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The Columbia Companion to American History on Film

The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past

Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 696
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    The Columbia Companion to American History on Film
    Book Description:

    American history has always been an irresistible source of inspiration for filmmakers, and today, for good or ill, most Americans'sense of the past likely comes more from Hollywood than from the works of historians. In important films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Roots (1977), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Saving Private Ryan (1998), how much is entertainment and how much is rooted in historical fact? In The Columbia Companion to American History on Film, more than seventy scholars consider the gap between history and Hollywood. They examine how filmmakers have presented and interpreted the most important events, topics, eras, and figures in the American past, often comparing the film versions of events with the interpretations of the best historians who have explored the topic.

    Divided into eight broad categories -- Eras; Wars and Other Major Events; Notable People; Groups; Institutions and Movements; Places; Themes and Topics; and Myths and Heroes -- the volume features extensive cross-references, a filmography (of discussed and relevant films), notes, and a bibliography of selected historical works on each subject. The Columbia Companion to American History on Film is also an important resource for teachers, with extensive information for research or for course development appropriate for both high school and college students.

    Though each essay reflects the unique body of film and print works covering the subject at hand, every essay addresses several fundamental questions:

    • What are the key films on this topic?

    • What sources did the filmmaker use, and how did the film deviate (or remain true to) its sources?

    • How have film interpretations of a particular historical topic changed, and what sorts of factors -- technological, social, political, historiographical -- have affected their evolution?

    • Have filmmakers altered the historical record with a view to enhancing drama or to enhance the "truth" of their putative message?

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50839-1
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-ix)
    (pp. xi-xxii)

    Film and television define our perceptions of our time and of historical experience. In 1973, John Harrington warned about the power of visual media to shape the contemporary sensibility, estimating that “by the time a person is fourteen, he will witness 18,000 murders on the screen. He will also see 350,000 commercials. By the time he is eighteen, he will stockpile nearly 17,000 hours of viewing experience and will watch at least twenty movies for every book he reads. Eventually, the viewing experience will absorb ten years of his life” (v). Nearly thirty years later, psychologists Robert Kubey and Mihaly...

  5. I. Eras

    • The Puritan Era and the Puritan Mind
      (pp. 3-9)

      The Puritans who organized the 1630 Great Migration to Boston—and the Pilgrim Separatists who, a few years earlier, had settled in Plymouth, twenty miles south—sought protection from the religious harassment they experienced in England and the Netherlands. Neither group had much use for principles that would later be thought especially “American”: religious toleration, individualism, separation of church and state. On the contrary, as their sobriquet implied, they separated themselves to the wilds of Massachusetts in order to purify their religious practice. In exile they sought to make that practice more, rather than less, strict. In conformity with biblical...

    • The 1890s
      (pp. 10-14)

      The final decade of the nineteenth century would prove conclusive in America’s transition from the rural and agrarian simplicity of the early republic to the urban and industrial complexity of the twentieth-century superpower. A period of rapid changes, major dislocations, and extreme tensions, the 1890s were subsumed in the American cultural consciousness as the last flowering of an innocent age. The American sobriquet “the Gay Nineties,” though created by the same reaction against Victorian mores that named it le fin de siècel abroad, was soon transmuted into a wistful evocation of a lost time of simpler pleasures by the new...

    • The 1920s
      (pp. 15-21)

      The decade of the 1920s was both text and context for American movies. The nation and the film industry had returned home from World War I tested and strengthened. Immediately, however, both faced new tensions, challenges, and opportunities. A new conservatism was replacing progressive politics, a burgeoning industrial growth was signaling an unparalleled prosperity, and new technologies were changing the face of society and communications. Amid this welter of confusion and change, the American cinema, like the nation at large, was ready to take its first great strides from an awkward adolescence toward a global maturity.

      There were obstacles along...

    • The 1930s
      (pp. 22-28)

      The stock market crash of October 29, 1929, “Black Tuesday,” heralded the onset of the Great Depression, which lasted for most of a decade and influenced social and governmental policies for the rest of the century. Nationwide, unemployment rose to 25 percent, while in the industrial cities of Cleveland and Toledo it climbed to 50 and 80 percent, respectively. The gross national product fell from $104 billion in 1929 to $76.4 billion in 1932, a 25 percent decline. In human terms, the Depression spelled disaster for millions, with soup kitchens and street-corner apple sellers becoming commonplace. “Families” writes historian Arthur...

    • The 1960s
      (pp. 29-36)

      The 1960s—an era of social upheaval and youthful rebellion—has become a battleground in America’s collective memory, and Hollywood films produced during that dynamic decade or with themes from that era reflect the struggle to interpret what was once optimistically called the Age of Aquarius. Historians and filmmakers are divided; interpretations of events such as Vietnam, civil rights, feminism, and the campus wars often turn on an individual’s political orientation at the time. Todd Gitlin, a former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) activist, and now a sociologist and historian, is correct when he observes, “Fantasy revolutions, withdrawals, media-driven...

    • The 1970s
      (pp. 37-41)

      The 1970s was a turbulent time, and it has been rightly labeled the “Media Decade”: The Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the election of Jimmy Carter, the growing power of the antinuclear movement, and the crisis in Iran were all media events in the sense that the public perception of these events was shaped by the reports of network television news. The quest for higher ratings was often a very strong motivating factor behind television’s delineation of events.

      The 1970s also saw the emergence of the first generation of children who grew up on television. When television began broadcasting in...

