Prof. Shanti Jayasekara, PhD, Grand PhD

Historical Genre in cinema.

In this paper some aspects of the evolution of cinema during its 120 years of existence are considered. Particularly, the paper deals with its historical theme.

It is to be noted that “the Passion of the Christ” is probably the first dramatic movie. The historical theme is reflected in the cinema of some countries, mainly in the USA, at the dream factory named Hollywood. It is clear that consideration of different direction of cinema should be conducted in the context of overall review.

In its history, cinema has gone through many downturns and still wasn’t able to get rid of them. Rivalry, rollercoaster ride, oblivion and again – rises.

The evolution of cinema was stimulated, first of all, by the interests of businessmen, creative motivation of its makers, who represent all the aspects of cinema, and by the progress of technical and visual devices of cinema, which allows to create “the second reality”.

The time of silent films has passed; “le grand muet” did its job, but left its living legacy.

The USA went through the Great Depression, which nearly killed American cinematography.

In Germany Joseph Goebbels became the head of cinematography, and that made German films, with few exceptions, dull and quickly forgettable.  French cinema went through both decline and rise. And soon came World War II.

Georges Sadoul noted in his book “The history of cinema art” that during the war time some impressive movies were made in the USSR and, regardless of the occupation, France made a lot of wonderful movies; Swedish cinema was a success as well.

And what about the USA? Pre-war flash of some Hollywood films, including the first color films, was presented by the following pictures.

Having mentioned the first major color film of Victor Fleming “Gone with the Wind” (1939), which won 8 Oscars, “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941) with its outstanding music is also worth mentioning. Musical composition of the film “Chattanooga Choo Choo” won 4 Oscars.

But, at that time, the industry of documentary films was operating effectively.

Alfred Hitchcock, “the father of horror films”, who made a career in Hollywood just after the war, also became well-known.


Immediately after the end of the war Italian cinematography was evolving rapidly. The Italian film school was represented by such outstanding film directors as Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Luchino Visconti and others, who were at the root of the creation of the outstanding Italian film school.

We do not have the luxury of a more detailed description of many worthy pictures. We can only mention such thing as technological rearming, implementation of various novelties allowing to create high-quality cinema pictures. A meaningful and spectacular content is also a thing, which is necessary.

In the world cinema of the 50s of the last century an independent scientific field, cinema, was formed. And, as any other science, cinema defined the theoretical base of film studies.

Here it is necessary to give a following comment: when a theory appears, usually it develops its own ideas, gives argumentations and proves its conceptions etc. Generally, popular expression “theory without practice is dead” offers the practical implementation of theoretical conclusions.

There is a reverse constructive move in the theory of cinematography. Firstly, on the basis of discoveries in engineering, literature and visual arts etc. the practice of cinematography was formed. And only then on the basis of the formed cultural and social phenomenon, a theoretical, in other words, research approach of comprehension and perception of cinema art was formed. Art critics distinguish the following main characteristics and signs of the modern cinema industry including genre, conception etc. The work of a script writer and the methods of his work are regarded separately.

Film experts evaluate the problems of cinema and art as a whole. The problems of theoretical and empirical cinematography, the problems of the language and linguistics, ethnical and social aspects of cinema are also considered. The broad theoretical space of the different kind of hypothesizes and discussions, critical investigations and mutual criticism was formed. At the same time, the true cinema art is often used for the argumentation of a “deep” reasoning.

By paraphrasing the famous expression “art for the sake of art”, it can be said “cinema for the sake of cinema”. Surely, many profound explorations exist, undoubtedly useful for practitioners and theorists, who learn and comprehend cinematography.

Film critics affirm that in the blind pursuit of the profit filmmakers create “easily digestible” and “stamped” films, scripts from a “pattern”, which fit for any film, something from “mass culture” and for “the mass viewer”. It was in the Ancient Rome, where plebeians demanded the “bread and circuses”. In this way, it is emphasized that filmmakers adapt to the simple demand of a mass viewer. It might be true. Such a viewer brings money and profit. The lack of spirituality and cultural roots, the pursuit of the profit, which becomes the religion, played a great role in the development of pop-culture – the offspring of the Hollywood.

