Oral and Visual History

1: Introduction

'Societies leave us their achievements in three different forms: The book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art.' John Ruskin

History, as we know, is not the same as what actually happened the past: it is a story, sometimes based on a very selective use of evidence, that makes sense to the historian. As such it has always had a rather uneasy relationship with 'objects' whether they are the homely finds of archaeologists or great cultural monuments such as the Parthenon or the Mona Lisa.

Partly this is because we respect the written word as the product of thought; but it is also because the visual record of the past - even if it is not at odds with documentary sources - seldom matches them exactly. For example, the re-building of Exeter Cathedral (1270 -1348) reached its climax during the disastrous reign of Edward II (1307-1327), yet what survives is of the very highest quality. Whilst it is hard to imagine any book about the last Tudor appearing without illustrations what do the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I actually tell us about her character and appearance? Nor is modern technology necessarily more reliable: we are all familiar with the way in which photographs of the Soviet leadership between the wars were doctored to remove those whom Stalin had recently purged. We have to remember too, that some of the most important figures in history have left almost no trace in the archaeological record.

For the primary school teacher the use of visual resources is essential to create that sense of the 'otherness' of the past that is one of their main duties. This is particularly true of very young children who learn from pictures much more readily than they do from text. In the end however, the pictures mean little unless their content and context are explained: as the children become older it becomes more and more important to establish the correct relationship between things they see and the events they are learning about.

Of course, before history is written, objects are all we have to go on. The result can be a very biased view of the past. Prehistoric Britain appears less 'advanced' than Ancient Egypt because the builders of Stonehenge could not write; the Aborigines of Australia are thought 'primitive' despite their rich oral traditions. Ironically some of the world's most famous literature was passed down by word of mouth long before it was put in writing, including the early books of the Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Beowulf. The Koran could be added to this list because Muslims believe it was dictated to the prophet who could not read or write, whilst Shakespeare's plays began life as scripts with the actors probably contributing lines of their own.

We need to be just as cautious therefore in our use of visual stimuli as we are when employing other sources and more so when the pictures we use are not contemporary or represent reconstructions. This is especially true of the moving image, whether it is being used to record events as they happen or reconstruct events from the past. History has proved a rich source of inspiration for the cinema but more often than not a historical film relates more powerfully to the period in which it was made than the historical epoch it purports to represent, although this may give it real value as a reflection of its own time.

In this module therefore we will be examining the visual evidence left behind by past societies from a number of perspectives - firstly its value as evidence for the time it represents, secondly, if different, its value as evidence for the time when it was made; and thirdly its value as a resource for teaching and learning. We are not attempting a history of art or of architecture, nor a history of the history of these things. If we have to put a label on the content of the module it would be cultural history - a discipline as diverse and selective as culture itself. Nevertheless there are truths and patterns out there to be grasped: the way a society sees itself (whether truly or falsely) and the way it sees the past are both vital clues to the nature of that society; they are also amongst the more genuine markers of human progress - something to be set alongside the usual and seemingly unending tale of wars and atrocities.

The writing of history is generally agreed to begin with the Greek Herodotus (485-425 BC). He travelled widely collecting stories - for example, the legends surrounding the building of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. The Egyptians themselves seem to have little no notion of the past as a sequence of happenings. The lists of kings that have been found simply tell us which monarchs were regarded as gods in later times, although they do sometimes record how long each king was supposed to have reigned. The tales Herodotus heard must have been oral traditions passed on as a sacred duty by the priests of the major temples. Nor did Herodotus' fellow Greeks think of the past as 'another country'. When they came to depict events from the Trojan War for example, artists of the Classical Age showed heroes like Hector and Achilles in the armour of their own day, even though the Trojan War probably took place five hundred years earlier.

The first real human being to enjoy the status of historical hero was probably Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). Alexander's reputation grew with time and people wanted busts and statues of him to decorate their villas and public places. A standardised image existed which is reflected in such works as the Battle between Alexander and Darius, copied in mosaic from a Greek original and found in Pompeii. In time such retrospective image-making is applied to other respected monarchs and philosophers of the Ancient World but it is with the emergence of Christianity that history becomes history in a linear sense - with a specific starting point when God made the world and (as many Christians believed) an ending in the near future.

