Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home

Larry Holzwarth - April 20, 2020

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
The western genre contains films which portray their subject with a varying degree of historical accuracy. Wikimedia

10. Western films are often misleading

Most films known as westerns are fictional accounts, even those which purport to be historical or biographical. Yet they still contain elements of how life really evolved in the American west. One stereotypical element of western films – the saloon – really did emerge as a central location of western towns and cities. Arguably the most important citizen of emerging towns, the blacksmith, is another cliché of western movies. Blacksmiths shoed horses, repaired the iron rims of wagon wheels, and the implements needed by farmers to tend to their fields. Stagecoaches connected the western cities and towns before the Civil War, supplemented by trains afterward.

During the 1950s Warner Brothers produced several westerns for television, including Maverick, Lawman, Sugarfoot, and others. Although the stories were entirely fiction, many of the presentations of life in the west were accurate. The west crawled with drifters, con-men, professional gamblers, prostitutes, as well as cow-hands, farmers, salesmen (known as drummers) and many others. The occupation not as prevalent as depicted in western films and television programs were professional gunfighters. Later westerns distorted history thoroughly. Bonanza, for example, featured lever-action rifles like the Winchester 73 in episodes which were set before or during the American Civil War, before the gun was produced.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Since You Went Away presented an accurate picture of the home front during the Second World War. Wikimedia

11. World War II at home

In 1944 David O. Selznick produced Since You Went Away, a film depicting the home front in the United States during World War II. The effects of rationing of food, gasoline, rubber, and other items and the hardships it caused featured prominently in the film. The film focuses on the Hilton family, with the husband and father, Tim Hilton, away first in training, and later reported missing in the Southwest Pacific theater. The film depicts the hardships of his wife and two daughters, who plant victory gardens and endure the complaints of a neighbor who criticizes their compliance with rationing and practices hoarding.

As such it portrays the American home front during World War II with more accuracy than other films, in which all Americans are displayed as patriotic and supportive of the war effort. In reality, black markets thrived in the United States during World War II. The film was notable for its inclusion of characters which go off to war, never to return, and the impact of their loss on those they left behind. It portrays some Americans as willing to endure the sacrifices asked of them, but not all. By the time of its release in late July 1944, reports from both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters indicated the Allies would win the war, and many Americans no longer considered sacrifices on the home front necessary. It was an aspect of World War II seldom discussed when considering the “Greatest Generation”.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Film offers a record of how people talked to each other. Wikimedia

12. How Americans talked to each other

Films provide an audible, as well as visible, record of communications, since the advent of “talkies” in the late 1920s. Words once in common usage became lost to the language over time, and movies from bygone eras provide evidence they existed. Other words entered the English language because of films, including flicks, movies, and Hollywood, originally known as Hollywoodland. From films, we learn that during the 1930s and forties detectives were known as tecs, dicks, and gumshoes. The police in general were known as coppers, later shortened to cops. Women, in the non-politically correct atmosphere of previous eras, were called dames, babes, tomatoes, and other terms considered pejorative and unacceptable today.

Gangster films and mysteries from the 1940s tell succeeding generations of the term bum rap. Cheesy meant cheap, gas meant a good time, and lettuce referred to paper money. Baseball movies of the 1940s referred to arguments on the field as rhubarbs, later extended to arguments of any kind. The 1950s presented many films featuring the hot rods, popular among teens during the era, and the burn-outs they executed. Burn-out later evolved into meaning losing interest in something, reflected in films of later eras. Nerd, a term most people associate with a later era, is heard in some 1950s films, particularly among young people, used in the same context as in the 21st century.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Breakfast at Tiffany’s depicts a vanished New York of another day. Wikimedia

13. The baby boomer generation

During the 1950s and 1960s, the first of the generation known as the baby boomers came of age. Films capture their behaviors, tastes, and fads, providing a living record for people interested in the era. Films made contemporaneously depict the fears of the Cold War era, the growing exasperation of the preceding generation with their rambunctious children, and the manner in which America changed. The malt shop of the 1940s found itself replaced by the drive-in, later itself replaced by fast-food restaurants. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, released in 1961, presented a portrait of New York life, now long gone. Before the end of the decade, in 1968, a vision of the future depicted America’s faith in its technology and a belief in its future.

