summer 2010 | syllabus | studythepast ddddd













*Syllabus - HIS 597W.01 - Flashpoints on Film
Early American History Through Popular Movies

Graduate Course - CID 7381 Dr. Jeff Littlejohn
3 hrs credit - Summer Session I - 2010 Office: AB4 455
Sam Houston State University Phone: 936.294.4438 Email:


*Course Description


In this course, students will explore a series of popular films that depict early American history. We will move from Columbus and the contact experience to antebellum slavery and the Civil War. All the while, our focus will remain squarely targeted on three related questions.

1) How accurate is the historical interpretation presented in each film?
2) Why did the each filmmaker choose to present his or her story in the way that was selected?
3) What does each film tell us about the era and environment in which it was created?

It is my hope that an analysis of these questions may lead to a better understanding of popular films about historical subjects and about those subjects themselves.


*Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will gain factual knowledge.
2. Students will learn fundamental principles, generalizations, and theories.
3. Students will learn to analyze and critically evaluate ideas, arguments, and points of view.


  1) Films and Readings
Students will view the films and complete the reading assignments as provided in the syllabus.

2) Response Statements
After each film, students will submit a response statement. All response statements will be posted to the discussion board in e-college, where other class members may view and comment on them.




Students will submit 8 response statements each worth 50 points.

Total Points: 400.

Grades will be based on a 10 point scale.

*Assignment Schedule


Scheduled Dates: June 8 to July 6
Please note that the schedule presented below is abbreviated due to time constraints imposed by the university calendar. If you need additional time to complete the reading and writing assignments, then please email me. You may take an incomplete for the first summer session. However, all work must be completed by August 22.

Topic I: Columbus: From Contact to Conquest
Film: 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

Reading for Reference
- Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Columbus (Oxford University Press, 1991)
Available used for $1.00 from

Optional Resources:
- Felipe Fernández-Armesto,"Columbus-Hero or Villain," History Today 42 (1992) [ html ]
- Pauline Moffitt Watts, "Prophecy and Discovery: On the Spiritual Origins of Christopher Columbus's 'Enterprise of the Indies'," American Historical Review, 90, 1 (February 1985): 73-102 [ pdf ]
- Helen Wallis, "What Columbus Knew," from History Today , May 1992 (42): 17-23 [ html ]
- Maps to accompany Helen Wallis's essay [ html ]
- Excerpts from Columbus's Journal [ html ]
- Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, selected pages [ pdf ]

Writing Prompt - due June 9 (second day of class)
The life of Christopher Columbus is shrouded in myth, mystery, and misinformation. Hailed by some as a visionary genius and grand mariner, he is reviled by others as a greedy entrepreneur and ruthless imperialist. Your job in this assignment is to get beyond the hype. What did Columbus think about the world around him, and what did he really hope to do in 1492?

In a movie review of 1000 words or less, discuss Columbus's conception of the world as it is portrayed in the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise. This is NOT a general movie review. It is to FOCUS on Columbus's conception of the world -- its size, nature, and peoples -- as it is portrayed in the film. What did the movie-makers get right? What did they get wrong? And, what does their presentation of the past tell us about the quincentenary of Columbus's first voyage?


Topic II: Hernan Cortés and the Conquest of the Aztec Empire
Film: Michael Wood's Conquistadors: The Fall of the Aztecs

The Film is Available Here

Reading for Reference
- Camilla Townsend, "Burying the White Gods: New Perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico," American Historical Review 108, 3 (June 2003): 659-87 [ pdf ]
- Miguel Leon-Portillo, The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Beacon Press, 2007).

Writing Prompt - due June 13
In 1519, Spanish explorer Hernan Cortés left Cuba looking for riches in the islands to the west. What he found was one of the greatest civilizations on earth, the Aztec Empire. This assignment explores recent historiographical debates about Cortés and the conquest of Mexico.

First, you are to watch Michael Wood's documentary, Conquistadors: The Fall of the Aztecs, and familiarize yourself with the traditional narrative he tells. Second, you are to read Camilla Townsend's essay, "Burying the White Gods," and examine her criticism of the traditional narrative. Third, you are to write a 1000-word essay exploring Townsend's criticism of the traditional narrative. What alternative explanations does she offer? Do you find her analysis convincing?