    • The 1980s
      (pp. 42-46)

      It is fitting that the central figure of 1980s social history and the trendsetter for 1980s film representations of that history is Ronald Reagan, a former film actor who repeatedly employed film images and references to advance his historical goals. The major social, political, and historical issues of the 1980s—winning the Vietnam War ten years after the fact, the New Patriotism, saber-rattling détente with Russia’s “evil empire,” renewed fears of nuclear holocaust, the federal deficit, the self-indulgent Yuppie lifestyle, a “neo-racism” against Asians much different from that of the World War II era—were in many respects both inspired...

  6. II. Wars and Other Major Events

    • The American Revolution
      (pp. 49-57)

      Gordon Wood opens The Radicalism of the American Revolution by noting, “We Americans like to think of our revolution as not being radical; indeed, most of the time we consider it downright conservative.” The names of prominent early American personae and the events in which they participated fail to conjure up images we typically associate with the term revolution: “We cannot quite conceive of revolutionaries in powdered hair and knee breeches. The American revolutionaries seem to belong in drawing rooms or legislative halls, not in cellars or in the streets. They made speeches, not bombs, they wrote learned pamphlets, not...

    • The Civil War and Reconstruction
      (pp. 58-68)

      The people and events of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras long have captured the American imagination, but nowhere more so than in the movies. As Bruce Chadwick points out in The Reel Civil War, more than seven hundred Hollywood productions have portrayed Americans’ attempts to define the future of the nation between 1861 and 1877, more than any other period in the nation’s history. Civil War and Reconstruction films have had mixed success in making money at the box office. But whatever their financial fate, movies that depict the Civil War and the Reconstruction era have played major roles...

    • The Cold War
      (pp. 69-80)

      The Cold War was the name given to the decades-long political and economic conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. It began in the wake of World War II as the two superpowers sought to determine the political and economic futures of the European nations devastated by the war, and it continued until the political disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Walter Lippman’s The Cold War (1947), an analysis of American foreign policy, gave a name to the escalating hostilities between the Soviet Union, together with its Eastern European satellite states, and the United States, in alliance...

    • The Korean War
      (pp. 81-85)

      As Clay Blair explains in his appropriately entitled The Forgotten War (1987), the American public never regarded the Korean War (1950–53) as a heroic crusade. An advisor to President Harry S. Truman familiar with events in Korea referred to it as a “nasty little war” (Halberstam, 62). From the moment that the North Korean forces crossed the thirty-eighth parallel into the Republic of South Korea on June 25, 1950, the progress of the fighting gave rise to misgivings about the necessity of the war (see Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War), the strategic goals to be achieved (see...

    • The Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War
      (pp. 86-92)

      Two of the most prominent and controversial of America’s smaller military conflicts remain the war with Mexico (1846–48) and the war with Spain (1898). Their ramifications still reverberate more than a century later as immigration to the United States and trade alliances transform the complexion of U.S.–Latin American relations.

      Effective in its execution, yet intensely ambiguous for national consciousness, the American conflict with Mexico remains a controversial episode in our military and political history. Though now considered a “forgotten war,” it was a defining moment which forged new identities for both the United States and Mexico. For America,...

    • The Vietnam War
      (pp. 93-102)

      The Vietnam war pitted the United States and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) against the National Liberation Front (also known as the Vietcong) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) in a struggle for control of South Vietnam, which in 1954 had been partitioned as a separate political entity by the Geneva Accords. The conflict was viewed by U.S. policymakers as a “test case” of American institutions and a demonstration of American resolve in the global fight against international communist expansion. SEATO allies agreed: Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and South Korea sent troops, while the Philippines provided civilian...

    • Westward Expansion and the Indian Wars
      (pp. 103-108)

      White America’s conquest of Native Americans on the plains and in the Southwest is an integral and tragic part of the settlement of the American West. Until the 1980s it had been, in many respects, an overlooked chapter in American history, often inaccurately told when recounted at all. Hollywood’s treatment of the North American Indian Wars after the Civil War, however, reveals the complex interplay between academic and popular history, the emergence in the popular mind of the director as authoritative storyteller of the past, and the steadily expanding role of television—first in helping to instill stereotypes, and then...

    • World War I
      (pp. 109-115)

      World War I—in its own time called “The Great War”—may have been the most important event of the early twentieth century; it decimated a lost generation and silenced the optimistic voices of the Victorian era. The sheer numbers are staggering. The Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, and, in the last two years of the war, the United States) suffered 2.3 million battle deaths. On the side of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary in alliance with the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria), often-victorious armies suffered 2.7 million battle deaths between 1914 and November 1918, when hostilities terminated. Along the...

    • World War II: Documentaries
      (pp. 116-124)

      World War II, far more than its predecessor (see “World War I”), was a worldwide conflagration that changed the lives of all Americans: millions of youths were drafted into the armed forces; family men who remained at home were asked to perform homeland service and to observe rationing restrictions on consumer items such as meat, gasoline, and rubber; children zealously collected scrap metal and rubber for the war effort; and women—both married and single—joined a work force that had previously shunned their talents. (Many a Rosie left her ironing board and became a riveter!) Minorities were affected in...

    • World War II: Feature Films
      (pp. 125-136)

      Without question, World War II—the greatest social, political, and economic upheaval of the twentieth century—completely altered the life of every American. From 1941 to 1945, workers suddenly found high-paying jobs at plants making airplanes in California, tanks in Wisconsin, or rifles in Massachusetts, creating unprecedented demographic shifts as thousands of once-impoverished rural workers moved to cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago, where defense jobs beckoned. African Americans, victims of Jim Crow prejudices in the southern states, joined that exodus. Women of all ages were quickly recruited to work in those assembly plants, too, and a new sobriquet,...