2001: A Space Odyssey, envisioned a future in which space planes flew passengers to huge orbiting space stations. The planes, operated by Pan American and referred to as Space Clippers, visited a space station which contained a Hilton Hotel and Bell Picture Phones. IBM’s corporate logo appeared in the station, as does a Howard Johnson’s. In reality, Pan American World Airways collapsed a decade before 2001, and Bell Telephone’s picture phones never made it to the market. Television also predicted extensive space travel by the end of the 20th century, the original Lost in Space television series predicted the launch of the Space Family Robinson in 1997.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
In the 1960s, films and television programs reflected America’s nearly unlimited faith in its technological leadership. imdb

14. Faith in American superiority extended to the sea

Set in the 1970s and 1980s, the distant future when first filmed in 1964, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was based on a movie of the same name, first seen in 1961. The film reflected the edge held by the United States Navy in the deployment of nuclear submarines over their Soviet enemy. The fantastic submarine Seaview, though armed with torpedoes and nuclear missiles, nonetheless voyaged on peaceful missions for science and research. It also featured a flying submarine which carried passengers, an underwater laser beam, and wide windows in the bow from which to observe marine life. It and several other science fiction programs on television, and films in the theaters, reflected the faith Americans held in technology during the space race of the 1960s.

On television and in film, technological achievements set in the not-too-distant future included The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, Fantastic Voyage, Land of the Giants, and the original Planet of the Apes. Of course, Star Trek first appeared in the 1960s, though it was set centuries in the future, rather than predicted events just a few decades away. By the end of the 1960s, unlimited faith in American technological superiority waned, replaced with dissension over civil rights and the war in Vietnam. Following the first lunar landing in 1969, public support for the space program waned, and a movie appeared, Marooned, displaying a failed space mission, which included the death of one astronaut, as well as a rescue of American astronauts through the intercession of the Soviets.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
The filmed footage of Beatlemania is a visual record of the social phenomona of the 1960s. NY Daily News

15. The British Invasion of the 1960s

It is one thing to read about the mass hysteria which surrounded some of the British musical acts in the early 1960s, both in the UK and the United States. It is altogether another thing to see them on film, from newsreels, television news reports, documentaries, and feature films. The images of police officers in London, across European cities, in New York, holding back teeming crowds by linking arms against the surging mass, must be seen to appreciate the frenzy. Film presents Beatlemania, with the police holding back crowds, carrying those overwhelmed to safety, and protecting the artists in the eye of the storm. Modern eyes are often amazed to see the police were not equipped in riot gear, as they would be today.

Films made at the time to exploit the popularity of several bands from Britain and the United States offer a time capsule of the era. It was an age of innocence, bemused parents, frenzied teenagers (and pre-teens), sardonic reporters, and exploitive businesses. Band members appeared on lunchboxes, as dolls, on posters, as caricatures, on collecting cards. The frenzy known as Beatlemania lasted about four years in Europe, three in the United States, recorded on film around the world. Today fans of the band can listen to their music through diverse media, and read the hundreds of books and thousands of articles written about the band’s history, but only on film does their visceral impact on millions of fans appear.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
John Wayne’s homage The Green Berets presented the hawks’ viewpoint of American involvement in Vietnam. Wikimedia

16. The Vietnam War

Few events of American history divided the nation as did the war in Vietnam. During the war, few films were made about the events in Southeast Asia, at least during the 1960s. One of the earliest, made by John Wayne in 1968, was The Green Berets. The film presented an unabashedly pro-American involvement point of view. The film featured the techniques of the propaganda films produced during World War II as recruiting vehicles for the armed forces. Bombardier recruited men to operate Norden bombsights, Crash Drive enticed men into the submarine service. Wayne’s Green Berets featured the US Army Special Forces, at the forefront of American aid in South Vietnam. It presented most of the Vietnamese people as appreciative of American help, though incidents of treachery appear.

