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March 1, 2013
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab

History faculty urge seeing 'Lincoln'

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - The feature film "Lincoln," nominated for 12 Academy Awards and winner of two, will play on the Slippery Rock University campus next week, and some SRU history faculty are urging students to see the 150-minute film despite some of its acknowledged historical flaws.

The film, directed by Steven Spielberg, earned actor Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar as Best Actor for his portrayal of the final days of the nation's 16th president. The film also won an Oscar in the Best Production Design category. The free campus screening, sponsored by the Student Government Association, is at 8 p.m., March 29 and March 31 in the Smith Student Center Theater.

Carlis White and Aaron Cowan, both assistant professors of history at SRU, said such films could be used to help increase an overall interest in history.

"I think of such films as beneficial because they start a discussion about history," White said. "The tricky part is knowing how to analyze how much of the history is actually historical and how much is there just for entertainment - or telling a good story."

"Over the years, Lia Paradis, Eric Tuten [SRU history faculty] and I have taught the 'History of Film' course that uses films depicting historical events and I often find they reflect the times in which they were produced," he said.

"Those behind the films may know the real history and decide to make changes for creative purposes - whatever those creative purposes are. Frequently they may water down the real history, and I think they often make it less interesting than the actual history had they stayed closer to the facts. In other cases, they may think the audience is not sophisticated enough to deal with the history, or the facts may not fit the plot line. And, of course, they are limited by the running time of the film," he said.

"This film is for anybody who may have even a casual reference to American history," he said.

Many scholars believe that over his life. Lincoln's view of slavery evolved. Some have said that if he could have preserved the Union without abolishing slavery he may have chosen that route.

"I have hard that his purpose in the Emancipation Proclamation was to cripple the South as a means of concluding the Civil War. I am sure he believed slavery to be a moral wrong, but many politicians have shown that they often are not bound to do the moral right," he said. "Lincoln had the right concerns, but as a politician who had to operate within the political realities of the day he could only accomplish so much. I am sure the film is right in that respect."

"Among the items they probably could not deal with in the film was the fact that a wartime proclamation against a hostile enemy, was not a legal document. It took the 13th amendment to U.S. Constitution to actually free slaves," he said.

"It is a great movie for what it could inspire in terms of what people should want to learn about history. The film came from the 2005 Doris Kearns Goodwin book 'Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,' which probably did not have the mistakes that have been cited in the film. Goodwin is a presidential historian teaching at Harvard," he said. "Her book has been critically praised."

Among the errors cited in the film is the incorrect use of a "Ney" vote from the Connecticut representatives regarding approval of the 13th amendment issue. Syndicated columnist Walter Williams, also a professor of economics at George Mason University, used a recent column to list a number of Lincoln's reported public statements he said show Lincoln's support of slavery and inferiority of African Americans.

White also pointed to other Hollywood adaptations of history, and said, "In Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglorious Bastards,' set in World War II Europe, I was somewhat offended by how they showed Hitler being killed in a theater fire planned by American and Jewish underground resistance. If I were a WWII veteran, I would be downright offended that they could play so fast and loose with fact. I am afraid some people came out of the theater thinking that is what actually happened to Hitler and that is why I always urge students to see movies, but to check out the historical facts on their own," he said.

He said he was "often amazed at the accuracy of the costuming, the sound engineering, even the recording and use of actual carriage latch sounds in 'Lincoln' that filmmakers go to only to then be less scrupulous in the storyline."

White said during a recent visit to a vintage clothing shop in Virginia he talked with the shop owner who had provided the hat worn by Kate Winslet in "Titanic." "She told me about costumers who are able to place clothing items in her shop to within a five-year period of history based on the stitching, the buttons and the style. In costuming in any number of films they include meticulous detail, but then blow the storyline out of the water."

Cowan, who has not yet seen "Lincoln," said, "Something to keep in mind is that most people don't take any more formal history studies after high school or college and often get their historical narratives from films."

"It is my understanding this film does a pretty good job, better than previous films, in depicting the politics of the time. Even the Connecticut voting error still gets across the fact that some people in the North were not in favor of abolishing slavery," he said.

"Many people want to look at the Civil War in black-and-white, with the North wearing the white hat and the South wearing the black hat. I think the film is trying to show it was not that simple," Cowan said.

"I think it shows how politicians acted to get the votes they needed for passage of the Amendment. From that perspective, I have heard the film is pretty accurate - and the film is engaging. People who see it need to keep in mind that it not actual history. It is film in just over two hours, so it has to simplify and skip some very important historical issues," he said. "It is not a documentary."

"I hope students will evaluate the film and try to understand the spirit of the events it is portraying," he said. "They should ask, 'Does it, as a whole, give you a sense of the issues; a sense of the people in that particular moment? If it does, then I am willing to say it is a good historical film. I would rather that people learn their history from a film about Lincoln than for them to be ignorant of the 13th Amendment altogether."

"It is my understanding the film shows Lincoln as the driver of emancipation, but ignores how the slaves themselves were trying to end slavery. Again, you come away with a sense of Lincoln as a expert at balancing idealism with practicality willing to compromise - and that is good," he said. "You have to compromise, if you are entrenched you won't get everything you want. You have to give up something. That does not mean you are unprincipled, but that is how the American system is built."

"Some films are extraordinary, some are caricatures, but if they get students talking, researching that is good. It is a way to get people more engaged in history and that too is a good thing," Cowan said. "'Lincoln' is a good way to get people talking more about the Civil War, slavery and other national issues."

"We in education can use such films as a teaching tool, both in the classroom and with the general public," he said.

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.