In Defense of Hollywood
Robert Brent Toplin
History has been fodder for cinema from the silent era to the blockbuster present, a fact that has seldom pleased historians themselves. As pundits increasingly ponder "how Hollywood fails history," Robert Toplin counters with a provocative alternative approach to this enduring debate over the portrayal of history in film.
Toplin focuses on movies released over the past sixteen years—during which twelve historical films won the Oscar for Best Picture—and argues that critics often fail to recognize the unique ways that fictional films communicate important ideas about the past. A trenchant extension of his highly regarded History by Hollywood, Toplin's new work establishes commonsense ground rules for improving critical analysis in this area. Citing films like Gladiator and Braveheart, Gandhi and Nixon, he underscores the pressures placed on filmmakers to simplify and alter historical fact to conform to the demands of an extraordinarily expensive mass medium.
“A timely and richly provocative book that provides public historians much food for thought in an age when movies are rapidly becoming the dominant medium by which we talk to ourselves about our present and our past.”
“A balanced analysis of what is both deceptive and provocative in Hollywood-made history.”
—Register of the Kentucky Historical SocietySee all reviews...
“Toplin’s fresh take on an often derided or dismissed genre makes a compelling case for the importance and influence of historical films.”
“This is not another book by an academic lashing out at Hollywood for its chronic inability to get it right when dealing with the historical record. The author, a film-savvy history professor who moonlights as a commentator on the History Channel, understands the drawbacks in dealing with factual material inherent in any dramatic form. In addition to adding some common sense to discussions of historical films, Toplin acts as a mediator between historians and film scholars.”
—Washington Post Book World
“Writing in a jargon-free and very accessible style, Toplin argues that Hollywood productions, particularly in the last thirty years, have been able to bring richly detailed impressions of past eras to a much wider public than have conventional history books. This will interest historians, film critics, and readers who enjoy catching Hollywood out. ”
“Toplin points out that Hollywood’s treatment of the past has been a favorite target of popular punditry: 'Why can't moviemakers portray the truth?' goes the familiar wail. In addition, such complaints have often been mired in the warring camps of film studies and traditional history—both of which Toplin views as myopic, pinched, and riven by ideology. Toplin argues for a more balanced approach in which ‘cinematic’ history is seen as a medium that can communicate important ideas about the past in ways traditional text-driven methods cannot. . . . With luck, this ground-breaking work will find a receptive academic audience, but it is clearly aimed at a movie-loving public as well.”
—History: Reviews of New Books
“Without question most Americans today learn, or mislearn, history by watching movies. Toplin brilliantly grapples with the advantages and dilemmas brought about by this stark fact in a well-written, sober-minded analysis of the enduring power of cinematic history.”
—Douglas Brinkley, author of American Heritage History of the United States
“Toplin’s good common sense promotes a salutary (and long overdue) demystification of Hollywood-made history.”
—Mark C. Carnes, editor of Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies
“A new and major contribution to the study of film and history.”
—Peter C. Rollins, editor-in-chief of Film & History
“An excellent, well-written, clearly argued, and important book.”
—Jeanine Basinger, author of American Cinema: One Hundred Years of FilmmakingSee fewer reviews...
Toplin demonstrates how a historical epic like Glory may contain “creative adjustments” that worry historians but shows how its distortions communicate broader and deeper truths about the Civil War experiences of African Americans—just as Saving Private Ryan presented little factual detail about World War II and yet effectively conveyed the experience of combat. He also shows how other films—such as Mississippi Burning, Amistad, and The Hurricane—contain so many elements of fictional excess and oversimplification that they deserve the criticism they receive.
Toplin deliberately steers a middle course between tradition-minded critics who castigate films for artistic liberties and cinema scholars wedded to pure aesthetics. He also draws upon his own experiences in film production and takes direct aim at recent writing about film dominated by jargonistic theory and empty rhetoric. He urges film studies scholars to move beyond their preoccupation with formal aesthetics and recognize that, in historical films, content does matter.
In engaging prose that will appeal to any moviegoer, Reel History helps build bridges between defenders and detractors of history-by-Hollywood and enlarges our understanding of film as a communicator of truths about the human condition.