Film Shaping History

{Click image for source info.}

This week the Labragirl Film Project’s classroom resource suggestion is Bruce Chadwick’s The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film. In this week’s discussion we talk about ways to incorporate The Reel Civil War and related films into high school and college American history classes.



Having fun with my Cal State Long Beach colleagues. (I’m the one holding the cute dog)

During my time in the History Department at Cal State  Long Beach, one of my favorite lesson plans was a series of conversations and activities focused on The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film. I enjoyed bringing these tools into the classroom because Chadwick’s blending of film analysis with historical analysis was an eye-opener for many. It was rewarding to watch students develop their academic voices as they navigated this new terrain.

About Bruce Chadwick’s The Reel Civil War:

Excerpted from:

Considered both racist propaganda for the Ku Klux Klan and a watershed in filmmaking technology, The Birth of a Nation provides the opportunity for numerous meaningful classroom discussions. {Click image for source information}

More than 800 films have been made about the Civil War. . . He demonstrates how the movies aided and abetted racism and an inaccurate view of American history, providing a revealing and important account of the power of cinema to shape our understanding of historical truth.”

{Click image for source information}

In The Reel Civil War, Chadwick explores the ways Civil War films have shaped our understanding of history. This includes an examination of how movies have created and reinforced myths that we’ve come to collectively view as “true.” Although he discusses numerous films, Chadwick uses The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and Glory for the core of his narrative.

Chadwick discusses the ways Glory is both different from past Civil War films and the ways in which it perpetuates the same myths. {Click image for source information}

Making Film a Part of the Classroom

Usually, films are not a legitimate part of classroom discussions about history. This is completely understandable because movies, even when “based on a true story” or historical events, remain works of fiction. Therefore, when your goal is to construct a “true” or “accurate” representation of the past, it is not effective to turn to a film. And, just to be clear, Labragirl is not advocating using movies as examples of historical narrative. What we do believe is effective in helping students gain media literacy, historical analysis, and critical thinking skills is to shift from traditional film watching to film reading and analysis. 

With the ability to talk about how film images have shaped our view of the past, students will have a more comprehensive understanding of how history is created and, even more importantly, remembered.

Rather than the traditional film watching and discussion of content, Labragirl is bringing the following into K-16 classrooms:

  • Film reading based on film production knowledge
  • Film analysis based on decoding visual messages
  • Conversations about how to engage in discussion about the cultural impact of moving images
  • Incorporation of film analysis into larger academic and educational discussions

Using The Reel Civil War

Although I used individual lessons in a variety of classes, my most extensive use of The Reel Civil War was in a cultural history seminar entitled the US at War.

I dedicated approximately 1.5 weeks to this lesson plan. However, depending on the time you have available, this lesson can be shortened to as few as 2 class periods or developed to take up to 2.5 weeks (or longer).

The assignments that shape this series of lessons were:

At the college level, I believe that it’s important and appropriate to have students view the films in their entirety, either on their own or at a separate class screening.

At the high school level, depending on the time you have available, I would suggest screening clips of each movie in the classroom. In addition to saving time, the film viewing will be a community building event and the analysis may be more digestible in smaller doses.

Lesson #1: Our Relationship With Film 

If your students are new to film analysis and film reading then it’s important to begin with a general discussion about film. The goal of this discussion is to help students think and talk critically about their interactions with movies.

Below are just a few of the questions I’ve used in the past to open up conversations about how we engage with film images.

How does the movie-watching venue shape your interaction with movies?

Do we interacted differently with film images if we watch a movie on our phone versus in a movie theater?

What does it mean to think critically about movies?

Can you think of a time that a movie influenced your mood or ideas?

What role do movies play in our society?

Lesson #2: Introduce Students to Film Reading

The goal of this lesson is to move students away from focusing on content and story lines to looking at the visual components of film.

To enter into this conversation start by showing a short movie clip. For the purposes of this exercise, any movie trailer or short clip will do.

One I like to use is the theatrical trailer for Back to the Future, 1985.  

What do you notice about camera angles?

Does the lighting shape the way a character is portrayed?