Good American soldiers battle not just the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, but betrayal by leading South Vietnamese commanders and politicians. A cynical American press gradually comes to understand the “truth” of what was happening in the country, and why Americans needed to be there. Support for the North Vietnamese communists from the Soviet Union, China, Czechoslovakia, and other communist countries appeared early in the film. Not until America withdrew from Vietnam did films appear critical of US involvement and activities during the protracted war.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Miracle on 34th Street generated considerable controversy over Maureen O’Hara’s character. Wikimedia

17. The roles of American women

Films depict the evolution of women in American life over the decades. 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, considered a Christmas film today, first appeared on theater screens in May. It was revolutionary for several reasons, one of which was the character portrayed by Maureen O’Hara. O’Hara played a divorced mother, raising a child on her own. The Catholic Legion of Decency rated the film “morally objectionable in part” due to the character’s marital status. Divorced women, especially those with young children, still bore a stigma in some quarters at the time. Through the ensuing decades the roles of women, and attitudes toward them in films began to change.

During the 1950s, the marriage rate reached an all-time high in the United States. The ages of women marrying dropped to an all-time low. Marriage and children – the nuclear family – was considered the primary aspiration for young women. Films and television programs of the fifties portrayed women as married, or trying to find a husband, as the norm. They were produced in response to the pressures from society on women to make having a husband and raising a family their goal. In the 1960s changes in public attitudes appeared in films and on television. Often when divorced women appeared in films, it was as a plot device leading to remarriage to her husband.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
America’s fears of nuclear annihilation led to films including the black comedy, Dr. Strangelove. WIkimedia

18. The atomic bomb

For four years following the end of World War II, the United States enjoyed a monopoly on the atomic bomb. On August 29, 1949, the Soviets successfully tested their first atomic weapon. The Cold War immediately grew colder. Motion pictures focused on the effects and possibility of the two superpowers destroying each other, and the human race, became popular. Some, like 1964’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb were black comedies. Others focused on the stark realities of the time, when children were taught to hide under school desks when alarms sounded, communities held civil defense drills, and families built and stocked bomb shelters.

The possibility of nuclear war triggered by mistake, explored in films such as 1964’s Fail-Safe, or by treachery, as in Seven Days in May, released the same year, indicates the level of concern over nuclear annihilation. Throughout the Cold War fears of nuclear war appeared in films and television programs. Many films set during the Cold War in the 1950s reflect two of the great obsessions of the conservatives in the United States of the day – communist infiltration of the government and the entertainment industry. I Was A Communist for the FBI (1951) was a depiction on film of the anti-communist hysteria which marked the McCarthy era and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
The Great Escape is an example of film which depict history both accurately and falsely in their story. IMDb

19. Films also present false history

The old adage that lies repeated become truth is especially true when a subject about which little is known by the viewer is encountered on film. Films are powerful propaganda tools as a result, and have been used as such for as long as they have existed. In 2013 a psychology researcher at Duke University pointed out that people absorb accurate information from historical films, as well as inaccurate information, with about the same rate of retention for both. Scrupulous adherence to historical facts in films has never been the primary goal of the producers, directors, and casts.

In many films based on historical events, multiple participants in the historical record become molded into fictional composite characters. 1963’s The Great Escape stands as an example. It altered the timeline, the characters (the American Virgil Hilts played by Steve McQueen was entirely fictional), and the events before, during, and after the escape. Yet it still portrayed aspects of history as regards being a prisoner of war in a Luftwaffe Stalag accurately. Prisoners’ relationships with the guards, military discipline, preparation for the escape, and the importance of Red Cross Packages were correctly portrayed. The environment of the camp was also accurately depicted, as was the German issuance of gardening tools to the prisoners, after parole was given they would not be used for escape purposes.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
America long celebrated its drinking establishments, even illegal ones. Wikimedia

20. Bars, taverns, nightclubs, and saloons

Virtually any film depicting society in any era of the past includes within its pictures scenes within a watering hole where people congregate to eat and drink, but especially the latter. Westerns feature saloons, some elaborately decorated, others a plank across two barrels, at which patrons ordered whiskey or beer. In films of the Prohibition Era, bootleggers were depicted as heroes as often as they were seen as villains. Nightclubs, where gowned women and tuxedoed men gathered for drinks and dancing, were featured in many films of the 1930s and early 1940s. America’s longstanding love affair with alcohol is well-presented in film.

