Perhaps it is because I teach excessively broad surveys, but I have a hard time making use of some quality historical fiction that can be a useful medium for drawing students into the foreign cultures that we study.
In my first semester as an adjunct, I provided an extra credit assignment that combined a Hollywood adaptation of history with a packet of primary sources. Most students did not do it. But, I think I am going to try to tweak this concept and include it as available extra credit built into my syllabus. I only offer extra credit if I think the assignment offers something intrinsically beneficial to the students beyond the bonus points. Therefore, the film or novel has to provide a gateway to the historical period for the students or to make them hungry for more.
This came up recently twice in the last week for me. The first instance came during the Civil War Symposium where the members of the panel recommended the movie Glory as an apt film for Civil War classes that resonated with students. The screenwriter, Kevin Jarre, supposedly based the plot on the letters (actual primary sources) of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and two novels. It tells the story of the first black regiment to fight in the Union, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Army, from the perspective of its commanding officer.
The other instance came more recently during movie time on Thanksgiving evening–after all, who really wanted to watch the Bengals bungle again!?! We watched 1993’s Remains of the Day. While both films were about epic war events, the latter did not deal with the actual conflict but the day to day response of a handful of English lords during the period of appeasement preceding World War II. The conflict is based on the belief that the post-World War I period created unfair terms for Germany and that following the horrors of the Great War another world war must be avoided at all costs pitted against the ever-growing sentiment in England that the Germans were a danger to everyone in the free world. The conflict is also evident in the hearts and minds of the people reflecting on their contributing roles in the actions towards appeasement.
I have read a great deal of historical fiction and seen a fair number of films, but outside of extra credit it is hard for me to fit them into survey courses. These are tools that arguably more useful at the high school level because the school year is much longer. I do think there can be a genuinely useful application, but it is harder to find the time to add it in without making such projects part of homework or extra credit.
I would be really interested in hearing from other people about their own experiences as either student or instructor when it comes to the use of historical fiction in film or literature.
Below are the two film excerpts I show most often in my 101 class for the Romans and the Black Plague:
I also use this when I talk about the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons: