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Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (A Henry Holt Reference Book) Hardcover – September, 1995

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In our increasingly visual culture, a growing amount of what we learn about history comes from the movies. This unusual and cornucopian book draws on the knowledge of 60 experts who examine the historical accuracy of a splendid array of classic movies such as Julius Caesar, Aguirre the Wrath of God, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Last of the Mohicans, Gallipoli, and Gandhi. They reveal what each movie has done right and wrong in portraying the complex threads of the stories as known to the world's most qualified scholars. Highly Recommended.

From Library Journal

Perhaps this summer's boomlet of historical movies and costume dramas have sparked interest, for this is only one of several recent books by historians examining films set in the past. Editor Carnes (Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America, LJ 8/89) persuaded 60 historical writers, including such popular figures as Gore Vidal, William Manchester, Antonia Frasier, James McPherson, and Frances FitzGerald, to write an original piece on an historical film. The authors gleefully skewer, pick apart, praise, and censure film classics such as Gone with the Wind, Mutiny on the Bounty, A Man for All Seasons, Spartacus, Jurassic Part, Patton, etc. There is, not surprisingly, considerable nitpicking over historical details, but the writers seem to share a common fondness for the movies. Indeed, several confess that their interest in history was first awakened by a film they saw as a child. Film buffs will thoroughly enjoy. Highly recommended for large public libraries and subject collections.?Marianne Cawley, Enoch Pratt Free Lib., Baltimore
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: A Henry Holt Reference Book
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt & Co; 1st edition (September 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805037594
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805037593
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 8 x 10.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #244,459 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Michael K. Smith TOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 13, 2001
Format: Paperback
When you're both a student of history and a movie buff, as I am, it can be difficult to sit and watch a film that presumes to have an accurate historical context without fighting the urge to evaluate it and pick holes in it. And I'm not the only one. This is a collection of analytical essays, most of high quality, by experts (not all of them historians) analyzing and critiquing individual films: Stephen Jay Gould on _Jurassic Park,_ Antonia Fraser on _Anne of the Thousand Days,_ Thomas Fleming on _1776,_ Dee Brown on _Fort Apache,_ William Manchester on _Young Winston,_ and numerous others. Sticking to those films about which I have some knowledge of the historical events they claim to portray, most are right on the money. James McPherson, commenting on _Glory,_ points out that while the context and general atmosphere are very well done, and the costuming and so on are exact, there are still deliberate historical errors for the sake of drama; none of the soldiers in Col. Shaw's 54th Massachusetts were ex-slaves, for instance, all of them having been recruited from among the state's free black population. And Catherine Clinton does an excellent job taking the wind out of _Gone with the Wind_'s mythical sails. There's a great deal of good information and criticism here and it's a compliment to say that nearly any of these essays will start an argument.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By "rrr338" on November 7, 2000
Format: Paperback
This book is just too damn interesting not to go into a revised edition that would, welcomingly, include a few more recent examples of the movies portending to convey history. It is cleverly organized, with an actual historical "timeline" that is matched with a selected movie that attempted to portray events for that period or year. It starts all the way back in the Jurrasic period, with "Jurrasic Park," of course. Each movie critique is written by a different film expert or historian, so you get a lot of diversity of perspective as well as writing style. There is a very intelligent interview of director John Sayles ("Eight Men Out" "Metowan") in the preface, which may be reason enough for film buffs to purchase this book.
One can either browse through the book and focus on "favorite" or "hated" films of the past, or read it straight through. Each essay offers at least one very good insight on the nature of history and how elusive the "accurate" accounting of an era or event can be.
The overall impression this book leaves is that movies, for all their ostensible efforts to "recreate" historical realities, will NEVER get it quite right. That's because they are products of their own times, and cannot ever fully escape the sensibilities of their own historical eras. Given this approach, the reader cannot help but gain a deeper appreciation for the exacting work of historians -- even if he or she is first attracted to the book out of interest in film.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 12, 2000
Format: Paperback
A book that unites two of my passions: history and cinema. Great essays that not only discuss the movies themselves; but also put the times that movies were made in a historical context. These movies often reveal more about the time the movie was made in than the historical period the movie is about.
My only complaint? Wish there wasa volume two!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By William Wilson on August 26, 1997
Format: Paperback
The Kirkus review is right on target. This is a wonderful collection of essays about historical films. I'm a fan of history and the movies, so I was captivated by both the "inside scoop" from filmmakers and the historical critiques offered by the expert historians who evaluated the movies. A book to be enjoyed slowly, which is easily done since most of the essays are only four pages. As Kirkus noted, the format is irritating, forcing you to go back and forth to read lengthy captions, but its worth the effort
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By R. A. Burke on June 5, 2009
Format: Paperback
Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies is based on an inspiring idea: select eminent historians and writers and ask each to write an essay discussing the historicity of a particular film. And it's a very impressive gathering of writers indeed, including Dee Brown, Eric Foner, Stephen Jay Gould, Antonia Fraser, Paul Fussell, Michael Grant, Stanley Karnow, Peter Gay, Frances Fitzgerald, James M. McPherson, Gore Vidal, Simon Schama, Tom Wicker, and others. Michael Grant comments on the 1953 version of Julius Caesar, Antonia Fraser on Anne of the Thousand Days, James McPherson on Glory, Dee Brown on Fort Apache, Stanley Karnow on JFK, and so forth. The essays are, not surprisingly, well-written and enlightening but written on a popular rather than on an academic level. After all, Past Imperfect was intended to be entertaining as well as informative. Some of the films chosen are the usual suspects for historical analysis such as Gone With the Wind, the Ten Commandments, Birth of a Nation, Grapes of Wrath, and Apocalypse Now (the latter with a particularly incisive essay from Frances Fitzgerald). But there are some surprises: Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Black Robe; the Scarlet Empress; Matewan; the Human Condition; and the Long Walk Home. There's even a piece by Gore Vidal on Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels. If you've already read George MacDonald Fraser's The Hollywood History of the World, you might wonder how the two books compare. Fraser's book offers more and better illustrations and covers far more films. Past Imperfect provides greater depth and analysis so if you're interested in history and film, the two titles complement each other. Past Imperfect saves its best essay for last: Simon Schama's "interview" with Napoleon in which the former French emperor and Schama discuss Abel Gance's 1927 epic 'Napoleon.' This is as fine a piece of "historical" writing as you're ever likely to see. A truly fun book!
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