History Through Film, Spring 2013, Syllabus

Contact Information:

Dr. Robert Stephens
1319A Ambler Johnston Hall
Phone: 231-5326
Email: rosteph2@vt.edu
Webpage: http://www.history.vt.edu/stephens
Office Hours: Mondays 1-3, or by appointment

Course Meetings:

Film screenings: Mondays 6-9, Ambler Johnston Theater
Discussion Sections: Tuesday or Thursday 2:00-2:40, McBryde 126


This course will use film to approach significant problems in history. Students will be asked to rethink the relationships between “reality” and “representation” and to reconceptualize the boundaries between history and film. The course will be arranged around several themes: slavery, war, and political violence. Each week students will view a film and read corresponding texts.

Because of the nature of the course and the amount of time that must be dedicated to screening the films, this class will be very different than a traditional lecture-based course. It requires students to be self-motivated learners and emphasizes individual close readings of the assigned texts, thoughtful individual critiques of the films and readings, and weekly discussions. Students who feel more comfortable in lecture or “fact-oriented” classes should be advised that this class might not be well suited to their needs.

The exams will consist of two sections: an objective exam and a take-home essay. Students who have difficulty with essay exams may want to consider whether this course will help them accomplish their goals, and all students should consider themselves duly warned.

Course Evaluation:

Three Exams: 66%
Weekly Blog Posts: 20%
Professionalism: 14%


Format: The exams will include two sections: 1) an out-of-class essay and 2) an in-class objective exam (i.e. multiple choice, matching, true/false, etc.).  The essay questions will be posted one week in advance of the exam. Students must bring their printed essay to class on the day of the objective portion of the exam.

Grading: The essays will be graded for content and style. Each essay must contain: a clear and convincing thesis, specific evidence from the readings and the film, a conclusion, and proper Chicago Manual of Style footnotes. Grammar and spelling count!

Social Media:

Blogging: For this course, you’ll be required to set up a blog and use it for your weekly assignments (and for anything else you would care to post about).  The future of higher education will be suffused with media platforms. Not only will you need to learn to use them deftly in the classroom, but you need to start building your own “digital” presence and learning to manage that presence.  I won’t go into great detail here on the conceptual reasons for why to use blogging; instead, I’ll point you to this thoughtful piece by Gardner Campbell.

You can set your blog up immediately here (https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/). Here are brief instructions on setting up your blog. Feel free to personalize them in any way you choose; here are some advanced tips and other documentation.  You should think of your blog as a sketchpad for you to present ideas and to think through this course and your learning.

Each blog post should make specific references to the film and the readings.  All blog posts are due by Sunday at midnight.

In this course, we’ll have a blog that will use the RSS feeds from each of your blogs to create a “mother blog” where you (and others) can follow the discussion in the class, where you can post comments on each others essays, and where, most importantly, we can keep the conversation going.  Please send me your URL as soon as you have it, and I’ll add you to the feed.  This isn’t about judgment, but about collective learning in a supportive environment; keep that in mind.

Twitter: I’ll also be using Twitter and suggest that you do so as well.  Twitter, in my estimation, only does some things well, like sharing links and short ideas.  But it does that very well.  When I run into something that I think would help the class, I’ll tweet it with the hashtag #HIST3694.  And I challenge you to do the same.  There are so many moments in the day when we run into something that sparks an idea: let’s share those!


This is not merely an attendance grade.  This grade will gauge your approach to the course: your preparedness, your comportment in class, your participation in discussions, and your enthusiasm.  Since this course is largely discussion-based, it will behoove you to attend every class.  Repeated absences will seriously diminish your final grade.  But I want to see much more than just attendance. I want to see you grapple with the issues; I want to see you think out loud; I want you to form your own opinions and articulate them.  I want you to treat this course as a professional-in-training, which is what you already are.  My prime directive is: everyone has a perspective, and our ideas collectively are better than our ideas in solitude.  Therefore,  everyone has the opportunity and obligation to contribute in every class.  This means you must come to class prepared.  To do this, you must have seen the film, done the reading, and reflected in writing on your blog.

Some Policy Matters: 

1. Completion of all assignments is required, even if you are taking the course pass-fail.
2. Late exams will be given only with an official, documented excuse.
3. Please make sure your cell phones are silenced when you enter class.
4. Laptops may not be used during film screenings or discussions.  During the screenings, the light disturbs other students, and during the discussions, I want you focused on talking not typing.

