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History 225g: Film, Power, and American History

History 225g: Film, Power, and American History

Historian and cinephile Steven Ross in the classroom

By Katherine Yungmee Kim
July 2005

“What are you willing to fight for?

A roomful of 18-to-20-year-old students are asked to consider this question during this general education history class lecture on the Vietnam War.

The talk is initiated by a discussion of reinstating the military draft. Then, Professor Steven Ross asks students to contemplate what it would be like be fired upon, or to aim and shoot an enemy. A young man raises his hand and says he would serve in the U.S. military to protect the nation and its people. Another woman asks, “Why fight violence with violence?”

Students in this class examine many of the fundamental social, political and economic problems that have shaped 20th century American history. The class combines schools of historical thought with elements of film studies. Each two-hour class begins with a historical overview and is followed by a viewing of several films—fictional feature films, documentaries and newsreels—that relate to that era. Students are also asked to read primary documents that shed light upon those issues.

“In short, we will triangulate our way through American history,” says Ross, the history department chair who has been teaching this course since 1998. “It is the student’s job to figure out which of these perspectives seems most convincing, why it seems so, and the implications of one form of knowledge being more powerful than another.”

Ross came up for the idea for this class when he was finishing up his book, Working Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton University Press, 1998), which examines silent films’ impact on political issues, such as what it meant to be working class, or to belong to a union, or to be a radical. “There is an old cliché that research and teaching are mutually reinforcing,” he says. “This was true in this case.”

He says that USC’s proximity to Hollywood draws a lot of students to the university to study film. Ross admits to seizing upon that student interest to help them understand how films can reflect or distort the complexities of an age. “I use their passion for film to make them care about history,” he explains.

And students learn to discern the role of film, as the “great medium of mass culture and mass persuasion,” in the civic and social life of the nation.     

The Vietnam lecture starts with an overview of the Cold War and the historical background of the Southeast Asian region. Then students are challenged to consider their own values towards war. Ross also raises the idea of an “informed citizenry,” tying the historical lesson to the present by asking students how they feel about an administration lying to the American public.

When the lights are dimmed, excerpts from “The Green Berets” (1968), “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “The Deer Hunter” (1978) are screened. Nationalistic and nihilistic portrayals of the war rivet the students.

Other subjects include the Great Depression, when students watch “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940), and the Women’s Movement, when students watch “Kramer vs Kramer” (1979), “Silkwood” (1983) and “Working Girl” (1987), and supplement the topic with readings, such as Susan Faludi’s Backlash.

Marcus Spagnoletti, a junior majoring in history, says he has learned to consider not only what he sees on the screen, but also what he does not see. He cites production codes prohibiting the circulation of anti-Fascist films during the 1930s, and how such restrictions “seen throughout the history of modern American film undermine the foundation of our free society.”

Spagnoletti says he had never thought about history through film before. “I had not considered its profound reflection of modern American society,” he says. “It is the most interesting class I have taken at USC.”