Jon Cowans is associate professor in the Department of History at Rutgers University–Newark and author of Empire Films and the Crisis of Colonialism, 1946–1959 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Dr. Cowans participated in this Film Matters interview via email in spring 2017.
Emmett Williams: You did your Master’s and your PhD at Stanford University, studying modern European history. What drew you to this field of study? What attracted you about Stanford’s graduate program?
Jon Cowans: I wanted to become a historian because I loved learning about history and I thought Americans needed to know more about it. It seemed like an enjoyable, stimulating field of work with positive social consequences. I actually went to Stanford to study Brazilian history, but when I was there I ended up changing my field to modern Europe. Long story.
EW: There were a lot of films that, I believe it’s fair to say, are lesser known, or even forgotten since their time. How did you find all these hidden gems?
JC: Once you start to immerse yourself in the materials, you start bumping into things. A review of one film may mention another now forgotten. Sometimes I noticed ads for other films when I was looking for reviews in newspapers on microfilm. That’s one area where microfilm has advantages over full-text database searching: the latter can give you exactly what you’re looking for, but it may not give you the interesting stuff you weren’t looking for. In terms of locating obscure films, you can also do that by searching on IMDB, clicking links, looking for related things, such as other works by a given screenwriter or actor. I refer to the enormous body of films out there as the celluloid archive. It’s vast, and one can easily miss things. I have been watching a lot of movies for a lot of years, and gradually, that gives one familiarity with at least a sizable portion of the archive. I still discover new things all the time.
EW: What contributed to the writing of this book? That is to say, when did you realize that the space existed for this work, and that you wanted to explore it?
JC: I had been teaching colonialism for years and was always interested in films, long before college. It didn’t take long to see that there was a lot of room for new work in the general field of the cinema of empire. Most of the people working on the subject are in other disciplines such as English and cinema studies. They do great work, but historians have their own approaches, and those have a distinctive value. The field is still wide open; very few history departments have specialists in film.
EW: Looking through your publication history, it seems you’ve always been interested in media; not only film, but radio and public history as well. Is there a particular experience you can trace this fascination back to?
JC: The mass media always fascinated me, particularly given my longstanding interest in public opinion and popular culture. It’s another rich historical field we are really just starting to explore.
EW: After viewing a couple of the films in the book, I’m impressed by the way that some of them resonate in the modern era. If you had to recommend two or three films out of this work to the general public, what would they be?
JC: I think all the films I considered speak in important ways to present concerns. The issues those films touch upon either intentionally or unintentionally — race relations, how the powerful treat the weak, etc. — are just as crucial today as they were in the past. As historical artifacts, any of those films merit our attention. When I study films, I really set aside the whole question of whether they are enjoyable as entertainment. Of course in studying their reception, I try to consider what was or was not successful about them in terms of their entertainment value, but one of the big differences between a film critic and a historian is that the latter isn’t really judging films’ worth as art or entertainment. When I assign films for my classes, I make it clear that I’m not recommending them as entertainment, even if they turn out to be entertaining anyway.
Having said all that, I liked King Solomon’s Mines, The Searchers, Broken Arrow, The Devil’s Doorway, Odd Man Out, Something of Value, and Giant, among others.
EW: There are many European nations with baggage regarding colonialism. Why did you choose to focus on Britain and France in particular, as opposed to, for example, Germany or Holland?
JC: I chose Britain and France because of their significance as European colonial powers and because I know those countries and languages. I trained as a French historian, so it made sense to work on France. The British and French also made more films on colonialism than the other European countries. After this period, other European countries started making some very important films on the topic.
EW: The addition of the American perspective is a rewarding one as well. What went into that choice?
JC: The US had to be in there for two reasons: it made by far the largest number of films on this topic (which were widely viewed in Europe as well), and it was also a major imperial power in that period (and still). As I discuss in the book, there has long been an American blind spot about having an empire (both formal and informal), but it is not news to scholars that America is part of the whole story of colonialism.
EW: I’m a history student myself. Do you have any specific advice for an undergraduate student of history?
JC: A lot of students worry about whether they can get work if they major in history. It’s an understandable concern, but these days, the idea of a four-year degree leading straight to a lifetime job is pretty obsolete. I think that learning what the field involves — how to read and interpret texts, how to do research, how to reason analytically, how to write — gives a person outstanding foundational skills. For a lot of people these days, graduate school is the best path to the best-paid, most interesting work, and a history major with good grades and skills stands a good chance of getting into a desirable graduate program. There are other ways to parlay a history degree into interesting work without grad school. If you enjoy history and do well in the classes, I would say you’re on a good path.
EW: Empire Films was published in 2015, very recent by publishing standards. Are there any ideas you’re playing around with for a new publication that you can tell us about?
JC: I’m well into the next book, which continues the same story in the years 1960-1973, a period in which films and western attitudes in general take a noteworthy anti-colonialist turn.
Emmett Williams is a senior, double majoring in film studies and history. His interests mainly include exploring the intersection of film and history, as well as examining political history.