Yet when we first come across representations of Christ in the catacombs of Rome in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, we don't find a bearded Jewish rabbi in his early thirties who lived in the first century AD. Instead the earliest paintings show a teenager dressed as a shepherd or a young man in his early twenties dressed as a philosopher. Later, when Christianity has become the official religion of the empire, we find Christ dressed in the full finery of a Roman emperor. Not until Byzantine times when the emperors themselves have adopted beards do we find the kind of image most commonly associated with Christ today. However, episodes from his life continued to be depicted as if they were taking place at the time when they were made, including some of the very finest works of art of Middle Ages.

What made artists want to depict the past as it actually was? During the Renaissance the rediscovery of ancient texts stimulated an interest in collecting other kinds of antiquities, especially those easily obtainable in some quantity, namely coins. Here was evidence that some of the most famous figures of the Ancient World like Julius Caesar, Augustus and Nero looked and dressed differently to men of 15th Century Italy. Moreover a few statues and reliefs like those on Trajan's Column had survived hundreds of years in the open and now attracted renewed interest. More works of art were discovered buried in the ruins of Roman buildings and before long artists like Raphael (1483-1520) began to incorporate these discoveries into their own paintings. By the beginning of the sixteenth century Michelangelo (1475-1564) could carve a statue so convincingly classical in appearance that it was mistaken for the genuine article.

For the next two hundred years European art and architecture were dominated by Greek and Roman forms with rulers like Louis XIV of France frequently depicted as Roman generals (although retaining their fashionable periwigs). There thus developed a curious dichotomy between what was seen in the street and what was represented in churches and palaces, a dichotomy expressed in thought too, with philosophers like Rousseau (1712-1778) discussing ideal worlds whilst the real world got on with its business, scarcely noticing.

It was partly as a reaction against this falsehood and also against the ugliness being created by the Industrial Revolution that more romantic spirits fell in love with the Gothic art of the Middle Ages, represented by the 'bare, ruined choirs' of long dissolved monasteries. This was the past that had proved most vulnerable to the iconoclasts of the Reformation and later of the French Revolution. To Rousseau's disciples castles and cathedrals were monuments of superstition and tyranny, to be destroyed like the Bastille. To an eccentric like William Beckford (1760-1844) on the other hand, they were the inspiration for the wild and extraordinary mansion he built for himself at Fonthill in Wiltshire, paid for from the profits of Beckford's sugar plantations in the West Indies.

Fonthill bore little resemblance to any real medieval building and it collapsed soon after Beckford, with his fortune much reduced, had sold it. Yet by his death style had become more than simply a question of taste. Augustus Welby Pugin (1812-52) made authenticity a crusade, literally for he equated correct medieval detail with true religion - in his case the Roman Catholic. Meanwhile the inauguration of national museums and the development of scientific archaeology provided an ever growing visual data-base for the precise re-creation of the past. Critics praised what seemed to them to them to be the historical accuracy of paintings by artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) who frequently used actual museum objects to give realism to his pictures.

By now photography was making tremendous strides. With the invention of the cinema it had become possible to record events like Queen Victoria's funeral (1901) as they were happening and film-makers soon set to work to re-create the past in the same way. Early historical epics like DW Griffiths' Intolerance (1915) display tremendous ambition with huge sets and casts of thousands but they raise what will continue to be a problem for the makers of films about history. The cinema is an art of the present which has to appeal to audiences of the present and there is a limit to which a famous actor can be transformed into a historical personage. The result is less a representation of what happened in the past and more a record of social and political change in the twentieth century. Intolerance itself is divided into four story-lines illustrating the cruelty of man to man through the ages. It takes its authority from the accuracy with which it claims to depict the eras being shown, with captions at regular intervals to ram the story home. No-one is deceived however: Griffiths' heroines are playing themselves in fancy dress and the result is often less convincing than the Victorian paintings that were Griffiths' inspiration.

