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Reel History: The World According to the Movies, by Alex von Tunzelmann

London: Atlantic Books / Chicago: Trafalgar Square, 2015, 2017. Pp. viii, 344. Index. $13.95 paper. ISBN: 1782396489.

Rating the History in the Cinema

British journalist and historian, von Tunzelmann, opens by reminding us that despite the oft repeated claims by film makers, “But it’s only a movie,” far too many people get their “history” from film. The author of a regular column in The Guardian devoted to “Reel History”, and a script writer herself (the 2017 Churchill, starring Brian Cox), she then draws on her column to give us a witty, intelligent, and historically annotated survey of the history of the world from prehistoric times to the present as seen in over 100 films.

Von Tunzelmann groups the films in into eight broad periods: “The Ancient World”, “Middles Ages Spread”, “Renaissance Men (and Women)”, “Darkness and Enlightenment”, “The Empire Strikes Back”, “Oh, What Lovely Wars”, “Modern Times” and “Living in the Now”. In each section, she gives an overview of many of films set in the period, and then selects two or three two notable pictures for deeper analysis, frequently with a dash of humor.

For each of the “exemplar” films, von Tunzelmann gives us a brief summary of the setting, the plot, the characters and the casting, with some critical remarks on the latter, plus a commentary, and offers “grades” for “Entertainment” and “History”. So the 1956 The Ten Commandments gets a C+ for Entertainment and a C- for History, though she reminds us that even in ancient times most historians thought the story largely a myth. Von Tunzelmann awards the 1971 Waterloo a C- for Entertainment, but an A- for history, while noting that Rod Steiger’s Napoleon tends to chew the scenery, but Orson Welles is good as Louis XVIII, since they both looked like “Jabba the Hutt,” and remarks that the best line is the historically correct exchange between Lord Uxbridge, who has lost his leg, and the Duke of Wellington. The worst rating in the book is that for the 1966 “epic” One Million Years B.C., which gets a D for Entertainment and an F for History.

Von Tunzelmann misses a chance to compare different films on the same subject, giving us an excellent look at the historically accurate but stodgy 1968 Charge of the Light Brigade, but not of the wildly inaccurate but highly entertaining 1936 version, which is unfortunate. Although there are a number of other books on the subject of film and history, only George MacDonald Fraser’s The Hollywood History of the World, really compares with Reel History, which is an amusing, useful book for historian and film buff alike.

Note: Reel History is also available in hardback, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-78239-646-8, and several e-editions

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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