summer 2010 | syllabus | midterm | final | studythepast ddddd













*Syllabus - HIS 597W.02 - Conflict and Consensus*
*The Reel History of Modern America*

Graduate Course - CID 8270 Dr. Jeff Littlejohn
3 hrs credit - Summer Session II - 2010 Office: AB4 455
Sam Houston State University Phone: 936.294.4438 Email:


*Course Description*


Film and television rank among the most powerful forces in modern American life. Together, they shape our views about the past and the present. In 1973, John Harrington warned about the power of visual media to shape our view of the world, estimating that “by the time a person is fourteen, he will witness 18,000 murders on the screen. He will also see 350,000 commercials. By the time he is eighteen, he will stockpile nearly 17,000 hours of view experience and will watch at least twenty movies for every book he reads. Eventually, the viewing experience will absorb ten years of his life”(Harrington, The Rhetoric of Film, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973, v).

At the dawn of this century, psychologists Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described contemporary viewing as a form of addiction: “The amount of time people spend watching television is astonishing. On average individuals in the industrial world devote three hours a day to the pursuit--fully half of their leisure time, and more than on any single activity save work and sleep. At this rate, someone who lives to seventy-five would spend nine years in front of the tube.”( Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi, “Television Addiction is no Mere Metaphor,” Scientific American, February 2002).

As citizens in a twenty-first century democracy, we must be concerned about the pervasive impact that visual media has on the personal psyche. As historians, we must be doubly vigilant, since the images that millions of Americans watch on the History Channel and at their local theater become part of “popular memory” -- a hazy, but often accepted view, of the past.

In this course, students will explore a series of popular films that depict modern American history. We will move from antebellum slavery and the Civil War to Vietnam and Watergate. 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
This course is divided into two units. The first unit (July 9 to July 23) covers the period from 1900 to 1945, while the second unit (July 23 to August 6) examines the period from 1945 to 2000. During these two units, students will view the films and complete the readings as provided in the syllabus.

2) Mid-term and Final Paper
Students will submit a mid-term and a final paper in response to the prompts posted on this website.

  *Exam Will Be Posted *Exam Will Be Due
*Mid-term paper *July 18 *July 25
*Final paper *August 1 *August 6

3) Personal Project
Students will create an assignment of their own based on a film of their choice.
*The assignment must deal with a subject of significance in twentieth-century American history.
*The assignment must be appropriate for undergraduate or graduate students.
*The assignment should deal with a film that is readily available (on for instance).
*The assignment must provide appropriate secondary readings from refereed scholarly sources.
*The assignment must introduce the film and pose critical questions for the viewer.
*A sample project is available here:

  *Topic Approved By Email *Project Due Date
*Personal Project *On or Before July 18 *August 6




Students will submit a mid-term and a final paper each worth 150 points.

Students will submit a personal project worth 100 points.

Total Points: 400.

Grades will be based on a 10 point scale.


*Useful Books* - Not Required for Purchase


Steven Mintz & Randy Roberts, Hollywood's America: Twentieth Century America Through Film (Wiley, 2010).

Peter C. Rollins, Hollywood As Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context (Univ. of Kentucky, 1997).

Kay Sloan, The Loud Silents: Origins of the Social Problem Film (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1988).

James J. Lorence, Screening America: United States History Through Film Since 1900 (Longman, 2006).

Brian Neve, Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition (Routledge, 1992).

Peter Biskind, Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (Holt, 2000).

Robert Brent Toplin, History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1996).

*Assignment Schedule*


Scheduled Dates: July 9 to August 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 viewing and reading assignments, then please email me. You may take an incomplete for the second summer session. However, all work must be done by August 22.

Please note: Unit One includes topics A-G (listed below); Unit Two includes topics H-M (listed below).

You may proceed at your own pace through the films and readings, as long as you complete the required work by the time the assignments are due. Please notify me immediately if you need an extension until August 22.


