The Impact of Theatrical History Lessons | Teen Ink

The Impact of Theatrical History Lessons

January 19, 2020
By RaniaMichaela PLATINUM, Abu Dhabi, Other
RaniaMichaela PLATINUM, Abu Dhabi, Other
21 articles 0 photos 4 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Don't watch what they say, watch what they do." ~ Rachel Maddow

When you’re young, history is a class you either love or hate. You’re either buried under a pile of history books, absorbing every ounce of information you could get or you were sleeping at your desk while the teacher was talking. When the history teacher is in the middle of their long monologue, sometimes they grumble about movies and TV shows like Horrible Histories that teach history inaccurately. What the teacher in question concedes here is that films and TV shows have the power to influence how their students view history. Films have the power to educate people on a historical event or figure and provide a new perspective on said event or figure. Why else would historians come out and either prove or disprove what is being portrayed in the latest historical film? This is especially applicable to the youth as much of what these movies portray is history we haven’t lived through. As they have no other evidence to counter the narrative being presented to them, they intuitively believe what they’re watching if they believe it’s based on fact. Although some young people aren’t interested in history, films based on historical events influence how younger generations view history to a great extent in both positive and negative ways depending on what film they are watching.

Watching films about the past, even the recent past, can give young people an idea on how to move forward, especially politically. In recent history, the most consequential political scandal in American history was undoubtedly Watergate. It toppled an American president, causing him to resign (namely Richard Nixon), it implicated numerous cabinet members including H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, and John Dean. This is one of the very few scandals where multiple people went to jail and because of Watergate, Richard Nixon is the only President in American history to have ever resigned. The scandal famously caught steam thanks to a now-famous journalistic duo, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein from the Washington Post. The 1976 film All The President’s Men retells the story of Watergate from the perspective of Woodward and Bernstein. As someone who constantly keeps up with the news and is very interested in the world of politics, the story of Watergate intrigues me as it is seen as something of a “scandal’s scandal” in modern American political history.  Whenever a major scandal is on the rise in the world of politics, references to Watergate are inevitable, and the film All The President’s Men has a lot to do with that. While quite a few pundits were alive during Watergate, the tale of Woodward and Bernstein cracking the Watergate story has been a major inspiration for budding journalists. I can definitely speak for myself when I say that this film has influenced my decision to pursue a career in journalism. As we move forward in the world of politics as scandals surround the current administration, pundits can’t help but refer back to Watergate when it comes to making sense of these scandals. With All The President’s Men, young people can understand these references and can be part of the conversation when it comes to what to do about each scandal in the future (granted they are major scandals). An argument that can be made against this idea is that political decisions everyday people make aren’t based on what they see as their history but their beliefs and their morals guide them to their choice. However, beliefs and morals are formed in a person based on their previous experiences. While previous experiences might not be influenced by films, they are technically history. Everything that has happened in the past is history, even if it’s not what we immediately think of as history. History is more than names and dates.

Educating the youth about history has always been something of value in school systems around the world. One of the main arguments for mandating history classes in schools is that if we don’t learn about it, we are doomed to repeat it. When it comes to educating the youth about history, films have always been one of the most effective methods in doing so. As Loranne Yaun wrote on Academia, “One of the main sources of history are movies because authors knew that people watch and believe those featured in these films. But the sad part is some data presented are not factual. That is the reason why youth are not that good in interpreting histories because they sometimes grasp the wrong information from films.” Misinformation in historical films is a problem, but the fact that misinformation is even a problem proves that films based on history play a major part when it comes to educating the youth. Before the staging of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, the image of Alexander Hamilton was poised to be removed from the ten-dollar bill. Hamilton’s historical significance isn’t obvious to those who haven’t studied American history and he was poised to be replaced by Harriet Tubman. After Hamilton the Musical became a massive hit, the American public became a lot more educated on Hamilton himself. As Foreign Policy’s David Francis explains, the success of the Pulitzer Prize winning musical was enough to keep Alexander Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill and have President Andrew Jackson replaced instead. While Alexander Hamilton’s life was not perfect, he did have an extramarital affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds and exposed the affair in the Reynolds Pamphlet after a rumour was circulating that Hamilton was embezzling government funds, historical heroes never are as perfect as they seem. Hamilton the Musical makes it clear that Alexander Hamilton was a good, patriotic man who wanted to make the best out of life but his ambition ended up clouding his morals. However, Hamilton’s legacy as Secretary of the Treasury is difficult to overstate and thanks to Hamilton the Musical, Alexander Hamilton is getting the respect he deserves and according to the musical, always wanted. He gets to keep his place as the “ten-dollar founding father” while Andrew Jackson gets swapped out for Harriet Tubman, all because of a smash hit hip hop musical.

