Role Of The Historical Films In Understanding Of Our Past

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8 October 2015

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Role Of The Historical Films In Understanding Of Our Past


            Historical films help us to understand our history better. For those of us who are young, we acknowledge the fact that many things and events happened in the past. These things and the events that happened in the past form what we refer to as history. For most of us, we rely on the documented records in order for us to understand what happened in that past. Written documentations were the only means of recording these events prior to the invention of the films. Therefore, reading these documents give us a lot of information that we need to know in as far as historical events are concerned. But reading about so much historical events may in the end pass as abstract in the mind. This is because sometimes the mind does not connect the real events that happened into a tangible form. Following the discovery of the art of creating films, historians found it a suitable tool to disseminate historical information. Written documentation was translated into pictures that were to be relayed on the screen. People were chosen to represent the key persons that were believed to have made a lot of contribution in the events of the history in question. The most outstanding events were selected and depicted in the films. Therefore, watching an historical film gives us a better understanding of the past. This is true if the historical film successfully captures the main events and the main characters are allowed to drive the events. In this essay, we are going to look in depth the role that historical films play in our understanding of our past.

            First and foremost, it is important to critically look at the creation of historical films. To begin with, we should acknowledge that the film tells history in form of a story. This story is created to have a beginning, a body which consists of the climax of the story and the end. The end is always the solution that ends the conflict in the story. Just like any other form of a story, a historical film gives the audience to get entertained while at the same time leaves a moral message. Often, the message may not be so direct. Some messages may be such that we compare how things are and how they were. In this case, someone may conclude that we are lucky to be alive at this time than being alive in those days. In addition, some messages may promote doubt. When may be left wondering what may happen in future following how the past has been. For instance, when one watches a film on the Second World War about the invasion of France, one may be left in doubt as to whether there will come a time when England would want to retaliate even in the future.

            Another aspect that we cannot ignore in as far historical films are concerned is that shift history to become the story of individuals. Renowned people are depicted as important on the screen. The individuals are placed at the forefront of the historical processes and not the events. The events take a secondary place. The solutions to their personal problems are taken to substitute the solutions of the historical problems. This is done because it appears that it is easier to demonstrate social problems as personal problems so that the concerned person can fight on to get the solutions to his or her problems. In addition, the story in the films is simplified and closed so that it focuses on the main issues in history. It does not allow sideshows. It also portrays all the historical assertions with the same degree of confidence. The film also transforms a history into emotional, personal and dramatized story. Through actors and the witnesses of the historical events, the history is depicted as either of anguish, joy, despair, adventure, heroism or suffering. Here comes one of the greatest achievements of historical films. While it takes hard work for a historian to write an emotional history, it is very easy to create an emotional film by just using the characters. Use of desperate images and the use of melodies and sound-effects are enough to create intense emotions in the audience concerning the events depicted on the screen. Not that written history lacks emotions. The only problem is that it points us to the emotion rather than inviting us to experience these emotions like in the case of films. The aspect of emotion may play a part in helping us understand the past by making us relive it though emotionally. By feeling empathic, we can actually understand what those people in the past went through. These emotions help us connect to the past people depicted in the film. They also make us understand the events better as well as the situations that surrounded the historical event.

            It is also important to note that films also portray history a process. In other words, it brings together all the aspects of life that written history would otherwise split. Take for example a film that is depicting war. Politics and political dimensions surrounding the event are depicted at the same time as economics, races, social class and the gender of the individuals is depicted. What we mean is that written history puts different aspects as compartments. For instance, the politics are handled separately. The family lives of the individuals are dealt with as a separate entity. Social class and social mobility is tackled separately too. In other words, different aspects of the history are compartmentalized. In contrast, films depict all these aspects as they shape the events in an interwoven manner. The social life changes, the political dimensions, the race and the languages of the individuals are all interwoven to shape the events that define the historical moments. The film also strives to let us see certain things that we may not be able to experience in the written history. Take for instance the past buildings, the landscape at the time and the artifacts used. We are able to understand better the life in the past if we can see the kind of buildings the past people lived in. The landscape can also tell us much more about the area where the historical events took place. In addition, we gain a better understanding of how the past objects were used. This is especially important in the historical events relating to war. Past weapons and how they were used is very interesting. Seeing them in use is better than reading about how they were used.

            In this essay, we are going to analyze two historical films in view of what we have discussed so far. We are interested in finding out whether they capture the reality of the past in a manner that we can understand. These films include the “Zulu” and the “Schindler’s list”. The “Zulu” is a historical war film created in 1964. It was created to depict the events that surrounded the war between the British colonialists and the Zulu community. This war took place in the 1879. The British soldiers were fighting the Zulu in an attempt to take charge of the community as part of its territory. It takes us through the major events that finally led to the success of British rule against the Zulu. On the other hand, the Schindler’s List” is a historical film created in 1993. The film primarily concentrates on the life of Oskar Schindler, a German businessperson, who risked everything he had to save the lives of the refugees who were to be killed during the Second World War He saved them by employing them in his factories. It ends in a dramatic manner such that as Schindler runs out of resources to take care of the refugees, the war ends. This is after Germany surrenders and the war in Europe ends.

