“The Sensual Encounter of Words, Images and Sounds”

A Conversation with Robert Burgoyne on the Historical Film


Robert Burgoyne

Robert Burgoyne is Professor of Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of very many articles as well as two of the most important and influential books on film and history: The Hollywood Historical Film (Blackwell, Malden, 2008), and Film Nation: Hollywood Looks at U.S. History, originally published in 1997, and in a revised and expanded edition in 2010 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press). As the titles suggest, Robert specializes in American cinema and its articulation of, especially, ‘counter narratives’ of nation through topical or historical representation. However, he has also worked on films from other cultures, including Italian cinema. He is currently devoting his attention to the war film as a ‘body genre’ with reference to theorists like Negri and Virilio. His work has always demonstrated an exemplary sensitivity to theory and this is certainly one of the reasons for his wide influence.


The appeal of the historical film

Alan O’Leary [AOL]: Robert, you have had a career-long concern with the representation of history on film. Why has the theme held such interest for you?

Robert Burgoyne [RB]: This is actually not an easy question to answer, and I’ve been puzzling over it since I saw your question.* There’s an emotional pleasure and gratification that I take from historical films, of course, but there’s also a very particular intellectual element that draws me to the study of historical films. Basically, I am able to tap into two or more scholarly discourses when working on films of history—film studies and historiography, at a minimum. Both are well developed intellectual disciplines, which seldom overlap in the work we do in Film Studies, with a few notable exceptions. When I set out to analyze a film, let’s say Terrance Malick’s The New World or Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (which I’m working on now), I discover a wide range of intellectual work that I simply never would have encountered if not for the challenge of writing on a film that purports to illuminate the historical past. In writing on The New World, for example, I drew heavily on the fascinating work of environmental historian Alfred Crosby, and what he calls ‘the Columbian exchange’.(1) In my essay on Lincoln, I have discovered interesting work on the Civil War photographs of Alexander Gardner, and on the enormous changes in landscape painting in the US at the brink of war. The strong link between American national identity and the landscape tradition—the competing mythologies of the land as a garden or a wilderness in American culture—were profoundly challenged by the Civil War, a theme represented in a sudden turn towards images of cosmic disruption and natural cataclysm in the paintings of the period. For the Lincoln essay I am writing (with my former student John Trafton) I also draw on work that has been done on spirit photography, on the importance of seances and other forms of occult practice in Mary Todd Lincoln’s White House, and work on the phantasmagoria as an entertainment medium in the years just prior to the Civil War. The work on phantasmagoria comes from my own discipline; Tom Gunning has a fine essay on the subject.(2)

More generally, I like what Natalie Zemon Davis says about historical films, that they can be a ‘thought experiment’ about the past. This is a useful perspective to keep in mind. Historical films are at their best, in my opinion, when they propose a ‘what if?’ set of questions about the past. Paul Ricouer gets to the same thing when he writes about the work of the historian—Collingwood in particular—as tapping into the ‘inside of historical events’, the thought behind the event. Ricouer, helpfully, points out that reenactment is not a reliving of the past, but a rethinking, and that rethinking always involves the detour of the imagination.

Why I’m emotionally drawn to history on film is another question, and one I’ve only recently begun to explore. Perhaps doing this interview will help me understand this a bit better.

Film, nation, address

Film NationAOL: You explicitly defend ‘the discourse of nation as a viable and strategic category of analysis’ for film studies.(3) Is it fair to say that the central theme of your work (within that of film and history) has been American cinema’s role in re-configuring the nation of the United States in the last few decades? You are perfectly aware of questions of the transnational (to which film studies at St Andrews are famously sensitive), but I haven’t seen you consider what it means for a cinema with designs on an international audience to deal so deliberately, as you argue Hollywood does, with the nation of its production. What does it mean to make films that directly address the American national condition but are inevitably addressed to an international audience? I’m interested in this question because it was the case with the postwar films described as neorealist, which announced themselves as a ‘national cinema’ precisely by their international address: they were the films through which the country was seen to speak.

