U.S. History in Film

Prof. McClurken’s HIST 329 — Fall 2008

Get Fuzzy meets All The President’s Men

I thought this was funny and decided to share it:


Specifically 12-10-2008 strip

>^.^<  Enjoy!


Link to schedule for Friday History Symposium


Reefer Madness

I think this one was of the most entertaining and historically interesting movies that we’ve watched all semester. Most of the movies that we’ve studied have focused on events rather than ideas. It’s important to remember that the movie is hilarious to us because we’ve come so far as a culture — though not quite far enough. Anyone remember the anti-marijuana commercial from just a few years back, where a high girl runs down someone in her car? Recently, they’ve gotten more humorous, and try to portray drugs as silly and stupid. The way this stuff is advertised to us has changed, but I think that is mostly because of the extensive advertising research done into what teenagers are receptive to.

But back to the film. It was over the top, as all propaganda is. I can’t imagine that it would have prevented too many young kids from smoking pot (and I never thought it was all that common in the 1930s), but it unfortunately would have put overprotective parents on high alert. The film itself is not poorly made for its time, but I have to say that I think it’s for the best that it disappeared until the 1970s. We all go through the D.A.R.E. program, and are generally more informed about sex and drugs.

Besides, as the movie shows, if a teenager is going to get high and have sex, the law isn’t going to stop them. It’ll just be there to punish them when they finish. And can we comment on the fact that while the film was originally aimed at parents, we see adults acting irresponsible and cruel, while the teenagers are just thoughtlessly stupid? Were they Communists or something?

Reefer Madness

I had mixed reactions about this movie. On one hand, I can see how this could have been effective in the 30’s, b/c it does address how scary the effects of being a pothead can have on someone. On the other hand, the overacting and the bad filmmaking gives you no choice but to laugh at the movie and take nothing serious from it. My mixed reactions on this, though, are reflective of Hollywood’s interpretation of narcotics in the United States – they see both sides. However, it seems that lately, the films released have emphasized the humor behind marijuana and other drugs. Seth Rogen-written films (Pineapple Express, Superbad) have used this as a vehicle for his movies’ successes. Unlike films in the late 70’s and 80’s that seemed to focus on the downfall of drug-users (take the Al Pacino-led films Scarface and The Panic in Needle Park), Hollywood has been glamorizing the pot-smoker. Whatever Hollywood’s stance may be, Reefer Madness is one of a kind and rarely does a film become resurrected by a cult the way this movie has.

Born on the Fourth of July

I think comparing this film with Best Years of Our Lives is very appropriate. Both films focus primarily on the impacts of a soldier’s homecoming, emotionally and politically/historically.

While BYOL was a bit ahead of its time in addressing PTSD as a common and severe symptom of coming home from war, BOTFJ took it to another level and was expressed stylistically by Oliver Stone (for example, the scene where Tom Cruise/Ron Kovic was giving a speech and the sound of the baby crying led to the character reminiscing vividly and reluctantly about the war).

At the same time, Stone’s movie addresses the difficulties of coming home as a paraplegic. BYOL tackles that same issue but through a different character, but its implications are just as effective. Both characters go through humiliation, de-masculination, and fight through their respective relationship problems (Homer struggles to re-connect with his gf, as does Kovic with his high school fling and his family).

Another issue both movies do a good job of addressing is alcoholism. In these two movies (as well as many others), it seems that alcohol and drug use are prominent escapes for an ex-soldier whenever an attempt to forget about the war is needed. Fred in BYOL exposes his drinking to his family, and Kovic takes this to another level by going to Mexico and using his disability checks to finance his alcoholism. Of course, resorting to alcoholism affects the person and everything around them and exacerbates the life of the individual.

I thoroughly enjoyed both movies because they express the same issues, yet stylistically they are different because each movie is a product of its time. While this has an effect on how the director expresses these issues, in the end they are perceived virtually the same way: a soldier’s homecoming is not all parades and nurses-kissing-the-sailor in the street – the transition is difficult, for lack of a better term, they need all the support they can get.

Born On The Fourth Of July

In analyzing any film with Oliver Stone attached, one is typically required to take the view on history with a grain of salt. Nixon, JFK, Platoon and Salvador all feel like an encyclopedia is necessary to fact-check the proceedings. His movies that aren’t based as much on history, such as Talk Radio, Natural Born Killers, and Any Given Sunday, are all written from such a blatant political or social slant that if you don’t agree, the movie’s are going to do little more than get your blood boiling. 

With this knowledge in mind, I began Born on the 4th of July with obvious hesitance. Would Oliver Stone, an obviously leftist director handle the anti-war movement objectively? Would Tom Cruise, a man best known for roles in Top Gun and Risky Business be able to play Ron Kovic’s character believably? Finally, and most importantly, would a movie with such dour subject matter work in the theaters?

Yes, yes (depending on your taste), and yes. However, I believe that the reason the movie worked as well as it did is not so much a credit to Stone directing as it is Ron Kovic himself co-writing. Kovic had wanted his story in film since the day it hit bookstores in 1976. If Kovic is going to wait 14 years to tell his story, you had better be sure that he is going to make sure it gets told correctly. 

And perhaps that desperation is what made this work. That desire to get his story out there for those who didn’t read it. A chance for his story to reach those who 14 years before, were unwilling or unable to listen. Slant, bias and righteous anger can get you heard, but it won’t get you listened to. Perhaps both Stone and Kovic wanted to be sure this movie would inspire based on fact and truth, instead of emotion and fact-twisting. 

