"1917" as Academic Inspiration

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As a historian I struggle with Hollywood-versions of history. Based on a “true story” or “actual events” generally indicates, to me, that some well-meaning writers have taken an historical event and glamorized it for a modern-day audience. While the scenery and costumes might seem authentic, the stories themselves are often re-invented with minimal historical accuracy.

In 2002, during my first teaching job after graduate school I taught a class that covered US history 1960 to the present. We spent a lot of time talking about popular culture and I encouraged students to share with the class music from the period that they found historically relevant. That same semester I let students earn extra credit by seeing movies related to topics we covered in class and writing reviews that addressed historical accuracy. This assignment was useful until students became more internet savvy and realized that they could plagiarize reviews from web sites without ever having to see the films. 

Although I have since stopped rewarding students extra credit for seeing historically-based films, I still love to discuss them in class. In recent years several films have provided topics for discussion, including “Hidden Figures,” “Green Book,” and “Selma.” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” sparked an interesting pre-class discussion recently as students sought to understand what actually happened to actress Sharon Tate versus the filmmaker’s fictionalized version of events. My Macmillan Community colleague, Jack Solomon, addressed this film in a recent blog about facts in this era of fake news. 

“1917” is another historically-based film that has captured a lot of attention in recent months. Having read numerous reviews of the film, I finally had a chance to see it with my high school-age son. Since I’m not a military historian I am not able to evaluate the accuracy of director Sam Mendes’s recreation of World War I battlefield scenes. I did, nonetheless, appreciate the way in which the film captured the anxiety of being a soldier in the era of trench warfare, including the shocking visual horrors of the battlefield. As we talked about the film afterwards, I found myself wishing that I knew more about trench warfare so that I could answer my son’s more specific questions. Herein, I thought, lies the problem with Hollywood’s historical fiction: historians are not readily available to talk to movie-goers post-viewing about what is/is not accurate in the film.  

A few days later, however, an amazing thing happened: my son told me that he had chosen the English poet and war-veteran Wilfred Owen as the subject of the in depth author study that his 10th-grade English class was beginning. “1917,” it seems, had inspired him to think about how the characters in the film would have described their experiences in writing. Studying Owen’s poetry, he hopes, will provide some insight into an aspect of the war’s history that viewers of the film can only imagine. 

I share this story here on my blog because I have been guilty in the past of avoiding historical fiction because of what it gets wrong. I’m inspired to find new ways to get my current students to think about 21st-century historical interpretations because of the possibility that modern-day depictions of such events might in fact encourage them to want to learn the true historical facts. Ideas and suggestions welcome!  

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.