History Goes to the Movies: A Viewer's Guide to the Best (and Some of the Worst) Historical Films Ever Made

by Joseph Roquemore

Published by Main Street Books

375 pages, 1999

Silent Stars

by Jeanine Basinger

Published by Knopf

500 pages, 1999

Asian Pop Cinema: Bombay to Tokyo

by Lee Server

Published by Chronicle Books

132 pages, 1999

Cult Movies

by Karl French and Philip French

Published by Pavilion

240 pages, 1999

So You Wanna Be A Stuntman: The Official Stuntman's Guidebook

by Mark Aisbett

Published by Lifedrivers

89 pages, 1999

It always seems a little ironic to see how much time and how many trees the publishing industry spends on the discussion of film. And it seems that, quite often, books get made into movies and then more books are published that discuss the film. It's a never ending cycle and it's interesting how entwined these otherwise very different mediums can be.

Aside from novels adapted "from the original screenplay" and countless video guides, the occasional gem pops up that honestly sheds light on something that was previously slightly dimmed.

Joseph Roquemore's History Goes to the Movies has a subtitle that instantly catches the attention: A Viewer's Guide to the Best (and Some of the Worst) Historical Films Ever Made. Unfortunately, neither title nor subtitle do any justice to this meticulously researched and flawlessly executed book.

In History Goes to the Movies, Roquemore holds many well-known historical films up to the light for a fact check and finds a lot of them wanting. Each chapter covers a period of history: Chapter One is "Ancient, Classical, and Medieval History," Chapter Two is "Early American History" and so on, through the gamut of histories into which films can fall.

Each chapter begins with a chronology of the topic in question. For example, the chronology of World War II begins with Germany annexing Austria in March of 1938 and concludes with the August 15, 1945 surrender of Japan.

With the chronology out of the way, Roquemore goes right to the movies. Almost. Each film section begins with the title of a film, his star rating (based on historical accuracy, not cinematography or cast appeal: five stars for dead accurate. No stars for a real historical stinker), the year the film was made, its running time, the director and cast and then -- before any comment on the film itself -- a healthy section on the historical background the film covers. This stuff alone is worth the price of admission for the history buff. And since we're dealing with the historical films, in many ways it amounts to the history of the world. Fascinating stuff: and Roquemore's historical synopsizing is brisk, engaging and never drags.

The historical backgrounds are followed by a paragraph or two on how the film in question stacks up historically. The writing in this section is also brisk and vivacious. As well, Roquemore is as lavish in his praise of movies with a high degree of historical accuracy as he is quick to torch those that he feels don't measure up. This section is followed by films for further viewing and yet another containing recommended reading. The resulting book is quite wonderful. A much needed reality check for the film industry and a very good dose of history for the casual reader.

Renowned film scholar Jeanine Basinger brings her own take on history to Silent Stars. Basinger's mandate with this book has not been to cover well trod territory with the likes of Garbo, Chaplin and Gish. Rather, she aimed at collecting biographical information on the stars she felt had been overlooked or not properly understood.

In the introduction, Basinger writes:

The purpose of this book is to celebrate a group of silent film stars who are somehow forgotten, misunderstood, or underappreciated. They are all important stars, not minor figures -- actors and actresses who made a major impact in their own time.

Some very well known stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and Rin-Tin-Tin are included. Basinger has determined that these stars were not properly understood and -- on reading Silent Stars -- we discover she was right. Stars that are not as well remembered today -- like Pola Negri, John Gilbert and Marion Davies -- are included as well. Silent Stars proves these oversights to be surprising, because, at the time, these were huge stars, indeed.

It's a brilliantly executed book. The writing is rich and deep, the better-than-average stock makes the book a delight to read and also assures first-rate reproduction of the many photos Basinger chose to illustrate the work.

Basinger is also the author of American Cinema: 100 Years of Filmmaking; A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 and other film-related titles.

Asian Pop Cinema: Bombay to Tokyo is a smart and sexy primer on what's happening in film as far as possible from Hollywood. Author Lee Server has been shaping a career out of writing slickly hip film and pop history-related books like Danger is My Business and Sam Fuller: Film is a Battleground. Asian Pop Cinema fits beautifully into this milieu, providing a very real opening volley into the topic that will be appreciated by the neophyte as well as the film buff.

Server has broken his beat in this book into countries, with the more important regions -- film-wise, that is -- earning a couple of smaller chapters with the regional section. For instance, there is a section devoted to Hong Kong, but an interview with noted filmmaker John Woo gets its own section: and rightly so. Predictably, Japan gets the most attention, with a section on the country in general, as well as chapters on the Japanese historical action genre, Chambara; a profile of "crazed surrealist visionary" filmmaker Seijun Suzuki; an essay on the state of modern Japanese Cinema; a profile of Japanese superstar Takeshi Kitano; an entire well fleshed out chapter on Anime and an interview with Tomoaki Hosoyama.

Areas where film plays a smaller role or is less developed gets less coverage in Server's book. For instance, the chapter on Korea is comprehensive but brief and not especially deep. As Server writes in the opening paragraph of the Korean chapter: "Korean filmmaking remains at this writing one of the world's better-kept secrets..."

While any of the regions covered in Asian Pop Cinema could warrant a book on their own, aside from a very sketchy chapter on the rich history of Indian cinema, this is an outstanding introductory look at the dynamic film industries of the Asian nations. Interestingly written by Server and wonderfully illustrated and produced.

What does a cult movie make? And, while we all know one when it goes past us -- at least most of the time -- how could you quantify the magic that makes a movie a cult classic? The father and son team of Philip and Karl French have both asked these questions in Cult Movies, an affectionate look at this puzzling sub-genre of cinema. And while the authors never really get to the bottom of what makes a cult movie, they do a very good job looking closely at 150 movies that -- for one reason or another -- they feel can be called cult classics.

The entries are alphabetized, which actually seems to detract from the flow of the book. It means that the low-budget comedy Airplane (1980) is the first film mentioned, followed directly by the dramatic All That Heaven Allows (1955) and that both Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978, respectively) are followed directly by It's a Wonderful Life. I know it's the alphabet, but there might have been some better way to organize the material into something that felt more like a cohesive whole. There are lots of color and black and white film stills illustrating the book, but it's easy to wonder while reading if a lot of this material hasn't been better covered before.

For those who would rather do than simply read, So You Wanna Be A Stuntman: The Official Stuntman's Guidebook offers an insider's view of calculating if you have the right stuff to join the ranks of those who fall from planes, buildings or cars for a living. Author Mark Aisbett is, of course, a stunt dude par excellence who has been working in the industry since the late 1980s.

So You Wanna Be A Stuntman is filled with enough insider tips and jargon to make it useful to anyone considering a career in the film industry. Aisbett seems to cover all the bases with chapters on training, necessary padding and equipment and how to work up a resume appropriate to the industry. There's even a chapter with the hopeful title of "Getting Work" as well as others on set etiquette, what to expect of a day on set and how to prepare yourself mentally for the rigors of stunting.

While the book is happy, straightforward and forthcoming, it's unclear as to what the subtitle The Official Stuntman's Guidebook really means and what's so official about it. I looked closely and couldn't see any official designation by any organization or governing body. In fact, there's even a line included on a page of disclaimers that says, "This is not an official publication." Which makes one wonder why they'd bother calling it official in the first place.

Official status notwithstanding, So You Wanna Be A Stuntman is a cheerful, helpful book with lots of good advice for the neophyte. | March 2000


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.