Tom O'Regan & Brian Shoesmith. 'Not the Past as it Really Happened: an Interview with John O'Connor. In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 166-73.


Tom O'Regan & Brian Shoesmith

John E. O'Connor is Professor of History at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark. He is also the Director of the American Historical Association's (AHA's) The Historian and the Moving-Image Project, Chairperson of the Historians Film Committee, and Editor of the journal Film and History. He co-edited with Martin A. Jackson American History / American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image[1] and edited American History / American Television: Interpreting the Video Past.[2] He was a guest of the 3rd Australian History and Film Conference held in Perth in December 1985. This interview was conducted by Tom O'Regan and Brian Shoesmith during the Conference.

SHOESMITH: Since visual forms of communication - principally film - have assumed greater significance for the work of historians as both documents and sources of information, as well as ways of telling history, can you begin by telling us of the origins of the Moving Image Project?

O'CONNOR: I've been working over 15 years with our organisation, the Historians Film Committee. The Committee is an affiliated group of the American Historical Association (AHA) whose aim is to try to sensitise the traditional historians in America to take more cognizance of visual materials. About two years ago the time seemed ripe for a project to bring everything together. The National Endowment for the Humanities has spent millions of dollars in recent years funding historians and projects involving historians, to make films that were slightly more accurate and slightly more believable than the typical commercial product in America. I suggested to that organisation that really it might be appropriate to spend at least some small fraction of that money on making people more critical viewers in the context of history and the social sciences. The AHA agreed with me and took on the project.

The problems we have begun to redress are pointed up by the types of TV programs now being produced. In addition to playing fast and loose with the facts of history for the sake of audience appeal, the combined effect of watching the continuing crop of such productions is a trivialisation of the work of the historian. For one thing, the research that goes into designing the sets, costumes and props for such productions, usually takes precedence. The main effort at accuracy is directed toward getting the trappings right. Historical issues of real interest to scholars are rarely addressed and when they are, the impression is often conveyed that the facts speak for themselves. Historians are, first and foremost, interpreters. But the effect of these productions is to suggest to the audience that they have seen the issues or events of the past portrayed "as they really happened." The study guides provided for classroom teachers often list sources for further reading, but they never suggest that there might be one or more equally acceptable alternative interpretations to the one presented on the screen.

Now we really cannot expect commercial TV producers (any more than we can the authors of history books) to point up the weaknesses in their own work. The problem here is that while our education system devotes proper attention to teaching students to identify elements of bias and interpretation in a written work, we do not do the same for the moving image. We must raise the level of visual literacy among scholars and students and the population in general, so that they will more readily understand that a televised portrayal of history, like any book or article, represents but one point of view.

SHOESMITH: From what you have said we take it that the activities of the project have become pervasive - taking in secondary and tertiary teaching on the one hand, and a number of foci within that. Can you elaborate?

O'CONNOR: The current project includes preparing a book for the AHA which will elucidate a methodology for studying film and TV as historical artifact. This is something that historians will be able to use as a stepping off point for coming to grips with these matters. Hopefully this book will be ready in 1987.

The project also includes a re-issue, actually a complete re-writing of a pamphlet that I did for the AHA several years ago called "Teaching History With Film". It will be expanded to include TV and perhaps photography and will be cross-referenced to the book. We are also conducting a series of in-service workshops; speaking to history departments and history teachers in secondary schools as well as the universities. We are trying to convince all history teachers that they can use film in a more critical way and that doing this will accomplish some very important things for them.

I think this is a particularly propitious time to begin this approach. This is not only because of the increasing importance of the docu-drama and the mini-series on American TV, but also because there is a growing use of computer-generated images in the press and TV. I am thinking first of computer graphics used in the background of TV news. For example, we had an interesting case in America last year when President Reagan spoke out against the use of computer-generated graphics that showed the Star Wars Defence (SDI) System (the kinds of satellite-driven weapons in operation) as though the things already existed and that we could understand the ways in which they would work. Reagan's argument was that the presence of that kind of image misled the public into thinking that the project was further along than it was, at precisely the time that he was seeking funding to begin the relevant research. On the other side, critics of the Star Wars defence initiative argued just as loudly that, by showing the satellite systems operating flawlessly, the graphics created the false impression that the project was technologically feasible.

