Mr Gove, film can never replicate historical ‘truth’

The last few days has seen a historiographical debate about the First World War played out in the media between Michael Gove, the Conservative Education Minister, and several different historians, including Richard J. Evans and Tristram Hunt, with plenty of others weighing in (see this article in The Guardian for a good summary). One of Gove’s arguments is that the popular memory of the First World War in Britain has been warped by satirical comedies such as Blackadder Goes Forth, which suggests that people cannot tell the difference between what happens on screen and what ‘really happened’. I thought this excerpt from this article by myself might be worth considering in this debate:

“Film can be an effective, or disruptive, vehicle in shaping ideas about the past, but to articulate the past through film does not mean to recognise it the way it actually was. In Cinema 2: The Time Image, Gilles Deleuze asserts that we should not confuse the two—‘The past is not to be confused with the mental existence of recollection images which actualize it in us.’ The problem of film as historical evidence is that historical consciousness can be influenced by film (as well as popular forms of  storytelling) and there is a fear by some more traditionalist historians that ‘our’ memory will take on the conventions of cinematic representations of the past. Historical narratives provided by film often reinforce our popular memories of the past and, as discussed earlier, can be deemed ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic’ depending on their conformity to popular memory. As Raphael Samuel wrote, film ‘can establish . . . a past that never was, but which corresponds to what we would have liked it to be’.”

That is all, Mr Gove. Now should we discuss historical fidelity and Inglorious Basterds?

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