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Bad Movies, Good History In 1945, George Orwell wrote a short piece for an English weekly _Tribune_ entitled, "Good Bad Books." In it he defines such a work as "the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished." Orwell elaborates, saying that this type of book may have been categorized as escapist literature but, nonetheless, may "form pleasant patches in one's memory, quiet corners where the mind can browse at odd moments." Also included in his definition are books which, "seem to attain sincerity partly because they are not inhibited by good taste." Such works remind us "that art is not the same thing as cerebration." It is now the season of summer cinema, a season frequently if unjustly understood as a time of "movies" rather than "films." H-German's recent forum on the use of film in the teaching of GDR history, in addition to George Orwell's good bad book, and the inevitable return of Indiana Jones are cultural happenings that move me to consider the following question: what might constitute a "good bad movie" and, how might we put such a movie to good cultural or historical use? My Orwell-inspired definition of good bad movies is limited here to movies that are the sort that may make historians cringe (or at least twitch). You know the type: they're ones with glaring historical inaccuracies, problematic conflations of events and anachronistic language, and saccharine dramatizations of historically questionable episodes. As historians we have been known, both individually and collectively, to wring our hands about what to do when faced with this type of film. (The H-German editors did so ourselves in the introduction to our forum.) I plead guilty to this activity myself and see no pedagogical fault with such eye-rolling, but perhaps we could, in parallel, consider what can or might be gleaned usefully from a movie at the Orwellian level of good/bad. Maybe a useful place to start is to recall the good bad movies we ourselves remember fondly, if less for their accuracy than for the inspiration they provided us. I can think of two that were important for me. The first was the BBC series about King Henry VIII and his wives produced in 1970. It turned me into an elementary school level Tudor enthusiast. The second was _Lion in Winter_ which is of course also a terrific play by James Goldman, and left me with a sneaking suspicion that Eleanor of Aquitaine and Katherine Hepburn were the same person. This association took years to disentangle. There are also bad movies that are entrenched in the collective "historical" consciousness. A friend of mine (who did not grow up to be a historian) remembers that during his elementary school years he was taken to his local small town movie theater once a year for a "special historical field trip"…and a viewing of _Gone With the Wind_. I suspect that the _Sissi_ movies would serve the same purpose for Germans of a certain generation. As professors, we are unlikely to run into current undergraduates who saw _Gone With the Wind_ as a portion of their elementary school curriculum, but still, there are plenty of other movies that our students do see, and they do come to us to ask about them. "Was that how it really was?" they wonder. How does one respond? Twentieth-century German history, and in particular the subject of National Socialism, remains fertile ground for filmmaking. It is also one subject area where we can be certain our students, as avid viewers of the History Channel, will have seen many movies and documentaries on the subject (of wildly varying quality). It is equally likely that they will not have read many books on the subject, if any at all. In other words, their vision of Nazism is already influenced by what they have seen on the big or the small screen. As tempting as it is to say to students simply, "no, no, no; bad movie," I have found that students can and want to use these films as a springboard to a more realistic and nuanced understanding of the events depicted on the screen. In many cases their interest in learning more about what "really happened" is exactly the kind of inquisitive energy upon which we need to capitalize. So, if a movie has found some sort of resonance in the imaginations of our undergraduates, we can exploit that opportunity to show them, or at least help them find out for themselves, that the truth really is stranger than fiction, and thus is far more interesting. One recent example that came up in my class last semester was Paul Verhoeven's 1977 film about Holland during Nazi occupation: _Soldier of Orange_. A student (of Dutch extraction) was very excited to have found a movie about "his" country, and viewing it inspired him to read the memoir by Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, upon which the movie was based (and which contains more swashbuckling elements than the film, perhaps one of the few times Verhoeven can be accused of a certain balanced restraint). Based on his cinematic experience, the student went on to write a research paper about the topic of Dutch resistance. Given limitations of language and resources that burdened the student's research, I couldn't say with a good conscience that this particular