RB: Once again, a tough question! I’ll try to respond by emphasizing the critical dimension of the works I treat. The films I’m interested in are the ones that contest the ‘dominant fiction,’ what Ranciere called the images of social unisonance that he claims are powerfully present in certain genres of US film. In contrast to this, the films that present a counter-narrative to the dominant narrative of nation, I believe, are the kinds of films that can gain traction outside the US context, as they speak to the critical interests of filmgoing generations in every country. A film such as Spartacus, for example, while not specifically about US history, was explicitly shaped by US Cold War politics, by the McCarthy Commission, by the US civil rights movement, etc. The film, to use your words, ‘directly addresses the American national condition,’ a point that was explicit in the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, and that was certainly registered by the myriad critics and protestors against the film in the US. Although the production context of the film and its symbolic language was ‘addressed to the American condition,’ the film speaks to many different situations of national, generational, and political struggle, and hence has a broad transnational remit. More complexly, a recent film such as Flags of Our Fathers sets out an important counter-narrative of one of the most iconic moments and images in American history, the flag raising on Iwo Jima, showing the process of packaging and disseminating a myth of heroism for public consumption. These themes have universal power and their lessons can be adapted to many contexts. Another example, I would argue, is the important film 12 Years a Slave.

Perhaps I’m being naive, but I feel the fundamental and unique role of film in articulating new narratives of national belonging and further, in contesting narratives that are harmful and that erase whole peoples from the national story is a project that is intrinsically addressed to an international audience. I’m going to float a kind of trial balloon and say something quite general, and probably not very smart: I feel the films that have the most transnational appeal are films that engage with and contest ideas of nation, history and national belonging. These are universal themes. I do not see the transnational and the national as opposing fields of imagination. I could cite many examples, but let me just throw one out, and that is Bertolucci’s 1900. This film was a very big international and critical success, and by every definition was a work of transnational cinema, long before the term was invented. Yet it was entirely focused on Italian history, and on the idea of an imagined community, a new people emerging into national consciousness. It captured world-wide attention. I think you could say the same thing for The Last Emperor. The subject of nation and national belonging, and the contested understanding of nation, these are subjects that are extremely relevant today, with the great separatist movements now unfolding, and the redrawing of many national maps. It won’t be long before important films begin to emerge from these struggles.

Historical film studies and its Others

AOL: Could I ask you to situate the study of historical cinema in relation to film studies more broadly? In an article responding to the work of Robert Rosenstone you propose that the study of historical film has remained ‘in a kind of perpetual embryonic state’; you suggest that ‘there remains a frustrating lack of critical and scholarly enthusiasm for films about the historical past’ and that ‘the subject remains under-researched and under-theorized’.(4) I was surprised at this because at least in Italian film studies people seem hardly to discuss anything but film and history!

RB: I am happy to hear that the subject of the cinematic representation of history is alive and well in Italy! I do feel that our subject is not well represented in US film studies, although it is somewhat better represented in UK film studies. For example, in the UK the rise of heritage film as a viable field of study is of real interest to me. This is not what I do, but it is important, and I have come to believe that it provides real knowledge about what I suppose I will call our imaginative investment in the past. In the US, however, this field of study doesn’t exist. The US is, of course, a great source of period, if not heritage films. I would consider many of Coppola’s and Scorsese’s films to be period films, and contemporary US TV is replete with important period works, such as Mad Men, The Americans, and Boardwalk Empire, but the scholarly work on these films and TV programmes proceeds along different lines.

As I said in my ‘The Balcony of History’ piece, film studies has developed a rigorous and substantial scholarship in film history, based on deep archival research, but has scanted the subject of how the historical past is represented in film. The cross-over historians who work in this area—Robert Rosenstone, Ian Christie, Natalie Zemon Davis, Pierre Sorlin—have done superb work, but except for a few promising younger scholars in Film Studies, such as J.E. Smyth, Alison Landsberg, Maria Pramagiorre, and John Trafton, there is not much work being done in this area. Exceptions would be Thomas Elsaesser, whose work on the subject of the filmic representation of history is varied and important, and Marcia Landy, who continues to produce interesting and expansive work on history and film.

