Some of my favorite movie directors—guys like Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and the pre-Titanic James Cameron—are the world creators. In fact, I’ve heard both Scott and Cameron use the term “creating worlds” when talking about the kinds of movies they like making. I’m not talking about setting movies on other planets, necessarily, but setting them in any type of stylized, self-contained reality.
In this sort of movie, everything is aimed toward realizing a coherent vision. All the elements are meant to work together to accomplish that vision, from the clothing to the architecture to the shapes of clouds. Even light and color tones are controlled with the use of camera filters. Watch a film by any of the three directors I mentioned above, and you’ll note that their goal is not to transfer life to the screen, but to transfer the images in their minds (or the minds of the production designers) to the screen. It’s a sort of tweaked reality, filtered through a particular vision or aesthetic.
This is particularly common in historical films, especially the sweeping epics like Dances With Wolves, The Patriot, and Gods and Generals, because here you must are constructing an entire reality from the ground up by necessity. The world on the screen is inescapably going to be different from our own, so the filmmakers freely indulge their ability to control the look of the movie—not simply in the material culture depicted, but even supposedly natural things like the tint of the sunset. Movies like this tend to be “pretty” films, in which the screen is a canvas and the world is picture-perfect.
Even battle scenes in these movies have a kind of artificial, aesthetic beauty to them. In Ridley Scott’s historic films, like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, bloodshed is explicit and graphic, but it has a sort of strange appeal of its own—a sword flashes and there is a bold splash of rich crimson. During the brief Valley Forge scene in The Patriot, you can tell that there is suffering and misery, but the setting itself is lovely, almost like a Thomas Kincaid painting. These worlds are “pretty” even when they’re ugly.
Historical epics therefore tend to suggest an idyllic past, even if they depict the unpleasant aspects of the time and place in question. Does this have any subconscious impact on us when we try to visualize the past for ourselves? I think it does, especially for those of us who have grown up watching them. When I’m reading about some historical event or period that would make a suitable subject for an epic film, I often visualize it in the aesthetic “style” of a film of this kind, even though I don’t do so consciously. It’s just the main frame of reference I have for seeing these types of events play out. It acts as an artificial filter between historical reality and my brain.
Film isn’t the only such filter that shapes visualizations of the past. Sometimes the means of communication employed during the period in question can influence the way we conceptualize it. When I worked at a Civil War museum, we had in our vault a set of six massive scrapbooks, bound in red leather, compiled by an inhabitant of Philadelphia during the war. They contained hundrds and hundreds of clippings, engravings, lithographs, currency notes, cartoons, envelopes, and other ephemera. Most of these items were in immaculate condition. The first time I delved into them, I was working on a temporary exhibit about women in the Civil War.
This material absolutely floored me. What really surprised me were the color items—the cartoons and prints from firms like Kurz and Allison. The colors were still as vibrant and rich as anything you’d see in a modern publication, bright blues and reds and pinks and yellows that you’d find in comics. I had seen many of these images reprinted before, but these originals were much, much more bold and vivid.
It took me a long time to figure out why they had such an impact on me, but finally it occurred to me that I wasn’t used to seeing the Civil War in color. I was accustomed to black and white photographs, or the subdued, earthy tones of period paintings. Of course, I knew that nineteenth-century Americans inhabited a world of color, but I had never really understood it viscerally. I always saw them in blacks, whites, grays, and browns.
Of course, many Civil War Americans back on the home front probably visualized the battles using these garish lithographs and staged photographs, so it’s entirely possible that their concept of these events through which they lived was as skewed as mine is now. But at least they didn’t have the disadvantage of so much time acting as an additional filter on their perceptions.
The past is one thing, and our conception of it is another. What happened has happened only once. We can approach it, and we can approximate it, but we can no more recover it completely than we can bring the dead back to life again.