Honor Code: 

Virginia Tech has a stringent honor code. The honor pledge states: “I have neither given nor received unauthorized assistance on this assignment.” If you are not familiar with the honor code system, I strongly encourage you to do so immediately; by attending this university you tacitly agree to be governed by this set of rules. The honor code is available at the following URL:  http://www.honorsystem.vt.edu/

The honor code will be strictly enforced in this course. This includes all assignments. Any infractions will be reported to the Honor System Review Board and could lead to a failing grade in the course, community service, probation, or even expulsion from the university.


The following books are required reading and are available at the bookstore:

1. Davis, Natalie Z. Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).


In addition to the required text, you will be required to read a number of scholarly articles and chapters from books.  The articles will be available in Adobe Acrobat PDF format in Scholar.

Many of the readings for this course are also available from various electronic vendors to which the University Library subscribes. In the cases in which it was possible, I have included a stable URL link to the article. These links will only work if the sites recognize you as an authorized VT user. You can accomplish this in one of two ways: 1) you can use a computer connected to a campus network (ethernet or wireless), or if you are not on campus, 2) you can sign on to the library’s off campus ezproxy, using you pid and password. If you have problems accessing the readings through the stable URL links, please use Scholar.

You should read all of the readings assigned for the week before your discussion session meets!


Outside of class, this course will utilize Scholar. The URL for scholar is: https://scholar.vt.edu/portal. You should be able to sign on with your pid.  If you have problems logging on, please contact 4-HELP.


Week 1: January 22  & 24

Introduction: “History and Representation”

1. Davis, Slaves on Screen, 1-16.

Week 2: January 29 & 31  

Film: Spartacus (1960)

1. Davis, Slaves on Screen, 17-41.
2. Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty,” The American Historical Review 93 (1988): 1193-1199. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1873534

Reviews: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054331/externalreviews

Week 3: February 5 & 7  

Film: Gladiator (2000)

1. Amelia Arenas, “Popcorn and Circus: Gladiator and the Spectacle of Virtue,” Arion 9, 1 (2001): 1-12.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/20163824
2. Ward Briggs, “Layered Allusions in Gladiator,” Arion 15, 3 (2008): 9-38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29737358
3. Damian Sutton, “The DreamWorks effect: the case for studying the ideology of production design,” Screen 45 (2004): 383-390. http://screen.oxfordjournals.org/content/45/4/383.full.pdf+html

Reviews: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0172495/externalreviews

Week 4: February 12 (Class Meets together on Tuesday)

Film: Burn! (1969)

1. Davis, 41-69, 121-136.
2. Robert Brent Toplin, “Cinematic History: Where Do We Go From Here,” The Public Historian 25 (2003): 79-91. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3379185

Reviews: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064866/externalreviews

Week 5: February 19 & 21

Film: Review Session: February 19
Exam: February 21

Week 6: February 26 & 28 

Film: Saving Private Ryan (1998)

1. John Bodnar, “Saving Private Ryan and Postwar Memory in America,” The American Historical Review 106 (2001): 805-817. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2692325
2. Phil Landon, “Realism, Genre, and Saving Private Ryan,” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 28 (1998): 58-62. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/film_and_history/summary/v028/28.3-4.landon.html
3. “An Internet Discussion of Saving Private Ryan, Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 28 (1998): 72-81. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/film_and_history/summary/v028/28.3-4.article.html

Reviews: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120815/externalreviews

Week 7: March 5 & 7 

Film: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

1. Ben Walters, “Debating Inglourious Basterds,” Film Quarterly 63, 2 (2009): 19-21.  Scholar.
2. Ryan Gilbey, “Days of Gloury,” Sight & Sound 19, 9 (2009): 16-21.  Scholar.
3. Todd Herzog, “‘What shall the history books read?’ The debate over Inglourious Basterds and the limits of representation,” in Robert von Dassanowsky, ed., Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds: A Manipulation of Metacinema (New York: Continuum, 2012), 271-296.  Scholar.
4. Thomas Frank, “Blood Sport,” Harper’s 236 (March 2013): 4, 6-7. Scholar.