I do feel it’s only a matter of time, however. Embryonic is the word I used a couple of years ago, and I still feel this is the situation. When you consider how important the historical film has been to the history of the art form—Griffith, Eisenstein, Gance, Kluge, Rossellini, Stone, Spielberg, Fassbinder, Godard, Resnais, Pontecorvo, Rosi, to name check just a few—I really think it’s a matter of our still young discipline discovering the critical and aesthetic riches of this subject.

AOL: Your work is situated in an interpretative tradition, responsive to theory from inside and outside film studies, that pays very close attention to the text. This tradition of film studies has sometimes been put under pressure from writers like David Bordwell, who often expresses his impatience with interpretation, arguing that it is typically based on insufficient evidence. How would you respond to Bordwell?

In the Rosenstone article you say that one reason for the ‘relative neglect’ of historical film is the empirical turn in mainstream film studies (of which Bordwell is a champion). Do you have any sympathies with the empirical approach? The delimitation of the historical film genre is a theme in your work and you argue that a demarcated genre identity need to be proposed for the historical film, otherwise it ‘will continue to suffer from critical neglect’.(5) Might an empirical approach to historical film trouble the delimitation of the genre?

RB: Now you’re asking me to defend interpretive analysis! And to take on one of the most admired film scholars in the field! Challenge accepted. I think David Bordwell’s work is wonderful, and I have just reread his ‘intensified continuity’ essays, and his piece on forking narratives. I was chuffed, as they say here in the UK, to be included in his critique of many of the writers in our profession in his book Making Meaning,(6) where he took me down (rightfully) for my reading of a certain stylistic move in Fassbinder’s In A Year of Thirteen Moons. I have long admired David’s work, and feel he is invaluable to our enterprise. However, his stand against interpretive analysis—and not all, mind you, but work that is uninformed by historical research—sets out a standard of evaluative criteria that is too limited. It takes the empirical study of film as the standard of evidence: shot lengths and counts, generic constants, traits of films compared against a large data set of similar films. But there are other ways that the analysis of film can proceed, and other criteria that can be set forth. In the case of the historical film, the discourses of historiography, of narrative structure and modes of address, of other traditions of historical representation, are just as valid or perhaps more so. An interpretive reading that is engaged with the larger complex of historical research and artistic traditions that have shaped the work is, to my mind, a valid pursuit.

I hope I have not misrepresented David’s work. His exceptionally intelligent, rigorous, and vivid writing has long set the standard in our field. And I have found him to be personally and professionally generous. But I am sometimes led to ask, even after I have been convinced by his analyses, if these are the most interesting questions we could ask?

Now, onto the second part of the question, concerning the value of empirical analysis, both for my work and in general. I appreciate that empirical analysis has led to wonderful discoveries in our discipline, and will certainly lead to many more. In a certain way I’m jealous of empirical researchers, not for the confirming power of empirical research, but for the opposite—by the fact that their hypotheses may be refuted by evidence that has not before been perceived, that is extraordinary, counter-intuitive, and perhaps field-changing. This would be a fun kind of project to be involved with. I actually have a little project in mind that requires empirical study: I have an idea that the silent epic film retained the strong colour schemes and codes of early cinema (when tinted, stencilled, and hand colouring made many films extraordinarily bright and beautiful) into the so-called ‘classical’, ‘institutional’ period of silent cinema—when violent, saturated colour was being dialled down, in Josh Yumibe’s words, in favour of narrative. I want to argue that colour is so central to the epic mode of expression—signifying the exotic, the barbaric, and the clash of cultures and civilizations—that it is coded into the genre not only for its artistic value and prestige but also as part of its semantics. For this, I will need to conduct some empirical research, and hopefully will be able to do so in the near future.