The availablility of computer systems which can digitalise photographic images and then alter them in ways that defy detection is another problem. It raises obvious evidentiary concerns for scholars. But, more importantly, within five years computer systems will be available which will allow a still picture (of some world leader, for example) to be manipulated and animated (with a computer synthesised voice) in such a way that he appears to make whatever public statement the techicians may put in his mouth. I can think of nothing more effective in bringing home to historians the need for they and their students to become more visually literate.

SHOESMITH: Could I take up something you have said about the sequence of visual images studied within your historical project? Wouldn't it have been more appropriate to begin with photography then go on to film and then to TV. In this way you could move from the still image to the moving image? I am not suggesting that the still image is a simplistic image but it can be much easier to deal with for people who are unfamiliar with the analysis of images. Once you have developed skills of analysis in regard to still images you then move on to the moving image.

O'CONNOR: I think that certainly does make sense but it was simply too much to bite off for this project at this time. I mentioned a moment ago incorporating some introductory comments on photography into the book, and to use that as an introduction to the general theme in the book and in the teaching pamphlet but there is so much going on in the terms of history of photography today. It is such a burgeoning field.

SHOESMITH: Is your project limited to historians of American history or to historians generally in America? This question has particular relevance in Australia given the extent of European, Asian and American history taught and researched here.

O'CONNOR: We are trying to be broader. For example, those involved in this project include Latin American historians and European historians. Pierre Sorlin and Anthony Aldgate are both going to be contributors to the book.

O'REGAN: You mention the development of particular frameworks. I would like to know both what these frameworks are and what has led you to develop them specifically?

O'CONNOR: They came out of ten to twelve years of working in the field and observing the ways in which my colleagues were addressing the study of film and TV. The most natural way for historians to begin film study is to distinguish between productions based on actuality footage (newsreels, TV news, documentaries, archival compilation films etc.) and dramatised productions that rely on written scripts read by actors in costume. It seemed to me, however, that there were problems in drawing this distinction too clearly. All types of films (like all kinds of historical artifacts) lend themselves to all kinds of analysis. What appeared to me to make more sense was to breakdown all types of analysis rather than the types of films. I asked myself, what were the types of inquiries in which historians were studying film materials? And how might the demands of each of these types of investigations require increased attention to different aspects of the moving-image documents? It seemed to me that there were four such types of investigations:

1. The study of Film/TV as Interpreter of History.

2. The Study of Moving-Image Documents as Resources for Social and Cultural History

3. The Study of Actuality Film and Video as Factual Evidence.

4. The Study of the History of Media Industries and Art Forms.

As I planned the project, I polled my colleagues in the field about this breakdown, and there was general agreement with it. One specific suggestion came from Robert Sklar[3] who suggested that I make very explicit that the purpose for creating these frameworks was not to artificially simplify an otherwise complex field. Indeed each of the four frameworks overlap, and many films lend themselves to analysis in all four ways. For example, a historical docudrama could be studied for the ways in which the myriad choices made by its producers may have subtly influenced the interpretation presented (framework 1); but the same docudrama could also be studied as a cultural artifact of the period in which it was made (framework 2), or as a document for understanding the development of the docudrama genre in the context of the history of TV (framework 4). If the production included archival newsreel clips, they could be analysed for the factual evidence they contained (framework 3). Each change in the context of the inquiry brings different analytical concerns to the forefront. The point of itemising the four is to assure that none of these important concerns are forgotten.

SHOESMITH: There are other people who have been working on images as documents as a field in their own right much longer than historians and I am just wondering whether the theoretical underpinnings of your frameworks draw upon art history, structuralism or film semiotics?

