Using film to engage: A History teacher’s perspective

Earlier in the year I had the pleasure of presenting a quick presentation on using media (specifically film) to engage students at the National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning & Behaviour. In this blog I share my speech.

Think about what will make a greater impression on the mass consciousness. Myriad scholarly studies of Dane law and Dark Ages Europe or Michael Hirst’s Vikings? …We should acknowledge film and television as important historical sources of our time. In this day and age I don’t think it is possible to hide behind the scholarly materials and poke fingers at the screen as not reliable, adapted to suit a modern audience, marketed. We all understand that a way to engaging students is meeting them where they are at and gently nudge them into engaging with the complexity that makes up a film, just like any primary or secondary source you might usually use in a History classroom.

Caveat: I am using Vikings because it is the historical epic I have recently watched on my streaming service. I am in no way recommending it as a film for use in class. It is Game of Thrones level of violence and sex. It’s also about Vikings, something I assumed the majority of you would have a small idea about in order to engage you for this short period in time.

Whether something is historically accurate or not is far from the most important take away we can get from a historical film, because the answer is “who really knows”? There is so much we don’t know about the past that the study of history becomes more about ways of thinking. Through history we teach students to think abstractly by considering the evidence, proposing hypotheses and spinning a logical as possible yarn. That is what historical film makers do and we can use films to contextualise the evidence students work with.

The history film study that looks at historical accuracy is endangered. Most trainspotting has already been done by Wikipedia. I mean that’s where I went to find out that “Drinking from the skulls of our enemies” is probably a misnomer. But it hooks you. Wikipedia sends you to the primary sources and poetry that helped the idiom develop. It engages and that’s what media is about. Whether its film, Facebook or Wikipedia.

Engaging students using film has to take on a new format. It needs to become about how it engages as much as what it uses to engage. I am going to talk more about using film to engage students in more abstract critical ways of thinking. Film can tender opportunities that include but are not limited to the development of skills in interpretation of evidence, exploration of historical perspectives, empathy, significance and understanding our current world.

In a world where students and the general public are likely to access historical information from a television program, film, or even video game, it is important to equip students with the ability to view historical representation critically. For example, films either reinforce stereotypes or they challenge them. I always find the films that challenge stereotypes  more interesting. For example, the Vikings are often excluded from the discussions about how present day Europe was formed. They are often dismissed as pirates or pagan barbarians. This is a persistent point of view throughout European history: branding the “others” as something uncivilised. But in fact Vikings managed to influence English and French politics. William the Conqueror is said to be a descendant of the Rollo character in Vikings.

The thing is, it takes one line from a historical source, such as how appealing the Vikings were to English women because they combed their hair and washed, to spark a whole story that challenges the primary narrative of Vikings as brutes.

Historical films are significant because they can give insight into why our present culture might be the way it is today. There is a massive contemporary emphasis on Vikings. They have been used in propaganda and entertainment for centuries. They were used by the Christian nations to deamonise and strike fear into their people. They were used by the Nazis to develop propaganda for the idealised human. They are hugely influential in the story lines of today.

I’m really looking forward to American Gods by Neil Gaiman coming out soon.

Just like many cultures in the Judeo-Christian intellectual tradition, the Vikings have been Others. Othering is the process of casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other.  Othering is a process that goes beyond ‘mere’ scapegoating and denigration – it denies the Other those defining characteristics of the ‘Same’, reason, dignity, love, pride, heroism, nobility, and ultimately any entitlement to human rights. Whether the Other is a racial or a religious group, a gender group, a sexual minority or a nation, it is made rife for exploitation, oppression and indeed genocide by denying its essential humanity. What film can do is challenge the idea of Others. Unfortunately, there are just as many examples of films engaging in reinforcing, but these too can be subjected to the analytical eye of the student of History.

Films have worked to both continue the culture of othering or as many contemporary films are now doing challenge us to think that there is no single right moral community. Life is far more complex. Vikings were strategists, dignified, loved, hated, thirsted for fame and fought for their rights just as those within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Film can help nudge students into engaging with different narratives other than their own. You don’t have to think very hard to identify a film that might engage students with a racial, gendered, environmental, cultural issue that might be “othered” in their own world view.

All the opportunities that film presents for engaging with analysis and evaluative skills means that we are preparing students to be critical of what they are seeing on new media. By engaging students with questions about where our current thought patterns come from and what media is doing to the collective memory, we can shift that engagement to how students use other new media such as social media and educational apps. We are often asked to embed new technologies without questioning what those new technologies are doing to our collective psyche because they “engage”. The adoption of film in classrooms is always met with critique but the adoption of new media seems to not be met with the same critique. Why? By engaging students with film in the classroom, we are opening doors for a critical discussion of all media as it becomes more and more a part of what is done in teaching.


In sum

  1. Films like all media should be one part of a larger analysis of historical topics, events, or concepts.
  2. Film can engage students with learning to identify and assess the main perspectives and themes in media generally
  3. Film can engage students with considering how the media reflects the social and cultural values of the period in which it was produced, not just the period it portrays.

Films may be long but in this age of instantaneous, anything that asks students to slow down and think before forging forward must be considered a worthwhile thing.


  • Marcus, A. S. (2005) “It Is as It Was”: Feature Film in the History Classroom, The Social Studies, 96:2, 61-67, DOI: 10.3200/TSSS.96.2.61-67
  • Kaes, A. (1990). History and Film: Public Memory in the Age of Electronic Dissemination. History and Memory,2(1), 111-129. Retrieved from
  • Gabriel, Y. (2012) The Other and Othering: A short indtroduction. Yiannis Gabriel Stories, music, psychoanalysis, politics, reviews, the odd cooking recipe … 10 September 2012. Retrieved 15 June 2016 from
  • Gordon, E.W.An Introduction to Old Norse (2nd edition, Oxford 1962) pp. lxix-lxx.
  • Óláfsson, M. in Ole Worm, Runar seu Danica Litteratura antiquissima, vulgo Gothica dicta (Copenhagen 1636).
  • Stoddard, J. D. & Marcus, A. S. (2006). The Burden of Historical Representation: Race, Freedom, and “Educational” Hollywood Film. Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 36(1), 26-35. Center for the Study of Film and History. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from Project MUSE database.
  • Stoddard, J. D. & Marcus, A. S. (2010). More Than “Showing What Happened”: Exploring the Potential of Teaching History with Film. The High School Journal 93(2), 83-90. The University of North Carolina Press. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from Project MUSE database.
  • Stratton, E. (2013) Is TV’s Vikings historically accurate? Who really knows. The Guardian 9 April 2013. Retrieved 15 June 2016 from
  • Ullidtz, Per (2014). 1016: The Danish Conquest of England. Copenhagen: Books on Demand. p. 300.
  • Weinstein, P. B. (2001). Movies as the gateway to history: The history and film project. History Teacher. 35 (1): 27.

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