American researchers draw the line between the pictures, which satisfy mass taste and indulge passions and sympathies of the people.


Surely, nobody will deny that there were, are and will be wonderful, high-quality films, which correspond to the high demands of true art.

Truly, when you got acquainted with outstanding films, you realize how all characteristics are evaluated. Particularly, one of the most prestigious awards “Oscar” of Hollywood Film Academy is given in nominations such as “The Best Film”, “The Best Film Director”, “The Best Actor”, “The Best Script writer” , “The Best Sound Technician”, “The Best Artist”. By the middle of the last century so-called classification of genres was formed.  Let’s specify right away that such classifications are different, the boarders of cinema genres are conditional; furthermore, in practice the mixture of genres often exist.

Let us name some of them: love stories, horror films, western, action movie, fantasy, historical films etc. As it has been already said, American films can be presented as “mass consumption goods of poor-quality”, but still easily perceived by an undemanding viewer, and “intellectual”, regardless of the genre of the films.

But any film, both purely commercial “stamped” action film and tear-jerking drama, or rather its makers, pursue the only aim – to attract the attention of a viewer, to make a success.

And here it is appropriate to give a quotation from the American Encyclopedia of Social Sciences. “In what way this type of entertainment (film) works for the millions of working people? It saves them from the unbearable pressure and influence of reality. The film prepares “the Freudian travel” to dream country.  These dreams may be unhealthy, but, in any way, they are healthier than those, which are at the bar on the corner of a street or shabby walls of a room. For an hour or two a viewer identifies himself with a hero or heroine, and deep down feels like a potential hero, for a moment he becomes a real adventurer.”

From the economic point of view, cinema is the industry, production, even commercial. And as any commercial production, it is oriented on the profit. It is known that cinema industry comprises the production of the films of scientific, documentary and enlightening character.

The production of the modern film often means and realizes a commercial project. But here we can find low-budget movies, which have their own audience.

A major film may count on the success, if famous actors take part in it. Of course, the film is based on good film-direction, and a film-director is the author of success and fail. And, finally, the technics of film production, the skills of a cameraman.

The improvement of technology, shooting, the implication of striking techniques, tricks etc. and creative use of all innovations made the art of cinematic production.  On the basis of the mentioned above we can get to the consideration of the historical genre of cinema. Let’s move from the general to the special.


Unlike the positions of some film critics and film experts, who consider the cinema to be a separate kind of art, which develops according to inner laws, we assume that cinema is both an offspring and creator according to its own laws of theater, literature, painting, music.

The combination and harmonization of the classical types of art and the appearance of cinema art, based on them, and also the appearance of a separate film, are the main authorial aim of the team of stage managers.

The historical issue is the opportunity of the combination of a show and learning, that means the acquaintance with the historical events and names. The historical theme is eternal, regardless of the famous periods of oblivion, caused by, for example, popular science films or TV. However, art remains art, including the genre of historical movie, and the interest for art will not disappear.

“Historical” film again and again gets peculiarities, which again and again attracts producers and film directors, because of the following reasons.

Firstly, doubtless “vitality” of the historical theme. This, at first, deals with the religious theme, which is at the center of attention of not only believers. Secondly, the conducting of historical research, archaeological discoveries, and the edition of literary works also supports the interest of a viewer.

It remains only to find a form and the ways of “modern” performance of the modern viewer. On the whole, the method of the modern performance is not new; it has come from the theatre. We can remind about Mark Anthony with the gun in his hands, and Julius Caesar in the modern suit in the performances of London theaters many years ago, and the film “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973) by Norman Julian with tanks instead of Roman legionaries. It’s understood that the combination of time periods is just a particular detail. We are talking about physiological association, about finding the common grounds of the human’s life in the past and present. It is thought that “historical” films were born in Italy. The first pictures revealed the collapse of Troy, the wars between Cartago and Rome and other historical events. “Historical films” give the filmmakers the opportunity to combine the genres of the cinema. Sergey Eisenstein called this technique “polygenrism”. Major “historical” films, at some point, are unavailable to television, and that gives certain preferences to film makers.

