Understanding History Through Film

Curriculum Guideline

Effective Date:
Course Code
HIST 1180
Understanding History Through Film
Humanities & Social Sciences
Start Date
End Term
Semester Length
15 weeks
Max Class Size
Contact Hours
Lecture: 2 hours per week Seminar: 2 hours per week
Method Of Instruction
Methods Of Instruction

Class meetings will consist of lectures, viewings of selections from documentary and feature films, student oral presentations, and seminar discussions. There will be in-class quizzes and scheduled exams. Guest speakers may be invited into class and public screenings of relevant films will be announced.


While the instructor and course texts provide models and guidance in interpreting historical sources, a key component of the course will be the exchange of ideas and insights between peers. Seminar discussions and student presentations will serve as forums for students to develop, test, and refine their ideas about history and interpretations of the past events. Whenever possible, this discourse will be extended to college-supported on-line discussion forums and relevant extra-curricular public events.


As scholarly History is predicated on clear and judicious written communication explaining one’s reasoned interpretation of past events, a significant portion of this course will be devoted to developing student essay-writing skills.

Course Description
This course introduces students to History as an academic discipline, and instructs them in the skills necessary to decipher meaningful historical understanding from both primary sources and the depictions of the past found in dramatic feature films. Posing the question “What is History?” the course examines the value of knowing the past by reviewing the study of historiography, the “history of history.” Case studies illustrate how historical knowledge gained through academic study may be complemented and corrupted by popular films. Additionally, as the practice of History involves engaging others in a discussion about the meaning of past events, students will have the opportunity to develop and present their historical insights through the writing of academic essays and other forms of historical analysis.
Course Content

Although content may vary by semester/section, this introduction to the history, methods and challenges of academic History will typically address the following issues:


  1. What is History
    • the definition and practice of academic history and its relationship to legend, myth, propaganda, nostalgia, journalism, and other forms of rehearsing the past.
  2. Historiography
    • the “history of history” and the development of a professional scholarly approach to making sense of the past. While modern history is the expected focus, classical historians and other approaches to understanding the past also will be discussed.
  3. Methods of History
    • researching sources, identifying facts, analyzing causality, and interpreting meaning. While this practice of history will be defined in the context of its own development over time, this course also will pragmatically school students in historical methodology via its in-class examination of historical texts, and its writing assignments.
  4. “Discipline” of History
    • the history and importance of the various forms of a historian’s accountability, including citation practice and peer review.
  5. Postmodernism’s Challenge
    • the purpose, methods, and values of traditional academic historians have been contested by so-called postmodern concepts (e.g. the illegitimacy of meta-narratives, “death of the author,” collapsing of time and space, relativity of “truth”, etc.) which have been expounded by literary and social theorists.
  6. Film/History
    • studies show that most of what today’s students “know” about the past came not from reading scholarly books or taking history courses but from watching dubious television shows and movies. Following the lead of a growing roster of historians (e.g. John O’Connor, Robert Rosenstone, Robert Toplin, Nancy Davis), this course will highlight how serious engagement with “historical films” can complement rather than simply corrupt meaningful understanding of the past.
  7. History of Film
    • the course’s investigation of how scholarly History intersects with the popular representation of the past found in entertainment media will itself be historically contextualized with an cursory survey of the evolution of technologies & techniques used to capture images on film and tell stories through moving pictures.

An example of a typical syllabus

Note: Content may vary according to the instructor’s selection of topics


  1. Introductions to History and Film
  2. Defining “the Modern” -- French Revolution case-study
  3. Quick History of History: A Story of Science eclipsing Art?
  4. Facts and Footnotes: “Disciplining” Historical Methodology
  5. Edifying Entertainment: Documentary Films and History
  6. Quick History of Film: From Magic Laterns to the Digital Age
  7. History by Hollywood: “Historical Film” as Genre?
  8. Marxist History: The Proletariat as movie star?
  9. Social History: Everyday life as mise en scene?
  10. Political History: Docudramas of Dead White Men?
  11. Military History: How Real is Reel Blood?
  12. Holocaust History: Moral truth beyond the facts?
  13. The Filmmaker as Historian? From DW Griffiths to Oliver Stone
Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of the course the successful student will be able to:


