Some time ago I mentioned a couple of classes that I am teaching that drew interest from some readers here at Ephblog. One of these classes is “American History Since 1945 Through Film,” which I am offering in our truncated Maymester term. Generally speaking I know Maymester (and summer classes generally) can be of limited utility, especially for history classes where reading and writing is so central. But when I have taught Maymester classes rather than adapt one of my regular courses, I have designed classes specific to the format — four hours of class four days a week for three weeks.

A history through film class fits especially well into this format. My plan is going to be to lecture for a half hour to an hour at the beginning of each class to provide the historical context. Then we will watch the film. Then after a quick break we will discuss the film within its historical context, trying to draw out both the historical questions being raised as well considering the film on its own terms as a movie. Here is a snapshot of what the class will look like:


Gary Donaldson, The Making of Modern America: The Nation From 1945 to the Present

Steven J. Ross, Ed. Movies and American Society

Raymond J. Haberski, Jr. “It’s Only a Movie”: Films and Critics in American Culture

We will also read Kevin Mattson’s article on teaching this sort of course, “Movies as History,” in The Common Review (Vol. 6, #1).

The Movies:

The Best Years of Our Lives

The Manchurian Candidate

Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

In the Heat of the Night

Mean Streets

Raging Bull

Full Metal Jacket

Do the Right Thing

Three Kings

United 93


Under the Same Moon

A few additional comments:

In most cases I tried to draw movies from a particular period in American history rather than a self-conscious work of film history. The biggest exception is Full Metal Jacket (and to a lesser degree Three Kings) and these are intentional — I am as interested in looking at views of Vietnam in 1987 as I am interested in using the class to look at Vietnam qua Vietnam. Ditto the First Gulf War, especially as Three Kings is especially interesting since its view antedates the current Iraq War.

One of my main goals in all of my classes is simply to get my students to read, even if some of the reading is not drawn from scholarly monographs. The parallel in this course is to have them watch some movies that they really ought to see. If the students get nothing more out of this than the chance to see The Best Years of Our Lives, Dr. Strangelove, Manchurian Candidate, and Mean Streets, well, that wouldn’t be nothing.

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