The Reel Joan of Arc: Reflections on the Theory and Practice of the Historical Film

The Reel Joan of Arc: Reflections on the Theory and Practice of the Historical Film

By Robert A. Rosenstone

The Public Historian, Vol. 25, No. 3. (2003)

Abstract: Although historians in recent pars have become interested in evaluating the contributions of historical film to our understanding of the past, they have so far evolved no criteria for doing so. This essay moves toward doing just that by suggesting and examining some of the ways in which the dramatic historical film creates the world of the past on the screen. Operating metaphorically and poetically, the film set in the past becomes a work of history when it engages the ongoing discourse surrounding its subject, asking the kinds of questions historians ask, but answering them in a dramatic and semifictional way.

Introduction: On the World Wide Web there is a site, centered at Fordham University, named Medieval History in the Movies. It is quite a substantial site. Printed out, it comes to forty-one pages. With approximately ten or more entries a page, this comes to a total of more than four hundred entries on individual films. True, some films are mentioned more than once. And true, its notion of “medieval” is rather broad, since it includes at one chronological end films set in what would normally be called antiquity (such as the 1980 drama Caligula or Federico Fellini’s Satyricon) and at the other end, biographical films set in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century, such as Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) and Alexander Korda’s Rembrandt (1936). But I don’t wish to quibble over boundaries and periods. Whatever the parameters, it is still an impressive list.

I found this site after being asked to deliver a lecture on film and history at the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Stules. I went to the web because, though I have for twenty years been thinking about history and film, I am trained as a historian of the modem world, and my investigations have convinced me that we can’t get very far with this subject unless we focus on movies set in periods which we have seriously studied, researched, and taught. Indeed, when I was asked to speak at the Center, I tried to beg off. What do I know about medieval or Renaissance periods? But after some back and forth with the director, I agreed to give a general talk about historical films, with some medieval and Renaissance history. That decision led me to search out references to films about those periods – and let me find, if nothing more, a way to get into the talk.

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