Imagine you are writing an article for Buzzfeed, Rolling Stone, or the Los Angeles Times Film Section and you need to argue why a certain Western film should or should not be on their top 10 list. You will need to submit a polished 1000 word film analysis focused on the tension between western mythology, cultural representation, and the history of the U.S. West. 1000 words is very short. This is an exercise in developing your voice and argument in tight and analytical writing. Your article must succinctly summarize the movie’s plot, its historical context, and use a concisely crafted thesis statement towards the end of the first paragraph. You must also closely analyze a scene or 2-3 minute sequence from the film, explaining its significance to the larger plot. Your film review should be fun to read and it should engage the reader (keep in mind an educated general audience as you write).

Thinking critically about historical films and movies:

  • Most importantly, think about context: When was the movie created? Who directed it and what else have they directed? Who wrote it? Do you have a sense of audience reception at the time? What genre of film is this?
  • Narration: Does the film have voice-over narration like in Salt of the Earth? Is the film linear? Are there flashbacks? Think about how the story is constructed and what effect this has on the story.
  • Character names: Do character names reveal anything about the characters or the plot? For example, Esperanza was the protagonist of Salt of the Earth; “Esperanza” means “hope” in Spanish.
  • Cinematic techniques: Did the director use any reoccurring techniques in the film? In Salt of the Earth, for example, the director makes ample use of dust, shadow, and lighting.
  • Costuming, makeup, and set design: What does the clothing and make up tell you about each character and their relationships with each other? What does the set look like and what does it tell you about the story? Why is the setting important in this movie?
  • Camera angles, speed, and composition: How is the position of the camera angle emphasizing or deemphasizing elements of the plot? How is speed and zoom used? What about framing? Does the camera pan or stay still? How does this impact your emotional reaction to the film?
  • Use of color: Is the film in black and white? Are there any color palettes used throughout the film? For example, does the movie have a warm, rosy glow or a darker, bluish hue? How does this set the mood for the film?
  • Music and sound: Does the soundtrack develop plot lines? What non-spoken sounds are important to the film? Is silence used as a cinematic tool and, if so, how? Think about the juxtaposition in sound and silence before and after the radio was confiscated in Salt of the Earth.
  • Correlatives: Does the director use metaphors to add another layer to the story or develop it in another way? Are there any objects in the film that somehow symbolizes a character’s development? A famous example of this is Holly Golightly’s refusal to name her stray cat in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
  • Dialogue and acting: How do characters communicate with each other? Did any quotes stick out to you?  Why are they important?

Be prepared to:

1) Watch your film (and your scene) many times.

2) Go through several edits. With a 1000 word limitation, every single phrase needs to have meaning and purpose.

As always:

History papers should be 12 font Times New Roman, double-spaced, and e-mailed as a Word Document. Any citations should be in Chicago style.

For fun: Historian Elliot West on Westerns

Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).

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