  7. III. Notable People

    • The Antebellum Frontier Hero
      (pp. 139-147)

      Hollywood’s antebellum hero owes an incalculable debt to James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), creator of the archetypal American frontier hero of the trans-Appalachian West. Inspired by Daniel Boone, Cooper created a solitary, taciturn hero, more comfortable in the wilderness than in an advancing, civilized society. This peculiarly American Adam was “an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant, self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources” (Lewis, 5). Slow to anger, he overcame insurmountable...

    • Christopher Columbus
      (pp. 148-152)

      In 1492, according to a line in Winifred Stoner’s memorable poem “The History of the United States” (1919), Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered a new world. Or, at least, so children learned, generation in and out, from their elementary primers and public school teachers. Whatever the relation between this particular story of adventure and real history, pupils were engaged in something weightier than mere social studies. They were mastering a myth and, at the same time, learning to be Americans. They were engaged in one of the fundamental and characteristic rituals of sharing a common culture.

      Much of...

    • The Founding Fathers
      (pp. 153-160)

      Although Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal” certainly seems “self-evident” today, it was at the time a novel—even radical—assertion. Jefferson’s statement is an expression of the political and philosophical world that we have come to call “modern,” emerging between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and propelled by an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. Thinkers such as Jefferson, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau questioned a social order dominated by religious orthodoxy and arbitrary political authority and theorized about the origin of society and the “natural rights” of all individuals. The collective project of...

    • Indian Leaders
      (pp. 161-168)

      The popular conception of the “Indian chief” remains a simplified caricature. Derived from dime novels, sensational journalism, and B movies, popularized Indian chiefs are, following the familiar Western model of political and military hierarchy, the sole and ultimate rulers of their various tribes, their status signaled by wearing the headdress with the most feathers. The caricature of the chief is perpetuated at colleges around the country; for example, at the University of Illinois, home of the “Fighting Illini,” an undergraduate poses each year as “The Chief,” dressed in fringed buckskin and flowing headdress, responsible for performing an inspiring dance at...

    • The Kennedys
      (pp. 169-174)

      Few families loom larger in the American popular imagination than the Kennedys, about whom historians have written prolifically. In The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, Doris Kearns Goodwin offers a Kennedy family history from its arrival in the United States as Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century to the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) on November 22, 1963. Like many others of the “Second American Revolution,” she writes, the Kennedys “had fashioned an image of themselves as an invigorating new breed of men, risen out of the blend of a half-dozen lesser breeds” (810–811). The Kennedy story is the...

    • Abraham Lincoln
      (pp. 175-179)

      Since his assassination, as in his lifetime, Abraham Lincoln has fascinated Americans. For the generation of scholars and writers after the Civil War, Lincoln was an unavoidable subject. Many writers and historians since then have explored well the enduring nature of Lincoln’s legacy and his impact on the succeeding generations of thinkers and politicians, as well as of average Americans. It was Lincoln who gave shape and energy to America’s vision of itself as the hope of humankind for representative government and as proof of the resilience of a democratic society. For more than a century, when we think of...

    • Richard Nixon
      (pp. 180-183)

      When Richard Milhous Nixon (1913–1994), thirty-seventh president of the United States, prepared to resign in disgrace as a result of the Watergate affair, a scandal involving abuses of power by the president and his aides, his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, told Nixon that history would treat him kindly. Nixon responded that would depend on who wrote the history. He might have added that it would also depend on who made the films.

      Nixon’s career was filled with spectacular victories and defeats. From modest beginnings—he was the son of a failed California grocer—Nixon enjoyed a rapid political...

    • Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt
      (pp. 184-190)

      Probably no other modern president of the United States has been as represented in fictional film and documentaries as the thirty-second, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945). FDR’s iconographic image, distinctive voice or references to him as the president, the New Deal’s NRA (National Recovery Administration) and WPA (Works Progress Administration), the wartime Allied leadership, and so on appear in an extraordinary number of films made during or representing the period from 1933 to 1945—encompassing both the horrific Depression and the monumental struggle to defend democracy during World War II. Though recent presidents have dominated the mass media while in...

    • Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig
      (pp. 191-195)

      Sportswriters have never been accused of trying to write history. Their time-bound daily columns, reports, and features have been largely snapshots or the game-by-game record of a season. But contained within this journalistic process and emanating from it are the mythmaking and legend formulation central to American sports, especially professional baseball. The accumulation of personal records of performance and the detailing of special exploits or events allow for the emergence of myth and legend. In baseball, well into the modern era, sportswriters served as reporters, official scorers, and record keepers. The term “scribe” fit them perfectly.

      With the advent of...

    • Harry S. Truman
      (pp. 196-197)

      Harry S. Truman’s historical stock stands high in the new millennium. He is routinely listed among the “great” or “near great” presidents in America’s past, and, even thirty years after his death and a half century after his presidency (1945–52), he exerts a powerful attraction on historians, political experts, and ordinary Americans alike. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography Truman (1989) was a surprise best-seller, and Truman’s autobiography Memoirs (1955–56) won a large popular readership, as have other books about Truman such as Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking (1974). Scholarly work about Truman is considerable and ranges from the...

