How West Teaches History (through Movies) and How We have Forgotten: A Nation that has No History, has no Future !

A nation that has no history, has no future! Our ignorance about our history, our culture, our sensibilities are astounding. Recent protests about Geo’s morning show speaks volume about the “insensitivity” arising from this ignorance, especially the ignorance of the media people. A few minutes of listening to the FM channels would convince you that the DJs have no grounding in our history, culture or tradition. Their only claim to their DJ position is their ability to talk in the twisted American accent with the phraseology and sound bites typical of an American teenager. With these kinds of people now holding our airwaves, the future of Pakistan can only be viewed with pessimism. Not only the ignorance of these people appear to be astounding, it is equally disturbing to find students of the Political Science and International Relations of HEC’s top ranked university in Pakistan who after having done two courses in Islamic History are unable to tell what/when was the “Abbasid” reign or who was Halaku Khan and when did he invade Baghdad!

I am now convinced that history of such events and people is not acquired through class rooms or text books, but is acquired through popular literature, popular fiction and cultural interactions of the day and age, which is often termed as consensus literature, meaning literature that attempts to place the aspirations of the people in a popular context that is appreciated by the populace and carries mass appeal: Today this popular consensus literature is “acted” out on stage and can be “seen” on TV and cinema screens and can be “read” in popular fiction and magazines, and can be “browsed” on websites and now increasingly can be “interactively played” with computer games like Age of Empire and Assassin. A century ago, the popular/consensus literature could only be experienced through stage, or in novels, or through readings of books and listening to recitations [radio and film has just been born]. In subcontinent, two centuries ago and prior to that popular/consensus literature could be experienced through the performances o the “daastan-go” and professional story tellers who would put up dramatic enactments of the events, or during religious events such as milaad, majaalis, qawwalis, and literary/fun events such as recitations, mushairas, melas or musical events. Or would come from grandparents and other master story tellers in the family who would enthrall and captivate the children and people in highly riveting and masterful rendition in allegorical language full of imagery and drama.

Going through the  two cassettes containing the audio recording of an extract related to American history from Churchill’s A History of the English Speaking World, I found a new perspective opening up. As I was listening to these cassettes several times on the car audio system during my daily commute to work, I started becoming aware of the connections between the events described in this history and the context so beautifully captured in several movies that I had come across. I recognized that in these movies there were several incidences and themes which I had earlier thought were fictional, but as it turned out, they had a deep historical context. I then began to notice the painstaking detail in which the life and times, costumes, mannerism, speech and interactions of a particular era are enacted in these movies. This typically involves extensive research of historical documents, narratives and interviews with historians and requires investment of often hundreds of millions of dollars. The movies have become a powerful medium of disseminating and analyzing the social and political history. They are often accompanied and followed by fierce historical debates and evaluation to sift the fact from fiction and are discussed at various forums such as town halls, TV shows, magazines, newspapers, research journals, blogs, and definitive corrections are then presented in documentaries and succinctly summarized on Wikipedia. For example, see the historical debates accompanying the movies JFK and DaVinci Code. This culture of stimulating debate on history through popular literature and involving the elders, kids, politicians, academics, thinkers, writers and producers and then leaving an indelible mark on their perceptions is an interesting phenomenon and should be carefully analyzed.

I then began noticing that in Pakistan the popular literature that we see on TV and cinema and hear on FM is now completely devoid of our history, which is a direct result of the loss of culture of reading books and magazines. There seem to be no one reading the exciting historical fiction and making historical dramas like “Akhri Chataan” on TV. We have not only jettisoned the popular historical fiction of Abdul Haleem Sharar, Naseem Hijazi and many others, but in the process have forgotten our history, and have purposely made it so difficult in our curriculum and so controversial in our political discourse that everyone now hates history or is afraid of history. Now we find ourselves, unfortunately, with not only having lost our language, but also our culture and with it our bearing in history and folklore and consequently our optimism for future.

Contrast this with USA and West: History is alive and continues to be an integral feature of their popular literature, culture and social interaction. This is one of the signs that these nations have a future and are confident about it. When they saw historical fiction and literature in the form of books being overtaken by movies and cinema, they were quick to embrace the new medium and started defining their culture and traditions using popular cinema and movies, and they have done an excellent job not only in keeping their history alive, but also relevant. They have made sure that people who frequently watch their top movies have a detailed and cultural understanding of their history from Greek and Roman times to the present along with the ethos of those times. There is no important historical event around which they have not made popular movies, and in doing so they also some times do not shy away from being self-critical and in acknowledging and analyzing the wrongs that they have done. It is now impossible for anyone growing with channels laden with such movies to avoid learning important lessons from Western history. Interestingly enough, I see a similar confidence in East Asia and even in India about their future as they take a masterful plunge in to make historical fictional movies like Hero,  Lagan and Mangal Panday.

