Richard Monastra taught high-school history for nearly 40 years before retiring, and he found that one of the most effective tools for getting students to grasp important historical events, or the people behind them, was through film.
“I basically feel that if people see something of a more dramatic nature – something that is eye-catching with well-known actors and well-shot film footage – the history sort of seeps in through the back door, so to speak,” said Monastra, who taught history from 1972-1985 at Interboro High School in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and at South Jersey's Buena Regional High from 1986 until his retirement in 2010.
“Accuracy may sometimes be questioned, but historically based films may whet the appetite for the viewer to engage in further investigation of a particular bit of history,” he said.
The concept of showing and discussing films in high school morphed into one he brought to the Swarthmore Community Center near his hometown of Wallingford, Pa., where he has been showing and discussing historically based films for about five years, and more recently to Brigantine.
“The kids loved it so much I thought I'd ratchet it up a little bit for adults,” said Monastra, a lifelong film buff who owns a vacation home with his wife in Brigantine.
A six-week program called History Alive Through Film is planned at the Brigantine Community Center, 265 42nd St. The program starts Wednesday, Oct. 11, and runs 6-8:30 p.m. every Wednesday through Nov. 15.
Attendees will be given a brief outline of a particular film's subject matter, then the class will discuss the film afterward. The cost is $65 for the entire course.
Monastra conducted similar six-week courses in Brigantine on the films of Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock that he said were well received.
He plans to screen six films from a pool of eight that he is considering.
“There's no pattern or timeline to the films we'll be showing in this course, but they all have historical significance,” Monastra said. “For example, 'Good Night and Good Luck' is about 1950s McCarthyism. 'Iron Jawed Angels' is about the women's suffrage movement of the 1910s and '20s.
“Another one is 'Cinderella Man' about the former heavyweight boxing champion James J. Braddock that captures very well the ambience of 1930s and the Great Depression era,” he said.
“You really get a feel for what those people must have gone through at that time. You see it through the eyes of the boxer, Braddock, but the boxing is almost ancillary to what was going on in America during that era.”
Two other films scheduled as part of the series are “Eight Men Out” and “Matewan,” both directed by John Sayles. “Eight Men Out” is based on eight members of the Chicago White Sox who conspired to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series. “Matewan,” for which Sayles also wrote the screenplay, dramatizes the events surrounding a 1920 coal miners strike in a small West Virginia town that resulted in a bloody battle.
“Sayles was personally fascinated by that whole Matewan episode, in which a labor union was trying to get organized among the coal miners, and the coal-mine owners didn't want that and tried to exploit the differences among the miners' various racial and ethnic groups,” Monastra said.
“There were Polish miners, Italian miners, black miners, and ownership tried to pit them against each other. It didn't work – they unified against the owners and they had one hell of a shootout.”
Another film to be seen and discussed is the 1960 classic “Inherit the Wind” – a film based on what became known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial focused on the science-versus-religion argument that resulted in a teacher, John Scopes, being convicted for teaching the theory of evolution to a high-school science class.
“That film stars Spencer Tracy, Frederick March and Gene Kelly in a straight acting role – no dancing for him in this one,” Monastra said.
“Guys like them were already stars, but there are other actors like Harry Morgan and Darren Stevens who were just getting their starts. That's the case in several of these films – you'll see some actors and actresses who were just starting out, but you'll likely recognize them from many of their later roles.”
Monastra plans to hand out one- or two-page summaries before each film to familiarize viewers with the subject and to be used as part of the discussion once the class watches the film.
“I try to keep each film to an hour-and-a-half, maybe 1:45, so that we'll still have some time to talk about it,” he said. “A lot of the background info I include in the blurb is technical or crazy stuff that seems to interest people. For instance, 'Inherit the Wind' marked the first time cinematographers used a mobile camera to circle the actors, which results in a constant motion. I'll also throw in things like who may have tried out for certain roles and didn't get it, what awards it won or didn't win, how much it cost to make back then – that sort of thing.”
Other films on the list are “Amelia,” based on the life of Amelia Earhart, the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, who disappeared in 1937 in the Pacific Ocean while trying to circumnavigate the globe; and “Paths of Glory,” an anti-war film based on a true World War I court-martial in which a commanding officer played by Kirk Douglas attempts to defend his soldiers against the charge of cowardice in battle.
For more information, call the Brigantine Community Center at 609-264-7350, ext. 1.