    • George Washington
      (pp. 198-204)

      “Be courteous to all, intimate with few.” George Washington gave those words of advice to his nephew, but they can also easily be applied to the relationship our first president has had with the American people. Almost every citizen knows Washington as the mythic father of our nation, but very few have a notion of what the man was really like. Americans commonly know Washington as the tenacious military leader whose defensive strategies helped the fledgling nation win independence. During his presidency (1789–97), Washington kept the nation out of war, created our cabinet and currency, and, perhaps more than...

  8. IV. Groups

    • African Americans After World War II
      (pp. 207-217)

      Although slavery ended with the Civil War, progress toward racial equality was slow, especially because of the so-called Jim Crow laws enacted to maintain white supremacy (see “The South”). African Americans made some progress over the eighty years following the Civil War, but it took the total-war environment of World War II—“requiring black assistance, against an enemy that led U.S. elites to stress their more egalitarian principles, reinforced by internal pressures to live up to those principles” (Klinkner, 73)—to set in motion major changes in society.

      However, the process was still a slow and difficult one. The milestones...

    • Arab Americans
      (pp. 218-224)

      As of 2002, there were 3.5 million Arab Americans in the United States. Four in five were born in the country, and the vast majority—75 percent—were Christians. Arabs have been in America since at least 1854, when Antonius Bishallany, a Syrian, went to study in New York. From the turn of the nineteenth century through the early 1920s, there followed successive waves of immigrants—between five thousand and eight thousand annually. Most of them came from Mount Lebanon and Greater Syria. Contributing to a growing America were Eastern Orthodox, Maronite, and Melkite Christians, as well as some Muslims...

    • Asian Americans
      (pp. 225-233)

      In 1587 the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Esperanza (Our Lady of Hope) landed in California, bringing Filipino crewmembers who acted as scouts for the landing party. Almost two centuries later, in the mid-1700s—well before the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence—other Filipino sailors, escaping the brutal conditions of conscripted labor on Spanish ships, arrived on the shores of Louisiana, where they founded coastal fishing villages. They were the first Asians known to have come to North America and stayed.

      In the next century, Chinese laborers arrived in California, marking the first large-scale wave of Asian immigration....

    • Catholic Americans
      (pp. 234-240)

      As their depiction in movies demonstrates, no other religious minority in America has been as reviled and misunderstood, and then as accepted and admired, as Catholics. The first Europeans to settle in America were Roman Catholics, but North American anti-Catholicism is so deeply rooted that very few Americans realize that Catholics predate Protestants in the New World. In part, the bitter conflict between the British in the Americas and the rival Spanish and French colonial empires may account for this lingering antipathy. The reformation of the Catholic Church in England (1530) under Henry VIII, however, led to an abiding mistrust...

    • Children and Teenagers in the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 241-248)

      The twentieth century was fascinated with young people. Seen variously as victims, villains, and the hope of the future, children and teenagers in the United States have been objects of care and concern in both the popular consciousness and academic studies. No longer viewed as miniature grownups or apprentice adults, they have come to be seen—and to see themselves—as distinctive groups with their own subculture and customs. Their portrayal in films throughout the century has reflected changing perceptions and concerns in the society as a whole.

      After 1900, children and teenagers increasingly became subjects of academic study. Beginning...

    • Irish Americans
      (pp. 249-255)

      The Irish may not have discovered America, despite legends of St. Brendan’s voyage to the New World or the Galway sailor said to be among Christopher Columbus’s crew, but they have made significant contributions to American culture. The Irish first came to colonial America as indentured servants, soldiers, and sailors; thousands of these were Irish Presbyterian immigrants whose labor and skills were needed from New England to Carolina. During America’s antebellum era, 200,000 Irish Catholics entered the country, filling many roles both humble and honored in the national pageant. The Irish were the first impoverished group to leave Europe in...

    • Italian Americans
      (pp. 256-262)

      Most of the Italians who arrived in the United States during the Great Immigration (1880–1920) were peasants who left southern Italy only to exchange rural for urban poverty. Given the corruption of the padrone system both in Italy and in urban America with its ethnic labor contractors, the family was considered the only functioning institution; as a result, most Italian immigrants were alienated from both the Italian language and Italy and then from English and America—a double exile. Even the Catholic Church, a potential facilitator of the assimilation process, was closed to Italians, for the American Catholic Church...

    • Jewish Americans
      (pp. 263-268)

      There were Jews in America long before the creation of the United States. As Howard Sachar points out in A History of the Jews in America, not only were there Jewish settlers arriving in New Amsterdam as early as 1654, but the crew of Christopher Columbus also almost assuredly included marranos (Jews who hid their religion to escape the Spanish Inquisition) and conversos (Jews who converted during the Inquisition). Jewish people have made a wide variety of contributions to American life and culture, including the blue jeans devised by Levi Strauss (1829–1902), the polio vaccine formulated by Dr. Jonas...

    • Mexican Americans
      (pp. 269-276)

      Before the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, an assemblage of diverse indigenous societies developed alongside one another in what is now considered North America. Spain saw America as a land to be colonized, and, after conquering the Aztecs, Spanish forces allied with some Native American societies and began establishing New Spain. Spanish-sponsored explorations sought out fabled riches and new settlement locations in what is now the southwestern United States, but in the process they encountered and battled more Native American tribes, including the Apache and Pueblo peoples. Over the next three centuries, although the Spanish throne ruled the land...

    • Native Americans
      (pp. 277-287)

      In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which has provided grist for study and argument ever since. In it he states, “Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. . . . In the case of most nations . . . development has occurred in a limited area; and if the nation has expanded, it has met other growing people whom it has conquered. But in the case of the United States we have a different...