Sometimes “historical films” are characterized as sub-conscious entertainment. Besides, many films treat historical facts quite freely, and such films are often called false historical films. In the biblical films both religious events and the literature of today can be the literature basement, when the plot depends on author’s imagination. However, regardless of the criticism, such films have big success. Here it is appropriate to remember the expression: “show is more important than knowledge”.  Usually, “historical films” belong to big-budget ones, but, nevertheless, the majority of it are profitable and even lucrative.

Among the films with the historical theme we can name “Ben Hur”, “The 300  Spartans”, “Spartacus” etc.

In 1980-1990s very few historical movies were created. However, after some time, historical pictures were again put on the screen.

Sure, we can’t even superficially consider the most outstanding films, so let us evaluate only some of them.

The film “Ben-Hur” was released in 1959 at MGM, the producer of the film was Sam Zimbalist and the film director was William Wyler. The film was named the best film of the year and won 11 Oscars. The cost of the film production was $15 million, and at that time that was the considerable amount in the film industry. And the profits from the film’s premiere were estimated at tens of millions of dollars.

Interestingly, the first film with the same name was released in 1926. The film was made by the same company “MGM” and also was a huge success. The script was based on the unpopular book, which place was among the mass literature.

So what is the secret of success? Why was this film named one of the best? Why was it called “box-office hit”?

First of all we should mention that “Ben-Hur” is truly spectacular; this is the film, which is a real masterpiece of film directing; shooting and montage are really wonderful. Not without reason it is said that “Hollywood may have bad film directors, bad screen writers, but one can’t find a bad cameraman”.

To cut it short, the film tells us about the life of a Jewish neophyte Ben Hur and a Roman governor Messala. The wide variety of genre, stylistic and bright special effects and mass battle scenes attract viewer’s attention; bring him to the captivating and fascinating world.

Secondly, the idea of the fight between religions is also mentioned. The idea of the victory of the newly converted Christian, Ben Hur, over the pagan, Messala, was introduced by the scene of the fight in chariots. The scene is full of metaphorical images and pictures.

In the film we see love, sufferings and the fight for the freedom. Ben Hur was and worked as a governor of Rome. He saved his mother and sister, and also got his riches back.

Before the film “Ben Hur” no other art had showed ancient Jerusalem, ancient Trier military oared Roman ships. But among the most outstanding scenes are the ones with horse races.

Most films of this genre have either disregard for historical facts, or their own interpretation of historical events dependent on the circumstances.

The rule of the creators of historical films is to attract popular actors. But sometimes approved techniques don’t justify themselves. In the film “Cleopatra”, the famous actress, Elizabeth Taylor, according to film critic’s opinion, nearly ruined the film.

One of the wonderful factors of historical cinema is information; this is the source of learning of history by the mass viewer. Among the historical films, which correspond to both spectator and knowledge value, we can mention such films as “Spartacus”, “The 300 Spartans” etc. which have a huge success. After a big break the film “Gladiator” was released (2000), which renewed the fading genre of so-called “Pilum”. This genre is characterized by the military theme, major battle scenes and outstanding special effects. “Gladiator” won 5 Oscars. Most films carry ideological principles. This applies to historical films. This may be also expressed in the projection of historical circumstances on the problems of modern world, and also in the historical grounds and the explanation of modern events.

A historical film may claim to become a success, if the pictured events are deep and carry spiritual and moral ideas, the fight for freedom and justice. And, even though it is a common technique like an advertisement, a mass viewer still believes in good and fairness, and is always for it to happen.

This was the brief overview of the establishing and developing of the historical genre in the world cinema. The best films of this genre bring spectacle and enlightenment, making the world and national cultures richer.


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