Regardless of reason, this one works. Not in the way that Platoon worked, as a heart-wrenching examination of Jung’s duality of man. Born on the Fourth Of July works as a genuine personal history of one man’s own personal war. Vietnam, hell. The war was back home.

Long Walk Home

Just aside note before I get rolling on the Long Walk Home – I didn’t post on The Best Years of Our Lives because of the fact that I was freaking out about my thesis and our projects. In a nutshell – I LOVED it. Probably because it was fictional characters with somewhat reasonable predicaments caused by coming home from WWII, but mainly because there was romance EVERYWHERE! My only beef with the film is that it really stunk in terms of gender roles – every woman had a male counterpart and wasn’t complete without that man. GUH gag me. That’s all.

The Long Walk Home was a powerful movie which I enjoyed very much. I felt that in the grand picture of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it was right on the money. It also had subtle details that were dead on as well. I felt that the use of fictional characters as opposed to portraying already big named civil rights activists was a good choice by the film makers. It allowed them to have more artistic freedom, but also wasn’t contrived or corny in portraying the well known story of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., whom most people know exactly what they look like – it would just be strange to portray them as persons other than themselves. I know it happens all the time in movies – the one I think of first is Patton, and I feel that this is a good example for my point – we don’t want people to remember these amazing individuals by the actor that portrayed them (as most people do for Patton, heck, I don’t know what the real General looks like but I can picture the movie poster). I felt that in addition to grasping the race relations well, A Long Walk Home also portrayed gender relations well. White women were somewhat obsolete in this time – they had maids to do the majority of their work at home and mothering, and they didn’t work outside of the home, so they listened and obeyed their husbands. On the black side of things there was a good portrayal of how crucial black women were to both white and black families. Everyone was dependent on Odessa (Whoopi). Finally, I personally felt that the most intriguing part of this story is the dissension in the groups – not all whites felt the same about the boycotts, and not all blacks agreed with each other either. The black daughter doesn’t understand the importance of the boycott until her little brother is beat up in defense of her. There is an evolution (and good depiction of the passage of time btw) of how each character felt about the situation. It was very moving.

Overall, two thumbs up. Hey, if McClurken liked it – that says something.

The Long Walk Home

By far the most poignant film we have seen this semester. We covered a lot in our class discussion, from differences/similarities in gender roles between blacks and whites, the specifics about the bus boycotts, and the difficulties of being a black or white person during this time period.

One thing I was hoping we would go into more detail, though, was the choice to have the film narrated by the Sissy Spacek’s daughter. Roger Ebert said on his website that the narration was pointless and it didn’t add anything to the plot or the emotional aspects of the film. I disagree with this. I don’t think you can get a more objective point of view, considering the time period. The daughter has no concept of race or discrimination. She only sees the love and care of her family and Odessa (Whoopi Goldberg). I find the daughter as a narrator effective because it allows us to be immersed into the shoes of Odessa and the mother, while also giving us the opportunity to step back and analyze the struggles from both sides.

The Long Walk Home was beautifully made, and did well with incorporating fictional characters into a specific historical event. Instead of telling the story of the main historical civil rights leaders (MLK, Rosa Parks), we got to see what life was like during the bus boycotts from one of the 40,000 people who protested it, as well as the whites who were caught between supporting and opposing the boycotts.

Dr. M’s “A Long Walk Home”

Dr. McClurken likes A Long Walk Home because it has a sense of the period that it depicts, the early Civil Rights movement with the Montgomery bus boycott. It shows the lives of a middle-class white housewife and her black maid. He agrees with me that Miriam’s part in the carpool troubling because although some women drove their maids to and from home, most would not involve themselves in the carpool.  My question to Dr. McClurken is what is his reasoning? (I don’t have any reasoning in my notes)

As for his view on believing that whites reevaluated their views on race, I believe that it’s likely that it was more of the younger people that changed their views on race.  I see some white women changing their views to spite their husbands and families because they saw that they had little power outside the house and they believe that they know blacks better through their interactions with black domestic workers. White men didn’t need to view the blacks positively since they were the powerful group, ruling over everybody else. Even the younger men didn’t need to, as shown in the scene where Selma got on the bus during the boycott and was harassed; however the younger a person is, the more likely their views can change, so even men could’ve change their minds if they went through some sort of experience or revelation.

The Long Walk Home

I struggled with how to frame my blog about this movie. I have plenty to say, I just have no idea how to say it. My biggest fear, in summarizing The Long Walk Home was not an issue of finding something profound to say. Any profundity was found, and made, in the midst of this movie’s hour-forty runtime. I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t being trite.

In discussing this movie (through the sobs) to multiple people, I heard many insightful things from many people. The one statement that stuck with me, however, was a friend telling me that “it’s good that you can’t fathom this happening. It means we’re changing. It means we’re maturing.” 52 years later, I do believe we’re maturing but I will hesitate to say that we’ve matureD. I think great steps have been made in thte fact that this movie can induce tears. The violence, racial epithets, and near-Klan meetings are all deplorable to us, and thank goodness this is the case. 

I’m not sure what my point is here, and I do fear that I have essentially been rambling for the past couple paragraphs. As I said in the wiki, this is a hard movie to discuss, because it’s a period that is hard to admit is part of our history. But what made this movie so effective, what made it so AFFECTING, is that it was right. As much as it was a historical document, it was also a cautionary tale, much along the lines of Schindler’s List or, in a non-historical sense, Requiem For a Dream. (Anyone brave enough to sit through either knows how I can make the emotional connection.) These all work as a reminder of how dangerous human nature can be. I just hope enough people are wise enough to pay attention.

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