Part One: Of Documentaries

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In the following three blog posts, I would like to explore Benjamin Franklin and his representation in documentary films. Specifically, the PBS three part documentary simply entitled, Benjamin Franklin. This Middlemarch film was produced and directed by Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer in 2002, written by Ronald Blumer. This team of filmmakers has worked together on other very successful projects such as Liberty! and Alexander Hamilton (Bernard and Rabin 126). Both were received as excellent contributions to historic filmography.


Benjamin Franklin is no exception from this legacy, so my first post will delve into some of the details about the structure of the film and specific information about historical documentary filmmaking. My second post shall explore the idea of "the documentary contract" between filmmakers and audiences. The third post will serve as a bookend, wrapping up the ideas I have put forth, and briefly comparing this documentary to a few other, shorter films.


Iris Barry, in her article, "The Documentary Film: Prospect and Retrospect" writes about the beginning of the first documentary films. They started in the early 40s as war propaganda, mixing non-fiction footage with compelling messages about the war. This was groundbreaking history, as far as the public was concerned. Barry writes, "A Nazi general declared, early in the conflict, that the side with the best cameras, rather than the side with the best armaments, would win" (Barry 2).


Dueling Cameras.jpg

                                                                  Fig. 1

This prediction could not have been more true. As we will see later on, the truth of what a documentary portrays often goes undisputed, and is held sometimes above the truth even of the written word. Benjamin Franklin is a documentary steeped in truth and authentic fact. The film uses three main elements to convey its message. Sheila Bernard says these elements are, "the primary source material, scholars whom they interview, and the narration, written by Blumer as a last step during the editing" (Bernard and Rabin 128). The primary source material in this case comes from Franklin's Autobiography and letters of correspondence between the persons involved. Often, the letters and other materials are quoted directly by actors who hold direct eye contact with the camera. It is the actors' job to convey the written material as if they themselves were holding a conversation.


Ben Franky Actor.jpg

 Fig. 2.

Blumer says, "When I'm watching other historical films, I'm very uncomfortable hearing people mouth stuff that's obviously just doesn't seem real, and the important thing is that the audience has to believe that the people are experiencing and feeling what you're hearing. If it sounds as if they're reading something, it just doesn't work" (Bernard and Rabin 129). Blumer takes the original material and sometimes replaces out-of-date vocabulary with words that a modern audience would understand. He uses Samuel Johnson's 18th century dictionary to find the best translations and says that he can always cite his word replacements with a source (Bernard and Rabin 129).


Interestingly, a large motivator in the direction of the film tends to be the scholars that the filmmakers interview. Blumer says the team will often change the direction of a film to fit in with what the scholars are saying (Bernard and Rabin 128). When he writes a script, he is not simply trying to assert his own opinion, or give a dry summation of the facts. He wants to create something engaging and tangible to modern audiences while holding true to what the experts are saying. Blumer is an expert at piecing together several different scholars' opinions into a cohesive whole. He complements their work with the on-screen actors and a small amount of off-screen narration, usually voiced in over period photographs or reenactments. The footage below provides a good example of how he pieces these opinions together in a quick-paced, but informative manner.

Scholars Example.m4v  (Benjamin Franklin)

A website dedicated to Ronald Blumer offers many well-written reviews about his work. A critic, John Levesque raves about the tasteful style seen in this film. Historical documentaries have a long-standing negative opinion attached to them that they are hokey and tacky, filled with bad reenactments, a cheesy narrator, and funny-looking historians. Levesque writes eloquently about Benjamin Franklin when he says:

Some of the re-creations offer the standard docu-scenes: carriages pulling up in front of buildings, people walking along cobblestone streets, Redcoats marching shoulder to shoulder. But they're rendered nearly superfluous by actors in period costume functioning like the scholars and other experts who popular most historical documentaries. In the style of today's modern Chautauqua's, in which performers mimic the garb  and gad of figured from the past, Franklin comes to life in his own documentary. (Levesque)

Levesque is just scratching the surface of what I think is the aesthetic value of a film of this caliber. Film is an art form, and must be treated as such. If a film is produced merely for its information value and the artistic elements of the film are ignored, it will fall apart. We will explore this in the last post when I compare a few other films to this one.


Film Reel.jpg

Fig. 3.

Benjamin Franklin is set up as many biographical films are: chronologically. Part one of the film, "Let the Experiment Be Made" deals with the years 1706-1753, Franklin's youth. This section covers the largest number of years, but is also the shortest section of the film. Part two, "The Marking of a Revolutionary" details Franklin's time in England, and his conversion from trying to patch up relations with England, to becoming an advocate of the United States' independence in the years 1755-1776. Part three, "The Chess Master" is the longest part of the documentary, almost twice as long as the prior sections and tackles the years 1776-1790.


In another one of her books, Bernard talks about manipulating time in films. She says that moving a story through often involves "the interweaving of chronological and nonchronological elements outside of apart from the chronology" (Bernard 63). Benjamin Franklin also accomplishes this task mostly by way of the off-screen narrator. His job is to allude to the future, comment on how Franklin's actions in the past might have affected the currently discussed moment, and compare experiences to others at different points in his life. While the film mostly follows chronology, the narrative voice helps guide the viewer through so that they feel like they are watching an interesting story with plot twists and foreshadowing rather than staring at a timeline.


In the next post, we will look at the importance of the believability of a historic film and see just how easily what we consider "fact" can be called into question.


Works Cited:

Barry, Iris. "The Documentary Film: Prospect and Retrospect." The Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art. 13:2, Dec 1945. 2-27. Print.

Benjamin Franklin. Dir. Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer. PBS DVD, Twin Cities Public Television in association with Middlemarch Films, 2002. DVD.

Bernard, Sheila. Documentary Storytelling for Video and Filmmakers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2004. Print.

Bernard, Sheila and Rabin, Kenn. Archival Storytelling: A Filmmaker's Guide to Finding, Using, and Licensing Third-Party Visuals and Music. Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2009. Print.

Levesque, John. "PBS's Benjamin Franklin is a Lesson in Great Television." Ronald Blumer: Reviews of Benjamin Franklin. November 15, 2002. Web.

 Fig. 1: Google Images. (

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