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Movies I Use in the Classroom

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I love to use film as a teaching tool, and not just because it buys me a day of no lectures. Movies help to make clear certain concepts in a non-traditional way. Also, I think there’s positive value in exposing students to non-academic perspectives about particular questions. Finally, there are films that are just as important to cultural literacy as books. Lately, I’ve been assigning David Brin’s novella Thor Meets Captain America as a companion piece to Arnold Wolfers’ National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol, and I think it has worked quite well as a demonstration of how unimportant national security can be in some contexts. I also assign the occasional novel.

I know that a fair number of professors and teachers read LGM, and I’m interested in learning how many use movies in the classroom, and what they use them for. I’m also interested in the student side; what movies have worked well in the classroom, and which ones haven’t? Here is what I use, and why.

Dr. Strangelove: I’ve probably shown Dr. Strangelove half a dozen times, more than any film except perhaps Battle of Algiers. The discussion of deterrence theory is worth the price of admission, but I think it’s also useful for conveying a particular (and particularly male) culture of national security. I once showed it along with 13 Days, the Kevin Costner flick about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it was fascinating to compare how gender relations were depicted in the two films. Dr. Strangelove is also a critical cultural document, one that anybody purporting to be an educated person needs to see.

Red Dawn: I showed Red Dawn one year in an American Foreign Policy class. I’m still not sure how it worked out. The point was to convey the fear that accompanied Reagan’s America, and remind students that, for the first half of the 1980s, Reagan and his lackeys relentless inflated the Soviet threat. Red Dawn is really an exercise in absurdity, and the first twenty minutes are truly a masterpiece of absurdist art. Milius has a talent for creating masculine-affective set pieces like this (see also the first thirty minutes of Conan the Barbarian). I love the idea of half a million Nicaraguans and half a million Cubans infiltrating across the border, and I love how the Cuban officer gets to order the Soviet soldiers around. For me, it’s Reagan’s America: Part I. I don’t know if the students got anything out of it, though.

The Manchurian Candidate: I’ve shown the first Manchurian Candidate three or four times. I saw the second on cable, but Manchurian Candidate is a film so deeply embedded within a particular time and worldview that it simply doesn’t translate as a remake. The point of Manchurian Candidate in the classroom is to evoke a historical period; not to convince the students that the Chinese were really infiltrating the US with mind-controlled zombies, but rather to show them the general atmosphere of paranoia that existed in America in the 1950s. Also, most students have only been exposed to Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher (and, recently, few even of those), and her portrayal of the Red Queen is a revelation.

The Battle of Algiers: I’ve shown this eight or nine times. It’s indispensible to any conversation about terrorism or insurgency. Longer discussion here.

The Thin Red Line: I’ve shown the whole thing once, and parts of it once. Thin Red Line is a hard movie to show a class, because it’s very long and because I know that a large percentage of the class will absolutely loathe it. I like it as a pedagogical tool for its portrayal of military hierarchy, but especially for the assault on the hill, which is the best depiction of an infantry attack against a fortified position that I’ve ever seen.

Breaker Morant: Maybe five times? There’s just so much going on here; counter-insurgency, laws of war, personal responsibility, military hierarchy, nationalism, and the moral context of war. Indispensible. It’s too bad that my students are now getting too young to remember Edward Woodward in The Equalizer, a passable 1980s vigilante/detective show.

Triumph of the Will: I showed Triumph of the Will to an International Conflict class once. I don’t think they got it. It’s valuable in and of itself as a cultural document, but it also has important things to say about nationalism as a product of mass culture and modernity, a concept which is sometimes kind of hard to convey. Bonus points go to students who can pick out the parts of the film that George Lucas lifted for Star Wars.

Grand Illusion: Three or four times. Grand Illusion is really about multiple group affiliation and shared identity. Class, nationality, European, and the military profession are all important, to varying degrees, to the principals. I show it in my Europe in World Politics course, generally during the part of the course that I discuss state-building in Europe and the expansion of the European nation-state form to other parts of the world.

I’ve also used Elizabeth once (to depict the violent side of state building) and Thirteen Days once (both for the historical narrative and the for the contrast with Dr. Strangelove). If I taught other courses, I’d use other movies, probably including some from this list. Sadly, there are a dearth of decent movies about China, and Last Emperor is way too long to show in any class.

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