            When we watch the film “Zulu”, we truly understand the events that surrounded the Zulu in 1879. The film begins by a narration of the defeat of the British forces at the Battle ofIsandlwana in the hands of the Zulu warriors. Then, we see Zulus walking by the dead bodies of the British soldiers. The Zulu soldiers are seen gathering the British guns. This is a perfect illustration of the actual events that happened on the 22nd of January in 1879. On that morning, British soldiers who had advanced towards Isandlwana had been overpowered by the Zulu. To capture the joy of the Zulu upon this enormous victory, the film shows the Zulu people singing war songs of victory. British soldiers appear to fear the Zulus in the subsequent moments. It becomes evident that the Zulus are strong and not as the British soldiers had anticipated. The British center column had been seriously deranged. The camp was greatly weakened. Many casualties had been witnessed. There was massive destruction of property and food supplies. Ammunition supplies and the vehicles belonging to the British were also not spared by the Zulus. All these events are captured so vividly in the film. At some point, we see British soldiers trying to escape when Witt gets drunk and makes demoralizing predictions for them. He insinuates that the British soldiers are bound to be defeated by the Zulu. This insinuation makes them terrified because it is tied to what had just happened at Isandlwana. Historically, written records state that there were about 4000 Zulu soldiers involved in the battle. In the film, there is the mention of about 4000 Zulu warriors advancing towards the British soldiers’ camp. For this reason, the British soldiers are nervous.

            The other outstanding event that is depicted in the film so vividly is the fierce war that takes place towards the end between the British sodiers and the Zulus. The war is so severe that many of the Zulus lose their lives. This turn of event weakens the Zulus and most of the warriors withdraw from the war. This is what culminates to the ultimate success of the British against the Zulus. The victory is depicted as the Zulus singing a song that praises the British soldiers instead of praising themselves. To the audience, this is a demonstration of total surrender to the enemy. These events are recorded in the written history. They took place in Kambua. It is recorded that close to 1,200 Zulu warriors lost their lives in this heavy fight.

            Moreover, it becomes so evident why the Zulus lost in the battle when we watch the film rather than reading about it in the written history. First and foremost, we are able to notice how disorganized the Zulu warriors were on the battlefield. While the British soldiers created battle columns, the Zulus fought in one battle front and this gave a chance to the British soldiers to attack easily from different sides. The other factor that can be attributed to their final defeat is their weapons. We can clearly see that these Zulu warriors used daggers, spears and shields in the war. The British soldiers, on the other hand, used guns. Daggers an only be used to attack another person at a very close range. Spears are meant for throwing to the opponent not far from the attacker. A gun can shoot from very far. Using this comparison, we can again see why the Zulus could not win against the British soldiers ultimately.

            The film appears too simple in its creation, but manages to capture all the important historical events. It gives the audience an opportunity to empathize with the Zulus upon getting subdued by the British. We catch a glimpse of the instruments used in the war. Daggers and spears are the main items used in the war by the Zulu warriors. The fact that the film offers an easy and clear understanding of the events that took place in 1879 in Zululand cannot be overemphasized. All the events depicted are real and historical. It is therefore an aid to help us understand our past.

            Let us turn our attention to the film of Holocaust, the “Schindler’s List”. The film focuses on this extraordinary man in history who risked everything, including his life, to save lives. The man is Oscar Schindler. He saved thousands of Jews lives. These Jews are referred to as Schindler Jews. To date, it has never been understood why Oscar Schindler decided to save the Jews. It was an action that no other German could have dared to try, leave alone do. This happened during the Second World War. Germans were the major target of the war because of the their disrespect for life. Other European nations had colluded to attack Germany that was adamant in its dehumanizing lifestyle. It is during this time that this special German came to the limelight as being the person who saved most of the Jews in the refugee camps. He saved them through employing them in his factories.

            In the film, Schindler is depicted as a business person who is out to make money. He seems not to care how he makes money, even if it means swindling other people. He has two major factories that are not producing anything of value. He gets funded by the Nazi party. It is important to state that the story of Schindler becomes so important owing to the fact that he is a native German. He gets a lot of funding from Wehrmacht and SS officials. In his factories, Schindler employs Jews workers. The reason for this is because they are cheap. This way, most of them are not transported to the refugee camps. They are also saved from being killed. When Schindler realizes that Goeth is killing people, he feels very bad. It is at this moment that he decides to concentrate his efforts to saving the innocent people. The title “Schindler’s List” originates from the list that was created by Schindler with the help of Stern. The list contained the names of the people who were to be transferred to Brinnlitz. These people who are taken there are saved from being transported to Auschwitz. In the process of all this, Schindler spends a lot of money bribing the leaders so that he can take the Jews to a safe place. Fortunately, he succeeds in transporting most of the Jews to safety.From a historical point of view, this film helps us understand our past.

            In conclusion, we have seen that historical films help us understand the events of the past better. Historical films are better understood than the written history. This is because they depict history as a process and take advantage of the emotional nature of the events. The latter one makes the audience connect with the individuals in history. We have seen that in the film “Zulu”, the British managed to overpower the Zulus. Nevertheless, it was not a simple battle. In the film “Schindler’s List” we come across a man, Schindler, who is filled with pity on seeing the sufferings of the Jews. He takes it as his responsibility to save them. From these two films, we can comfortably say that historical films can help us understand a lot about our past.


The Zulu film (1964). Directed by CyEndfield.

The Schindler’s List film (1993). Directed by Steven Spielberg.

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"Role Of The Historical Films In Understanding Of Our Past" StudyScroll, Oct 8, 2015.

"Role Of The Historical Films In Understanding Of Our Past" StudyScroll, 8-Oct-2015. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 2-Feb-2023]

StudyScroll. (2015). Role Of The Historical Films In Understanding Of Our Past. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 2-Feb-2023]

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