How does the soundtrack influence your mood?

What about the costumes? Set design? 

How does the pace of the editing shape the way you view the images? 

Lesson #3: The Birth of A Nation

The assignments for this lesson are:

  • Read The Reel Civil War through the analysis of The Birth of a Nation
  • Watch The Birth of a Nation in its entirety

The main goal of this lesson is to discuss Chadwick’s methodology and how he applies that analysis to The Birth of a Nation.

{Click on image for source information}

In all honesty, I oftentimes had mixed feelings about requiring students to watch the entire movie. Watching The Birth of a Nation can be painful—for many reasons. If you’d rather your students not screen the entire film, many of the points and images required for this discussion can be seen in selected clips as well.

There’s significant and justified controversy over this film. It’s extremely racist. It’s also considered a watershed in filmmaking history.

Does its role in film history outweigh its racist content?

What’s the value of studying this film?

From a historical standpoint, I think that it’s important to watch this film because it’s essential to understand how many of the images and concepts in this film have made their way into our textbooks and popular culture.

You can use clips of The Birth of a Nation to spark discussion.

{Warning: this clip may contain graphic images and language }

What ideas are portrayed in this film?

How are these ideas visually constructed?

How is the Civil War portrayed in this film?

How are African-Americans portrayed in this film?

What techniques are used for this portrayal?

How is violence portrayed?

How is it similar or different to the way violence is conveyed in films today?

Lesson #4: Gone With the Wind

The assignments for this lesson are:

  • Read Chadwick’s analysis of Gone With the Wind
  • Watch Gone With the Wind in its entirety

In my experience, the discussion about Gone with the Wind tends to resonate with students.  Oftentimes, a great deal of the conversation centers around students reconciling their previous non-critical viewing of the film with their new critical look at the movie.

Armed with studying Civil War primary sources, Chadwick’s discussion, and their own critical voices, it becomes clear that our ideas have indeed been shaped by films.

There’s the portrayal of Prissy.

Is Prissy’s character an example of Chadwick’s claim that Gone With the Wind perpetuated racist myths?

How was Prissy cinematically constructed? 

Did you see this type of portrayal in The Birth of a Nation?

Then, there’s Chadwick’s discussion about how the North and South are portrayed.

How is the North portrayed?

How is the South portrayed?

How do cinematic techniques create these portrayals?

Do we see these portrayals in films today?

Lesson #5: Glory

The assignments for this lesson are:

  • Read Chadwick’s analysis of Glory
  • Watch Glory in its entirety

Glory, in many ways, marks a clear departure from The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. Glory brought new story lines and new images to the silver screen.

{Warning: this clip may contain graphic images and language }

What new images and ideas do you see in Glory?

Visually speaking, how are these new ideas created?

Are any of the same myths that appear in The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind present in Glory? 

Beyond Glory

With the recent release of Lincoln, it’s possible to continue this conversation with a fourth blockbuster Civil War film.

What images and myths persist?

What images have changed?

How do these cinematic images shape our understanding of history?

A Final Note

These are just a few ideas for ways to incorporate The Reel Civil War into your classrooms.

Many of the ideas and issues can be discussed at both the high school and college level.

If your classroom time is extremely limited, this lesson can be condensed into one or two class period. To do this, simply read The Reel Civil War on your own and introduce the themes you’d like to discuss. Then, screen the three movie trailers in class and talk about how the themes you’ve selected to discuss are visually constructed in the three movie trailers.

The Birth of a Nation Trailer

{Warning: this clip may contain graphic images and language }

Gone with the Wind Trailer

Glory Trailer

Thank you very much for your time and interest. I hope that you’ve found this discussion useful and I’d be interested to hear about your classroom conversations.

Do you have any ideas to share? Did you use any of these activities in the classroom? What were your conversations like? Want more ideas for questions and/or topics? Comment below or discuss with us on .

Let’s talk film images,


*Disclaimer: All video clips are suggestions for class use, only. All instructors should screen clips to determine if the clips and trailers are appropriate to use in their classrooms. 


UP NEXT 1/28: A few short classroom activities to help your students learn how to read films.

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