O'CONNOR: I have looked at them and I want to incorporate as much as I can because I think those perspectives add understanding to the project. But what I am trying to do is convince historians and history teachers of the value that can be derived from using visual materials and of the absolute necessity to address them. For example in each one of those frameworks, one could benefit from the application of semiotic analysis of the images. But before one can understand the value of taking the trouble to learn basic semiotic analysis one has to be able to see the value of what they are doing in forms of historical teaching. I do not want to suggest that there is anything final or particularly cumulative in what I am trying to work on. The methodology that I am trying to lay out is something that is meant as a starting point for scholars.

O'REGAN: What kind of reaction has there been to the project within the discipline of history itself?

O'CONNOR: I think there has been some resistance. There has been hesitation among people who have thought that I was proposing a more far-reaching approach than I intended and there are still tradition-bound historians who fail to see that unless they come to grips with film and TV they are doomed to speak only to one another while commercial producers take on their professional responsibility of interpreting history for the broader society.

O'REGAN: You've mentioned the extent of the project in the USA. Our main concern is with establishing a framework for similar developments in Australia. Do you think that, with some modifications, this approach is applicable here?

O'CONNOR: As you will appreciate, I have a distinct lack of knowledge about the organisation of the Australian historical community but I would strongly suggest that people try to organise a project that investigates the use of film in history teaching. Of course it does not have to be similar to ours in America. As interesting as I have found the communications scholars gathered here in Perth it is really rather disappointing that so few people who would consider themselves historians first are at a conference like this. I think this suggests that as important as the work that your organisation is doing with the history and film conference, this may not be the best way to approach the problem with the general historians. Somehow it must be brought home to them, first that the moving image is important for their own work and second, that to deal with it critically they must learn some of the techniques of cinema studies.

In America we are trying to do this on the basis of improving history teaching through the critical analysis of films used in the classroom. Another project I am involved in (this is through another grant project that I have organised through our New Jersey Department of Higher Education) is bringing together materials on five or six individual moving image documents so that the history teacher's first experience on bringing film to students can be based on material that has already been collected for them. For example we are organising a packet which includes the film itself, an essay on that film which spells out the information needed to analyse it as a document (eg. its production history) an "Introduction to Visual Language for History Students", a fifteen to twenty page summary of the basic elements in visual communication for the history teacher, and a set of slides that are drawn from the film. These enable the teacher and students to concentrate on such things as composition and lighting and other elements of visual language as they relate to the historical issues the teacher wants to consider.

Hopefully these materials will encourage discussion and lay the groundwork for further developments by students. The point is not to try to counsel the teachers on what materials to use, but to give teachers at least one experience of how fruitful the close analysis of a film can be for their own ends.

SHOESMITH: What do you say to the teacher who says that I use films already and they work fine and I don't need any of this?

O'CONNOR: I will ask them to explain how they use film materials. I learn from their good experience, and often I can wind up suggesting additional things that they might do more critically or in a more productive way.

SHOESMITH: You've painted a clear picture of the mechanics of the project. We are as interested in the intellectual impetus behind it. From listening to you we detect a particular conjunction of historical practices and a contemporary discourse of film theory. Can you comment?

O'CONNOR: I think part of what has brought this together now is a growing recognition that film study among historians is reaching (in America at least) a new stage. I would argue that until this time much of the best work, that has been done in historical film and TV study has been orientated towards the discussion and the analysis of specific documents, specific films and specific TV programmes or series. There are exceptions, of course, where people have pioneered a more generalised approach. Bob Sklar comes immediately to mind.

A great deal of what has passed as generalisation in film study, that proposes to speak on history, has neglected the traditional kind of historical methodology that we would prefer. That is part of the reason that the two books that I have done, and a lot of what we have published in our journal Film and History over the past fifteen years, has focussed on individual productions where people could get down into the archives, come up with hard data and evidence to support what they were saying rather than in hypothesising off into the sunset. I think we have now reached the point where we have to get beyond dealing with the individual films and begin to generalise more broadly and begin to seek a more synthetic view. To some extent it reflects a new stage in the development of historian's interest in film study in America which I think has a very fruitful future.

O'REGAN: Has the work the social historian such as Erik Barnouw,[4] who has published extensively on American broadcasting, provided a groundwork, and perhaps a more focussed interest for the generalising aspect of your work?

