Films As Teaching Tool

30 Jan

Here at the University of Edinburgh, 20-24 February 2012 is the first ever Innovative Learning Week (ILW.) As part of a joint initiative between the Edinburgh University Students Association and the University, normal teaching is suspended and replaced with field trips, discussions groups, public lectures, theatre productions, and (most importantly for this post) film screenings.

The American History 2 are doing their part by organising a mini film festival, showcasing significant movies that look at a particular period in history. We’ll be showing the Civil War drama Glory, Depression-era comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, early Cold War paranoia classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the Vietnam war film Full Metal Jacket. Personally, I’m excited to have this chance to show a range of intellectually and visually stimulating movies that will hopefully enhance students understanding.

I make no secret of the fact that I am a big fan of using film as an adjunct to other pedagogical methods. Cinema can give a wonderful visual sense of a period in time, a feeling that it is hard to capture through other media. There is also the fact that – in many cases – a film is an attractive prospect for students, something a bit different from being assigned readings of primary sources.

None of the above is to say that films are perfect as a teaching tool. I’m well aware of the argument that films could confuse students and lead them to believe things that are historically untrue or anachronistic. I’m not so sure that I buy into this. A carefully chosen film, appropriately introduced and caveated, is a worthwhile part of the learning experience. There is a big difference between – for example – using Full Metal Jacket to offer an insight into the dehumanizing effect of the Vietnam war and military training and trying to use utter hogwash like the recent – and terminally awful – W.E. to give an insight into the political leanings of the British royal family in the 1930s. One is a convincing and gut-wrenching portrayal of people in war, written by men who were there – Gustav Hasford and Michael Herr. The other is a facile pile to steaming ordure written by people who – it seems – have never even heard of a history book, let alone looked at one.(1)

Pointing up the inaccuracies in films can also be a good way to stoke debate in a class situation. Point students at a film, then ask them “Well, what’s wrong with that?” I thoroughly enjoy Reel History in the Guardian, a regular column that points out the relative accuracy (or more often inaccuracy) of recent and classic films. Such inaccuracies can be used to spur further investigation into the genuine story.

There is also the use of films as an artefact of their era. Studying Invasion of the Bodysnatchers as a visual representation of the mid-1950s is less useful than using it to study the political climate of the era. Although it is a widely contested film (right-wing fears of communist infiltration or left-wing fears of McCarthyite conformity are just two interpretations), it allows you to get a sense of the fear and paranoia of early Cold War America.

There is  certainly an argument to be made for using cinema in history teaching environment. And, I’m very glad that we have the chance to do that here at the university in the very near future.


(1) Alex von Tunzelmann offers a fantastic evisceration in her most recent Reel History column for the Guardian. They announce the death of George III for heaven’s sake! Maybe news travels slowly in the part of the world Madonna inhabits.

3 Responses to “Films As Teaching Tool”

  1. Soren February 3, 2012 at 1:55 am #

    Just out of curiosity, why Full Metal Jacket and not, say, Platoon?

    • malcolmcraig February 3, 2012 at 8:29 am #

      Good question. There are a couple of reasons actually. Firstly, although FMJ wasn’t one of the films I choose for screening, I agree with the member of staff who put the film forward that it is the better film. Secondly, our American History 2 students are studying Dispatches by Michael Herr this semester. As Herr was one of the screenwriters for FMJ, it makes sense to look at how his experiences come through in the written and cinematic forms.



  1. Bodysnatched!: Screening Invasion of the Body Snatchers « theatomicage - February 20, 2012

    […] normally be constrained by the curriculum.” The American History 2 course team have organised a series of film screenings relating to different periods in American history. We’ll be showing Glory (the Civil War), O […]

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