    • Radicals and Radicalism
      (pp. 288-296)

      Fears and concerns about radicalism have been a familiar theme in U.S. history. Indeed, David Caute writes, “The great fear, like the threat of upheaval and expropriation that inspires it, has been a recurrent phenomenon in the history of the bourgeoisie since the French Revolution” (17). The United States is not the only nation to have suffered from (and reacted to) anxiety about radicals in its population: England, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain are a few of the other countries that have experienced similar “fears.”

      In the United States, fear of leftist radicalism, most particularly militant labor, anarchism, and communism,...

    • Robber Barons, Media Moguls, and Power Elites
      (pp. 297-302)

      In post–Civil War America, a new class of mythic character arose in American culture. Described as “fat cats,” “robber barons,” “titans,” “tycoons,” or “plutocrats,” these business magnates and Wall Street manipulators, Earl Latham writes, were “attacked and defended with violent passion by the struggling partisans of industrialism and of social reform” (v). The “robber barons” of the Gilded Age included J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Jay Gould. The foundations of their fortunes were railroads, steel, oil, and banking. These powerful men sometimes became household names: Rockefeller, for instance, “was the most famous American...

    • Women from the Colonial Era to 1900
      (pp. 303-309)

      Early in John Ford’s classic 1939 film Drums Along the Mohawk, Gilbert Martin (Henry Fonda) tries to prevent his recently transplanted wife Magdalena (Claudette Colbert) from helping on their frontier farm. When Gilbert asserts that haying is “no job for a woman,” she retorts, “Now there you go. Just because a woman is raised in a town she has to be frail. I’m not. I’m strong. You said yourself you couldn’t have done without me.” As proof, Magdalena goes on to hay, help settlers flee from enemy Indians, locate her husband after battles, nurse him, give birth during a war,...

    • Women in the Twentieth Century
      (pp. 310-316)

      The history of twentieth-century American women is inextricably tied to the history of men and children. As family members, women have lived their lives as part of a larger unit—first as daughters and then as wives and mothers. Only in the last third of this century have large numbers of American women lived alone or in relationships without marriage and worked outside of the home in various occupations and professions. Hollywood movies have always included women in both starring and supporting roles, but always within clearly defined images: as the virginal Mary, such as Mary Pickford in the silent...

  9. V. Institutions and Movements

    • Baseball
      (pp. 319-325)

      Popular legend, repeated in textbooks until very recently, has it that the game of baseball sprang, Athena-like, from Abner Doubleday’s thoughtful brow somewhere in the vicinity of Cooperstown, New York, in the spring of 1839. Doubleday (1819–1893) was a man of many accomplishments, to be sure: a capable Union officer, he fought in several major Civil War battles, including Second Manassas and Gettysburg; a capable capitalist, he founded the first cable-car company in San Francisco. But even Doubleday claimed credit, and then quietly, only for codifying and regularizing the rules of a game that had been developing over the...

    • City and State Government
      (pp. 326-330)

      Hollywood’s portrayal of city and state government and politics has tended to reflect its portrayal of American government and politics generally as corrupt, self-interested, and indifferent to the common good, though the subnational levels lack the sinister, omniscient, conspiratorial quality that is often ascribed to the much larger and more powerful national government in films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Parallax View (1974), and JFK (1991).

      State and local governments have not widely figured as a central subject of urban films (see, for example, 8 Mile, 2002), though the city police (Dead...

    • Civil Rights
      (pp. 331-343)

      The modern American civil rights movement is arguably one of the most important developments of the twentieth century. Rooted in the abolitionist movement and the postemancipation efforts of the Reconstruction era (1865–77), and nurtured by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) legal campaign against racial segregation and discrimination, the movement evolved into a sweeping struggle for social justice and human dignity. By prodding the nation to live up to the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, civil rights activists redefined the...

    • Congress
      (pp. 344-351)

      “That’s right, I don’t want to talk about it,” says the Thunder Bay Inn bartender (Murray Hamilton), drying glasses and smoking nervously, in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959). The last person he wants to talk to about the night Barney Quill was shot is wily defense attorney Paul Biegler (James Stewart), cornering him behind the bar. But two years earlier Hamilton was more than happy to talk to Stewart, this time playing Charles Lindbergh, when the two paired off as ragamuffin stunt pilots in Billy Wilder’s The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). Hamilton, as Bud Gurney, confides in...

    • The Family
      (pp. 352-362)

      Many of our most vivid images of families in the past come from the movies. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), which depicts the rugged life of farm families in New York’s Mohawk Valley during the era of the American Revolution, helps us visualize family life on the colonial frontier. Similarly, Little Women (1933, 1994), the story of a family’s struggles during the Civil War, brings to life the trials and the emotional sensibilities of the mid-nineteenth-century middle-class family. In much the same way, Life with Father (1947), which shows a benevolent despot trying to maintain order in his 1880s New...

    • Football
      (pp. 363-373)

      Americans share a collective national obsession with sports. Schoolchildren are encouraged to play sports at an early age, millions of Americans attend sporting events or watch them on television, and the language of sports has permeated daily discourse. Although many different sports claim large and enthusiastic followings, Bob Oates has suggested that “football has evolved into America’s most widely accepted major league pastime: first in the polls, first in the ratings” (11). By deftly balancing physical competition, teamwork, and sophisticated strategy, football has become more than a sport; it has become an integral part of our culture.

      Despite football’s obvious...

