The Question of "Historical" Movies

Should we encourage the viewing of historical movies?

By GWYNNE DALRYMPLE, Associate Editor, Signs of the Times

The average Hollywood production, as most of us know, is composed of "mush, gush, and moonshine;" and practically all Seventh-day Adventists are agreed that members of our congregations, professing holiness and prepar­ing for the return of our Saviour, should not attend such performances. As a denomination we have felt that theatrical dramas, particu­larly those conducted by professional actors, are not in harmony with the spirit of Chris­tianity; that they foster worldliness and van­ity, and lead far away from God. But in spite of the fact that this is our denominational stand, and has been for many years, of late there has been much argument, and alas! some practice, to the effect that we should regard the "historical" movie as an exception to the rule.

The plea is that although ordinary movies are harmful, and certainly not recreational in the Christian sense of the word, the so-called historical films should be tolerated, and even encouraged, because they impart such valuable instruction. This instruction, it is alleged by some, could not be gained as well in any other way, since the eye is so apt a pupil, and impressions received therefrom are so much more vivid. It is maintained that to refuse admit­tance of historical movies to our institutions is to cast the ballot in favor of ignorance in­stead of information, to deny to our young people an important source of enlightenment and education.

Before we go farther, let us point out that by historical movies, we do not refer to the current news films. With rare exceptions the current news film, taken at the event, is instructive and helpful. It shows what ac­tually happened, and just how it happened. Such productions, displaying prominent char­acters in national life, or striking incidents in the affairs of the day, are certainly instructive, and there can be no objection to showing them to our young people at proper places and times in our institutions.

But the historical movie is not a news reel. It is the dramatization of an event. And what is the motive of this dramatization? It is not to instruct; it is to gain financial profits by the display. Hence the film must be made sufficiently exciting and attractive, sufficiently thrilling, to have a strong box-office appeal. Hollywood is not in business for its health, nor for the education of the thousands whom it draws to its pleasure palaces. It is in busi­ness for money. We say this, not in any hard­ness of spirit, but as a simple and reasonable statement of fact.

When the movie producers, therefore, take over any career to dramatize, whether it be the life of Louis Pasteur or of Lucrezia Borgia, the history of Daniel Boone or of the Renais­sance in Europe, facts must always give way to figures—box-office figures. The actual happenings must be "pepped up," if I may use a common expression. Popular prejudices, religious or social, must be catered to, even at the expense of truth. Hollywood must tell a good story, regardless of what actually occurred. The historical movie is never historical. It is mythical. The setting is often devised at huge expense, and with the most painstaking regard for certain features of truth and his­toricity. But the action is based on what will appeal to and thrill the audience. The observer goes away feeling that he has learned a great deal about what actually happened; as a matter of fact, he goes away knowing too many things that aren't so. The producers have put their own interpretation upon the happenings; fictitious characters have been freely inserted, and real characters have been withdrawn; the whole is a blend of the factual and the unreal in such a measure as to deceive any except those well versed in the real history of the period and of the character portrayed.

I am not protesting against the use of ficti­tious characters. In stories for children we often insert incidents which did not actually occur. For instance, in our old Seventh-day Adventist book for young people, "Choice Readings for the Home Circle," some of the incidents are fictitious in the sense that they did not actually occur, though not in the sense that they are untrue to life; and the dialogues have certainly been invented by the respective authors. But I am protesting against bring­ing the theater into our schools, sanitariums, and other institutions, on the ground that his­torical films are true to life, and therefore educational. They are not.

Awhile back there came from Hollywood a widely advertised and widely distributed film, featuring a prominent "star," and dealing with the life of the famous French scientist, Pasteur. Many people assumed that this film gave an accurate reproduction—at least as accurate a reproduction as is possible after this lapse of time—of the life history of the scientist in question. But did it?

For an answer let us turn to the magazine Hygeia, the leading popular medical journal in the United States, where we find an editorial review of this film in the issue of March, 1936. We quote a few lines which relate to the issue in question:

"Of course it is necessary in a drama to have a hero and a villain. In creating a villain, . . . the dramatist had to select the physicians-who opposed the investigator. They are personified in a mythical Doctor Charbonnet. . . As the picture proceeds, those familiar with the de­tails of the life of Pasteur will realize that a number of liberties have been taken. Thus he is presented with a handsome blond daugh­ter, who marries one of his assistants. When she is about to give birth to a child, the great Pasteur is caused to sign a document renounc­ing his discoveries. This is purely a figment of the imagination of the scenario writer. Later. Pasteur instructs Doctor Charbonnet how to observe asepsis in the delivery of the child, also wholly imaginary."

The editorial then goes on to cite further instances of the film writer's imagination, quite contrary to the actual facts of the case.

In the face of this, can we take the attitude that such a production is so highly instruc­tional that it should be shown in our institu­tions? Now, though I have not seen this film myself, I am willing to grant that it represents an intensely interesting story, admirably told. But it is not history, and it is not educational.

Let us consider another instance. A leading photoplay dealt with the lives of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth of England. Though I have not personally seen this film, I was in­terested to notice the comments offered thereon by a dramatic critic in one of this country's leading weeklies. The critic devotes consider­able space to the historical inaccuracies of the film. He points out that the real issue between Mary and Elizabeth was the issue of religion. Elizabeth, a Protestant queen, was never safe while Mary, a Catholic claimant, lived. But the film did not show this. Instead, a love interest had to be manufactured to hold the interest of the audience. The critic comments: "Picture makes Mary the age, cuteness, nobil­ity, and litheness of Hepburn; has a sexy, in­glorious, villainous Elizabeth visit her in prison, kill her directly." With all this dis­tortion of fact in the interest of audience ap­peal, how can we regard such productions as historical and educational, as helpful and bene­ficial to our young people?

In criticizing historical movies, we should not complain because they do not adequately cover every little happening and every minor detail. That would be impossible. I am merely pointing out that the most astonishing liberties are taken with facts, in order to obtain a more thrilling, more popular story. To assume that education can come from such distortions, is simple folly. Whether dramatization by Holly­wood actors and actresses is at all helpful for our young people—or our older ones—to wit­ness, is another question, which I do not pro­pose to discuss here.

From my study of the so-called historical films, I can only say that they are misleading rather than educational. They do not inform; they misinform. The spectator feels that he has learned a great deal. But much of what he has learned is false, not true; though he thinks that it is true. As an educational fac­tor far our youth, therefore, the value of the historical film is not zero, but considerably less than zero.


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By GWYNNE DALRYMPLE, Associate Editor, Signs of the Times

August 1937

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