Some of the many benefits that historical films offer is that they allow for better memorization through visual associations and are able to grasp attention spans longer than pieces of text. Unfortunately, historical films are often partially fictional and sometimes are missing key historical figures and events in reenactments, but they can still be effective in teaching history when viewers do their own research in order to contrast the accuracies and inaccuracies depicted and analyze the choices directors, writers, and producers made when producing a historical film. Historical films are most effective when the viewer acknowledges that there may be flaws in films, but that it is their job to find those flaws
In 2008, HBO (Home Box Office) released the miniseries, John Adams, based on the biography of John Adams written by David McCullough. The miniseries was able to provide a fairly accurate depiction of the life of the second President John Adams and his wife Abigail Adams, as well the events and lifestyle of the late 18th century. For the most part, the miniseries was accurate in its costume design, showcase of key events, and its use of dialect, therefore teaching viewers an accurate representation of the period.
The characters in the miniseries can be seen wearing clothes and textile that is accurate to 18th century fashion. For example, Abigail Adams is seen wearing a gray cape in the winter. The costume designers knew the women during this period did not wear coats to keep warm, but wore capes made from wool and often times had an attached hood, which the character’s cape does have. Effectively, the costumes presented in the series give an accurate representation of the fashion and the daily attire American colonist used in the late 18th century.
The series also taught viewers appropriate dialect to the 18th century. For example, the writers chose to have Samuel Adams refer to himself and the Patriots as “those who fight for our rights – as natural-born Englishmen.” The viewers are able to hear that the Patriots still referred to themselves as “Englishmen” from England, not as Americans, who were frustrated with having to fight for their rights from British rule. Through the use of historically accurate dialect, the film effectively taught viewers the attitudes of the patriots and presented the language used in this time period.
The miniseries also features scenes based on key historical events, giving the viewer visual and auditory aid in order to effectively learn about what took place at each event. For example, in the episode, “Join or Die,” the scene about the trials of Captain Preston and the British soldiers allows viewers to see, hear, and learn about the opposing viewpoints and frustrations of Patriots and Loyalists, as well as about an important career milestone for John Adams. With this scene, viewers now know and will remember the importance of a key event that ultimately led to the fight for independence. Unfortunately, the same episode features a scene that was fictional, the tar-and-feathering scene, where a British official is tarred and feathered by the Sons of Liberty. The fictional scene causes viewers who fail to do their own research to retain inaccurate information and cause historical films to be counterproductive in teaching American history.
Using feature films, such as John Adams, is advantageous and effective in teaching history because viewers are able to learn about clothing choices, language used, and observe historical events of the past. Although viewers were able to learn some accurate information from historical films, there comes the disadvantage of fictional scenes, which confuses viewers in differentiating what is accurate and inaccurate. In order for historical films to effective, viewers must subsequently question and research the accuracy of what is shown to them.
The film, Amistad, released in 1997, was based on the Supreme Court case United States v. Schooner Amistad. The film presented several historically accurate depictions such as Africans taking control of the ship from Spanish sailors, the involvement of Presidents Martin Van Buren and John Quincy Adams, and the hardships slaves faced in the Atlantic slave trade. The film was extremely effective in showcasing the hardships slaves faced while on route to the Americas. The viewer was able feel empathetic in the scenes where they saw and heard the pain slaves felt onboard. Unfortunately, the film wasn’t as effective in teaching history by presenting Theodore Joadson, a fictional character. Joadson is a composite character based off of three real abolitionists; Simeon Jocelyn, Joshua Leavitt, and James Pennington.