    • Journalism and the Media
      (pp. 374-382)

      Early in this nation’s history, print materials—broadsides, newspapers, and magazines—were the major medium of communication and entertainment. By the 1930s, motion pictures had become a principal mass medium. During the 1940s radio dominated American media culture, providing continuous news reports and live broadcasts from the various war fronts. At the beginning of the 1960s, television had become the most pervasive mass medium the world had ever seen. Many believe that the Internet will one day replace television. Although particular media have waxed and waned in importance in the last century, the social and economic importance of mass communication...

    • The Labor Movement and the Working Class
      (pp. 383-391)

      The history of organized labor in the United States dates back to the 1790s, when groups of Philadelphia carpenters—and a few years later, shoemakers—banded together and went on strike for better wages. The early nineteenth century saw a significant growth in unions, including some organizations that cut across craft lines and others that attempted to bring together groups from different towns and cities. Business leaders and elected officials frowned upon the idea of organized labor, and numerous trials for conspiracy resulted, seriously undermining the attempts of the unions to consolidate their gains. After the Civil War, labor tried...

    • Militias and Extremist Political Movements
      (pp. 392-397)

      The Constitution of the United States allows for the maintenance of armed militias and—arguably—invests the citizenry with an individual right to keep and bear arms. Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence asserts that citizens have the right to rebel against oppressive tyranny. Indeed, the United States has a long tradition of people banding into armed groups to promote political and ideological aims, beginning with the American Revolution, and continuing through movements as diverse as the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War, the Black Panthers in the 1960s, and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s. Indeed, the 1990s...

    • The Political Machine
      (pp. 398-401)

      At least since Lincoln Steffens’s muckraking exposé The Shame of the Cities (1904), the urban political machine has been viewed with suspicion and derision. Their critics labeled the men who led such machines in cities across the nation “bosses.” Progressive reformers regarded these men not as sophisticated leaders but as personally, politically, and financially corrupt defilers of an American tradition of popular government and public service. Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Age of Reform (1955) suggested that this moralistic approach stemmed in part from the inability of many Americans to cope with the teeming, impersonal, and ethnic vibrancy of...

    • The Presidency After World War II
      (pp. 402-408)

      The American presidency, like the United States itself, emerged from World War II with enormous powers accumulated during the struggle to defeat fascism. Confronted by the Iron Curtain and Cold War, the chief executive office maintained its wartime activism. From 1945 until the twentyfirst century, challenges abroad justified retention of executive prerogatives: the collision with Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe, Chinese adventurism in Korea, Vietnamese militarism in Southeast Asia, and the war on international terrorism that followed the September 11, 2001, disaster at the World Trade Center.

      Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, deplored these developments in a...

    • Private Schools
      (pp. 409-412)

      Private or independent schools have played an important role in American education from colonial times into the twenty-first century. Promoting serious scholarship along with a commitment to service, independent schools such as Groton and Exeter have produced leaders in business, education, and public service, including presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and George H. W. Bush. However, advocates of public education sometimes perceive private, or independent, schools as elitist institutions, perpetuating class divisions within an egalitarian society. A more balanced view is provided by Lawrence A. Cremin, who, in his multivolume history of American education, asserts that private nonsectarian...

    • Public High Schools
      (pp. 413-418)

      Since the days when Horace Mann served as Massachusetts Commissioner of Education in the mid-nineteenth century, Americans have celebrated public schooling as the solution for democracy’s discontents. Mann insisted that public investment in education would create wealth and foster democratic citizenship in the young republic. These principles resonated with champions of education throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In his multivolume history of American education, Lawrence A. Cremin argues that America has tried to define itself through the educational process. And, according to Cremin, the central purpose assigned to education has contributed to the political conflict over what should be...

  10. VI. Places

    • The Midwest
      (pp. 421-429)

      On the night of December 5, 1854, ten idealistic young men camped out in a crude log cabin in central territorial Kansas. After noting “the beautiful conformation of the land,” they drew up the Articles of Association for the town of Topeka. A few hours later, lightning struck the cabin and burned it to the ground. Like a slap on the backside of a newborn baby, lightning thus christened the birth of Kansas and the genesis of what came to be called the “Middle West.” It is perhaps no less a quirk of circumstances that three decades later it was...

    • The “New” West and the New Western
      (pp. 430-436)

      Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 essay “The Frontier in American History” shaped the view of generations of academicians, who expanded on and revised Turner’s ideas about the nature of American exceptionalism. Turner saw many of the nation’s best characteristics—such as democracy, individualism, and opportunity—as arising out of America’s longstanding encounter with the frontier. In 1950 Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land magnificently summarized and critiqued the impact of the West on the American imagination. In Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991), William Cronon further revised historical views by demonstrating the inextricable ecological and economic links between urban and...

    • New York City
      (pp. 437-446)

      New York is America’s metropolis, a quintessential urban drama where the dreams, disappointments, and dangers of life are naked and intense. Its enduring power has made the city a favorite subject for both historians and filmmakers, and images from Gotham’s history fill the minds of Americans. One of the oldest cities on the continent, Manhattan offers a panorama of themes ranging from wilderness post to revolutionary sparkplug, from vibrant seaport to immigrant ghetto, from capital of the United States to core of capitalist enterprise. As we enter the new millennium, New York’s position as “capital of the world” is unquestioned,...

    • The Sea
      (pp. 447-456)

      Perhaps uniquely among the historical subjects that appear in film, the interpretation of the maritime experience is often more influenced by a centuries-old literary tradition than it is by actual events that occurred at sea. Seafaring themes—such as the test against nature, the isolation of a community and the consequential requirement that members confront each other, the mysteries of the unexplored, and the encounter with the exotic—make for compelling drama. Into such a framework Homer laid the Odyssey, the Arabs set Sinbad, and Shakespeare put The Tempest. Each story had at its heart real navigational enterprises, but fact...

