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Forms and Source of Historical Knowledge

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Over the years history has adapted and changed to find and accept new forms of historical knowledge. From the very beginning where visual history was used for centuries in caves to display and explain through pictures what had occured in the past. To the more recent form of oral history which historians have slowly begun to embrace as a reliable source of historical knowledge. Yet again here we are faced with the dilemma of whether to let a modern development and creation such as filmed representations of the past into the collection of things we consider and rely on for historical knowledge.

In recent years we have seen an unprecedented increase in historical films recreating the past, from the likes of 12 Years a Slave winning 30 film awards and Hidden Figures to more focussed recreation’s of a single persons historical influence like King’s Speech and Jackie. Consequently, this has resulted in the increasing demand to tackle the question of whether films can be used to contribute to historical knowledge or are they just an over dramatised showing of the twisted truth designed to recieve as many views as possible.

Primarily, when it comes to considering something as historical knowledge, all forms of the piece of work, in each individual case need to be treated with circumspection. For example, more often than not with primary sources which we so heavily rely and regard highly of a piece of historical knowledge are often made originally with an alternative motive in mind, designed and constructed to portray an impression that is not realistically true. Such as the propaganda videos released by the Soviet Union during the Cold War generating the perception they had hundreds of missile launchers when in fact they only had ten to twenty five, consequently causing the missile gap. When it comes to answering the question at hand filmed representations are no different, you have to analyse each individual representation before classing them under historical knowledge.

The definition of a representation according to Oxford dictionaries is that it is ‘the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way’ . Highlighting that the filmed representation may not always be an exact replica of the history the we have learnt of from other sources. Often this is shown by filmed representations of the past being an art and one that is constructed to be a cinematic experience. This can be a disadvantage as the experiences created often have a vested interest such as a monetary gain. An example of this is the Hollywood blockbuster Pearl Harbour (2001), it describes the Japanese Kamikaze bombers aiming at hospitals and medical facilities during the bombing when truly they were aiming at the Allied warships docked at the harbour.

The fact that the target was a hospital increased the detrimental effect of the attack in the eyes of the viewer as it was a place considered to be safe and one were vulnerable people are looked after. This inaccurate aim dramatized the historical story that was being created. With filmed representations unlike other sources of historical knowledge a story is needed to be crafted, one that has a beginning middle and end, designed to leave you with a message. Traditionally, this message is also shown to be a optimistic one with the historical event improving or the conflict being solved. Repeatedly, this provides an uncontested single view to history giving the impression to views that the event only happened one way. This is rarely then the case when you look at the the event from the view of other more reputable historical knowledge sources.

Nevertheless, audiences when viewing a filmed representation of the past have the preconceived expectation that it will contain villains, heroes and pace. This is often the fundamental reason why filmed representations often distort the exact details of a historical event, however the true meaning and story do normally prevail. This is something that is often overlooked by heavy critics of historical filmed representations. Even so, this also begs the question; do sources of historical knowledge need to be exactly factually correct or is a general correct message adequate.

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