Film is a unique way for historians to look into the mindset of society. Every movie, whether based in reality or fantasy, has something to say about its audience. This is useful for historians because they can use movies differently than other more conventional sources. One reason for this is because movies project ideas and feelings of mass society onto huge screens for the world to see and they are easily accessible. Some sources give a limited perspective of historical events but movies represent the tone of hundreds of thousands of people who go to the movies. Because human beings have such spectacular imaginations and can transfer their views and attitudes onto almost any story, film historians have such a unique task of interpreting films’ undertones. Brigham Young can be about Hitler and World War II or Dirty Harry can be about saving americans from radical counter culture hippies or Stagecoach can be about the changing face of the “New Deal” America.
Film is a window into the mood of the society at the time it was created, therefore, it is a valuable source to historians. For example, Horror movies of the 20s and 30s featured monsters and villains like Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and Dracula while later horror films featured regular human villains – bad guys that looked just like everyone else. The villains’ struggles were internal and it left audiences with the feeling that the monsters could be anyone. The same type of film created in different historical eras and they each say something different about the atmosphere in which they were created. There are examples of this in every genre. The films change with the mood of the audience because no matter what the message of the film is, the main goal of every commercial film is to make as much money as possible. The question always arises as to whether or not movies influence society or society influences the movies and as with many other debatable topics in filmmaking “both” is the usual conclusion. Movies will adjust to the changing attitudes of their audiences to sell tickets, but on the other hand audiences are influenced on some level by every movie they watch. It is important for historians to take this into account when analyzing history through the eyes of film.
An example of the they-influence-each-other theory is the film Sergeant York. At the time, the United States was struggling with the decision to join the war effort. So Hollywood of course makes a war movie but, to connect to the mood of society, the hero is a Quaker and ultimately against violence and killing people. Hollywood was making a movie that would sell tickets by using Gary Cooper as the non-violent Sergeant York (Hollywood influenced by the masses) but the filmmakers depicted the hero’s struggle with his decision to fight or not to fight and in the end he chose to fight (the masses influenced by Hollywood). This is, of course, a grossly over simplified look at the film but it supports the idea that historians must consider both the audience perspective and the Hollywood perspective when using films as a source for research.
The neat thing about historians using films to take a closer look at history is that when looking at the film industry as a whole since its earliest days it is not hard to see social evolution and reoccurring themes. Films tell an interesting tale about the role of women in society. In the early days they were the pure, innocent victorian women who needed protection like many Lillian Gish characters, however; years later actresses like Mae West came along and women had transformed from helpless innocent creatures into outspoken, tough, sexy characters. Chronicling the changing roles of women in films as compared to women’s roles in society can reveal interesting insight into how film and history can walk hand in hand. Women in film is just one example. Similar social evolutions can be found throughout film history like black roles and civil rights in film, relations between upper class and lower class, attitudes toward war, the list could go on and on.
At first it might sound a bit wrong to suggest that history can be studied through films that are either purely fictional or loosely based on truth and almost always have someone’s bias influencing the final cut. Often times, what movies present incorrectly can tell us just as much about its context as when the film is historically accurate. In reality it is not always the facts presented in the actual film but sometimes the facts surrounding the historical time period the film was made in that make it a good source for research. Granted, there are several factors to consider before jumping to conclusions about society’s perspective or Hollywood’s influence, but when given proper attention movies can be a great source for historians.