Crime, History, And Hollywood: Learning Criminal Justice
History Through Major Motion Pictures

Crime, History, And Hollywood: Learning Criminal Justice History Through Major Motion Pictures

Authors: Willard M.Oliver and Nancy E. Marion
Publisher: Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2013. 240p.            
Reviewer: W. Carsten Andresen | May 2013

During the past two decades, studies of crime films have broadened the perspective of criminology. Approaching crime films as a new theoretical model, scholars have explored how they can present a humanistic view of specific offenders or justice workers. Criminologists have also traced how crime films can present misinformation that ultimately distorts popular opinion about specific criminal justice topics. Recent scholars have focused on the interaction between crime films and the American public, investigating how these media can both reflect and influence popular opinion.

Building on these studies, Willard M.Oliver and Nancy E. Marion focus on ten films about actual historical crimes in their book Crime, History, and Hollywood: Learning Criminal Justice History through Major Motion Pictures. Instead of examining specific criminals or justice workers, Oliver and Marion consider “the teaching of criminal justice history through major motion pictures” by analyzing “the common techniques Hollywood employs in creating (criminal justice) history films” (p. xi). Specifically, the authors investigate how filmmakers adapt complex historical events into specific narratives, and identify instances where they opted to introduce fictional elements into their movies. Their book focuses on crimes from the 19th and 20th centuries, beginning with the Trial of the Amistads in 1839 and concluding with the Watergate Scandal in 1972 (the chapters are organized according to the chronology of the events).  In each chapter, the authors focus on one specific historical event and one corresponding film: they describe the original crime, summarize the dramatic film, and assess the accuracy of the cinematic adaption. Their passion for history shines through their writing, which is clear, engaging, and efficient.

To gauge the accuracy of these films, Oliver and Marion fact-check each film against the official historical record, and identify fictional elements. For example, they identify instances where filmmakers either created a composite character by combining several real people into a single character, or invented a completely fictional character. Oliver and Marion also pinpoint instances of time compression (where filmmakers shortened the time for a specific set of events to transpire) and false sequencing (where filmmakers reordered the order in which specific events transpired). Their focus on the historical record is also presumably why they selected All the President’s Men (1976), which features characters and scenes that one could verify against the actual historical record, and excluded JFK (1991), which consists of scenes derived from conspiracy theories that are impossible to empirically verify against recorded history. Even though the authors only analyze specific and easily classifiable fictional elements, their approach still makes an important contribution to the study of media and crime because it invites the reader to consider the implications of dramatizing historical events.

In addition to providing an analysis of historical crime films, Oliver and Marion’s text also sketches out a specific history of the United States. Indeed, these films capture a broad range of historical crimes, which, for better or worse, embody noteworthy American themes that have ultimately influenced how we view our identity and history. With Eight Men Out (1988), which dramatizes how specific Chicago White Sox players threw the 1919 World Series, the authors capture a pivotal historical moment where Americans suddenly had to confront the unseemly potential of their favorite national pastime. Specifically, Americans had to consider the corruptibility of the players, to reconsider their assumptions about fair play and sportsmanship, and to confront the parasitic realities (i.e. sports betting, organized crime) that fed off this supposedly wholesome entertainment. With In Cold Blood (1967), which focuses on the 1959 mass murder of the Cutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, they highlight the moment when Americans’ conception of the small-town pastoral was shattered. If two men could murder a religious farmer, his wife, and two children, then who could ever feel safe again? While In Cold Blood dramatizes the investigation, trial, and execution of the two killers, it ultimately withholds any answers, comfort, or even closure—the ultimate triumph of law and order hardly provides any reassurance for the audience. With All the President’s Men, which follows the two reporters who helped to expose the Watergate Scandal, the authors explore another unique historical moment that forever changed how the nation would view the presidency. While each of these films is about its own specific crime, together they provide a larger narrative about Americans losing their innocence.

Reviewing Tombstone (1993) and September Dawn (2007), Oliver and Marion identify how filmmakers sometimes use historical events to explore contemporary dilemmas. In Tombstone, which is about Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the OK Corral in 1881, the filmmakers had the outlaws wear red bandannas, a reference to gang colors in Los Angeles in the early 1990s (the original outlaws did not wear colors to indicate their membership in a criminal group). In September Dawn, which dramatizes the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, the Mormons’ motivation in killing the Fancher-Baker Wagon Party involved religious fanaticism and their fear of liberated women. According to the authors, this film alludes to contemporary fears from the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. This is a fascinating component of historical crime films, which Oliver and Marion could have explored more in their analysis. Indeed, diagramming the past-present iconography in these films could have created a richer theoretical context for their analysis, linking their study to the larger issues around documenting historical events.

Oliver and Marion’s straightforward prose is particularly effective in their critique of how Amistad (1997) and Mississippi Burning (1988) awkwardly attempt to dramatize America’s troubled civil rights history. The authors explore how filmmakers constructed narratives that primarily focused on white justice worker protagonists, presenting the audience with a white perspective. The decision to make the protagonist of Amistad a white attorney ensures that the narrative is a conventional legal drama, rather than a thorough exploration of slavery. In Mississippi Burning, the two white FBI detectives confront powerful and vicious racists and protect the victimized and passive African-Americans. These detectives offer audiences white hero-surrogates, who restore order and allow the audience to absolve themselves of any white guilt. (“If I lived back then, I would be just like the good, white guys who saved the oppressed.”) In these compact filmic narratives that dramatize the troubled history of racial subjugation in the United States, when justice prevails, it is as if all racism suddenly ends.

