The Film History Textbook

[See 2014 Update]

As a companion to my review-overview of introductory textbooks, I wanted to take a look at the major textbooks for the film history survey course. Again, I have my own opinions about these, but I also want to lay out the pros and cons for each.

The intro course has a structuring choice between the film-appreciation approach and the intro-to-the-discipline approach. The film history course faces a number of choices, too: coverage versus depth, restriction to narrative versus inclusion of experimental or documentary, or internationalization versus canonical national cinemas. But the main dividing line between the introducing film history as an academic field and surveying great masterworks. These are not entirely mutually exclusive: academic film history has a canon, and the masterworks approach relies on historical scholarship. Nonetheless, differences between the books emerge along these lines.

These are listed in rough order of popularity in the field. I will add to this post as I read and discover other books.

A History of Narrative Film, by David Cook. 4th edition. Norton. $86.

This book for years was standard and even today is possibly the most commonly used textbook for the history survey. From my understanding, previous editions slanted more to the masterwork approach – this fourth edition has a better balance between masterwork and industrial/contextual historiography. Still, its main difference from the Thompson/Bordwell history is an emphasis on movements and key makers. Citizen Kane gets its own chapter. There are also pleasant surprises – a discussion of women German directors, an overview of Italian exploitation film, or a real engagement with commercial cinema.

PROS: This book may well be the best balance between coverage, disciplinary knowledge, and readability – it does a good job at maintaining a clear narrative for readers amid the detail. Analysis of individual films integrated into the whole; seamless introduction of formal terminology within its historical narrative, at least for readers/classes starting from the beginning of the book. Brief but useful introductions of historical and political context into discussion of the films.
CONS: Long filmographies are included in the body of the text and bog down the reading – they would be better pulled for a list at the chapters' end. Restricted to narrative film - the book acknowledges this, but still its justification that there are other histories devoted to documentary or experimental does not help the instructor wanting to integrate either into a history survey. The organization of non-US cinemas according to national cinema seems to make sense at first blush but in fact highly disrupts chronology and basically begs for ghettoization and exclusion of international cinemas from a survey course.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: this book has by far the best discussion of digital aesthetics (the discussion of three “Pearl Harbor” films is terrific)
WHO SHOULD USE IT: The lower or mid-level film history survey class; general reader looking for a film history introduction; area studies instructors looking for a textbook chapter on a national cinema to excerpt as background for their courses.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Not the most visually stunning book layout. Flimsy paper and cover, but this seems to be the trade off for a voluminous textbook.

Film History: An Introduction, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell. 3rd edition. McGraw-Hill. $86.

I wrote a review of the 2nd edition before, and do not have too much to add. In short: this book is very thorough and wide-ranging. Of the available textbooks, it best embodies how film historians see the history of cinema: take for instance their discussion of Griffith, which sees him as only one part of the American transitional cinema. Refreshing. It may be just me, but where other textbooks seem to see film's past as pat, this one makes me excited about works, makers and national cinemas, some of which I was unaware of.

PROS: The scope is impressive. The book stretches beyond the canon and challenges and inspires the reader to curiosity about the entire history of the medium. Terrific and unmatched balance between aesthetic, industrial, and technological understanding of cinema. Non-trivial inclusion of experimental and documentary.
CONS: A dense read, both in terms of the writing style and layout; students (and teachers!) might find detail and coverage excessive – there is the danger of losing a clear picture of film history when inundated. Some instructors may want an approach that highlights canonical works more. Very few survey textbooks deal extensively with ideology and historical context, but the purview here is fairly contained to the medium of film and the film industry, except when ithe topics, like state-run industry or countercinema, gesture explicitly outward.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: Coverage of national cinemas beyond the films commonly known in the field. The discussion of 30s Soviet or 50s French or 70s Third World cinemas is really rich.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching a comprehensive, two-or-more-term survey course. Those teaching an advanced film history course. Those looking for a good historical background to a national cinema or period.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: As with the authors' intro textbook, the frame enlargements are plenty and well-chosen. I cannot tell much substantial improvement between 2nd and 3rd edition, at least to justify a new printing (and planned obsolesence), and I miss the opening chapter on film history as a practice.

