Sentiment in literature and cinema is a controversial subject, especially when it pertains to historical depictions. From film director Terry Gilliam’s criticism of Steven Spielberg to contemporary audiences embracing ‘gritty’ depictions of politics and war in their media, sentimentalism is difficult to embrace.
However, ‘sentimental’ films such as Schindler’s List, The Sound of Music and Titanic are adored by millions, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and reached blockbuster heights in cinema attendance. Although sentimentalism may not have many fans, the films that use sentimentalism do.
In this post, I will defend sentimental cinema, including the films mentioned. More than that, I will focus on history and how writers choose to depict it.
I use various words in this article, such as ‘sentiment’ and ‘melodrama.’ However, they have separate meanings. Sentiment refers to the overwhelming depiction of tenderness or sadness. Melodrama relates to media that tries to evoke an emotional reaction out of the audience. All three films mentioned: Schindler’s List, The Sound of Music and Titanic are all melodramas using sentiment to reach their goal of connecting with the audience.
This post uses three film examples: Schindler’s List, Titanic & The Sound of Music and contains spoilers for all three movies. These three movies were specifically chosen as they exemplify ‘sentimental’ cinema and are well known.
Argument One: Sentimental Cinema Is Successful
The films listed are well known, and some of the highest grossing films of all time. But they are also historical, set in the past. Because of the popularity and historical content, the audience can communicate with history. One watches Schindler’s List and observes the brutality of The Holocaust.
Film is a fantastic medium for audiences to ‘emotionally’ connect with the past. Unlike a university course, a viewer may struggle to immerse themselves in previous generations.
Films such as Titanic offer viewers likeable and interesting characters who are easy to connect with. With Titanic, the film reminds us of the actual people who went on the ship ‘of dreams.’ It’s not just Jack and Rose the viewers connect with. While the Titanic is sinking, there is a shot of an elderly couple cuddling each other in bed while water creeps in. It’s heartbreaking and extremely effective. Years later, from seeing Titanic, I can recall particular images with ease.
In short, sentiment and melodrama are popular and open the discipline of history to brand new audiences. Of course, historical melodramas should not be the only way people access history.
But if the Sound of Music is your introduction to Austrian history during the 20th century, and later on, you research more about Austria and understand its unique position in world history, then that’s positive.
Argument Two: Symbolism Is Effective
In Schindler’s List, the most memorable image is the girl in the red coat. In the sea of black and white photography, a young girl hides in a house (and later, is found dead) while wearing a signature shade of red. She has no dialogue, but this scene alone captures the intentions of Steven Spielberg, which is to emphasize the loss of innocence and life under the Holocaust.
Titanic also has a ‘signature’ image, which is the blue necklace. At first glance, the necklace represents the shallow society that Rose is from. But on closer glance, the Heart of the Ocean necklace represents the splendour and broken dreams often associated with the Titanic. What’s great about sentimental cinema are these lush symbols.
These movies aren’t solely dedicated to a ‘gritty’ depiction of history. However, the symbols are evocative images, stirring profound emotions from the viewer. After all, people are more likely to engage with a movie or book when they are emotionally react to it. Such is the case in Titanic and Schindler’s List.
With the Sound of Music, it make references to nature (parks, hills, animals) which reminds the viewer of the natural and romantic beauty that music possesses. The argument here is that certain cinematic styles (such as sentiment) lend itself well to symbolism and archetypes. To tell effective stories, a creator must not solely engage with conscious reactions, but also approach the subconscious of every viewer.
I may not immediately associate the Girl in the Red Coat with a loss of innocence and the brutality of genocide. My first reaction to that scene in Schindler’s List was ‘a little girl has just died.’ It wasn’t until closer looks and re-watches did I go deeper and figure out a second possible interpretation.
Great storytelling urges the viewer to not interpret their sight at face value. Also, just because a film is ‘grittier’ in how it depicts history does not make it better, or more meaningful. If I must convey one point in this post, it’s that great films look beyond ‘realism’ and discovers creative ways to communicate complex ideas with their audience.
Argument Three: The ‘Drama’ Of History
Both sentiment and melodrama are fuelled by emotions. Naturally, history is too. One can’t analyse particular historical events without having an emotional reaction. This is because history itself has ‘dramatic’ moments. Melodramas recognise this and absorbs any sentiment into their film. Expect heart-swelling music, long running times, meaty and universal themes of goodness, social commentary and dynamic characters.
This may seem ‘over the top’ but history is. Even though all three films: Schindler’s List, Titanic and the Sound of Music have historical inaccuracies, they tell dramatic stories that matter to their history-keen audience.
Of course, we don’t want a scenario where the only historical film content is ‘sentimental’ or ‘melodramatic.’ Films such as Come And See (1985), Ivan’s Childhood (1962), The Pianist (2002) and Grave Of The Fireflies (1989) are extremely important. An ideal cinematic landscape allows multiple interpretations and displays of the past to exist.
In conclusion, sentiment and melodrama are unique tools and ways for filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron to convey profound messages. Also, historical films offer viewers the opportunity to connect with history. Yes, there are flaws in sentimental historical movies. There is a risk of ‘Hollywood-isation’ where the desire for sentiment and audience investment means dumbing down history.
What are your thoughts? Comment below, especially with any film recommendations or ideas.