Review of ‘Box Office Archaeology: Refining Hollywood’s Portrayals of the Past’ edited by Julie M. Schablitsky

01st June 2008

Hiscock book review cover AA66Box Office Archaeology: Refining Hollywood’s Portrayals of the Past edited by Julie M. Schablitsky, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, 2007, 256 pp., ISBN 978-1-59874-056-1.

Peter Hiscock

School of Archaeology and Anthropology, The Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia

This curious book will appeal to archaeologists who are annoyed when Hollywood constructs film plots that do not conform to their understanding of the evidences and, far more importantly, to teachers who intend to teach history through a commentary on filmic representations. Containing 13 chapters, this edited volume brings together a number of authors who comment on the historical reality of film depictions and the archaeological evidence for events displayed in movies. The collection emerged from papers given at a conference of the Society for Historical and Underwater Archaeology held in New York, and the films discussed reflect the maritime, historical, and very American focus of the participants. Hence, with the exception of chapters on the way Hollywood represents mummies and Vikings, the chapters focus entirely on historical events in America or on the way there. Hence the book offers considerations of Pocahontas, Amerindians, African Americans, the Wild West, the gangs of New York, historic Chinatowns, Confederate submarine battles, and American pirates as well as the Titanic. These are undoubtedly worthy and interesting topics, but this focus seems parochial, and may not be central to the needs of history teachers elsewhere in the world. Subjects well-represented in American cinema are not explored: the crusades, building pyramids, Alexander the Great, Roman politics and battles, Palaeolithic life, land battles of the American revolution and civil war, the bombing of Pearl Harbour and so on. Of course this observation does not diminish the value of the book, but it may well limit its value for non-American readers and teachers. For those searching for wider coverage other books may be worth considering (e.g. Jon Solomon’s The Ancient World in the Cinema, Tony Barta’s Screening the Past, or Hughes-Warrington’s History Goes to the Movies). However, what Box Office Archaeology provides is a focus on the archaeological material, written by archaeologists, and perhaps this is just what some readers are looking for.

More critically I note the existence of a tension in almost every chapter, between recognising that Hollywood productions have a very different objective to archaeological research and the temptation to complain about historical inaccuracies. The goal of many contributors, either implicitly or explicitly expressed, is to correct misunderstandings of the past purveyed by film-makers, an agenda reflected in the subtitle of the book. The editor, Julie Schablitsky, frames this in terms of the capacity of archaeologists to contradict popular myths expressed on celluloid (p.12). The list of corrections offered by the archaeologists in this volume is very lengthy, ranging from the pertinent observation that magical incantations found with mummies were meant to revive them in the afterlife (not to physically reanimate them in this life), to the quirky complaint that films about Vikings do not accurately depict sex with slaves about to be sacrificed. Of course even observations of the most trivial ‘errors’ add to the realisation that films do not offer us the kinds of representations of the past that professional archaeologists and historians would present in texts. Even academics such as Robert Rosenstone (in History on Film/Film on History), who encourage the expectation that history can be communicated through cinematic representations, argue that film is a radically different medium for delivering history and cannot be bound by the previous rules of academic historical analysis. Yet who could expect otherwise? Hollywood makes films for entertainment and profit, not only to convey some sense of historical events. Those films may reveal much about contemporary stereotypes and mythologies, but historical accuracy is not the central (or even the secondary) concern of most directors. Whining about historical faults, minor or major, in non-documentary movies is not only unlikely to alter the way Hollywood operates but is an approach which obscures the fundamental difference between movie-making and archaeology. In an exceptional final chapter, Vergil Noble embraces the reality that films about the past reflect mythic imperatives rather than archaeological evidence, that this has always been so, and that this is appropriate and laudable. He sagely advises that archaeologists would be well-advised to focus on how they can improve their own discipline rather than attempt to remake Hollywood in their own image. Of course we can all be fascinated by film representations of our discipline, but ultimately technical critiques such as those found throughout Box Office Archaeology must been seen as statements about archaeology rather than about cinema.

Peter Hiscock
Review of ‘Box Office Archaeology: Refining Hollywood’s Portrayals of the Past’ edited by Julie M. Schablitsky
June 2008
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