Now for the third part of the question. I follow Natalie Zemon Davis in setting out a rather strict generic profile for the historical film. For her, and for me, a plot-based definition is the most useful. Historical films, we argue, should be based in historical events, as represented in their plots; or if the film has an imaginative plot line, it should be shaped by recognizable historical occurrences. This allows for fictional characters in the historical film, for fictional events, and even for fictional settings. The imaginative drama set up around the two fictional lovers, for example, in Visconti’s Senso, is shaped by the recognizable historical events of the Risorgimento (and I wish to acknowledge Leger Grindon’s important work on the film here).(7) Rossellini’s Open City, is likewise centred on fictional characters, loosely modeled on actual historical figures, but it is overarched by a deeply historical set of events.

I like Natalie Zemon Davis’s definition for two reasons. First, this is what history consists of, on the whole—events. And second, it allows us to distinguish between heritage films, period films, and historical films, which to my mind have a different set of goals and aesthetic criteria. I recognize that generic borders are always permeable, and that by setting one in place, I am inviting counterexamples and really courting disaster. But this definition has served me well, and I stand by it (for now).

AOL: Allow me to stay with the issue of definition. My, I hope respectful, question is whether this concern with defintion and delimitation leads to a prescriptive tone or purpose in your writing, suggesting that a proper historical film must be such and such…

I find something of this prescriptive tone in a phrase you borrow from Rosenstone about the ‘rules of engagement for bringing history to the screen’.(8) You approvingly quote Rosenstone’s focus on the ‘best historical filmmakers’,(9) and again, you use the phrase ‘a medium of serious historical reflection’ (10) even as you regret that some of the films you study are ‘flawed by nostalgia and by a somewhat glancing relation to the historical record’.(11) Is there a danger in putting the emphasis on the rules of historical cinema, on the most engaged auteurs, the most serious films etc., that a whole range of modes of engagement with the past will be left out of the analysis?

I ask this because some writers have been much less strict than you in identifying films as historical. Marnie Hughes-Warrington, for example, refuses the idea of a genre of historical film altogether, just as she refuses any value opposition between the history film and less favoured forms like the ‘costume drama’.(12) For Jonathan Stubbs, ‘historical cinema can best be understood as a body of films which attempts to engage with and construct a relationship to the past.’(13) As Stubbs himself points out, this does not exclude Pirates of the Caribbean. Would you exclude Pirates of the Caribbean?

RB: I acknowledge that all genre definitions and boundaries are permeable, that there are always exceptions, and when I think of what Bakhtin might say, I am led to think that my desire to draw a line around the genre is misguided. I am willing to accept other arguments, and I would welcome a new way of looking at things. Marnie Hughes-Warrington has some good and interesting things to say about the multiple frames of history in film, and Jonathan Stubb’s work deals with important questions. But I do feel the work of Spielberg in Schindler’s List, or Pontecorvo in Battle of Algiers, or Rossellini in the war trilogy, or McQueen in 12 Years a Slave has a different remit than work that could be read with a different generic lens, and more profitably.

That said, I like the work of Hannu Salmi on the comic in historical films, or the comic/parodic historical film, a book that sets out a whole great expansion of the form.(14) And Stubb’s example of Pirates of the Caribbean does resonate with me. The popular film set in the past can sometimes provide a deep dive into the imaginative discourses of the past. In Pirates, there is that one trippy scene at the Pole (North or South I can’t remember). In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, there was a widespread literary, cultural fascination with the Poles, represented in the work of Coleridge, Poe, Lovecraft and others—the ‘polar Gothic’ is what Victoria Nelson calls it. Perhaps Pirates was channelling this earlier fascination, and doing so in an interesting and period-appropriate way. So history definitely comes in here, but through the porthole of imaginative literature.

Hollywood and elsewhere

Hollywood History FilmAOL: Your focus has most often been on Hollywood, and indeed discourse about film and history tends to focus predominantly on Hollywood cinema. For example, Stubbs restricts himself to Hollywood in his recent study that promises ‘a fuller understanding of the relationship articulated between historical film production, history as an academic practice, and the past in general’.(15) In its mismatch of summative ambition and limited range of material studied, this sounds to me like unthinking ‘US-centrism’. Is there a danger of a ‘theoretical imperialism’ in historical film studies that mirrors the economic domination of Hollywood in much of the world?