Below is a convenience selection of the American history taught by the popular movies in the West. The selection is not exhaustive and is only representative as it is meant to highlight the role popular literature and media plays in educating the people of a nation about their history. I have only included in this the movies related to the history to which Americans associate themselves with. Please note that Americans connect their history not with the native Red Indians but with that of the immigrants and therefore trace it back through the British and European history to Romans and then to Greeks, which part is not covered here and may require a post by itself. With increasing immigration from Asia, the history themes of these countries from West’s perspectives are increasingly being introduced.

The following brief would convince you about the extent to which the popular literature especially the film genre captures the history and imagination of the people and helps in determining a world view for their future decision makers.

History of settlers and Red Indians before the American Independence:
I used to think Pocahontas was just another Disney animation for the kids with lots of songs till I discovered its historical reference in Churchill’s history about the era around 1617 describing a story of a white immigrant who meets the Red Indian princess. I also thought that  Last of the Mohicans is just another fictional novel by James Fenimore Cooper, an author whom I had known for a long time because I still remember the fondness with which my late mother used to refer to his other book “Pathfinder” and how she connected the skills described therein to those of the legendary trackers she had come across in India who could follow the trail of people and animals in the jungles of India even after several days. Again Churchill’s history alerted me to the historical context in the Last of the Mohicans which was around 1757 when the French had not yet vacated the claim to the North America, and were still fighting the British at Fort Hood to gain the control. An interest similar to the French interest in India around the same time. Both of these French interests waned with the French revolution. The Last of the Mohicans highlights the beginning of the emergence of an independent consciousness of the Western American nation that would eventually lead to the American indpendence from the British.

American Independence:
How the Americans stood against the British Empire around 1776 is captured and admirably portrayed by  Patriot. Here I was surprised to meet Cornwallis, the British General who was defeated in America but was then later sent to India and through machinations was able to defeat Tipu Sultan; a context so well portrayed by Naseem Hijazi in his most impressionable historical novels Moazzam Ali and Aur Talwar Toot Gai. The life and times around the American Independence have been covered extensively in film and plays such as Life of George Washington (TV Serial) and Jefferson. 

History of Slavery and African Past and Present:

Millions came to know about slavery and its social implications in the 18th century  from the acclaimed TV serial  Roots . I read this must-read book by Alex Haley in early 1980s and still remember the profound impact it had on me for the next six months that did not allow me to think of anything else except to visualize and feel the experience of Kunta Kinte. Many incidents from this book are etched in my mind to this day. I was happy to see the legacy of this ethos getting transferred to the next generation when I found my son reading Roots last year and reporting a similar profound experience that I had thirty years ago.

Each time I see the west coast map of Africa and think about the misery of the Africans and the continuing troubles in that part of the world as depicted in “Blood Diamonds” and related by my cousin on a UN peace keeping (or US interest guarding) mission in Liberia, or “The Constant Gardner” based on John Le Carre’s novel or “Hotel Rwanda” and the atrocities as presented in several documentaries, I feel the trend of that exploitation still continuing.

12 Years a Slave relates to era around 1841 and was the best picture of 2013. It exemplifies a renewed interest in the history of slaves and revises the dominant view that used to be depicted 70 years ago in other movies such as Gone with the Wind. There seems to be a cathartic process of understanding which is trying to cope with the painful dimensions of American history related to Afro-Americans and black people. This also shows the increasing assertiveness of blacks in shaping the American consciousness as their long fight for civil rights comes to some concrete fruition.

The Color Purple enables one to relate with conditions of black women around 1900 as depicted in Alice Walker’s novel . It provides a perfect setting to appreciate her phenomenal essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” that brought me to tears and I think I will never be able to get out the imagery carved in my mind by this short essay. Movies like Color Purple capture such feelings well, which are then taken to a new height in  Help and Driving Miss Daisy as they describe the treatment of blacks around 1963 when the fight for civil rights was becoming more and more intense with Martin Luther King and others. Malcolm X dictated his autobiography to Alex Haley and is a masterly capture of the despair, hopes and aspirations of the time around civil rights movement of the 1960s and the related unrest, issues and historical personalities.

