Sunday, October 3, 2010

Some Films I Use for My Colonial American History Course

Randall Stephens

I've mentioned on the blog before that I like to use short film clips (10-15 minutes) for many of the classes I teach. I suppose it works better for some courses--America in the 1960s--than others--History Methodology. But thanks to long-running programs like American Experience, Nova, POV, History Detectives, etc, there's much, much out there.

You just have to be willing to do some hunting, inter-library loaning, and some screening. Below are documentaries and features I've found useful for my Colonial America course. Browse the list and I'm sure you'll think of others that could be included. (In the future, I'll post a list from my class on The West in the World since 1500.)

Films for the Colonial American History Course

The Mystery of Chaco Canyon (1999) (Narrated by Robert Redford. Though a more interesting, up-to-date take on Chaco is in the 2010 nat geo adaptation of Jared Diamond's Collapse.)

Native Land: Nomads of the Dawn (1996)

We Shall Remain, Episode 1 (WGBH, 2009) (Contains great material on the first contact between English settlers and Indians. Also includes a good overview of King Philip's War. I combined it with a reading from Jill Lepore's Name of War. Watch the full program on-line.)

The Magnificent Voyage of Christopher Columbus (WGBH, 2007)

Surviving Columbus: The Story of the Pueblo People (KNME, 1992)

Luther (2003) (A good feature film to teach students a bit about the Reformation.)

The New World (2006) (I can think of no other film that more beautifully, graphically presents the Jamestown story. One reviewer called it a visual poem. Good description.)

Nova: Pocahontas Revealed (WGBH, 2007)

Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower (2006)

The Story of English: Muse of Fire (WGBH, 1986) (One of my favorite documentaries from PBS. Excellent summary of the development of the southern accent [West Country] and the Boston, dropped-r accent [East Anglia].)

American Visions: The Republic of Virtue and The Promised Land (1996) (This is the crusty Aussie art critic Robert Hughes's epic series on American art. Contains a discussion with David Hackett Fischer on Old Ship Church in Hingham and an examination of 17th-century decorative art and architecture. Goes along very well with Fischer's Albion's Seed.)

Colonial House (2004) (How well would the typical college student fare in a 17th-century setting? One word, bathroom.)

God in America, Episodes 1 and 2 (WGBH, 2010) (Will be using this when it comes out. Have seen the pre-release version of the first two episodes. Tremendous. Includes accounts of the Pueblo Revolt, the trial of Anne Hutchinson, George Whitefield and the GA, and more. When this airs on PBS Oct 11-13 the full program will be available on-line.)

500 Nations: Cauldron of War (1994)

Slavery and the Making of America (WNET, 2004) (I use episodes 1 and 2: The Downward Spiral and Liberty in the Air for the colonial course.)

Tom Standage interview on his History of the World in Six Glasses: CBS Sunday Morning (2005)

The War that Made America (WQED, 2006) (French and Indian War series.)

Scientific American Frontiers: Unearthing Secret America (Alan Alda's tour of Jamestown and Jefferson's Monticello. Great perspective on how archeology informs history.)

New York: The Country and the City, Episode 1, 1609-1825 (1999)

Benjamin Franklin (2002)

Thomas Jefferson (1997) (Ken Burns's doc.)

John Adams (HBO, 2008)

Liberty! The American Revolution (KTCA, 2004)

Founding Brothers (2002)


hcr said...

Randall, how do you use these? Clips? Homework? Discussion?

Randall said...

Always use them as clips. Usually just 10-15 minutes, or even less. I think that like discussion or breaking up students into groups, films work well to add some variety to the class.

I occasionally offer extra credit if a student will watch a documentary and write a brief review.

Larry Hartzell said...

I use the very first part (about 35 min.) of the first episode of "Africans in America" to great effect; it does a wonderful job of explaining the origins of slavery in seventeenth-century Virginia, in particular addressing the transformation from indentured servitude to racial slavery.

hcr said...

Larry, will I be able to find that film with just the title?

I find this idea of using clips like this very interesting. I usually go the other way, trying to tie what we're studying into films the students already know-- The Last of the Mohicans, The Patriot, and so on-- as a hook to get them oriented before we get into what really happened, unlike what they saw on film. (Except when I do the American West, which we study through film.) I've never tried this approach, but find the idea intriguing.

for what it's worth, I loved the NOVA special on the 1918 flu epidemic. I just don't have anywhere to use it.

Larry Hartzell said...


Yes, the series is called "Africans in America," by PBS. The six-hour series covers the African American experience from 1619 to 1865. I couldn't find it available on the PBS Shop website, but it's available on Amazon.

K. Freeland said...

The last time I taught the first half of the US survey course, I found myself referring back to the HBO John Adams series for a somewhat unusual reason--I was talking about smallpox inoculation and remembered the scene where Abigail has the family inoculated. It was kind of gross, but gave me a reference point to explain how it was done. ;)

K. Freeland said...

Oh, and thanks for this great list. I've used several listed here, but there were several here that I haven't seen yet. Looking forward to the God in America series!

hcr said...

After this post went up, I got thinking about effective clips I had seen and remembered John Higginson showing a fabulous series on Africa. He says it's
Basil Davidson's eight part documentary "Africa." He showed the two segments on the transition of global lines of power and wealth from the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. They're called "Caravans of Gold."

I teach some of the material from them in the first half of the American history survey (but not the clips).

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