*Topic A: Introduction


I. C. Jarvie, "Seeing Through Movies," Philosophy of the Social Sciences 8 (1978): 374-397. [pdf]

Steven Mintz and Randy Roberts, eds., “Introduction” from Hollywood’s America: Twentieth-Century America Through Film (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). [large pdf] [small pdf]

Robert A. Rosenstone, "The Historical Film: Looking at the Past in a Postliterate Age," in The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media, edited by Marcia Landy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 50-66. [pdf]

Optional library reading: Robert Brent Toplin, “Cinematic History as Genre,” from Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002), 8-57.


*Topic B: A Troubled Beginning: From Slavery to Reconstruction and Beyond


The Birth of a Nation (1915) [watch free]


Eric Niderost, "The Birth of a Nation," American History 40 (Oct 2005) [pdf]

Eric Foner, "The New View of Reconstruction," American Heritage 34 (Oct/Nov 1983) [pdf]

John Hope Franklin, "Birth of a Nation-Propaganda as History," Massachusetts Review (Aut 1979) [pdf]


*Topic C: The Progressive Era


A Corner in Wheat (1909) [watch free]

The Crime of Carelessness
(1912) [watch free]


Kay Sloan, “Front Page Movies,” The Loud Silents: Origins of the Social Problem Film (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988) [pdf]

James J. Lorence, “Social Protest: A Corner in Wheat (1909) as Muckraking Film” from Screening America: United States History Through Film Since 1900 (New York: Pearson Longman, 2006) [pdf]


*Topic D: Modern America Laughs at Itself


Dancing Mothers (1926) [watch] or It (1927) [watch] or The Plastic Age (1925) [rent online]

Modern Times
(1936) - optional - [no online copy available]


Sara Ross, “’Good Little Bad Girls’: Controversy and the Flapper Comedienne, Film History 13 (Dec 2001): 409-423. [pdf]

Mark Winokur, “Modern Times and the Comedy of Transformation,” Literature Film Quarterly 15 (Dec 1987): 219-226. [pdf]


*Topic E: Frank Capra's Vision of the 1930s

Films: (watch two of the following)

It Happened One Night
(1934) [buy and watch online]

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
(1936) - optional - [buy and watch online]

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
(1939) [buy and watch online]


Brian Neve, "Populism, Romanticism, and Frank Capra," from Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition (New York: Routledge, 1992) [pdf]

Michael P. Rogin and Kathleen Moran, "Mr. Capra Goes to Washington," Representations 84 (Autumn, 2003): 213-248 [pdf]


*Topic F: The Great Depression


Gone with the Wind
(1939) - optional - [rent online]

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) [no online copy available]


Thomas H. Pauly, "Gone With the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath as Hollywood Histories of the Depression," Journal of Popular Film & TV 3:3 (1974): 202-218 [pdf]

Vivian C. Sobchack, "The Grapes of Wrath (1940): Thematic Emphasis through Visual Style," American Quarterly 31 (Winter, 1979): 596-615 [pdf]


*Topic G: World War II


Casablanca (1942) [rent online]

Why We Fight: Prelude to War
(1943) [watch free]

The Negro Soldier
(1944) - optional - [watch free]


Randy Roberts, "You Must Remember This: The Case of Hal Wallis' Casablanca," from Hollywood's America: Twentieth-Century America Through Film (Maden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2010) [pdf]

John Dower, "Know Your Enemy," from War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Knopf, 1987) [pdf]

Thomas Cripps and David Culbert, "The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," American Quarterly 31 (Winter, 1979): 616-640 [pdf]


*The Mid-Term Exam


The Mid-term exam is available here as a pdf file.


