Early American Film in the Classroom

The Junto has published a number of posts about early America in popular culture and media. Until the last few years, films and television shows about early America have been relatively scarce, outside a number of multi-episode public television and cable documentaries. However, in addition to HBO’s John Adams, there are a number of projects in the works including a television series about the Sons of Liberty and another about John Brown. As the semester nears and my teaching duties turn to the American Revolution, I have inevitably been thinking about early American multimedia in the undergraduate classroom.

I am admittedly new to this but I don’t see the value generally in using television-type documentaries in an undergraduate classroom. If I am wrong on that, I hope someone will let me know. That said, I think there may be real potential value in the use of dramatic representations.

The prime example I am thinking of is, rather predictably, HBO’s John Adams. Despite there being a number of problems regarding historical details, there are also numerable scenes that I feel did a very good job of capturing the climate and atmosphere of various Revolutionary and early republic political moments. The scenes from the Second Continental Congress particularly those surrounding the debate over the Lee resolution are highly dramatic, which was no small task when a majority of the dialogue was taken from disparate primary sources. Nevertheless, I think they can convey to students unfamiliar with the subject a sense of the reason and validity of the moderate position as well as of the broader divides within the Congress, whether they be intellectual, political, or geographical. Also, despite its Carlyle-ish portrayal of Adams and Washington, the nuts and bolts of the debate and other various scenes portraying individual interactions can help students to see various founders as individuals grappling with an uncertain and shifting political landscape rather than as lifeless statues or, perhaps worse, literary characters.

The purpose of my post today, however, is not to promote my unlearned pedagogical opinions but rather to solicit more learned opinions from our readers. What multimedia have you found useful in teaching early American history to undergraduates, be it the Revolution or any other topic? Are there specific challenges involved in using early American history multimedia and, if so, how have you addressed them?

9 responses

  1. Thanks for this post, Michael. As I’ve hinted, I’m not nearly as enamored of the John Adams miniseries as others, but oh well. I completely agree about some of the settings in the film — I particularly like using the tarring-and-feathering scene from the first episode, which really starkly demonstrates to students that the Revolution wasn’t quite the staid affair it can often seem.

    A few things come to mind. First, one of my favorite movies to show in class (in Revolutionary America, that is) is Mary Silliman’s War. It scores well on historical accuracy, dramatic intrigue, range of topics, and so on. You can do a lot with it.

    I’d also like to give a “two cheers” for documentaries, with the caveat/reminder that you don’t need to use all of something. For instance, in the survey class, I don’t want to spend an entire 50-minute session watching a video, but it can be very helpful to break up the pacing and energize students by giving them something and someone else to listen to. So I’ve used a C-SPAN interview with Mary Beth Norton about Salem, a clip from a PBS documentary on Andrew Jackson (on the Bank War), and so on. I also used a few clips of the dramatizations from The Abolitionists (including Garrison’s burning of the Constitution two miles from campus).

    They serve as vehicles for discussion, as color for presentations, and as a way to break any monotony that may develop. And you don’t need to show the whole thing to do that.

  2. Thanks, Joe. I too think the tar-and-feathers scene would be very useful. I also appreciate you making the case for the judicious use of documentaries. Perhaps I was too harsh. Having been an American Revolution documentary junkie for a very long time, I guess there are a good number of clips that could be useful and I hadn’t thought about the value of brief clips as a way to break up the classroom routine. I’m also unfamiliar with Mary Silliman’s War, so thanks for mentioning it.

  3. I really love using the Patriot in my American Revolution course. I just use snippets (YouTube length) of different scenes. I talk about Tarleton/Tavington, I talk about battle strategies, etc… And we talk about representations of the past, and why some things are portrayed and others are not. My students love getting to watch movies (even if it’s for 5 minutes at a time), and disparaging Mel Gibson, but they also learn a lot about the narrative of history.

    • Why use THE PATRIOT? I remember my one viewing of it as being a raucous good time, but that’s because I was a guest of Carol Berkin’s Crappy Movie Club, and we were having so much fun mocking the movie that the ushers had to tell us to quiet down. I guess that for me that movie has so much wrong with it that the risks outweigh the benefits.

  4. I, too, have used Mary Silliman’s War, and it’s worked well. I also use Midwife’s Tale–nothing like Laurel Ulrich playing herself. The Midwife’s Tale website–www.dohistory.com–has a number of nifty features which can be used in conjunction with the film.

  5. I too, use short Youtube clips to help impart ideas. Some come from popular movies (I use the ending of Apoclypto with the Spanish ships in the bay moving towards the natives for example)and I will even grab an old “School House Rock” for fun as well.

  6. Fun post. Although showing the entire film might drive a class mad, I think excerpts from Terrence Malick’s *The New World*, such as John Smith’s capture and experiences in Werowocomoco and Pocahontas’s time in England, would work very well, especially as introductions to the very different cultures of the English and the tribes in the Powhatan Confederacy.

  7. I recommend a good documentary miniseries by Middlemarch Films, LIBERTY! THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Good thinking behind the writing, good use of talking heads, careful and respectful use of re-enactments. The Middlemarch folks also have done excellent documentary biographies — BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, ALEXANDER HAMILTON, and DOLLEY MADISON. (I was an advisor, so I confess my bias.)

  8. Pingback: The Writer Assumes All Responsibility « The Junto


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