Goals of the Filmmaker

Murder at Harvard tells the story of author Simon Schama’s investigation into the trial of Harvard professor John Webster for the murder of Dr. George Parkman.  It is based on the second half of Schama’s book, Dead Certainties.

When analyzing the film, I think it is important to keep Eric Strange’s article Shooting Back in mind. Strange writes about the dilemma faced during the planning phase of the film due to the lack of available imagery and conclusive historical evidence. How does a filmmaker convert the written word into film when faced with the issue of footage shortage? How does he keep the topic as fascinating on film as it was on paper? The creative forces behind Murder at Harvard decided to resolve these issues by approaching the gaps in knowledge and imagery as imaginative speculation on the part of author Simon Schama. Simon openly speculates and hypothesizes theoretical events and actions, which leads to character reenactments throughout the film. Strange writes, “What history on TV and film does best is entertain and engage while issuing an invitation to the viewer to learn more. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in reach.”  The result was a film that entertained while it informed, even if the information being presented was from the perspective of Simon Schama. The reenactments were hokey at times, but it kept the storyline moving and helped to clarify the characters and events. Without these reenactments, there is a strong possibility that the film would have been too boring to keep viewers engaged until the end. Strange admits he is not sure if the film should be considered history or drama, but that doesn’t appear to be the goal of the film. Strange says, “We only hope that it will be entertaining enough to keep viewers from switching the channel and, if we really do our jobs, intriguing enough to send them to a library.” If Strange, Schama, and company are successful at turning viewers on to history, and engaging people to investigate the trial thoroughlyenough to draw their own conclusions, then to some degree, this film is successful at educating in an indirect manner.

This concept also brings to light Willingham’s article, The value/problem of showing popular movies of historical events in class. Willingham’s research appears to support the power of visually imagery on comprehension. He states that as long as the inaccuracies are specifically pointed out, the use of films for educational purposes can be beneficial. Schama deliberately points out the parts in his film which are parts of departure from historical evidence, so perhaps Willinghams’ same line of reasoning can be applied to the casual viewer watching Murder at Harvard for both entertainment and educational purposes.

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2 Responses
  1. sblaher says:

    I have to agree with your conclusions about the possibilities associated with using film in the classroom. I think that Schama did a fairly good job in the documentary of telling the viewers that there was no certainty but here’s what he thought happened. And while it may have been hokey (let’s face it, this is PBS not 20th Century Fox), it provided viewers the opportunity to become engaged in a historical event that has little or no evidence in the form of images and other than the court transcripts, little textual evidence either.

  2. jhubai says:

    I called the reenactments hokey but I should have been more clear in saying that mnay of them worked but sometimes the line was pushed a bit for me and it turned me off slightly.
    It does not seem to me he intended to make the film for the academic historian. I am not sure what his intentions for the book are but I would have to guess the same. If you compare it to Martin Guerre, the movie does not completely follow the book but it still makes people aware of the case. I think it is important to keep in mind who the author or filmmaker is writing/making their piece for. Different audiences means different ways of telling a story.