A History of Film, by Virginia Wright Wexman. 7th edition (6th edition reviewed here). Pearson. $98.60

This used to be authored by Jack Ellis, and Ellis's original structure still has its fingerprints on the table of contents (i.e. heavy emphasis on periodization/ national cinema combinations). This book markets itself as a concise yet comprehensive history, suitable for the one-semester survey, and indeed it seems to find a sweet spot between coverage and concision.

PROS: Clear writing style. While restricted to a film canon, the selections are fairly wide ranging for such a short history and at the very least correspond to the film-scholarship canon. The fuller discussion of individual films gives some texture to the overall narrative.
CONS: Compact size means that coverage and depth get lost. The coverage of Hollywood ends up being surprisingly synoptic. A heavy emphasis on aesthetic history, conceived strictly in terms of film movements, key genres, and national cinemas; industrial history is presented mostly as background, and social history is pretty much lacking.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: A smooth introduction of basic film-form vocabulary in the opening chapters.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching an abbreviated, one-term survey course. Those wanting a concise history as background for another film course.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Thankfully photographic stills from earlier editions have been replaced with screen captures. The price tag seems exorbitant for a book this slim.

Flashback: a Brief Film History, by Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman. Pearson. 10th edition (9th edition reviewed here). $87.33

This is the most film appreciation-oriented of the history textbooks. It seeks to examine cinema's past in order to evaluate it as a model for film style and practice for future periods. It has an "AFI" kind of feel, and instructors may judge what their own feelings about that are: mine clearly are not positive.

PROS: Very readable style. Chronological contents may aid in syllabus design that looks at international developments concurrently. I have the same problems with the illustrations (film stills, not frame captures) that I did with Gianetti's intro textbook, but they do have the benefit of adding a layer to the historical narrative and piquing the reader's curiosity about individual films.
CONS: The preface promises a "brief" and "bare-bones" film history, and unfortunately coverage does seem sacrificed here. Documentary and experimental lacking. Canonical scope with pat historical narratives. Aesthetic dismissal closes down curiosity about film's past. Language can be too breezy: I try to teach my students not to use colloquial (and empty) phrases like "musical magic" so I don't want a textbook that does. Does not take into account academic scholarship - for example their discussion of sound and Warner Brothers partakes of the mythologies historians have debunked.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: A perspective of how film history aids contemporary film critics. Useful timelines at the start of each chapter (I even wish these had more).
WHO SHOULD USE IT: A history course, say in a production program, with a strong film-appreciation bent.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Decent quality cover and paper, but dated layout. Simply way too expensive for the quality. Why pay 84 dollars for a "bare bones" history when you can get a thorough history for the same price?

Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. Oxford University Press. $35.

"The definitive history of cinema worldwide"? No, but it is pretty good. This is a cross between textbook and coffee-table book. It is not a single-author text but an encyclopedia-style collection of entries on periods and national cinemas, written by key scholars in each area.

PROS: Better coverage of international and European cinemas without unduly short-changing Hollywood; individual entries go a little more further in exploring ideas; nice balance between general-interest readability and scholarly rigor.
CONS: Heavy emphasis on the aesthetic over other historical aspects. Anthology form and contents organization makes it difficult to adapt to a survey syllabus. Book published in 1998, not updated.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: Pulled one-page biographies of key cinematic figures – not only directors but stars, crew, producers, etc.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: General reader looking for a film history introduction or reference.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Even though it is not an overly illustrated book, the layout is well-designed for readability. Thick, glossy paper. The book is expensive, however, for a non-textbook work.

Specialized textbooks:

American Film: a History, by Jon Lewis. W. W. Norton. $67.50.

This volume is dedicated to American cinema alone, and Hollywood (or major feature-film alternatives) at that. It is as long as some international surveys, meaning it has the space to go into depth discussing individual films and directors.