young man left behind his initial infatuation with the adventurer type Verhoeven illustrates. But perhaps that's not such a bad thing. After all, it was the "sincerity" -- as Orwell would put it -- of the work rather than its reality that inspired this undergraduate. In that sense, Orwell's archetypal "good bad book," _Uncle Tom's Cabin_ perfectly illustrates the importance of imaginative resonance. Orwell called Howe's novel "unintentionally ludicrous" but also "deeply moving and essentially true." His article also praises the Sherlock Holmes stories and _Dracula_. The last of these -- as we know from reading Benita Blessing's query to H-German in March -- has already been incorporated into an undergraduate seminar in a more comprehensive way. Blessing and those who wrote in to respond to her remind us that history as a project still requires a bit of imagination. Given our contemporary culture's overwhelming tendency to take in information via a visual medium rather than a printed one, it stands to reason that movies, films, documentaries, and videos are going to be (if they are not already) the kind of cultural literacy our students acquire before we subject them to rounds of conventional textual analysis. What I suggest is that we find some way of responding to this unavoidable pedagogical precondition by doing more than swimming against the popular current or giving up and going with the flow. Focusing on the element of sincerity that Orwell mentions is a way to begin to use bad movies for some historical good. For example, the film _Swing Kids_, a perennial favorite among undergraduates, is a movie where students will identify with the main characters and yet can take that inspiration and use it to move past the inaccuracies of the film toward a more complex historical understanding. Part of what makes a good bad movie, perhaps, is the focus on characters who, despite their historical foibles grab the imagination of the viewer. That emphasis on character is one reason that the more cartoonish "bad guys" of, say the first and third of the Indiana Jones films tell us little about Nazis, but a great deal about how Americans may like to see themselves. To be sure, there are some movies which we and Orwell together might classify as bad-bad (for me, any historical film in which Mel Gibson had a creative hand is likely to be a perfect example), but perhaps even those movies may have elements in them worth discussing in a historical manner. The upcoming movie about Claus von Stauffenberg starring Tom Cruise promises to be another film we are all going to be asked about by our students. Since it has yet to premiere, there is as yet no way of knowing if it will be good, bad, or even ugly, but it will be watched by our students and we'd best consider in advance if there are useful ways to incorporating it, however briefly, into our classroom discussions. Should we fail in this endeavor, the Nazi-chasing Indiana Joneses of the movie world will be happy to take over. Notes . George Orwell, "Good Bad Books" _Tribune_ November 2, 1945. This article is available several places on the Web, for example < http://www.george-orwell.org/Good_Bad_Books/0.html >.Accessed May 23, 2008. Orwell credits G. K. Chesterton with the phrase, but neither this author nor the collective blogosphere have been able to track down a specific reference. . The H-German forum on film and the GDR may be found at: < http://www.h-net.org/~german/discuss/GDRfilm/TeachingGDR.htm#Initial%20Contributions >. . Naomi Capon and John Glinister, dir., _The Six Wives of Henry VIII_ 1970. British Broadcasting Corporation. < http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066714/ >. Anthony Harvey, dir., _The Lion in Winter_ 1968. Given that the film won three Oscars, its designation as a bad anything may be unjust. < http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063227/ >. . There are three films in the Sissi trilogy, all directed by Ernst Marischka: _Sissi_ (1955), _ Sissi - Die junge Kaiserin_ (1956) and _Sissi - Schicksalsjahre einer Kaiserin_ (1957). < http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048624/ >. . Paul Verhoeven, dir., _Soldier of Orange_ (_Soldaat van Oranje_ ) 1977. < http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076734/ >. Verhoeven's 2006 film about the Dutch Resistance, _Black Book_ (_Zwartboek_), may be relentless in its pursuit of moral gray zones but in doing so loses that center of sincerity that Orwell’s formula demands. . Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, _Soldier of Orange_. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980). The book is currently out of print in the US. . Benita Blessing's contribution may be found here: < http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-German&month=0803&week=b&msg=qmIngAYciohw%2bVC4iWjxog&user=&pw >. The responses may be found here: < http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-German&month=0803&week=b&msg=UUBgdpdvU6nT7%2btoHR7wAQ&user=&pw > and here: <http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-German&month=0803&week=b&msg=zWZLa1e0eYabOywGApEvyg&user=&pw > . Thomas Carter, dir., _Swing Kids_1993. < http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108265/ >