Although a few films made to address the dangers of alcoholism came from Hollywood during its Golden Age, such as The Lost Weekend in 1945, for the most part, Hollywood looked at drinking with a kindly eye. W.C. Fields built much of his film career out of schtick based on drunkenness. One reason for the tolerance was Hollywood being a hard-drinking town itself. That doesn’t explain the acceptance by audiences, the films reflected the behavior adopted by American citizens. Just as tobacco left a haze in the movies of the thirties, forties, and fifties, the tinkle of ice in glasses of liquor added to the soundtrack, and slapping the bar while ordering whiskey remains a cliché of the western hero and villain alike.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Karl Malden as a crusading priest in On The Waterfront. Wikimedia

21. Religion

Religion and religious figures have long been important in films about American life. Spencer Tracy, Edmond O’Brien, Bing Crosby, and Karl Malden all played priests as heroes in more than one film. Priests were displayed as hard-working, dedicated to their church and its role in the community. Tracy portrayed Father Flanagan and the creation of Boy’s Town. Malden played a priest determined to end the corruption on the docks in the Marlon Brando vehicle, On the Waterfront. The significance of the parish in the lifeblood of the neighborhood was a theme in many films. Ministers from other denominations appeared frequently in movies during all eras as well.

Also appearing in films were ministers and self-professed holy men of less than savory character. Elmer Gantry featured Burt Lancaster as a con artist bilking American small towns as part of a traveling revival. Robert Mitchum portrayed a serial killer disguised as a minister preying on women along the Ohio River in the 1930s, a character based on serial killer Harry Powers. Movies about religion and religious life in the United States are often controversial, as few subjects are held as sacred – no pun intended – as are religious views in America, particularly among fundamentalists.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
The Honeymooners offered a humorous look at working class citizens of New York. Wikimedia

22. The televised situation comedy and American life

In the 1950s television developed a new form of entertainment, based on radio programming which used a similar format. The thirty-minute situation comedy, which remains a major portion of commercial programming in the 21st century emerged. In 1952 I Love Lucy became America’s favorite sitcom. It was joined near the top of the ratings by The Honeymooners. In the 1960s The Andy Griffith Show and the fictional town of Mayberry became wildly popular, as did many other programs, including one featuring a talking horse, Mr. Ed. Yet even these shows carry in their backgrounds and set elements of history. Lucy was the stereotypical housewife of the era, always wanting to join her husband’s show, while he wanted her at home.

Mayberry was and remains the ideal small town of its day, in part because it was representative of countless American small towns. The Honeymooners, with the scheming Ralph and the obtuse Norton, depicted the life of the working class in New York, including the men’s preferred entertainments (bowling, pool, their lodge, and poker) and their wives’ difficulties in managing the home on small budgets. Even Mr. Ed, the ridiculous concept of a talking horse with something to say, presents a window into history. Most of the vehicles which appeared on the show were Studebakers, since the company sponsored the show from 1961 to 1964. Ford took over in the final season, 1965, when Studebaker ceased auto production.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Films give us a record of how cities changed over the decades. Wikimedia

23. Changing cities over time

In the 1920s and even the 1930s American cities and towns were still very much dependent on the use of horses for carriages, delivery wagons, fire departments, and streetcars. Films of the eras demonstrate that dependence. Often observed in background scenes as the camera recorded them while following the action, they are proof that changes to America’s urban scenes were gradual over many, many years. City services and businesses appear in billboard advertising, street signs, and door fronts. From old movies we have pictures of what cities looked like at night, before and after gaudy neon lighting took hold in most urban areas.