PROS: Balance between aesthetic, industrial and ideological history of Hollywood. Highly engaging writing style – I cannot imagine any other book doing as good a job to sell early and silent cinema to students leery of older films. Not surprisingly, given Lewis's scholarship, the book is a little stronger on post-1960 Hollywood, a period often given short shrift in the survey textbook.
CONS: Complete absence of documentary and experimental film, begging the question of whether “American film” means simply Hollywood. Highly canonical narrative, with few surprises. I am also not sure of the tendency to discuss classical makers like Busby Berkeley or Max Ophuls as important because contemporary directors were influenced by them.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: An integrated discussion of politics and ideology of American film. Full consideration of censorship, exploitation movies, and screen sexuality.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching an American film history class.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Well indexed. Good glossary. Nice cover and layout helps for readability. Unfortunately, promotional stills are not supplemented by frame captures, with the result the illustrations slant to star promotion and iconic moments in films rather than a closer look at style or narrative.

Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, by Robert Sklar. Revised Edition, 1994. Vintage Books. $22.

This is not a textbook proper, but its historical scope and its accessible writing style leads many courses to adopt it as either a primary or supplemental coursebook.

PROS: A wider look at the role of film in American life, not just a masterworks survey or industrial history (though the book touches on both).
CONS: It lacks the synthesis of a body of scholarship that textbooks do. Material is selected to make the author's arguments rather than as coverage. Readerly approach does not model for students how they can enter the discipline. Only intermittent consideration of film's aesthetic dimension.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: An extended consideration of film's social history.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching an American film history class. Those wishing to supplement other books with material on the role of film in American culture.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Not a textbook, it lacks the more visual presentation useful for classroom use.

Film History: Theory and Practice, by Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery. McGraw-Hill, 1985. $89/71.

This is not a survey, but a textbook in how to do film history. In that it stands alone in the field, though since it is now long out of print, I imagine the demand for this kind of book ended up being not very high. It is a shame that there has not been an updated edition for the book though to take into account changes and new perspectives in the field. (Thompson and Bordwell's history-of-style approach, for instance, could help this book from treating aesthetic history as a bĂȘte noir.)

PROS: Accessible but not dumbed down. Ends each chapter with substantial and useful case studies. Fills niche not met by any other textbook.
CONS: Lacks any survey coverage and downplays the aesthetic. Narrowly American in focus, Case studies could use updating with more contemporary examples. Methodological focus (starting off in Ch. 1 with a philosophy-of-science debate, for instance) may be advanced for some students.
WHAT THIS BOOK HAS THAT OTHERS LACK: A sustained discussion of the methodology of film history.
WHO SHOULD USE IT: Those teaching advanced film history courses or ones requiring empirical research. Beyond its role in classes, Film History: Theory and Practice is useful for readers beginning to advanced, and scholars might want to visit or revisit the book to approach their intellectual craft anew.
PUBLISHING CONCERNS: Lack of updated edition. Expensive. Layout is print-heavy and uninspired visually.

The book I have used in my survey is the Thompson and Bordwell. David Cook's would come a close second. I intend to use the Allen and Gomery in an advanced history class next semester.


Paul Harrill said…
Very useful post. Of the books I've seen (Cook, Bordwell/Thompson, Wexman, Gianetti, Sklar) I pretty much agree with your evaluations. I really enjoyed the "Cook book" while I was in film school, and it introduced me to a number of films/filmmakers. As a filmmaker, I enjoyed the national cinema/auteurist approach, though I recognize it's less appropriate for "pure" scholars. My main problem with it was that Cook's critical evaluations were trustworthy as he approached the present moment. If I remember correctly, one edition had Cook saying that Oliver Stone was essentially the future of American cinema. That thought was as depressing then as it is wrong now. Hopefully he's revised that in the new edition.