    • The Small Town
      (pp. 457-461)

      In William Wellman’s Magic Town (1947), pollster Lawrence Smith (James Stewart) claims that a small town named Grandview embodies the statistical average of the nation. “Just like the country,” he exclaims, “the same percentage of males, females, farmers, labor, Democrats, Republicans, everything!” But when the good citizens of this “America in a capsule” learn they have attracted nationwide attention, they begin to behave like caricatures in their own drama. “Okay, now,” one citizen admonishes another, “you’re the typical American. Act like it!” The town collapses under the burden of its self-consciousness.

      During the years spanning the Hollywood studio film (roughly...

    • The South
      (pp. 462-472)

      From the early years of the American film industry to the present, the South has been an enduring subject of interest to both filmmakers and moviegoers. Practically everyone knows some segments of its story. The premiere of Gone with the Wind in 1939 was a carefully crafted extravaganza designed to catch the full attention of the nation. Subsequently, Gone with the Wind was reissued at intervals in a pattern set to ensure that the romance of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler—coupled to the mystique of Tara and Twelve Oaks—would be the most watched and most widely known Hollywood...

    • Space
      (pp. 473-479)

      The dream of space flight has been around as long as humankind has been telling stories. With the advent of film, the stories of exploring that frontier moved from printed page to the theater screen. Early cinematic audiences were delighted by Georges Méliès’s 1902 film version of Jules Verne's A Trip to the Moon, clips of which would later be shown as human beings actually touched down on the moon in 1969. But the reality of space exploration, as manifest in the U.S. space program, has often varied from the dreams of the writers and filmmakers. Historian H. J. P....

    • Suburbia
      (pp. 480-487)

      Suburbia is as much a state of mind as it is a particular geographic location. Popular culture—especially movies and television but also books, novels and stories, even advertising—has cemented the image of a suburban lifestyle in the public consciousness as the embodiment of the American dream. But is this dream actually a nightmare? Since the 1950s, films have frequently depicted suburbs as outwardly pleasant places to live but regimented and stultifying yet spiced with unsavory outbreaks of promiscuity, vice, and violence.

      Historians and social scientists have long debated the significance of the American suburb. Kenneth T. Jackson writes...

    • Texas and the Southwest
      (pp. 488-496)

      A lone rider appears silhouetted against the sky. A brilliant sun shines mercilessly on the solitary horseman riding across the screen amid a rocky, dusty landscape of buttes and mesas and the massive arms of the distinctive cactus of western film as it looms almost humanlike in the background. Yet this icon of the “western,” the saguaro, is decidedly southwestern, growing only in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona and northern Mexico.

      Although the Library of Congress includes hundreds of books on “western” film, almost nothing turns up on a genre called “southwestern.” However, because older definitions of the “Greater...

    • The Trans-Appalachian West
      (pp. 497-506)

      After the French and Indian War, England’s King George III issued a proclamation in 1763 forbidding settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. Defying paper barriers, however, intrepid pioneers and land speculators pushed into the forbidden territory. The establishment of Watauga (in what is now eastern Tennessee) and Richard Henderson’s Transylvania Company’s illicit land trade increased tensions between colonists and the crown. After the American Revolution, the Continental Congress passed three land ordinances designating new territory for settlement across the Appalachians. The lands included the Southwest Territory, which comprised the present states of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the Northwest Territory, which...

  11. VII. Themes and Topics

    • Crime and the Mafia
      (pp. 509-517)

      In a classic article written in 1953, “Crime as an American Way of Life,” sociologist Daniel Bell described crime as an alternative ladder of success. With other avenues of opportunity closed off by discrimination and a lack of education, organized crime provided a way to fulfill aspirations of entrepreneurship and social mobility. According to Bell, “Crime, in many ways, is a Coney Island mirror, caricaturing the morals and manners of society. The jungle quality of the American business community, particularly at the turn of the century, was reflected in the mode of ‘business’ practiced by the coarse gangster elements, most...

    • Drugs, Tobacco, and Alcohol
      (pp. 518-526)

      Drugs, tobacco, and alcohol are controversial subjects in American culture, and our records of their use are full of contradictions. Consumers of these products praise their therapeutic effectiveness or their indulgent, naughty, and exuberant qualities; however, the government has exercised increasingly stringent controls. As David Courtwright illustrates in his discerning study Dark Paradise, this process began through taxation in the mid-nineteenth century, and with the increased awareness of addiction by the health professions, it moved to regulation on the municipal and state level. In the twentieth century, the criminalization of drug taking developed, owing largely to how American society perceived...

    • Elections and Party Politics
      (pp. 527-533)

      In one of the earliest motion pictures dealing with elections and the American political process, the silent film Going to Congress (1924), Will Rogers plays a naive backcountry politician who is given sound advice by a local cobbler: “If you see a man coming with a black bag, either shoot him or resign before he can get to you.” Because the film was made just after the Teapot Dome scandal of 1923, newspaper reports of which made famous reference to “a little black bag,” film audiences no doubt recognized the same reference from Going to Congress. “What is a government...

    • Feminism and Feminist Films
      (pp. 534-540)

      Feminism is a twentieth-century ideology. The previous century had a woman’s rights movement in the United States that concentrated on gaining women the right to vote, to attend college, and to own property. The feminist movement, born in the 1910s, declared women to be equal with men in every significant way. Although feminists witnessed the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote, they quickly concluded that suffrage alone would not guarantee women’s equality. In 1923, they proposed an Equal Rights Amendment to eliminate all forms of discrimination. The bill languished in Congress for many...

