U.S. History in Film

Prof. McClurken’s HIST 329 — Fall 2008

Pocahontas

So the first movie we watched in this class was Disney’s Pocahontas. Before last Tuesday (Sept. 2nd) I had not seen this children’s classic since I was about 8 years-old. I know I don’t have the most accurate memory, but I think it is safe to say this film provided a different perspective about Native American life than when I was a grade-school kid trying to sing-along to the lyrics of the popular soundtrack. Furthermore, it would be an understatement if I said that in class, we just bifurcated the movie into what was accurate about it and what they got wrong. We actually focused more on the inaccuracies and pretty much denounced Disney for their attempts at making a film about the English settlement in America.

One thing that gets me, though, is are we really justified in calling out Disney’s inaccuracies? What I mean is, was Disney’s original intention to tell the true story of Pocahontas, John Smith, Jamestown, etc.? Or did they just want to take two historically significant figures, develop a romance story between them in the context of a historical event, and make it animated so it’s targeted towards kids? If the former is true, then I think it is everyone’s duty as Americans to point out every minuscule flaw we see (even if it is outrageous as a talking tree). However, if the latter was the way Disney wanted to go, then we should think twice about our criticisms. After all, do kids really care about whether or not Ratcliffe was technically a captain of the ship and not a governor of London? I would think they were more concerned about Mikko being funny and cute enough and songs catchy enough to sing along to. I think it is great that we as movie-goers and history-buffs are keen and aware not to be fooled by a false story when we see one; but we should look at why a movie about specific historical event was made. Not everyone enjoys history, so movies are a great way to go about teaching it. Maybe the errors movies make were on purpose just so the film as a whole could be appreciated by a specific audience. Then it is up to the audience to delve deeper into history and find out its true story.

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