U.S. History in Film

Prof. McClurken’s HIST 329 — Fall 2008


HIST 329
US History in Film

Fall 2008
TR, 9:30-10:45

Course Description

This course examines historically oriented motion pictures as both primary and secondary sources of information about the past. It starts from the premise that the content in films, as with written sources, can (and should) be critically analyzed for its perspectives, interpretive choices, biases, and reliability. The course examines the relative successes or failures that major films have had in portraying the past, and analyzes how present events, cultures and attitudes shape our view of the past. As historians we typically analyze and use traditional primary and secondary sources (e.g., historical documents and scholarly articles and monographs); it is possible and helpful to apply many of those same skills (and much of the same skepticism) to our approaches to non-traditional sources, such as these films.

Course Requirements

Students are expected to attend all classes, read all assigned texts, watch all assigned films, and participate in class (including posting to the course wiki). They are also expected to create a research project and take a midterm and a final. [Projects are due at the start of class on the day they are due. Projects are considered late if posted or changed anytime after they are due. Late projects will be penalized one full letter grade or, after 24 hours, not accepted.]


Each week we will be discussing a particular movie. That movie will be shown in Chandler 102 starting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday nights. If you cannot make that showing, you will have to make other arrangements to see the movie, including watching it on your own at the Multimedia Center or renting it from Netflix/video store. However, be warned that not all of these movies are readily available elsewhere. Watching these movies is your responsibility, so don’t wait until the last minute to do so! [Note that there are no movies outside class during weeks 1, 8, or 14.]


Students are expected to attend all Thursday discussion classes having watched the movie for that week, having read the material, and having prepared 2-3 questions, comments, or potential debate topics. These should be posted to the appropriate week in the class wiki no later than 7 AM on Thursdays. (http://mcclurken.umwhistory.org/wiki/index.php?title=HIST_329) The questions/comments/topics should be aimed at provoking class discussions on the reading and the movies. [Since the goal is to prepare you for class discussion, late questions will not be accepted.] Class participation requires actively participating in these discussions, watching the movies, and submitting questions/comments/topics.

Final Grades

Final grades will be determined based on class participation (25%), on performance on the midterm and final exams (25% each), as well as on the online, research-based historical analysis of a film (25%). [Unsatisfactory mid-semester reports will be reported for anyone with a grade of D or below on work completed at that time.] Completion of all assignments is required to pass the class.


Robert Brent Toplin, Reel History.
Many other readings are available as online selections linked to from the course site.

Research Project Assignment

You must create an original online research project analyzing a particular film dealing with a United States History topic. Much as we will do in class each week, your project should analyze the portrayal of the past in the film, exploring the perspective (including biases or objectives) of the filmmakers, the historical accuracy of the portrayal (in a detailed and a broad sense), and the relative success and reliability of the film as a primary and secondary source of historical information. You should use a combination of primary and secondary sources for your evidence. You must cite all images, clips, facts, ideas, paraphrasing, and quotes, in footnotes and bibliography, using either Turabian (7th edition) or the Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition), including the movies themselves and any reviews of them that you have used. [For more details on citations, see the history department resource guide at http://www.umw.edu/cas/history/history_department_resourc/quotations_footnotes__endn/default.php.]

1) Your project must be created online. The easiest way to do that is as a blog post in a umwblogs.org site of your creation (this can be a previously existing blog or a new one created just for this class). Information on creating and editing a blog can be found at http://umwblogs.org and http://screencasts.umwblogs.org/. [If you would prefer to create a website instead of a blog, consult with me immediately about guidelines.] Let me know what you’ll be using and where it is located–in other words, what is its web address?—by the start of class on Thursday, Sept. 4. For most of you that will simply mean that you need to sign up for a blog and send me the web address.

2) Your historical film choice and bibliographic citations of five or more significant sources are due by the start of class on Thursday, September 11 for my approval. Failure to successfully complete this assignment on time will result in a full letter grade off of your research project grade. [Since I will only approve one person to work on a particular movie, you should probably request approval for your movie via email before September 4.] There is a list of potential choices at the end of the syllabus and the list of movies already taken will be at the course blog.

3) The research project (1,500-2,000 words, not including citations and bibliography) is due at the start of class on Tuesday, November 11. [Worth 25% of overall class grade.] The Honor Pledge and your name should be clearly viewable. Projects will be graded on content (including originality and the quality and use of evidence), presentation, grammar, and proper formatting for historical writing (including footnotes and bibliography).

4) By Tuesday, November 18 everyone needs to have looked at the other projects. The class will vote on the top 5-8 projects. These will be the first projects placed in an online US History in Film site I will create after the semester is over. More on this later in the semester.

Honor Code

I believe in the Honor Code as an essential, positive component of the Mary Washington experience. You should know that if you cheat or plagiarize in this class, you will fail, and I will take you to the Honor Council. So, do not do it. On the other hand, I also believe that having friends or family read and comment on your writing can be extremely helpful and falls within the bounds of the Honor Code (assuming the writing itself remains yours). If you have questions about these issues, then you should talk to me sooner rather than later.

TOPICS & MOVIES [See readings page for specific readings for each week]

Week 1 – beginning Aug. 25

No movie – Introduction

Week 2 – beginning Sept. 1

Pocahontas (1995)

Planned location (web address) of online project due by the start of class on Thursday, Sept. 4.

Week 3 – beginning Sept. 8

Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Film choice & at least five bibliographic citations due by the start of class on Thursday, Sept. 11.

Week 4 – beginning Sept. 15

The Patriot (2000)

Week 5 – beginning Sept. 22

Amistad (1997)

Week 6 – beginning Sept. 29

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Week 7 – beginning Oct. 6

Glory (1989)

Week 8 – beginning Oct. 13

Fall Break – No class Tuesday, October 14

MIDTERM – Thursday, October 16 – Bring Blue books

Week 9 – beginning Oct. 20

My Darling Clementine (1946)

Week 10 – beginning Oct. 27

Matewan (1987)

Week 11 – beginning Nov. 3

Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The online research project is due at the start of class on Thursday, November 6.

Week 12 – beginning Nov. 10

Long Walk Home (1990)

Week 13 – beginning Nov. 17

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

By the start of class on Tuesday, Nov. 18, make selections for journal online research projects.

Week 14 – beginning Nov. 24

Reefer Madness (1938)

Thanksgiving—No class Thursday!

Week 15 – beginning Dec. 1

All the President’s Men (1976)

Exam: Thursday, December 11, 8:30-11:00 a.m.

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