When our parents were at school, their entire history class stayed within a textbook. No room for questioning, no room for other perspectives, history is written by the winners and their narrative was always championed. While it is still consistently championed to this day, looking at history from different angles has become a lot more common in history classrooms and historical movies have a heavy hand in this. Before the 1930s, Henry the Eighth was seen as a regal, honourable king. Then, The Private Life of Henry the Eighth was released in 1933. Originally as a humorous film, Henry the Eighth was portrayed as a drunken, abusive tyrant. Ever since then, that is how Henry the Eighth has been seen by future generations. The heroes in the story of Henry the Eighth’s reign have changed over time. The hero used to be King Henry, but now the heroes are Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. In short, the heroes are his six wives. Because of this film, Henry the Eighth’s reputation as a noble king is gone and until proved otherwise, he will be remembered as a mad, old, and violent womanizer. Speaking of his wives becoming the heroes in British tudor history, King Henry the Eighth’s fifth wife Katherine Howard is a prime example of differing perspectives on the same person. She was beheaded at the age of 18/19 (this is because Howard’s exact birth date is unknown) as she was accused and convicted of adultery. For years, Katherine Howard has been portrayed as a young, silly, promiscuous girl who didn’t know what she was getting into when she married the king and foolishly cheated on him with Thomas Culpeper. Nowadays, thanks to the musical Six, previous beliefs about Katherine Howard are being questioned. Historians like Josephine Wilkinson and Lucy Worsley have, in the BBC History Magazine and The Telegraph respectively, claimed that Katherine Howard’s previous relationships with Henry Mannock when she was thirteen and Francis Dereham when she was fifteen were non-consensual (Mason). More recent portrayals of Katherine Howard have portrayed her as a victim of abuse by powerful men rather than a vixen, the most famous being Aimie Atkinson’s performance in Six. This new image of Katherine Howard has become as widespread as Six the Musical itself and now, people have been expressing sympathy towards her. While Six is a stage musical rather than a film, movies also have the power to change how people view history just as any other media can.

Although some young people aren’t interested in history, films based on historical events influence how young people view history to a great extent in both positive and negative ways depending on what film they are watching. Political thrillers based on facts guide young people towards the best way forward when history appears to repeat itself, historical films are a major source of education for the youth and these films present different perspectives than the historical narrative that we as a society have grown up around. More often than not, our past and our history is not all it's cracked up to be.

Works Cited

Francis, David. “Thank 'Hamilton' for Keeping Alexander Hamilton on the $10 Bill.” Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, 20 Apr. 2016,

Korda, Alexander, director. The Private Life of Henry the Eighth. United Artists, 1933.

Marlow, Toby, and Lucy Moss. “SIX.” 2019, London.

Mason, Emma. “11 Facts about Catherine Howard.” HistoryExtra, 30 July 2018,

Miranda, Lin Manuel. “Hamilton.” 2015, New York, Broadway.

Pekula, Alan, director. All The President's Men. Warner Bros., 1976.

Yaun, Loranne. “How Movies Affect People's Lives.” - Share Research,

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