Most teachers are aware of the history film dilemma. There are an increasing number of really good ‘history’ films out there, both the reasonably accurate and the laughably inaccurate, and all types offer a chance to invigorate a bit of classroom work on the relevant topic. But with increasing pressure on classroom time - much of it seeping away due to January modules, university open days, the odd snow day, field trips by other departments – it really is difficult to justify devoting whole lessons to the showing of a film (if it ever really was, but who hasn’t occasionally taken refuge in one!). One solution, of course, is the glorious ‘watch this film’ homework, worth setting for the looks of bemusement followed by delight on student faces. That’s one homework that gets done! But solution number 2, and a more collective one, is the History Film Club. Some of my sixth form historians have set one up after school on a Monday evening, using the interactive whiteboards as a decent substitute cinema screen, and it is not only proving quite popular but is provoking interesting discussions afterwards. First off was “Valkyrie”, the controversial Tom Cruise vehicle.
Based on the Claus von Stauffenberg plot that nearly succeeded in killing Hitler, the controversy stemmed from the von Stauffenberg’s unhappiness at Cruise’s distinct dissimilarity from the legendary Colonel, as well as the actor’s well known adherence to scientology. It’s true that Cruise is too short and too, well, unblond, but he actually gives a terrific performance, and the film itself sticks far more closely to the actual sequence of events than I would have imagined. “Valkyrie” opens students up to one of the less taught aspects of Nazi history, and does so with historical aplomb. Whilst it does not go very deeply into the varied motives of von Stauffenberg’s diverse associates, and some characters are rather superficially portrayed, it is a gripping and worthwhile film as a whole. As well as Cruise, Kenneth Branagh gives a great performance as the perennial Hitler assassination plotter General von Tresckow, and Bill Nighy is terrific as the vacillating General Olbricht. Eddie Izzard turns in a surprisingly good cameo too. Whilst the eventual outcome of the events portrayed is well known, this does not stop the tension ratcheting up in the film, or the completely irrational urging on of Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators to the success we know can never come. The film certainly raises questions as to how the conspiracy might have succeeded in overthrowing the regime, even given the failure to kill Hitler himself, and the need for determined, decisive action in the face of great odds. Stauffenberg himself didn’t lack for nerve, but some of those in Berlin, required to get the coup moving as fast as possible, suffered from a fatal indecisiveness.
Bryan Singer’s film is thus very watchable, and raises a range of interesting questions connected with the nature of the plot, and the moral and practical dilemmas faced by the protagonists. As an exercise in historical verisimilitude it is one of Hollywood’s better efforts – certainly good enough to be a teaching tool for anyone teaching the Nazi regime in World War Two.
So History Film Club is now off – next up is the Watergate film “All the President’s Men”, a very different cinematic affair; I can hardly wait!