RB: Most of my examples above have come from non-Hollywood films, where I think a great deal of interesting work has been done. Most, perhaps all of the writers I cite in this interview have written extensively on non-Hollywood films—Rosenstone, Landy, Sorlin, Davis, and most of the others as well. So I don’t see much danger of a ‘theoretical imperialism’ developing here. In my own case, yes, I have specialized in Hollywood films, but I’ve forayed into other cinemas fairly frequently as well, most recently with an essay I did on the splendidly inventive biopic Gainsbourg, by Joann Sfar.(16) And I have a book-length study of 1900.(17)

In my own case, there’s a bit of reserve involved. Although I realize that film studies has never been limited by these things, I do feel that when working on history and film, some knowledge of the language of the nation under study is needed. This is a big factor in my drawing back a bit to study mainly films where I am confident of my knowledge of the culture, the history, and the language.

AOL: You mention your work on 1900. In a 1986 article of yours that I’ve read you discuss the film in terms of its ‘somatization’ of history, and you have returned to the theme of the somatic in your work on the war film.(18) What I want to ask as a final question is what place has Italian cinema has had in the development of your thinking. In your opinion, can Italian cinema be spoken of as you argue Hollywood can be, as a national cinema with its own distinctive take on the historical film?

RB: I have long admired Italian film, partly because my introduction to film studies was under the tuition of Tom Conley, who was then a professor of French and Italian at The University of Minnesota, my alma mater. My first published essay, ‘The Imaginary and the Neo-Real in Rossellini’s Open City’,(19) was written as a thesis under Tom’s direction. When I began graduate study at NYU, I took a year-long course on Italian cinema with Bill Simon, which I loved. My PhD dissertation was a study of Bertolucci’s 1900, an excellent experience, mostly because I got a chance to speak with Bertolucci over the phone—a pretty big thrill for a junior academic! In many ways Italian films have shaped my orientation to writing about film, which I like to think of as a sensual encounter of words, images and sounds—the sensual pleasure of writing well about something beautiful is what motivates me—entirely. You summarize my work nicely, as a study of a national cinema with its own distinctive take on the historical film. I appreciate that. But I would say that’s equally a description of your own critical project, Alan, and one that I will follow, as it develops, with great interest.



* This interview took place by email. I am grateful to Robert Burgoyne for taking so much time and care over his responses.

  1. Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972).
  2. Tom Gunning, ‘Phantasmagoria and the Manufacturing of Illusions and Wonder: Towards a Cultural Optics of the Cinematic Apparatus’, in The Cinema: A New Technology for the 20th Century, ed. by Andre Gaudreault, Catherine Russell and Pierre Veronneau (Editions Payot Lausanne, 2004), pp. 31-44. (See also the presentation available at <http://tinyurl.com/orq426>).
  3. Film Nation, p. 11.
  4. ‘The Balcony of History’, Rethinking History, 11: 4 (2007), 547-54 (pp. 547, 548).
  5. ‘The Balcony of History’, p. 550.
  6. David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 1989).
  7. Leger Grindon, Shadows on the Past: Studies in the Historical Fiction Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).
  8. The Hollywood History film, p. 2.
  9. The Hollywood History film, p. 3.
  10. The Hollywood History film, p. 4.
  11. Film Nation, p. 1.
  12. Marnie Hughes-Warrington, History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007).
  13. Jonathan Stubbs, Historical Film: A Critical Introduction (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 34-35.
  14. Hannu Salmi (ed.), Historical Comedy on Screen: Subverting History with Humour (Bristol: Intellect, 2011).
  15. Stubbs, Historical Film, p. 7.
  16. Gainsbourg: Puppetry in the Musical Biopic’, in The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture, ed by Tom Brown and Belén Vidal (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 259-73.
  17. Bertolucci’s ‘1900’: A Narrative and Historical Analysis (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991).
  18. ‘The Somatization of History in Bertolucci’s 1900’, Film Quarterly, 40: 1 (1986), 7-14.
  19. ‘The Imaginary and the Neo-Real in Rossellini’s Open City’, Enclitic 3: 1 (1979).