O'CONNOR: His books have played an important role obviously but just as important are the significant advances in terms of specific methods of study. For example, in our TV book American History / American Television, to which Erik Barnouw contributed an interesting forward, each one of the articles tries to use our basic methodology; each assesses to some degree the content, the production and the reception experience of a particular program. Some of the strongest essays in the book are the ones that do allow for the study of related paper archives. For example there is an essay by Thomas Cripps on the Amos and Andy series which is full of enlightening references from the papers of the activist National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the way in which black activists in America in the late 1940s and early 50s responded to Amos and Andy moving from radio to TV. Ultimately they were successful in forcing it off the air.

So I think there are important roots in both areas. One must of course include Barnouw in terms of the people who have pioneered the field by producing important general histories. But historians in the future who try to generalise, I think, will have benefitted by the very specific archival work that other people have done.

SHOESMITH: Talking about archival work, what can you say of the place for your project of the intense empirical and theoretical work of say Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, in the recently published The Classical Hollywood Cinema.[5]

O'CONNOR: I think it is essential reading for anyone who is serious about this kind of study because of the way in which it so clearly ties together in a scientific manner the ways in which the style that appears on the screen is linked to the economic, the institutional and the technological elements of cinema.

The book represents an important trend in film and history scholarship. Now people who are trained in cinema and the history of mass media institutions are working in much more critical and perceptive ways that they were in the past. The Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson book is the model in terms of the direction in which we must go and I think we can only all benefit from it. Traditionally, even though they are often interested in the same questions there has been an unfortunate split between people who do film history and people who use film as a part of their study of history. Often it is gaps in the methodology that have really kept us apart. Works like the Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson book can help bring us together. Incidentally Janet Staiger is another one of the authors in our AHA project volume.

O'REGAN: Given the scope of the enterprise, we are interested in the other participants. Could you fill us in on who they are, provide us with some more information on them?

O'CONNOR: Garth Jowett, Bob Sklar, Daniel Leab and several others who, while less known, have very interesting insights to bring. One, for example, is Gerald Herman from Northeastern University in Massachussets who has been working with his students over the last four or five years with newsreel footage. What he has done is to copy from our National Archives unedited newsreel footage and also the edited story. At the beginning of the term in his graduate history course he shows them copies of the uncut footage and asks them to go back and study the events that are covered in this footage and then they cut it themselves into a newsreel story. They do this in teams and then get together and compare the ways in which each team has cut the story. Only then does he show them the way it was actually presented to the American public at the time. This is a wonderful kind of training in terms of what the options are; it's all done on video tape.

SHOESMITH: What you are doing, it seems to me, is raising a point about historiography. It does seem that when historians start doing this sort of experiment with film two things can occur. Firstly, all sorts of historiographical questions about the actual writing of history can be opened up. Secondly, this sort of work can be seen as an advance in historiography. Once you start using film in that methodological way you have gone beyond the written word in terms of raw basic data, you are starting a new historiographical enterprise.

O'CONNOR: I am not sure about that. I cannot think of an historiographic issue that could not have been dealt with or would not have come up in terms of print study before those students tried to put those newsreels together. You know who were the leading characters in the event, what were the most important elements that may have been represented in terms of what was put on the screen, what ideological frame of mind might the filmmaker or the historian have brought to either writing it or putting it on the screen. They are all very similar questions in terms of the study of historiography in general. But if film study is unlikely to raise new issues for interpretation, it certainly challenges us to consider new ways to interpret those issues - new structures for historical narrative for example.

Some historians such as Natalie Zemon Davis predict that working with the visual materials may open up whole new historiographical questions. I think that may only come through further study as people get into it more.

SHOESMITH: It is a fundamental premise of semiotics that each signifying practice has a specificity. By this I mean you tell history differently through photographs from the way you would tell history through film or writing. Maybe you can then ask different historiographical questions, employ different historical methods for each medium.

O'CONNOR: If you are saying that new interpretations will arise, there is no question about that; obviously historiography will expand as new interpretations are added to the films that historians study. The larger question is whether or not film study will influence the types of interpretations historians make.