Reviews: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0361748/externalreviews

Week 8:  March 9 & 11

Spring Break

Week 9: March 19 & 21

Film: La Grande Illusion (1937)

1. Pierre Sorlin, “War and Cinema: Interpreting the Relationship,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 14 (1994): 357-66.  http://ezproxy.lib.vt.edu:8080/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=9411303449&site=ehost-live&scope=site
2. Marc Ferro, “La Grand Illusion and its Receptions,” in Cinema and History (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1988): 132-138. Scholar.
3. Stanley Kauffmann, “Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion,” Horizon 14, Nr. 3 (1972): 49-55. Scholar.

Reviews: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0028950/externalreviews

Week 10: March 26 & 28

Film: Restrepo (2010)

1. Bing West, “Groundhog War: The Limits of Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs 163 (2011): 163-171. http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/fora90&g_sent=1&collection=journals&id=939
2. “The Making of Restrepo: Behind the Scenes: An Interview with the Filmmakers,” National Geographic Movies: http://movies.nationalgeographic.com/movies/restrepo/junger-hetherington/
3. Adam Weinstein, “A Few Good Men,” Mother Jones (Sept/Oct 2010): http://www.motherjones.com/media/2010/07/sebastian-junger-interview
[Note there are 4 pages!]

Reviews: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1559549/externalreviews

Week 11: April 2 & 4  

Review Session: April 2
Exam: April 4

Week 12: April 9 & 11

Film: Munich (2005)

1. Daniel J. Levine, “Munich: Warp-Speed Storytelling and the War on Terror,” Theory and Event 9 (2006): http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theory_and_event/v009/9.3levine.html
2. Yosefa Loshitzky, “The Post-Holocaust Jew in the Age of “The War on Terror”: Steven Spielberg’s MunichJournal of Palestine Studies 40 (Winter 2011): 77-87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jps.2011.XL.2.77

“Munich – Spielberg speaks about a movie,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gw8sDJtGaqI

Reviews: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0408306/externalreviews

Week 13: April 16 & 18  

Film: Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex  (2008)

1. Jeremy Varon, “Stammheim Forever and the Ghosts of Guantanamo: Cultural Memory and the Politics of Incarceration,” in Baader-Meinhof Returns: History and the Cultural Memory of German Left-Wing Terrorism, eds. Gerrit-Jan Berendse and Ingo Cornils (New York: Rodopi, 2008): 303-326. Scholar.
2. Raphael Schlembach, “Some notes on the ‘Baader-Meinhof Complex’,” Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization 9 (2009): 234-241.  http://www.ephemeraweb.org/journal/9-3/9-3schlembach.pdf
3. Charity Schribner, “Fucking and shooting: the release of The Baader-Meinhof Complex,” The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture 2, 2 (2009): 251-253.  Scholar.
4. Jon Zelamy, “The Baader Meinhof Complex: Talkin’ Terrorism with Uli Edel,” http://eightmillionstories.com/archive.php?gvID=159

Reviews: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0765432/externalreviews

Week 14: April 23 & 25

Film: Hunger (2008)

Watch (but only after you’ve seen the film):
Steve McQueen interview, part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyP9xfkHv5s
Steve McQueen interview, part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozgk8F2auo8
Steve McQueen interview, part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AY_nxm0ZFfM
Steve McQueen interview, part 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWUArEQgRTw

1. Kirk Leech, “A delayed appetite for the facts,” The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/21/northernireland-northernireland
(Make sure to take a look at the comments; it gives a good sense of the ongoing debate.)
2. Vanessa Thorpe and Henry McDonald, “Anger as new film of IRA hero Bobby Sands screens at Cannes,” The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/may/11/cannesfilmfestival.northernireland
3. Zachary Wigon, “The Cinema is a Train: On Steven McQueen’s Hunger,” Filmmaker (Fall 2012): http://filmmakermagazine.com/28233-the-cinema-is-a-train-on-steven-mcqueens-hunger/

Reviews: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0986233/externalreviews

Week 15: April 30 & May 2

Film: Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

1. Caetlin Benson-Allott, “Standard Operating Procedure: Mediating Torture,” Film Quarterly 62, 4 (2009): 39-44.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2009.62.4.39
2. Linda Williams, “Cluster Fuck: The Forcible Frame in Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure,” Camera Obscura 25 (2010): 29-67.  http://ezproxy.lib.vt.edu:8080/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=vth&AN=51119025&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Reviews: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0896866/externalreviews

Week 16: May 7 

Final Review: May 7

Final Exam:

Monday, May 13 at 4:25 PM

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