I love watching movies, especially historical (or pseudo-historical) ones, and I also love discovering in them various messages that we can take about our attitudes toward history, the environment or other issues. I also love making “playlists” of movies, which I did most notably back in December 2014 when I compiled a list of movies that challenge viewers, in creative and sometimes subtle ways, to think about climate change. I’ve decided to return to this format, and possibly even make it a recurring feature. Movies are not just entertainment, but from them can emerge new insights into any manner of problems in the human condition. Historians talk about putting various books or writings “into dialogue with one another.” Here I’m going to do the same thing, but with films.
In yesterday’s article, which was run on the 104th anniversary of the departure of the doomed ocean liner Titanic on its maiden voyage, I tried to place the disaster in historical context as a “quiver” that occurred in European and American society just before the great collapse–World War I and its attendant upheavals–that abruptly ended what historians call “the long 19th century,” usually measured from 1815 to 1914. This article, though stand-alone, is a follow-up of sorts. I got thinking about how this great sea change in history, from the ethos and complacency of the 19th century to the angst and violence of the 20th, has been portrayed on film. There are some really great movies that have been made, if not on this topic, on various smaller pieces of it. Putting a few together in some interesting combinations yields a look at what we mean when we talk about this historical change, and might just generate some thoughts about it.
This article embeds the trailers and/or selected scenes from the films; the movies themselves are all, I believe, readily available on Netflix. If you want to watch them, I suggest seeing them in this order, and I’ll give a little explanation of each one (and why they belong here).
1. The Age of Innocence (1993; director Martin Scorsese)
I’ve decided to start this list with this one, Scorsese’s lavish period adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1921 novel of the same name, one of the first books to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Age of Innocence takes place in “the 1870s”–the film is no more chronologically precise than this–but it belongs on this list because of its unique coda, which occurs in about the year 1912. A quietly brutal look at New York rich society in the 19th century, Age of Innocence focuses on a young gentleman, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his obsessive love for his unattainable married cousin, Madame Olenska (Michelle Pfieffer). Archer is married, however, to the deceptively simple-appearing May Welland (Winona Ryder), who forces him to choose his loyalties.
This film brilliantly illustrates the mindset of upper class people in the Victorian era, and how it was about to change. For purposes of this list, the most interesting thing is the epilogue. In 1912 Archer, now widowed with grown children, travels to Paris where he is surprised by an opportunity to meet Madame Olenska, who moved back to Europe decades ago. “Tell her I’m old fashioned,” Archer says to his son (Robert Sean Leonard). I’m also taken by another line, spoken by the narrator, Joanne Woodward, of May, whom she says survived her world falling to pieces and reconstituting itself without her ever noticing. This is the essence of the changes roiling in society at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries: a world about to change, but one where great wealth and privilege tended to blind people to the possibility of change. This was why the decade of the 1910s was so devastating to the psyche of Western civilization.
2. Titanic (1997; director James Cameron)
As I argued in my article yesterday, the Titanic disaster–a social and economic failure as much as a technological one–was a harbinger of the change and disillusionment that the end of the “long 19th century” would bring to the world. Cameron’s epic, unfairly maligned as a sappy romance or a simple-minded disaster picture, actually engages with issues of class, inequality and the same “privileged blindness” described in Age of Innocence. And it’s a hell of an impressive movie, narratively and visually.
Of course we all know the story. In 1912, Rose DeWitt-Bukater (Kate Winslet) is a rich Philadelphia debutante about to be married to the fulsome steel heir Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane), and she’s traveling with him and her mother aboard the Titanic. She meets a dashing, dirt-poor rogue, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and their epic whirlwind romance is interrupted by a chunk of frozen H20 that spells about an hour and a half of pulse-pounding, steel-tearing doom. The focus is on the disaster, but the film Titanic doesn’t hesitate to show the social and economic divisions at work aboard the great ship, such as the condition of the steerage quarters hauling Irish immigrants to America, and the psychological and emotional frustration of the society set. Cameron’s critiques in Titanic are not as razor-sharp as Scorsese’s and Wharton’s in Age of Innocence, but there’s a common thread here, and it’s a fascinating depiction of just what I was talking about yesterday, the Titanic (the ship) as a microcosm of a fragile society about to be catastrophically undone.
3. Reds (1981, director Warren Beatty)
In contrast to the previous two films, there’s very little 19th century on display in Warren Beatty’s Reds, a three-hour epic romance–much of it a true story–about two American leftists, John Reed (Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), who left the USA during World War I to observe and participate in the Russian Revolution. Reds begins quietly, in the genteel parlors and galleries of Portland, Oregon in 1915–just before the United States got its taste of the fire that was burning down Western civilization–and ends in the steppes, Central Asian deserts, and reconverted Tsarist palaces of Soviet Russia still writhing in the violent agony of its revolution. Reds is at once a thrilling adventure story and a quiet romance. The depiction of the revolution is pretty amazing, but I’m also drawn to the more sedate scenes, like those that take place in Provincetown in 1916 when Louise Bryant is romancing playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson). This is a wonderful depiction of America on the brink of change. The 19th century has vanished, and has now been replaced with a politically dangerous, morally ambiguous and sexually confusing world where almost nothing can be taken for granted.
Contrast the world as seen in Reds with that shown in Age of Innocence. A portion of Reds takes place in New York, and in high society, but you can see a yawning gap between these worlds which can’t be accounted for by the sheer passage of time. One way to look at the transition out of “the long 19th century” is through these three films. Age of Innocence was where we once were; Reds was the topsy-turvy world where we ended up; and Titanic was at least a taste of how we got there.
This is not the only way to look at it, of course, and movies aren’t always accurate history–they are, after all, movies. But they can tell us a lot about trends and threads running throughout our history, and like it or not they shape our perception of history. The end of the long 19th century is a complicated topic, but this is one take on it.