For example, Natalie Davis argues that her work as historical consultant on the production of The Return of Martin Guerre encouraged her to ask questions and to think about elements of village life in sixteenth-century France that might never have occurred to her otherwise. This is interesting. But it is reasonable to go beyond that to suggest that involvement in film study will get historians thinking in broadly different ways. The trend to studying the lives of ordinary people like those French villagers has been underway for decades.

O'REGAN: How is the Moving Image project organised in terms of the personnel? Were they selected and approached or did it organise itself? It seems like it was quite an enterprise in terms of material.

O'CONNOR: I invited people to participate. I tried to establish a balance of people who are respected in the history profession on one hand and on the other in the particular aspects of cinema studies. To some extent we also thought they ought to be people who knew one another and were willing to put aside their individual projects of the moment in order to concentrate on general methodological questions in the context that I was proposing. The twelve contributors are working, three each, on the four frameworks for analysis explaining ways in which those frameworks for analysis make sense for them and the kinds of issues that are important in terms of their experience. The key market for that book will be graduate students in history. It is aimed this way because I think it is very important that this be incorporated into a historian's graduate training.

There will be a pamphlet oriented towards teachers on the high school level and community and college level as well, that will be cross-referenced to the book for those people who want to get in deeper into the area.

We are also interested in trying to address very specifically the bodies in America that make up historical curricula in the schools. That happens on a state level in America, which means fifty different bodies instead of the five or six in Australia. There are also professional organisations that have considerable influence over that. There is an organisation of social studies educators who provide the models upon which each State's curriculum council is based. I think we have a good opportunity to speak to them in the next year or two and encourage right from the sixth or seventh year, students having lessons in visual thinking built into their curriculum. Right now that kind of thing is mandated for all kinds of other obviously important skills such as critical newspaper reading and map reading. Reading visual images is at least as important.

O'REGAN: Presumably it should lead to more historians using film as their medium?

O'CONNOR: There is an interesting series of films produced with historians involved in the production, which come with study guides which encourage students to ask questions about how the film was put together. They ask: might the images of a sequence be organised differently to present a different point of view, or how might the choice of a different kind of music for a sequence have influenced the way that a viewer perceived that film? The best kind, the most responsible kind, of historical filmmaking I think is the kind that at least allows for the breaking down of the illusions and opening up critical views even of what the filmmaker has done. Good historical films should be explicit about explaining to the audience that they represent an interpretation of history - one point of view - rather than recreating "the past as it really happened."


For many film scholars O'Connor's methodology and approach to film would represent a conservative position. Yet historians were a significant absence at the 3rd Australian History and Film Conference. John O'Connor feels that the Conference was probably not the most appropriate avenue for propogating the marriage of film and history in Australia. He may be right. In the USA, under the guidance of people like O'Connor, the relationship between film and history is, after a long gestation, proving to be a most profitable one for historians. Institutional support is there, and film theorists/historians are proving to be more accommodating of the traditional history propounded by O'Connor. Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson certainly point in this direction. They combine an intense empiricism with a theoretical sophistication that is most encouraging for those interested in exploring the film/history nexus. There have also been a number of developments in Europe. Pierre Sorlin, a visitor to the 2nd Australian History and Film Conference, and Marc Ferro (Co-editor of Annales) a visitor at the 3rd Conference, have done much work in France on using film as an historical document. K.R.M. Short, through the Historical Journal of Broadcasting Film and Television, and IAMHIST has established visual culture as a major new theme in social history in England. Overseas, film and history are increasingly enjoined as an area of study which demonstrates that empirical work and theorisation about communication processes are not mutually exclusive activities. Australia can learn from these developments, and we can only hope that the artificial distinctions that seemed to characterise the Perth conference will be dissolved at future History and Film Conferences.