*Topic H: Consensus or Conformity


High Noon (1952) - optional - [rent online]

On the Waterfront (1954) [buy and watch online]

12 Angry Men (1957) [rent online]

Inherit the Wind (1960) [rent online]


Peter Biskind, “The Outsider: High Noon and the Conspiracy of the Center,” from Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York: Holt, 2000). [pdf]

Matthew Costello, "Rewriting High Noon: Transformations in American Popular Political Culture During the Cold War," Film and History 33 (2003): 30-40. [pdf]

Kenneth Hey, "Ambivalence as a Theme in "On the Waterfront" (1954): An Interdisciplinary Approach to Film Study," American Quarterly 31 (Winter, 1979): 666-696. [pdf]

Peter Biskind, “We the Jury: 12 Angry Men and the Anatomy of Consensus,” from Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York: Holt, 2000). [pdf]

Edward J. Larson, "Retelling the Tale," from Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (Basic Books, 2006). [pdf]


*Topic I: The Cold War in the 1960s


The Manchurian Candidate (1962) [no online copy available]

Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) [buy and watch online]


Charles Maland, "Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus," American Quarterly 31 (Winter, 1979): 697-717 [pdf]

Jonathan Kirshner, "Subverting the Cold War in the 1960s: Dr. Strangelove, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Planet of the Apes," Film and History 31 (2001): 40-44. [pdf]


*Topic J: The Civil Rights Movement


Mississippi Burning (1988) [no online copy available]

Malcolm X (1992) [rent online]


Robert Brent Toplin, "Mississippi Burning: A Standard to which We couldn't Live Up," from History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (Urbana: Univ of Illinois Press, 1996), 25-44. [pdf]

Bernard J. Armada, “An Important Piece of American History:” Memory, Malcolm X, and African American Collective Identity,” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 18 (1996): 421-431.[pdf]

Todd Boyd, “Popular Culture and Political Empowerment: The Americanization and Death of Malcolm X,” Cineaste 19 (Mar 1993). [pdf]

Sheila Rule, “Malcolm X: The Facts, the Fictions, the Film,” New York Times, November 15, 1992. [html]

J.C. Simpson, “The Battle to Film Malcolm X,” Time 3/16/92, Vol. 139, Issue 11 [html]

Kristen Hoerl, "Cinematic Jujitsu: Resisting White Hegemony through the American Dream in Spike Lee's Malcolm X,” Communication Studies 59 (Oct-Dec2008): 355-370. [pdf]


*Topic K: Vietnam


The Green Berets (1968) - optional - [no online copy available]

Apocalypse Now (1979) [no online copy available]

Platoon (1986) [rent online]


Susan Jeffords, “The New Vietnam Films: Is the Movie Over?” Journal of Popular Film and Television 13 (Winter 1986) 186-194. [pdf] - optional -

Lawrence Suid, “The Making of “The Green Berets,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 6 (1977) 106-125. [pdf] - optional -

Randy Roberts and David Welky, "A Sacred Mission: Oliver Stone and Vietnam,” from Hollywood's America: Twentieth-Century America Through Film (Maden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2010) [pdf]

William D. Romanowski, Oliver Stone's "JFK": Commercial Filmmaking, Cultural History, and Conflict,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 21 (Summer 1993): 63-71. [pdf] - optional -

Kim Worthy, “Hearts of Darkness: Making Art, Making History, Making Money, Making `Vietnam',” Cineaste 19 (Dec 92).

Christopher Sharrett, “Operation Mind Control: Apocalypse Now and the Search for Clarity,” Journal of Popular Film & Television 8 (Spring 80): 34-43. [pdf]

Keith Solomon, “The Spectacle of War and the Specter of "The Horror": Apocalypse Now and American Imperialism,” Journal of Popular Film & Television 35 (Spring 2007): 22-31. [pdf]



*Topic L: Nixon and Watergate


All The President's Men (1976) [rent online]

Nixon (1995) [no online copy available]

Frost-Nixon (2008) - optional - [no online copy available]


Robert Brent Toplin, "All the President's Men: The Story That People Know and Remember," from History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (Urbana: Univ of Illinois Press, 1996), 179-202. [pdf]


*Topic M: The Recent Past


Chinatown (1974) [rent online]

American Beauty (1999) [buy and watch online]


Tom Milne, “Chinatown,” Sight and Sound 43 (Autumn 1974): 243-44. [pdf]


*The Final Exam


The Final exam is available here as a pdf file.





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