We also have records of urban roads at a time before Interstate Highways, and the automobiles which negotiated them. Visual records of markets, long before the advent of self-service, are found in films. In westerns, the general store is nearly as large a feature of towns as the saloon, the sheriff’s office, and the train platform. Well into the 1940s most Americans purchased their groceries from small shops, rather than the supermarkets which evolved in the suburbs. Shop owners knew their customers and their needs and regular purchases long before the emergence of customer reward systems, which are really customer tracking systems.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Doctor’s frequently visited patients in their homes, rather than in their offices and clinics. Getty Images

24. Medicine

The evolution of medicine and medical care in the United States are trackable through their appearances in films, both those purporting to depict historical events and in contemporaneous settings. For decades, doctors went to their patients rather than the other way around. In cities and larger towns, doctors did both, examining and consulting with patients in their offices, and following up with them in their homes. A doctor’s black satchel made him recognizable to all as he went about his rounds. Surgeons often performed operations in their own surgeries, rather than in hospital operating rooms and theaters, which were used for training.

When automobile ambulances emerged, they were little more than a car equipped with a stretcher and a siren. Life-saving equipment beyond simple bandages weren’t available. Not until the 1960s did corporate medical care, driven by the health insurance industry and specialization by physicians, come to dominate health care in the United States. Ambulances became trauma care units, supported by connection to physicians in emergency rooms. Americans once visited their doctor, paid for his services, and presumably followed his advice, as seen in hundreds of films from the past. Those days vanished near the end of the 20th century.

Films and Television Teach History from the Comfort of Home
Senator Jeff Smith addresses a Senate largely ignoring him in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Wikimedia

25. Politics and government

Two types of politicians appear in films of the past, honest and good, or dishonest and bad. Often the two are juxtaposed against each other. Some films of the past attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of real-life American politicians, such as Bob Hope’s portrayal of New York Mayor Jimmy Walker in Beau James (1957). Other films present American politicians entirely in fiction, such as All the King’s Men in 1949. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was entirely fictional, though the corrupt influence of political machines displayed in the film were a large part of American history.

Films about real political events often became as controversial as the events themselves. All the President’s Men, a story mostly about journalism, earned condemnation from conservatives who believed it falsely portrayed the Nixon Administration. Like American politics themselves, political films going back to the 1930s polarized audiences, depending on the point of view of the protagonist in comparison to their own. America has always been a contentious, squabbling, nation when it comes to politics, and films offer a glimpse into how past generations managed to resolve their differences and keep the nation growing.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Rewriting the past: Do historical movies have to be accurate?” Alex von Tunzelmann, The Guardian. February 1, 2019

“Film as Social and Cultural History”. History Matter, George Mason University. Online

“Movies as the Gateway to History”. Paul B. Weinstein, The History Teacher Journal. November, 2001

“The Oscars: Why Hollywood Tales Become ‘Real’ History”. Tia Ghose, Live Science. February 22, 2013

“History on Film. Film on History”. Robert A. Rosenstone

“The History on Film Reader”. Marnie Hughes-Warrington. 2009

“What were the best history movies of the decade?” Jason Herbert, Smithsonian Magazine. December 30, 2019

“Product Placement in Hollywood Films”. Kerry Segrave. 2004

“The Best 50 Movies of the 1940s”. Staff, Paste Magazine. March 4, 2017. Online

“100 Essential Thrillers”. Listing, British Film Institute. Online

“The Most Important Movies of the 1950s”. Christopher McKittrick,

“10 Great Films Set in the Swinging Sixties”. Thirza Wakefield, British Film Institute. August 16, 2018

“50 years of 2001: A Space Odyssey – how Kubrick’s sci fi changed the very form of cinema”. Phil Hoad, The Guardian. April 2, 2018

“10 great American films of the 1970s”. Oliver Lunn, British Film Institute. April 12, 2017. Online

“The 22 best political movies ever, ranked”. Jason Guerrasio, Business Insider. Online