Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film

James Chapman

This book is an exploration of how British historical films have confirmed or confronted the idea of British national identity during their times. Chapman looks at a number of historical films spanning from the early 1930s to the late 1990s. Chapman places each film in both the context of the British film industry at the time and the wider social, economic, and political context. While I wouldn’t be looking at many of these same films, the contextual information for each decade from the 1930s to the 1990s is invaluable to me as I can apply it to my own analysis of the films that I look at that come out of Britain at these times, for example, Fire Over England (1937), Young Bess (1953), or Elizabeth R (1971).

Among the films Chapman discusses is Elizabeth (dir. Shekhar Kapur, 1998). This was a valuable chapter as it provided contextual, production, and reception information as well as analysis of the film itself. Interestingly, Chapman reads Elizabeth largely in the context of the legacy of Princess Diana who died tragically just days before the film began principal photography. He argues that outrage from historians and critics alike that the film depicted Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, as not a virgin at all can be seen as a desire to protect the national myth about Elizabeth I but also as a kind of proxy to defend the reputation of the late Princess Diana, another national icon. It is an intriguing reading that I will take into consideration. It would be interesting to think about how 16th century ideas about protecting a woman’s virtue and reputation are being invoked again at the turn of the 21st century for another female royal.


Chapman, James. Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film. London: I.B Tauris, 2005.




Looking at Movies

Richard Barsam and David Monahan

This is a introductory textbook to film studies. It introduces the basic concepts necessary for understanding and assessing film, from cinematography and editing, to film history and production and distribution structures. It is handy for its overviews and definitions and it is really easy to read. However, it doesn’t provide methods for evaluating films, nor information of approaches to film analysis. It’s a nice introduction and is excellent to have as a reference but I will need more detailed and specific information about methodologies.


Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film. 4th ed. New York and London: W. W Norton and Company Inc. , 2013.

Experiments in Rethinking History

Edited by Robert Rosenstone & Alun Munslow

This book is a collection of works that experiment with writing history. These include experiments with the literary form itself, and with subjects, for example, focuses on narratives and the historians’ personal experience. This is in response to the growing trends in the field of history that suggest that the notion of history as an empirical, objective study of the past as it happened is no longer adequate. As this idea has been deconstructed, the literary and narrative elements of history have been acknowledged and this book represents attempts to fully explore these elements and what they can bring to the exploration and communication of history. As Rosenstone states in his introduction, “they all grow out of a desire on the part of the historians to express something about our relationship to the past which has hitherto been inexpressible, to include in history things which have long been excluded, to share information or insights or understanding that cannot be carried by traditional historical forms” (p. 2).

This book raises some crucial points about history as representation, for instance, Munslow in his introduction argues that “History is, in and of itself, a representation of something. It is not the thing itself and cannot by the magic of empiricism be transported as it actually was onto the page or the screen” (p. 7). This echoes the arguments of scholars like Hayden White and Rosenstone himself, that written history and film are not so different as they are both attempting to represent history in their own ways but both ultimately rely on a narrative form.

The book is divided into two parts: Self-Reflexive; which collects the chapters that include a focus on the historian themselves and the authorial process, and New Voices; which includes works that attempt to explore previously unknown or unheard histories or perspectives. Each chapter is accompanied by an Afterword in which the author describes what led them to want to write in this way, which provides valuable insight into their approaches.

There are no chapters that deal with film but one chapter in particular, Bryant Simon’s “Narrating a Southern Tragedy: Historical Facts and Historical Fictions,” examines the role of fiction in exploring silences in history. Simon takes a story of he found in an archived newspaper of a lynching of two African-American men who are alluded to having sexually assaulted a white man in South Carolina in 1912. The story was vague and passed over with minimal details and so Simon used a fictional narrative from three different perspectives to explore what may have happened that day. The narrative is preceded by the evidence from the newspaper. This felt similar to the ways that a film might explore history by using individual perspectives and narratives.


Rosenstone, Robert, and Alun Munslow, eds. Experiments in Rethinking History. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.