Ever since its beginnings in the early 20th century, the film industry has produced works that have focused on an array of historical subjects and events.  Just as longstanding has been criticism of Hollywood for its interpretation of the past in movies.  While many films have been celebrated for their attention to detail and historical accuracy, others have been dismissed as little more than propaganda designed to reinterpret past events, or shape public opinion.  Your assignment is to watch two movies (an older and newer film), one from each of the lists below, that deal with American history in the 20th century.  Students will, after choosing and watching their films, write a 2-3 page essay (12-pt font, double-spaced) that addresses the following issues/questions:

1) What is the historical drama (i.e., time period, event, set of circumstances) that each of your films represents?  Explain.

2) Having watched the films, in your estimation or opinion, what is the overall message or point that each movie attempts to get across or elaborate?

3) Are these films, as you see it, more concerned with accurately representing the past (history), or with saying something about the present (the time when the film was made)?  Explain.

4) After viewing one film from the older classic era of Hollywood, and one from more recent times, can you say anything about how the portrayal of American history in the movies has changed over time?  For example, has the portrayal of minorities (African Americans, women, and immigrants to the U.S.) in cinema changed at all over the years?  Explain.






The Grapes of Wrath, 1940 (Great Depression)

Sergeant York, 1941 (America and World War I)

Citizen Kane, 1941 (“Yellow Press,” Gilded Age)

Casablanca, 1942 (America and World War II)

Inherit the Wind, 1960 (1925 Scopes Trial, Religion v. Science)

To Kill A Mockingbird, 1962 (Race and Violence in the South)

Dr. Strangelove, 1964 (Cold War, Nuclear Holocaust)



Tora! Tora! Tora! 1970 (World War II, Pearl Harbor)

All the President’s Men, 1976 (Impeachment of President Richard Nixon)

Mississippi Burning, 1988 (Modern Civil Rights Movement)

Malcolm X, 1992 (Modern Civil Rights Movement)

Good Night, and Good Luck, 2005 (Communism, McCarthy Era of the 1950s)

Milk, 2008 (Gay Rights Movement)

The Immigrant, 2013 (The “New Immigrant” Experience of the Early 20th Century)


One final note.  Do not use any outside sources, other than the films, to write your essays.  If you want to quote lines from the movies you watched to make a particular point, that is fine, acceptable, even encouraged.  However, there should be no footnotes or citations.  The entire essay should be in your own words, and not drawn from articles on the internet, or popular reviews of any of the films in publications.  Your reaction to the films as representations of the historical past, and how this process (making movies about history) has changed over time is what I am interested in, not what others may have said or written about the topic.




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