Saturday, December 7, 2013

CLIV (154): Get Out of the Archives

In the film Saving Private Ryan, there is a scene earlier in the film when the door of a landing craft opens and U.S. soldiers charge on to OMAHA Beach.  They are mowed down by German machine gunfire almost instantly.  It is a power, jarring bit of filmmaking, and it gives the viewer a quick realization that the allied landings on D-Day were no simple thing.  The problem--it is not accurate.  Theatrical films getting the facts wrong is no big surprise. 

What is disturbing is the situation on the beachhead was actually a lot worse.  The Germans were no idiots.  They knew what was coming and had designed their defenses to thwart the American, British, and Canadian armies that they knew were going to invade France.  In 1999 I was part of a study abroad program that took a group of undergraduates taking a course on World War II to France.  We stood on the DOG GREEN section of OMAHA where that scene in Saving Private Ryan was supposed to have taken place.  We were in front of a German pillbox and I must say, director Steven Spielberg, his set design people and location scouts did a good job in giving their viewers a fairly accurate representation of the real thing.  The only difference was the pillbox was designed to fire not straight off the beach into the water and approaching land crafts, but was in an angled position to the waterline so it was in a position to fire down the length of the beach.  After our class discussed some the landing, we wondered off to explore the French coast.  I walked about a quarter mile up the sand and then turned around.  The pillbox looked like it was ten yards away.  I could see the gun slots clearly and someone there could easily have cut me down quickly with any type of firearm as the Germans did to so many U.S. soldiers.  I had no where to run, no where to hide.  The true danger of this killing zone hit me right then and there and it was a lot more powerful than a few seconds in a film.

Fast forward to November, 2013.  It is the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  Filmmaker Ken Burns has made a documentary on the speech and has started a project to get people to record videos of themselves reciting the Lincoln's remarks.  They are located on the website:  The idea is that these videos will help convey the inspiring power of history.  They do.  A number of famous people have already recorded their versions, including a number of members of Congress, President Barack Obama, every living former President and a number of actors.  The videos are short--between a minute and a half to a little more than two--and are inspiring and--in a few cases--emotional.  It is one thing to read the speech, it is another thing to see it delivered in person.  You quickly realize that Lincoln wrote something that was an exceptional piece of oratory.   

Last month I found myself through pure accident in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on a cold, Saturday afternoon.  The place was littered with historical reenactors in Union blue and Confederate grey.  It turned out it was the annual Remembrance Day parade in honor of the speech.  I spent several hours watching what must have been between 3,000 and 5,000 people march through he town accompanied by bands playing the songs of the 1860s.  The parade gave me a better appreciation of what the Army of Northern Virginia or the Army of the Potomac probably looked like when it was on the move; what individual soldiers looked like. 

Why are these three examples important?  Writing history well is extremely difficult for any number of reasons.  These range from you know how the story ends, to it is difficult to set up quotes well, to the fact that communicating idea and thesis with clarity and precision is such a  priority that other considerations fall by the wayside.  There are many others.  One of them is that when you are sitting down to write you are simply interacting with documents and other pieces of paper.  It is easy to forget that you are dealing with the lives of other people, even if they have been dead for a long time.  Teaching about the past is also difficult.  Consulting with other representations of the past can help the historian as an author and instructor present some of the power of the past.  There are any number of ways that this might be done.  Historical newsreels, sound recordings, still photos, and visiting actual sights are all ways of appreciating the past.  That understanding will come through in your text in ways large and small.  

So, get out of the archives!

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