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People have been experimenting with different ways to write history for 2,500 years, yet we have experimented with film in the same way for only a century.
Noted professor and historian Natalie Zemon Davis, consultant for the film The Return of Martin Guerre, argues that movies can do much more than recreate exciting events and the external look of the past in costumes and sets. Film can show millions of viewers the sentiments, experiences and practices of a group, a period and a place; it can suggest the hidden processes and conflicts of political and family life. And film has the potential to show the past accurately, wedding the concerns of the historian and the filmmaker.
To explore the achievements and flaws of historical films in differing traditions, Davis uses two themes: slavery, and women in political power. She shows how slave resistance and the memory of slavery are represented through such films as Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, Steven Spielberg's Amistad and Jonathan Demme's Beloved. Then she considers the portrayal of queens from John Ford's Mary of Scotland and Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth to John Madden's Mrs. Brown and compares them with the cinematic treatments of Eva Peron and Golda Meir.
This visionary book encourages readers to consider history films both appreciatively and critically, while calling historians and filmmakers to a new collaboration.
A history professor at Princeton University, Natalie Zemon Davis (The Return of Martin Guerre; Women on the Margins) is also a seasoned critic of historical film. With Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision, she discusses how movies represent history differently than books do. Can narrative films achieve the accuracy and authenticity that writers can? "Can there be lively cinematic equivalents to what prose histories try to accomplish in prefaces, bibliographies, and notes and through their modifying and qualifying words `perhaps,' `maybe,' and `we are uncertain about'?" In order to answer these questions, Davis looks at a handful of films that have attempted to capture themes of slavery, struggle and rebellion (Spartacus, Burn!, The Last Supper, Amistad and Beloved) and analyzes the devices they've used to convey history, as they understand and wish to express it. It is her hope that "with patience, imagination, and experimentation, historical narration through film could become both more dramatic and more faithful to the sources from the past." (Harvard Univ., 176p ; Sept.) Given that Shakespeare is one of the world's most famous interpreters of history, it seems fitting that the 14 academics whose essays form Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Si cle believe that the recent surge of Shakespearean films (Shakespeare in Love, Hamlet, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet) reflects modern man's association of millennium-sized issues with the Bard himself. Edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (respectively, a reader and a lecturer in English at Queen's University of Belfast), the volume tackles such topics as advancing technology, families at risk and cultural intolerance. Included among the provocative pieces is a gem of an interview with Kenneth Branagh. (St. Martin's, $42 272p ; Aug.)