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TOPIC IN FOCUS

Exploring History through the Movies

How have larger-than-life superheroes like Spider-Man and Superman helped shaped the American identity? How has the concept of the big screen “supervillain” enabled moviegoers around the world to make sense of war, from World War II to the war on terror? How did classic movie monsters of the 1950s help audiences grapple with the fear of nuclear disaster?

Take a scholarly tour of cinema pop culture this month with selections from Ƶ’ Cultural History and Film Studies libraries, and discover what we can learn when we look at popular movies as primary sources, and use them as lenses to help us examine our own history.


Image Credit: Ian Walton

Superheroes and the Evolution of National Identity

When historians “read” a popular film, they use that film as a primary source that can offer insight into how a society views issues of gender, class, race, war, and more. The case studies in Histories on Screen: The Past and Present in Anglo-American Cinema and Television analyze films for historical study, offering readers contextual examination of documentaries, films, and television shows from Britain and the United States.

In this chapter, cultural history scholar Michael Goodrum analyzes key figures in the realm of superhero films to consider how the strengths, weaknesses, and origin stories of such characters have shaped Americans’ sense of their national identity since the 1940s.



Image Credit: Murray Close

Supervillains and Historic Threats

What makes a great story even greater? An iconic villain, of course. The American Villain: Encyclopedia of Bad Guys in Comics, Film, and Television is a comprehensive cultural history reference text that pulls back the curtain on popular figures from The Joker to Hannibal Lecter, offering backstory and insight into a vast gallery of fictional foes.

Read this selection from the text’s collection of introductory critical essays: “Nazis, Communists, and Terrorists… Oh my! The Rise of the Supervillain and the Evolution of Modern American Villain,” which analyzes a rich roster of rogues throughout the decades, contextualizing their unique threats to America during World War II, the Cold War, and the War on Terrorism.



Image Credit: LMPC

Creature Features and National Fears

When we look back at science fiction cinema through history, we discover new frontiers, strange creatures, and terrifying threats that often provide fantastical illustration of very real earthbound fears of the time. In his work Science Fiction Cinema and 1950s Britain: Recontextualizing Cultural Anxiety, writer and film history expert Matthew Jones draws on extensive archival research to recount the story of 1950s British moviegoers and the monsters they watched on the silver screen, offer a critical analysis of both British and American sci-fi films.

This sample chapter takes researchers on a tour of 1950s “creature features” such as Beginning of the End (1958), Them! (1954) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), which embodied the fears facing British audiences at that time, including the threat of nuclear annihilation.



Image Credit: Getty Images/Silver Screen Collection

Movie Vigilantes and Civil Unrest

The 1970s saw a new type of action movie emerge in American pop culture, introducing a disturbing new hero: the vigilante. Films like Joe (1970), The French Connection (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), and Taxi Driver (1976) gave moviegoers their first taste of anti-heroes who preferred their justice with a side of violence.

This chapter from The Vigilante Thriller: Violence, Spectatorship and Identification in American Cinema, 1970-76, contextualize such films alongside events like the Kent State massacre, the Watergate scandal, and rising civil unrest in the U.S. to show why characters like Dirty Harry, Joe Curran, and Travis Bickle resonated so strongly with audiences of the time.



Image Credit: Bettmann

Screwball Comedies and the Rules of Romance

Love at first sight, whirlwind marriages, break-ups, divorces, remarriage… for better or worse, screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s established relationship rules that would last for decades, even after those rules were recognized as sexist. In his book Hollywood Screwball Comedy 1934-1945: Sex, Love, and Democratic Ideals, film professor Grégoire Halbout examines this genre to reveal some of the important gender and relationship issues that lay beneath the comedy, including free consent, contractual engagement, and freedom of speech.

Read Halbout’s analysis of the genre’s origin, which began in 1934 with the films It Happened One Night and The Thin Man, setting the stage for those that followed, including My Man Godfrey (1936), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and His Girl Friday (1940).



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