  1. Read/View History - critically examine and evaluate a wide variety of historical texts, ranging from primary sources (e.g. archival documents, newspaper accounts, documentary images) and scholarly secondary sources (academic history books, journal articles) to entertaining “popular histories” (novels, documentary films, movies) and sophisticated theoretical overviews of the philosophy of History and film appreciation.
  2. Discuss History - verbally engage the ideas and arguments expressed in the course materials, and by the instructor and other students, with thoughtful observations and constructive questions. In addition to questions during lectures, this discourse will take the form of individual/group oral presentations and seminar discussions.
  3. Write History - communicate in academically-formatted essays reasoned evaluations of historical evidence and sound individual appraisal of scholarly problems. Writing assignment formats will typically include some combination of critical book/film reviews, synthetic reports on historical events, historiographical summations, and research papers.
Means of Assessment

The evaluation of student performance will follow Douglas College policies as outlined in the calendar. Specific components of evaluation will include some of the following: quizzes, scheduled exams consisting of short answer and essay questions, student presentations, review essays of books/films, research papers, polemical essays, and participation in seminar discussions.


Evaluation criteria will be provided by the instructor during the first class meeting, based on that semester’s specific focus of study and assignments.


An example of a typical evaluation scheme:

Class participation
(attendance, quizzes, discussion)
Oral Presentation of file/person/concept      10%
Film/book review essay   15%
Research essay   25%
Midterm exam   20%
Final exam   20%
Total 100%



Textbook Materials

Textbooks and Materials to be Purchased by Students


Texts will updated periodically. Typical examples include:


Alexander, Jeffrey W. and Joy Dixon, Writing in History. Thomson Nelson, 2006.

Benjamin, Jules. A Student’s Guide to History. Bedfords/St Martins, 2007.

Bentley, Michael. Modern Historiography: An Introduction. Routledge, 1999.

Carr, E. H. What is History? Vintage, 1967.

Davis, Natalie. Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision. Harvard University Press, 2000.

Elton, G. R. The Practice of History. Sydney University Press, 1967

Evans, Richard. In Defense of History. Granta, 1997.

Francaviglia, Richard, and Jerry Rodnitzky, eds., Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film. Texas A&M University Press, 2007.

Galgano, M., J.C. Arndt, and R. Hyser, Doing History. Thomson-Wadsworth, 2008.

Guynn, William. Writing History in Film. Routledge, 2006.

Hughes-Warrington, Marnie. History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film. Routledge, 2007.

Jenkins, Keith. On ‘What is History?’: From Carr & Elton to Rorty & White. Routledge, 1995.

Jenkins, Keith. Re-Thinking History. Routledge, 1991, 2003.

Kelleher Storey, William, and Towser Jones, Writing History: A Guide for Canadian Students. Second Edition. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Lorence, James. Screening America: United States History through Film since 1900. Prentice Hall, 2006.

McCrisken, Trevor. American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film. Rutgers University Press, 2005. 

Niemi, Robert. History in the Media: Film and Television. ABC-Clio, 2006.

Rosenstone, Robert. History on Film/Film on History. Pearson/Longman, 2006.

Rosenstone, Robert. Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to our Idea of History. Harvard University Press, 1998.

Rosenstone, Robert, Hayden White, David Herlihy, John O’Connor, Robert Brent Toplin, “AHA Forum: History in Images/History in Words.” American Historical Review 93 (December 1988): 1173-1227.

Schultz, Deanne. Filmography of World History. Greenwood Press, 2007.

Toplin, Robert Brent. Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood. University Press of Kansas, 2002.

Toplin, Robert Brent. History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past. University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Tosh, John. The Pursuit of History. Pearson Education, 2006.

Tosh, John, ed., Historians on History. Pearson Educational, 2000.