Part Three: Comparisons and Contrasts

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 Fig. 1.

As I foreshadowed in the last post, one of the most important aspects of documentary film making is the aesthetic quality. Michael Isenberg writes, "Historians have long valued the aesthetic approach to the study of culture. If it be true that the most precious values of a culture are displayed in the arts, then the study of these arts becomes proper for the historian" (Isenberg 553). His claim that part of being a historian in film is to study the arts is quite a forward-thinking one, and it surprised me at first to read it. I consider this a very high bar to set for a historian, but possibly not for a filmmaker. Keeping this in mind, I shall compare and contrast briefly Benjamin Franklin with two other shorter documentaries on Franklin.


The first one we will look at is aptly called, Ben Franklin: Man of Firsts. The first minute of the film is enough to make the biggest Franklin buff turn it off. Backgrounded by ethereal, electronic music, a Power-Point-like slideshow runs while a stereotypical male announcer's voice plays over top of the atrocity. The images are grainy and often to not correspond to what the announcer is saying. He calls Franklin an inventor, and an image of a political document shows in screen. Unfortunately, I cannot show clips of this film due to copyright reasons, but I hope my description of this ten-minute disaster will provide a good understanding of the kind of films that are being made.


There is very little actual film footage compared to the still photographs shown. The segment does have interviews with a few scholars who are subjected to very poor lighting which makes them look blotchy and orange, and a shaky cameraman. I realize that this film was most likely written on a budget, but surely they could have afforded a tripod.



Fig. 2. 

This poor film quality and blatant disregard for the aesthetic value is exactly what Hovde and Meyer did not want to do when they produced Benjamin Franklin. By visually and auditorily pleasing their audience, these filmmakers created a professional and respectful image of Franklin. If a film such as Ben Franklin: Man of Firsts were to be shown in a high school history class, not a single student would pay attention. Even though it is only ten minutes long, the slow pace and monotonous tone of the narrator seem to drag on for hours. Because of the quick changes and use of three main elements in Benjamin Franklin which we have already talked about, that wonderful film, although many times as long, moves along much more quickly and could easily hold the interest of anyone as young as a middle-schooler.


The second film I would like to compare Benjamin Franklin to is, Ben Franklin's Pirate Fleet. This forty-four minute film focuses on a team of divers investigating a sunken ship which they believe to have been one of Franklin's privateering ships during the war. Between the rock music, shaky nerve-jostling filmography, and constant repetitions of what just happened before the commercial break, this film does its best job at making this theory sound like a historical scandal. Of course, it was not that at all. Franklin, in efforts to aid the war for Independence, hired a few privateers to help defend his country against the British naval fleet.



                                                                    Fig. 3. 

It is almost humorous to watch the dramatized story unfold from the off-screen narrator's deep, exciting voice only to be combatted by interviews with scholars who very calmly and collectedly discuss Franklin's business. I cannot attempt to understand why the directors of this film would have wanted to make Franklin seem like a dirty trickster with his secret fleet. The only possible reason seems to be that they thought Franklin's life was boring, and needed more "kick" to it. If this is the case, then these filmmakers certainly did not do their research. Between the women, the inventions, the diplomatic disputes, and family rumors, Franklin's life has enough adventure and drama to make an action movie.


Despite these weird and in nearly inaccurate depictions of Franklin's life, the two films each have their perks. Ben Franklin: Man of Firsts provides a short and sweet fact list about Franklin's life. Ben Franklin's Pirate Fleet, while odd, certainly keeps its audience interested, and the interviews with the historians and scholars provide sound, factual information. Perhaps Isenberg was onto something when he wrote of the importance of the aesthetic in historical films. Not only is the subject more well-represented, but the audience has less difficulty keeping up with the information, and enjoying the film. The directors of PBS's documentary do a phenomenal job at this, and I am glad to have studied Franklin using this different, but effective medium.

Works Cited:
Isenberg, Michael. "A Relationship of Constrained Anxiety: Historians and Film." The History Teacher, 6:4, August 1973. 553-568.

Fig. 1: Google Images (

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