At the same time, Oliver and Marion also explore how Amistad and Mississippi Burning also denigrate the original crime victims. The character of Sengbe in Amistad is presented as a jungle savage: when he becomes angry during the trial in the courtroom, he strips naked and dances in front of everyone. Yet as the authors point out, there is no record of such an event. It is a complete and total fabrication from the supposedly enlightened mid-1990s. In the opening scene of Mississippi Burning, the filmmakers portray the three soon-to-be murdered civil right victims—James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Henry Schwerner—as naïve and submissive, as if they are lost in the rural south and uncomprehending of the danger that awaits them. In reality, however, these three most likely knew of the danger that threatened them. Schwerner, for example, knew that the KKK was planning to assassinate him. To portray them as clueless blunts their heroism: they knew the dangers that awaited them and proceeded anyway. The filmmakers also portray their murders as quick: the Sheriff stops them and a group of white racists quickly shoots them to death. In reality, the racists killed these three men slowly—kidnapping them, taking them into the woods, beating Chaney, then shooting all three to death. Even though the filmic version of these murders is brutal, it still minimizes the terror and violence visited upon these men. By shifting the perspective of these crimes back to the actual victims themselves, the authors force us to view them as people, with autonomy and intelligence, rather than as narrative devices or historical symbols.

While Crime, History, and Hollywood will make an important contribution to criminological studies of crime films, some of the authors’ statements about filmmaking are problematic. In their introduction, Oliver and Marion seem dismissive of filmmaking, describing the act of watching a film as “a passive experience,” and stating that “the use of film in teaching criminal justice is suspect at best” (p. 3-4). Yet, the act of viewing a film need not be passive (this point would be obvious if they had picked better historical crime films). I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), for example, is more than a historical movie that blends fact and fiction: it is also a provocative film, with an incredible behind-the-scenes story that is almost as gripping as the narrative itself (the State of Georgia tried to stop this film!). Moreover, this film focused public attention on the chain gang system in America and helped to hasten its end (criminologists might consider analyzing this film against criminological scholarship from the 1920-30s).

Oliver and Marion’s occasional disdain for film also drives them to make some irrelevant criticisms of filmmakers and their professional goals. In their introduction, for example, the authors assert that “Hollywood has one overriding goal in the production of their films and that is to make a profit” and so “they have to make films that people want to go see” (p. 3). This criticism seems unfair. One could make this criticism about any profession. Most academic criminologists, for example, seek career advancement, which often involves publishing several peer review articles. To criticize anyone for seeking to ascend in his or her profession, even as an argument for the perceived quality of his or her work, misses the point.

Moreover, the authors’ sweeping generalization overlooks the bravery of specific filmmakers during the past century. Indeed, some filmmakers knowingly created historical crime films, which they knew would be controversial to the point of placing their careers at risk. Not only was the historical crime film They Won’t Forget (1937) (about the 1913 lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia) banned in Atlanta, but the scriptwriter was later blacklisted from Hollywood. Moreover, even though these filmmakers changed certain aspects of this film in relation to the actual event, these decisions involved much higher stakes than just making a successful film. If they had presented their narrative exactly as it happened in the 1930s, not only would their film have never been released anywhere in America, but they probably would have faced a violent backlash from conservative southern Christian whites. More recently, Oliver Stone knew that in making JFK, he was dealing with controversial material that could prove dangerous to his career. While Stone used the controversy to his advantage, this strategy could have backfired. Whatever we think of his film or the director’s distortions, Stone did take a chance with this film. He seemed motivated by factors other than just moneymaking.

Oliver and Marion also provide no concluding chapter to draw their analysis of historic crime films together. After their analysis of All the President’s Men, the book stops, leaving the reader suspended in midair. This is a shame. Even though it might be difficult to synthesize what it essentially ten separate crime film analyses into a concluding chapter, the reader nevertheless needs a unifying thread or theme to know why he or she read this study. A concluding chapter would have also provided an excellent opportunity for them to take up one of the more compelling questions that they raise in their analysis: “If the director makes a film about a historical subject that most people do not know about, but the film is one that they will watch, has the director done a service to the nation’s historical memory?” (p. 192) This is a fantastic question, worthy of discussion, even if they ultimately have no final answer. Their work would have also benefitted from an appendix with a methodology about how they decided to select and code the films in their study.

With this analysis, Oliver and Marion join the growing ranks of criminologists who have indicated that they take crime movies seriously and are thinking critically about how filmmakers present narratives about crime and punishment.  It is important to engage with crime films, because as popular entertainment, even the most obscure of these movies has a larger audience than the most widely read criminology study (Rafter, 2009). Through these studies, criminologists then, acknowledge the public that they serve, and their place within a society that draws on narratives and origin stories for their identity.


Rafter, Nicole (2007) ‘Crime, Film and Criminology: Recent Sex-Crime Movies’, Theoretical Criminology 11(3): 403-20.

W. Carsten Andresen,
Planner, Management, and Research Specialist, Sr.,
Travis County Adult Probation

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