American Civil War 1860-64:
Civil War was the most divisive of periods in American history and has been extensively covered by the  civil war movies. However, my first introduction to American Civil War was Margret Mitchell’s epic novel “Gone with the Wind” that allowed me to later make connections such as the one that I did when I saw the statue of the Confederate General Robert E Lee on the South Mall of UT Austin as a student. The film Gone with the Wind is often acclaimed as among the top ones ever made. It leaves one with the graphical images of how a lifestyle comes to an end with war and is ruthlessly over taken by a new vicious one. The historical background of the decision making around the civil war is of course so admirably captured in the film on Lincoln.

Psyche fashioned by external history:
One can see how Americans see their history in relation with their interactions with the other nations and cultures and how it affects them:  The Last Samurai looks at the time around 1877 when the conflict between tradition and technology in Japan was actually in its last stages.  Fiddler on the Roof describes the saga of Jewish family in Russia at the turn of century in 1900 providing an ethos developed through this and other movies on which much of the Jewish politics is played out in USA and the lobbying efforts are developed. The Last Emperor looks at the end of the Chinese empire in early 20th century and the emergence of the communist China which is based on the book Twilight in the Forbidden City by the tutor of the last emperor of china. The same period is again the focus but in a different part of the world, i.e. India: Gandhi turns a man into a hero for the world in this greater than life movie. Empire of the Sun on the other hand looks at the guilt of the atom bomb in Japan from a very personal point of view.

How the West was Won
If you do not understand how the west was won, you can not understand the American psyche as it plays out on the politics around gun control and second amendment  come each election time. Probably the most often covered part of history by films from all angles has been what is now called the genre Westerns. I would only point out the significance of the buffaloes in Churchill’s History that I saw in  Dances with Wolf. It refers to how the herds of buffaloes  were decimated around 1870s in tens of millions for the hides trade. These were the herds on which the lifestyle of the Indian tribes depended. With the elimination of buffaloes, the Indian habitat and economy of interdependence was gone and that enabled the conquest of the “Wild” West. One can even see a representative example of how the spirit of the native Indian was broken in this allegorical animation Spirit. Apparently it is a wonderful story of a stallion around the time when the conquest of the Wild West was in its final stages, and the most instrumental tool was the laying of the railway line that ended the Indian resistance.

History and Life Style

Gold Rush in California around 1850 and the associated social dimensions are captured splendidly in this Charlie Chaplain epic.

Of course, the greatest ship of the world and the whole life style that revolved around the Atlantic crossing through these ocean liners came to its peak around the time Titanic sank in 1912 and ultimately the whole lifestyle collapsed by 1950 as the airlines started replacing the ocean liners, and the great ocean liners were decommissioned as portrayed in the Legend of 1900.

There were hundreds of movies that have been made about the First World War but the epic anti-war movie is still All Quiet on the Western Front.

Great depression left an indelible impression on the psyche of the West specially the Americans as the work of John Maynard Keynes in the economics and several others in others fields testifies with so many  films set in the great depression era. Grapes of Wrath based on the novel by the John Steinbeck captures the social pressures resulting from such a crash and captures the spirit of the iconic American family resilience. This theme is also captured in other works of John Steinbeck that are also considered epic.

I think there would be thousands of movies based on the experience of World War 2, which has been explored from so many angles and from so many perspectives that it is unimaginable that someone can grow in USA or cinema without tasting a glimpse of that experience. There is a marked difference in perspective about the war captured in the movies made during the war, after the war and related to various theatres of war. For example, one comes across the perspective of the prisoners in Bridge on the River Kwai or the Great Escape. Perspective of the generals and the leaders can be observed in Patton , MacArthur and FDR, of a soldier on the field in Saving Private Ryan or the dilemma in a Bridge too Far, and the revisionist US view point of why they entered in the war in Pearl Harbor.

US experience of the Korean War is typified in MASH, that later became a popular humorous  TV serial.

As one surveys the elections of US Presidents since the 1960s, the war in Vietnam has played an important role in defining the personality of the candidates and it has often been a decisive element in their election. To understand the background of this war’s role, we must give credit to the themes explored by the large number of films on  Vietnam War. Dark horrors of the war were highlighted in Apocalypse Now, a humorous counter point in Good Morning Vietnam, a tongue in cheek coverage in Forrest Gump (Vietnam, 1963 March on Washington, Watergate, etc) are some examples.