My issue with Bordwell/Thompson is, more than anything else, a resentment concerning their repeated updating of their texts. It seems like a new edition of their workhorse textbooks (Film History, Film Art) comes out every other year. The optimist in me says this is because they are constantly striving to have the most up-to-date material in their books. They are nothing if not thorough as scholars, so I can believe this. But, as you mention, when the revisions do not seem to justify the updates the constant "revising" seems like a cynical ploy to drive sales in a culture where students are often required by professors to purchase the latest edition of a textbook. But perhaps I'm being unfair and this is the publishers' fault?
Chris Cagle said…

I don't have the inside scoop on Thompson and Bordwell's reasoning, but I highly suspect the publisher is driving the super-frequent updates. I plan to carp about that when I review the latest intro text editions. I cut them a little slack on Film History, cause it's only edition 3, but at first glance there's not much noticeable change from ed 2 to ed 3, at least to justify a new printing and new pricetag.

I'll have to take a closer look at Cook. In reviewing most of these, I read sample sections, not the whole book.
pm said…
Fine post. I do enjoy these textbook overviews.

On Gomery & Allen's book -- yeah, it's the only thing of its kind... and it's a quarter century old. Much of the historical turn in the field followed it. And that turn seems to continue... turning. I wonder: do you think their four types of history still hold as descriptive of the ways the field pursues historical projects? Do we need only insert the historical poetics project into aesthetic history & update the case studies to get it up to date?
Nicole said…
I just received an exam copy of the Wexman text and frankly, I'm stunned. There is NO color inside the book and most of the tables seem like bad photocopies. I just wrote to Pearson to inquire about this - I've used this in the past and it was markedly different. Have you heard anything about this? (There are a few odd reviews on Amazon from students who thought they received "fakes" - my copy came directly from Pearson and it sounds exactly like the disgruntled students described).

I'm leaning towards Cook, but the newest edition is massive. I'm a little worried it may be a bit too much for a one semester survey course. I am both tired of Bordwell and Thompson as well as unhappy with it. Their insistence on citing the most obscure films as examples seems relatively useless to students who are new to the study.

Any suggestions on making Cook a bit more manageable? I sympathize with the chronology vs. content problem. There are distinct reasons to go both ways - haven't sorted this out myself and really, B&T haven't either. I do like that Cook gives a much more thorough look at other national cinemas rather than a few paragraphs here and there. I just wish I had more than 15 weeks!
Chris Cagle said…
Thanks for your comments. I still respect the Thompson/Bordwell book but can see some of the pedagogical limitations.

As far as strategy for using Cook for one-semester course, one idea that comes to mind is simply being selective by focusing only on certain chapters. In 1 semester, you're just not going to cover everything, so it can be worthwhile to deal with specific moments/movements in some depth. At least that's the strategy I've been gravitating toward, even with our 2-semester sequence.

I feel for you: I have a hard enough time having two semesters.
Chris Cagle said…
PM, I realize I never got around to replying to your comment. Here's what I would suggest needs updating in the Gomery/Allen:

- Historical poetics
- Reception study
- update to Technological history
- Production culture
Nicole said…
So I'm 2/3 of the way through a semester using Cook and my students really hate it. Their issue is largely to do with something you pointed out in your review - the internal filmographies. It makes for such tedious reading in an already dense course. I did fish out the chapters I wanted to focus on, but I still feel like I'm juggling too many balls.

I'm teaching this again in the fall and will probably go back to B&T and fill in the blanks where need be. Have you (or anyone else) stumbled across any new options?
pm said…
Has anyone tried out Gomery & c.'s Movie History: A Survey? It looks, based on the ToC, ideal for the single-term/ 15-week survey, but it seems a lot thinner than B&T and so in need of more supplementary material...
Chris Cagle said…
Great comments! Thanks to both of you.

I'm taking a year break from teaching the history survey so it'll be a little while before I get around to updating this post and revisiting my own textbook choice. As much as I personally admire the T&B book it's just not working for me in the classroom, so I'll be looking for a substitution. I'll have to check out the Gomery text. Looks intriguing.

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