The question which remains however, is, how could a project such as "The Moving Image" be implemented in Australia? To begin to answer that we need to draw out some of the similarities and dissimilarities between the Australian and American situations. At the level of film output Australia has never been the kind of major producer of the images seen in its drive-ins and picture theatres as America has in its own market and worldwide. The small size of Australia's cinema market (itself a reflection of its population size) has meant that it has tended to mostly screen imported Hollywood films. Consequently, Australia's own feature film output has tended to be on the margins rather than at the centre of the public consumption of audio-visual images. This marginal position when coupled with the small size of the theatrical market has tended to make it as much oriented internationally as nationally. Exporting a feature film was essential to its commercial viability. Considerations of export impinged heavily, for the most part at a production stage, and inflected the selection of images and sounds to represent Australia. By way of contrast the American industry was always producing films for the largest cinema market in the world - it could always make its money back in its local market and look to overseas sales for larger profits. The American industry, had, as a consequence, a much more direct and unmediated relationship between itself and its own political, social and economic institutions than the Australian industry could have.

Australian feature films, on the other hand, are inflected by the problem of finding a locally and internationally acceptable set of images of Australia, its people, its history, its economic and social institutions. Any historical analysis of Australian feature film output needs to bear this in mind.

Australian feature production, like most Western film industries has had to cope with Hollywood's economic and ideological dominance. Like them it has had to self-consciously negotiate its displacement from the mainstream of film production and its markets. So too, it has had to define itself in relation to this dominant Hollywood fare and the kind of possibilities Hollywood left open to it.

But not all Australian film, as opposed to feature film, was aimed at international audiences and second guessing what kind of Australian images would appeal there. There was, in the newsreels and before them the topicals, scenics and magic lantern slides, a filmmaking which was primarily locally inflected, seeking an Australian rather than a local and international audience simultaneously. Perhaps the multi-faceted links between film and society that "The Moving Image" seeks to explore might be usefully replicated in the study of this actuality film production. So too photography - something John O'Connor mentions as the next stage after film for the AHA project - might be an appropriate place to start to find the kinds of connections with social and political processes that its attention to audio-visual texts allowed.

Where the project needs to be modified is in the study of a film output - whether feature or documentary that is self-consciously seen to be projecting Australia to the world. Many films were made here for international consumption and were never screened in Australia whether they be films for trade fairs or for immigration offices. On the other hand some feature films like Franklyn Barrett's Breaking of the Drought (1920) were prevented from being exported because their images of Australia were so at odds with those provided officially. Sometimes too a precarious local industry could look to some federal and state support and endorsement by the gratuitous inclusion of elements so patently in line with official discourse as in the extensive choreography of fields of sheep moving in abstract patterns in Ken Hall's The Squatter's Daughter (1933). All of these suggest the historical importance of conserving and protecting the Australian image - itself a mark of a small film production industry and a country so dependent upon world trade, and great and powerful friends.

One important area left largely out of "The Moving Image" project is the process by which images were circulated and consumed by audiences. This is particularly important in the Australian context given the massive dominance of American images on its screens. This absence reflects "The Moving Image's" priorities. It does not seek to engage so much with film as part of a larger entertainment complex as with film in relation to social and political history. We would like to see added to "The Moving Image's" aims the social history of entertainment and leisure of which the cinema forms an important part. Such a social history would of necessity draw increasingly tenuous connections with mainstream histories of the nation and politics. This suggests the importance of positing a disjunctive (though interlocking) set of histories in relation to film. Within the Australian context such an approach would highlight the ways in which issues of censorship, the work of the local publicists, the importance in the pre-sound era of individual showman and live variety artists, gave a local inflection to the cinema and undoubtedly contributed to its local success in a way that having only the Hollywood main features would not have allowed for.

Tom O'Regan & Brian Shoesmith


1. J. O'Connor & M. Jackson American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978).

2. J. O'Connor ed. American History/ American Television: Interpreting the Video Past (Frederick Ungar: New York, 1983).

3. Robert Sklar is author of Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (London: Chappell and Co., 1978). He is Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University, and a participant in the AHA project.

4. Erik Barnouw was the Audio-Visual Librarian at the Library of Congress. His work on American broadcasting includes The Tube of Plenty (New York: OUP (1975) and The Sponsor (1978), A Tower of Babel (1966), The Golden Web (1968), The Image Empire (1970) and The Documentary (1974) among others.

5. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. (London: RKP, 1985).

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