This past weekend, I engaged in my annual Independence Day ritual of rewatching 1776. For those unfamiliar with the film, it is an adaptation of a 1969 musical on the improbable topic of the Declaration of Independence. It manages to simultaneously combine irreverent depictions of the Founding Fathers singing some rather absurd lyrics with more substantial historical content, including dialogue lifted directly from founding-era documents and serious consideration of slavery and the politics of the Revolution. I know I'm not alone in my enthusiasm: when I was an undergraduate, the professor of my American Revolution lecture jokingly told us that she--and, she suspected, many of her colleagues--had become Founding-era historians as a result of this movie.
The movie has, of course, inaccuracies and flaws, but I'm always impressed at how effectively it managed to incorporate the academic currents of the era into a piece of entertainment. It could almost serve grad students preparing for exams as a primer on the historiography of early America in the late '60s and early '70s, capturing the focus on the Founding's paradoxical coexistence of slavery and freedom (and the acknowledgment that slavery implicated the North as well as the South), the renewed interest in women's history, and the desire to retell the stories of ordinary people involved in historical events. (I also recently learned that the movie is a document of early '70s political history as well: Richard Nixon apparently quashed one of the songs from the musical because he objected to it.)
I find it hard to think of recent film of pre-twentieth century American history that has proven similarly successful at integrating historiographical trends. Possible candidates might in my view include Amistad, with its emphasis on the agency of enslaved Africans, and the Canadian film Black Robe, which reflected some of complexity stressed by recent scholarship on Native-European encounter. Still, these are exceptions to the general tendency toward epics painted in broad moral strokes (such as The Patriot or Dances With Wolves) or period pieces whose self-seriousness leads, in my view, to distortion (I would place the John Adams miniseries and Terrence Malick's New World in this category).
While I do not mean to suggest we have fallen from some '60s and '70s golden age (it was, after all, also the era of John Wayne's The Alamo), I do wonder whether academic history has since changed in ways that render it more difficult to package for a broad film audience. The demand for conventional historical narratives, like that presented in 1776, seems undiminished, but academic history focuses on less familiar, previously unappreciated accounts. Arguably, the increased specialization and diversity of the field has made it harder for outsiders to identify a central thrust of historical scholarship. On the other hand, the prominence of microhistories of the lives of fascinating individuals, combined with the rise of transnational history, seem ready-made for a Hollywood producer eager to produce a slick international adventure story.
I would love to hear the views of others on historical films and their relationship to academic history. In particular, as the post above reflects, I've sought out films that overlap with my focus on early American history, but I would be eager to hear from those who study different times and places.