Nevertheless the influence of the movies upon the way people imagine the past has been profound. Who can forget Errol Flynn as Robin Hood or Charlton Heston as Ben Hur? More recently Russell Crowe proved an iconic Roman general in Gladiator (2000) whilst on a wholly different level Colin Firth made a million female hearts flutter as Mr Darcy what must surely be the definitive Pride and Prejudice (1995). Paul Schofield as Sir Thomas More in a Man for All Seasons (1964) represented one of great political themes of the age of dictatorship - the limits to which a person can be constrained to go against their conscience in order to conform to the demands of their society. Further back in time Lew Ayres as the young soldier in the original version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) made pacifists of many who saw it; a few years later Clark Gable defined masculinity for a generation in Gone with the Wind (1939). Films like these caught the mood of a moment and in real sense altered history.

Other films were designed in a more deliberate fashion to alter attitudes and condition responses. Leni Reifenstahl's masterpiece The Triumph of the Will (1934) recorded a contemporary event but was intended to portray history in the making. The effect of the serried ranks of marching men is so hypnotic that the film is still banned from public showing in a number of European countries. Following Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 Stalin needed to rally Russians to the defence of their mother country. Few can doubt that it is he who is speaking through the mouth of the young Tsar in the opening coronation scene of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible (1941) when Ivan announces his intention of safeguarding and advancing Russia's frontiers in the teeth of Western aggression.

Meanwhile the humbler art of recording the events of the day, often at great personal risk to the cameramen, gave us close-up shots of dramatic episodes like Battle of the Somme (1916) and the attack on Pearl Harbour (1941). As an off shoot of news-gathering, the documentary proved to have even greater power. Believing that it would create panic the government of the day put pressure on the BBC not to show the War Game (1961), a film about the likely consequences of a nuclear attack on London. Official 'information' films, such as the Protect and Survive series made in the mid-1970s, were positive and practical in tone. The War Game (1961) showed just what the reality would be like.

The susceptibility of history films to the needs and fashions of the day has resulted in almost emblematic changes in the way famous people are portrayed. Robin Hood has been mentioned already. The Errol Flynn version, cheerfully genteel in its roguishness, features polished floors and polished manners; the well-known television series of the 1950's starring Richard Greene was equally disarming, if occasionally a little darker in its plots. A later and little known BBC serialisation of the classic version of the legend made in 1975, tried to be more authentically medieval but the contemporary hairstyles give it away. Fifteen years afterwards Alan Rickman's ironic, self-mocking sheriff of Nottingham stole the show from Kevin Costner's rather ageing Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (1991), whilst ITV's version starring first Michael Praed and then Jason Connery showed an outlaw closely in-touch with his neo-pagan roots (1985). The most recent BBC series has a boyish Robin trying hard to make his mark with an assertive Lady Marion who seems to be doing quite well on her own. The greenwood as a proving ground for would-be 'alpha males' seems to have fallen victim to political correctness.

Robin is of course a fictional character, albeit one who requires an authentic period setting. Amongst real people whose appearance and portrayal chart the changing times few have appeared in film so often as Henry VIII. In the Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) an unwilling Charles Laughton created a homely monster not far removed from his Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Much more believable was the angry guilt-ridden Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons who first attempts to charm and then to bully his Lord Chancellor into agreeing with him. In The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1972) the Australian actor Keith Michell successfully manages Henry's gradual transformation from an athletic eighteen year old into a self-pitying and prematurely aged tyrant with the help of dialogue based on original sources and an authentic music score. The real Henry was probably a mix of these two, both in character and appearance. Richard Burton's version in the under-rated Anne of a Thousand Days (1969) was at least convincingly majestic, though too heavily bearded and of the wrong build. In more recent times Ray Winstone (2003) brought a touch of East London gangster to the part but again failed the physique test, whilst Jonathan Rhys Meyer's pouting teenager is as incredible as the script he has to speak in the The Tudors (2007).

There follows a brief survey of the historical themes and subjects which have attracted film and television directors over the last century, arranged in roughly chronological order. It is by no means comprehensive. There are hundreds of titles which could be included and more are being added all the time as the advent of computer-generated imagery (CGI) prompts directors to re-make past classics. History has also become enormously popular in recent years. This may be testimony to the quality of history teaching in schools. More probably it reflects a yearning for the wider spaces and less restricted lifestyles of the past, as we imagine it. Our ancestors may have lived lives that were 'nasty, brutish and short' but they also seem to have lived lives that were more real.