The communist witch hunt of the 1950s, now known as McCarthyism, is best captured by one of most respected journalists of the time in Good Night and Good Luck. This is based on Senator McCarthy’s witch hunt for those who were considered as communists. This was, interestingly enough, responsible for compelling Charlie Chaplain to immigrate to Switzerland and live there until his death and never to return.

Cuban Missile Crisis and the related decision making is captured in this cliff hanger 13 days  of what is known as Bay of Pigs Crisis. The 1960s is defined by JFK and other Kennedy films. 1970s is defined by NixonWatergate and other Nixon related films. Iran Hostage Issue that cost Carter his second term is covered in Argo. 1980s is defined by the great communicator, Reagan  and movies about Afghanistan and involvement in Central America. Of course, Israel-Palestine conflict  has been another dominant theme of the last fifty years.

Looking above of what the cinema is doing and has done to develop a historical consciousness in USA and comparing it with our dismal state, one can very well see why we are heading where we are heading.

Indeed, a nation that has no history has actually no future!!!!!!!!

See Also:


  1. Great Article indeed… now waiting for an article about whatever is available in terms of history in our plays, movies, novels and other forms of art…


    Ahmad Safi

  2. I would encourage Dr Safi or Mr Khurram Ali Shafique to cover whatever history our "popular" literature used to cover in comparison with its current dismal performance. They are more qualified than me on this.

  3. Mr Javaid Ahmed posted this comment on Facebook:
    A very correct write up … Dr. Sb. is it possible for even two top academics in Pakistan to have a consensus on any aspect of history? For example who are our heroes and who villains? Was the Mughal Empire heroic or … ? Was Changaiz Khan a hero or a villain? Did Pakistan win or loose the 1965 war? Was Ayub Khan a hero? Was Bhutto a Villain? and so on. I think one of the reason that history has taken a back seat is perhaps because it has been defaced and denied by us?? Please enlighten us further on this aspect …, thanks and regards.

  4. Mr Riaz Khan of IoBM posted the following comments on Facebook on June 17: Fantastic reading! Even our intellectuals have no consensus on our history what to talk about our hero's. Invaders who looted and plundered our land are our hero's even our nuclear missiles are named after them very proudly. Muslims have not read their history and that is one of the main reason for our down fall. Has anybody read fantastic books on Islam like "After the Prophet", "Chasing the Mirage", etc.

  5. As I mentioned in my post, consensus is not the objective of popular literature. It is the fiction around a particular narrative. Popular literature like film, tv, drama, poetry n fiction novels attempts to engage the people around a narrative. See how US has dealt with their painful past like hiroshima, vietnam, korean war, killings of indians, treatment of slaves as mentioned in my post. Yet they find a perspective of redemption in each. See the movies mentioned in the post. Objective is not a definitive view but popular fiction for the masses. Definitive view should be left to historians to debate in journals and documentaries.

    Eventually after such hundreds and thousands of treatments in movies n popular fiction, a general understanding begins to emerge among the people, not the historians. Hence it is the popular literature on which "people" arrive at consensus. The problem in Pakistan is our so called intellectuals masquerading as people trying for that elusive n definitive view which is never there, not even in USA! Forget about intellectuals like Mubarak Ali but, concentrate on the populists interpretation. See the link to khurram ali shafique's blog for more detailed treatment on this. Our intellectuals' quest has thrown the baby out with the bath water! This is the actual lament of this post.

    What Mubarak Ali says about Ghauri or Ghaznavi is not "popular" literature on which masses has consensus, but is just a historian's view that keeps on changing with the dominant view/perspective of the time: See for example the orientialist/colonist view of 150 years ago, then contrast it with the Marxist view of 70 years ago, then see the post-colonist view (Mubarak Ali) of today which is considered to be just an extension of the colonist view with a twist.

  6. See the reply to the next comment below.

  7. Shah Hayat Ahmed on Facebook made this comment:

    Today, students at our seminaries rarely study the works of Avicenna, Al Kindi or Averroes. When scholars and “free thinkers” are termed as ‘heretics,’ the intellectual capacity and capability of man is destined to go nowhere but down. What most leaders in the Arab World don’t realize is that freedom of thought, pursuit of knowledge and tolerance, not bigotry, is the answer to the crisis the Islamic societies face.

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