Hearts Through History Romance Writers

History on Film

by | December 2, 2013 | 4 comments

I majored in History twice in college.  Yes, one bachelor’s degree wasn’t enough, so I went back and got a second.  In the pursuit of that second degree, I was blessed to take hands-down the best History class ever: Historiography.  For those who don’t know, Historiography is the history of how history has been recorded.  The more historical romance novels I write, the more important I realize the whole concept of historiography is to us. 

In our relentless pursuit of historical accuracy, we have to take into consideration that the way various eras of history have been viewed over time has drastically changed.  My final project for the class was a multi-media presentation about the way that Native Americans have been portrayed in film since the first camera started rolling to the present (which, at the time of the paper, was 1998).  As I wrote my most recent novel, In Your Arms, in which the heroine is Native American, all the lessons that I learned from doing that project came back to me.  I want to share some of them with you to give you an idea of how the perceptions of historians change in general.

The very first images of Native Americans on film come from a time so close to the generation when all was lost that it’s a little disconcerting.  Early footage shows them in recreations of the lives they had once live—recreations like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  As film was being invented, there was still a fascination in the “savages” that had so recently been “conquered and subdued”.

It didn’t take long for that simple fascination to see what these once prolific people now looked like to morph into a commentary on their way of live versus the American way of life.  And let as anyone with a DVD player can see, Native Americans did not come out in a good light.  By the 1930s, when Westerns as a genre reached a height of popularity (even though they were considered “pulp movies” and not great filmmaking) Native Americans were portrayed as violent, backward villains standing in the way of progress.  (The exception was the films of John Ford, who at least portrayed Native Americans in a neutral light)

they died with their boots onTake a look at this poster for They Died With Their Boots On.  This film follows the exploits of General Custer—hero of America who tamed the savage “Injuns” and died a tragic, romantic death at their hands.  Notice how prominent our hero, Errol Flynn as Custer, is.  At this point in the history of how Native Americans were portrayed, the noble white hero was the ideal.  In this film is a scene of the Battle of Washita.  Custer is, of course, the glowing hero.  His battle song, “Gary Owen”, plays throughout the film.  The overall impression is one of the American triumph and mastery over a savage race.

Now fast-forward to 1970.  America has come a long way since Errol Flynn.  We had been through a war and golden years of prosperity.  We had also gotten ourselves mucked up in a futile struggle in Vietnam.  Young people were asking questions and demanding answers about the way things had always been.  The Civil Rights movement had accomplished so much, but still had a long way to go.  We as a nation began to take a hard look at how we treated non-whites within our boarders.

little big manThis was the social and political climate when Little Big Man was released.  Take a look at this poster.  Who’s the hero now?  Yes, that’s Dustin Hoffman.  Definitely a white guy.  But if you’ve seen the movie—and I highly recommend seeing it, because it’s fantastic—Dustin Hoffman’s character is a white man who was raised by the Cheyenne.  The film portrays the Cheyenne as the wronged party, a peaceful and spiritual people who were destroyed by a materialistic, war-mongering American culture.

And yes, Custer is a huge part of this film.  It too depicts the Battle of Washita, but rather than being the noble culmination of a hero’s fight against savagery, it’s a bloodbath.  The peaceful Cheyenne, mostly women and children, are heartlessly massacred by the US Army under Custer’s command.  In a stroke of genius by the filmmakers, the band cheerfully plays “Gary Owen” as we watch innocent people being slaughtered.  Kind of like what we were doing in Vietnam.  Kind of like we had done at the actual Battle of Washita.

As amazing as Little Big Man is, it was a product of its time and it was biased.  Only now the bias had swung in the other direction.  The social conscience of a part of America had been whipped into action by contemporary events.  That was true in the 1970s, and it was true again in the 1990s.

By the time Dances With Wolves came along, the Vietnam War was over, the Civil Rights movement had met with a considerable amount of success, and the passion of the hippie era had been followed by the greed of the 80s.  Now we had a whole different enemy, and therefore a whole different take on how we looked at Native Americans on film.  Toward the beginning of Dances With Wolves, when John Dunbar is asked why he asked to be sent west, he says that he wanted to see the frontier before it was gone.  It’s a concern that we still have today.  We want to see the world before global warming kills the environment.

dances with wolvesBut look at the poster.  Who’s the hero now?  The white man?  The Native Americans?  Or would you say it’s the activists?  Almost a hundred years on from the end of the frontier and the subjugation of the Native Americans, film seems to be telling us that we have a common enemy that is neither white nor red-skinned now.  Our enemy is ourselves.  Dances With Wolves portrays two cultures trying to learn from each other, trying to integrate.  Yep, we’ve still got the evil white man (I just about lost it when they killed Two Socks), but we’ve also got another vicious, blood-thirsty rival tribe.  Maybe the message now is that we don’t know who the enemy is anymore.

It makes me wonder how Native Americans will be portrayed on film in the future.  It also makes me wonder how other eras of history will be portrayed.  It’s not just the treatment of the Native Americans that has changed in film and in the novels we read and write.  The dynamic between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots has shifted back and forth from the 1500s to the present, various eras painting one or the other as the heroine or the villain.  Which one would be the right and which the wrong side in a novel you might write set in the late 1500s?  How about the Regency?  Do we focus on the licentiousness of Prinny’s court or on the careful manners of Jane Austen’s world?  Or the Victorian era?  Is that all fussy morals and conservatism or is it the time of Darwin and technology?

The point that I have hoped to demonstrate here is that there is always more than one way of looking at the facts of history, no matter what the era.  As writers, we can have a lot of fun with this.  I’m pretty sure we can also find historians to back up whichever view we choose to take on any given era, but it’s always interesting to consider when they were writing.  Heck, it’s just fun to delve into the why of history and to look at it with fresh eyes now and then, if you ask me!

What do you think?  What are your favorite historical films and what decades where they produced in?


  1. Lyn Horner

    Very insightful post, Merry. I love both Little Big Man and Daces With Wolves. I wanted to kill those soldiers when they killed Two Socks.

    I remember an old Cecil B. DeMille film about the Crusades that I saw on TV when I was a child. It painted King Richard as a hero and Saladin as the bad guy. In recent years more than one film has portrayed the Crusades from a much different perspective, showing the futility of the struggle.

    • Merry Farmer

      Thanks, Lyn! Oh man, the debate about Richard and the Crusades and John and that entire era of history is a hot one! I’ve gotten burned discussing it here on the blog before. 😉 It’s amazing how film forms our opinions of history though, isn’t it.

  2. Doreen jensen

    Very thoughtful and insightful article, Merry.I very much enjoyed it. It is interesting to note that Graham Greene, one of our native Canadian actors who applied for a part in Dances with Wolves was originally turned down because he looked too white. His agent sent them a picture in full regalia and got a call saying, “That’s the one we want”. It was the same guy. He played Kicking Bird,

    • Merry Farmer

      I love Graham Greene! I’ve seen him in several things. He’s such an understated actor and so good at what he does. Thanks!



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