Topic III: Early Encounters in North America
Film: The New World (2005)

Reading for Reference
- Helen Rountree, "The Powhatan Indian Way of Life in 1607," from Pocahontas's People [ pdf ]
- Edmund Morgan, "Jamestown Fiasco," from American Slavery, American Freedom [ pdf ]
- Gordon M. Sayre, "John Smith and Samuel de Champlain: Founding Fathers and Their Indian Relations" from Les Sauvages Americains: Representations of Native Americans in French and English Colonial Literature (University of North Carolina Press, 1997) [ pdf ]

Optional Resources
-Website: Jamestown and the Literature of Justification [ html ]
-Website: The Pocahontas Archive [ html ]

Writing Prompt - due June 18
In his recent film, The New World, director Terrence Malick offers an ethereal, dreamy exploration of the contact experience in colonial Virginia. Does the film accurately portray the founding of England's first colony in 1607? And, what does Malick want the viewer to take away from the film -- what is its meaning or message for the twenty-first century?


Topic IV: The Salem Witch Trials
Film: The Crucible (1996)

Reading for Reference
-Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (W.W. Norton, 1998).
-Website: Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project [ html ]

Writing Prompt - due June 21
In this film adaptation of Arthur Miller's classic play, "The Crucible," Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder play key characters in the witch-craft scare that blazed through Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. After watching this film, compare it with Carol Karlsen's account of the witch trials that occurred in seventeenth century Massachusetts. What are the primary differences in the two accounts?


Topic V: The French and Indian War
Film: The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Reading for Reference
Ian K. Steele, Betrayals: Fort William Henry and the 'Massacre' (Oxford University Press, 1990).

Writing Prompt - due June 25
Michael Mann's historical epic, The Last of the Mohicans (1992), is loosely based on James Fenimore Cooper's classic novel of the same title. Set in 1757, Mann's film offers a moving account of the French and Indian War and the alleged "massacre" at Fort William Henry on the southern end of Lake George in New York. Based on your reading of Ian Steele's book, Betrayals, what did the film get right, and what did it get wrong?


Topic VI: The American Revolutionary War
Film: The Patriot (2000)

Reading for Reference
-Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War (University of North Carolina Press, 1979)
-The Patriot: Review [ html ]

Writing Prompt - due June 29
Roland Emmerich's movie, The Patriot (2000), offers history students an invaluable chance to analyze both the American Revolution and the way that Hollywood depicts the American past. For this assignment, you should watch the film, learn about the historical events and characters depicted in it, and then analyze the movie in a critique focusing on the historical accuracy of the film. Why was the film so inaccurate and what does it tell us about the popular depiction of the American past at the dawn of the twenty-first century?


Topic VII: Slave Trading and Human Freedom
Film: Amistad (1997)

Reading for Reference
- Howard Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy (Oxford University Press, 1997)
- Source Material at the National Archives [ html ]

Writing Prompt - due July 2
In his 155-minute saga, Amistad, director Stephen Spielberg recounts the story of an 1839 slave mutiny and the legal battle that it created. The narrative involves many fascinating characters, including Cinqué (an enslaved African), Roger Sherman Baldwin (a famous lawyer), and John Quincy Adams (former President and outspoken advocate for the enslaved).

Despite the compelling story presented in the film, however, historian Eric Foner has written that the Amistad case was not a "turning point" in the popular perception of slavery in the United States. "In fact," he wrote, "the Amistad case revolved around the Atlantic slave trade — by 1840 outlawed by international treaty — and had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery as a domestic institution. Incongruous as it may seem, it was perfectly possible in the nineteenth century to condemn the importation of slaves from Africa while simultaneously defending slavery and the flourishing slave trade within the United States." [For the full review, click here].

If Foner is right, and he most certainly is, why would Stephen Spielberg and his associates place such emphasis on the Amistad case? What does this film tell us about the popular interpretation of slavery, the courts, and white men's role in abolishing slavery?


Topic VIII: The Civil War
Film: Glory (1989)

Reading for Reference
- Luis F. Emilio, A Brave Black Regiment: A History of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry: 1863-1865 (Da Capo Press, 1995).
-James M. McPherson, “The ‘Glory' Story,” The New Republic, January 8 & 15, 1990, pp. 22–27.
- Reel American History site [ html ]

Writing Prompt - due July 6
Released in 1989, Glory is a fascinating film about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry -- one of the first African American units to fight in the Civil War. Told from the point of view of the regiment's commanding officer, Robert Gould Shaw, the film portrays the racial tensions and triumphs of the era. How does the film portray Shaw and his men? Is the portrait correct? And, what does the film tell us about popular interpretations of the Civil War?





back to top