    • Railroads
      (pp. 541-544)

      Just as railroads permeate American geography and pervade American history, trains likewise prove ubiquitous in American film. Our movies thus complement the complicated, often ambiguous relations among nature, culture, and technology represented by the American railroad. Images of the train in American film rarely achieve artistic ambivalence, however. Unlike our literature or our graphic arts, American movies only occasionally freight their railroads with complex cultural messages or important symbolic meanings. Trains in American films function more often as devices to impart motion to their pictures or to move along their characters, plots, settings, and symbols. Therefore, an approach to screen...

    • Sexuality
      (pp. 545-551)

      Movies emerged as a part of popular culture during the first of two major sexual revolutions of the twentieth century. By the turn of the century, industrialization and urbanization had already changed the sexual mores of the working class, and the mores of the middle class were on the edge of a transformation. The city moved courtship off the porch and into nightclubs, darkened movie theaters, and private spaces; in addition, the automobile provided both escape from parental oversight and semiseclusion. “By World War I,” Sharon Ullman points out, “the Victorian assumptions about sexuality which dominated Progressive rhetoric were in...

    • Slavery
      (pp. 552-558)

      Many scholars speak of American “exceptionalism,” noting that the people of the United States enjoyed greater freedom, opportunity, and democracy over their history than other peoples of the world, including Europeans. The U.S. experience with slavery, however, contrasts sharply with this positive and optimistic interpretation. Americans were unable to find peaceful political solutions to the crisis of slavery. Nearly four million African Americans lived in bondage by the 1850s, and the struggle to win their freedom contributed significantly to the divisions that drew the country into four years of bloody civil war. In the nineteenth century, Americans disagreed vigorously as...

  12. VIII. Myths and Heroes

    • The American Adam
      (pp. 561-566)

      The American Adam has been an animating myth in American literature and culture since the early nineteenth century. Along with such myths as the success myth, the myth of virgin land, and the manifest destiny of Americans to populate and develop the continent, it has helped define key ingredients in the national self-image. Related in interesting ways to a number of these other cultural myths, the myth of the American Adam has also been evident in American films.

      As related by such cultural historians as R. W. B. Lewis, David W. Noble, and Giles Gunn, the myth of the American...

    • The American Fighting Man
      (pp. 567-571)

      America has witnessed a long series of wars on the silver screen. Unlike most written histories of human conflict, often impersonalized by statistics and arrows on maps, feature films thrive on the personal dimension of war. Especially for young male viewers, the combat film has enjoyed a special attraction: whether in times of struggle or after major conflicts, American war films have held up role models of bravery in the name of democratic principles. Furthermore, Hollywood has taken a leading role in propagandizing for our country during its struggles—at least until the Vietnam War, when Hollywood productions often took...

    • Democracy and Equality
      (pp. 572-577)

      “What then is the American, this new man?” asks Hector St. John de Crèvecouer in a primal passage from Letters from an American Farmer (1782), answering his own question with a melting-pot vision of democracy and equality. “He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes...

    • The Frontier and the West
      (pp. 578-582)

      The migration west from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and the evermoving frontier it created have enthralled the American imagination and served as a source for distinctive American myths and legends. James Fenimore Cooper’s Leather-Stocking Tales featured Natty Bumppo, America’s first fictional westerner. The “West” in four of Cooper’s tales was western New York, yet the heroic, self-reliant qualities Cooper assigned to Natty Bumppo forever shaped the popular image of the westerner. The real and fictional exploits of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett captivated American imagination as settlers crossed the eastern mountain ranges into the old Northwest Territory,...

    • Hollywood’s Detective
      (pp. 583-589)

      One of the most enduring characters in American popular culture is the private detective. The concept of the private investigator dates back to the nineteenth century: Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes were fictional counterparts to the real-life Allan Pinkerton and Monsieur Lecoq. They were joined in the twentieth century by Philo Vance, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Travis McGee, Fletch, and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of others in virtually every manifestation of popular culture, and the genre shows no signs of disappearing.

      The private detective who appears in novels, television shows, and films bears...

    • The Machine in the Garden
      (pp. 590-595)

      Many nineteenth-century American observers greeted what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the whistle of the locomotive in the woods” with a mixture of awe and anxiety. When Nathaniel Hawthorne heard a train’s “startling shriek” shatter the stillness of Concord Woods on the morning of July 27, 1844, he worried it would usher “the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace.” Painter George Catlin feared it would destroy “the grace and beauty of Nature”; and Thoreau regarded it as “a fate” that “never turns aside” (Nash, 13, 100).

      Theirs was both a lament and a prophecy. The locomotive was just...

    • Success and the Self-Made Man
      (pp. 596-602)

      The myth of personal success has been characteristic of American culture and society at least since the mid-nineteenth century. Its roots date back to the eighteenth-century individualism embedded in the culture of enlightenment and best exemplified by Benjamin Franklin’s famous Autobiography. The underlying idea that a citizen himself can determine his own future and change his life for the better lies at the core of modern culture. In the eighteenth century, the ideal citizen was represented as a male figure, and the myth of success applied to males only.

      The son of a Unitarian minister, Horatio Alger Jr. (1832–1899)...

  13. List of Contributors
    (pp. 603-606)
  14. Index
    (pp. 607-672)