The Conspirator

Using film in the classroom as a teaching tool, has seemed to be questioned by teachers in most history classrooms. Movie producers and directors that make movies want their film to be used in the classroom, but they not historians and that can create many flaws to a historical film. When there are films about historical events they seem to have a tendency to distort facts and people. Hollywood seems to tell the dominative narrative more so then basing their films off primary and secondary sources. The Conspirator, by Robert Redford is an account of the Mary Surratt case. Though Redford did try to stay true to history their was still some flaws, but they were not to bad. This movie would be a good teaching tool in a history classroom. The film address many concepts and themes in the U.S. curriculum and it encourages a good amount of discussions in the classroom and about current issues in today society about the judicial system. The movie was very effective in presenting history as a mystery.

With this film Redford provided educational resources for teachers and students. This movie was truly targeting history teachers. Redford provided many educational resources to be able to use this film as an educational tool. The educational resources are centered on three major themes: fair trial, the impact of the president assassination, and women in the civil war period. The website also provides an extensive amount of background information, how to watch the film, lesson plans, discussion questions, and activities. The educational resource guide also provides teachers with a standard alignment. This would be useful for teachers that may have to justify to department chairs, principle, and etc. to prove that using this film is useful to student learning.

In my opinion the best resource that Redford provides in the background information section. This can really help students one understand why they are going to watch a film and also allow them the opportunity to get to know the topic before they watch the film. The film gives another alternative of watching films in the classroom instead solely depending on documentaries. If this movie is going to be used in the classroom teacher must do an introduction unit, because unlike a documentary it does not provide background information.

On the movie website Redford provides teachers with lesson plans which were called: “The Right to a Fair Trail,” “ The impact of Presidential Assassination,” and “Women During the Civil War.” Out of the three lesson plans my favorite is “Women During the Civil War,” because as an educator women in history is rarely taught in the classroom, especially when it comes to war. Other then students analyzing Mary Surratt’s case and treatment, students would be able to look at other women during the time period. Students will also be able to question if treatment of women in the judicial system has changed since Surratt. Within the lesson students are given many activities and homework assignments. Students have to fill in timelines, analyzing primary source, and group work. In my opinion some of the activities in the lesson are helpful and could be a good education tool, while many of them seem to busy work or below a high school level education class. In each lesson plan they provide students with a lot of writing assignments and homework. Once being a high school student myself I remember not learning from homework, especially if there were a lot of assignments. With all the interesting topics that each of these lessons are on, why as teachers would we want to dismay about the topics with busy work?

Though the homework section was overdone the “Extension Actives,” would be a really helpful resource for teachers. In the extension actives they provide different activates that would engage students with different learning styles. If students were to look at the activities they could find some that would fit there learning style. The activities have the students that produce many different products. Looking at the activities that they engage students in higher-level thinking.

Like any historical film that Hollywood makes is not far from having biases, exceptionally in Civil war films. But by surprise the movie’s bias was not in favor with the Union and the American government/ military. Redford played with the audience’s pathos in favor of a Confederate woman who may or may have been involved in the assassination of President Lincoln. Because Hollywood plays a major role in our future students lives and in they’re learning, as a teacher should we show “historical” films in the classroom even if we know that they maybe far from historical accuracy? In my opinion I think they should be shown which then can maybe lead to a lesson with students finding the accuracy in the film. This will allow students to be detectives and what teenager doesn’t like to prove something/someone wrong, exceptionally a movie. The one good thing that I really appreciated from this film it should what life after the Civil War was like for students and adding a female narrative to the very male dominated Civil War period.

Will watching this film there was several questions that came to mind for me, like why did President Johnson not over throw the ruling of the military court? In the article “Causalities of War,” by Anthony Lane, he also had the same question, but he mentions the strong hold of gender roles on the southern women in the movie. This could be a good on how movies depict women in historical films and look at societies gender roles at that time. Another question that came to mind why wasn’t slavery mention. When we learn about the Civil War we learn about how important slavery was and even after, so why was it not mentioned? Doing some research myself Mary Surratt was a slaveholder and not once did we see an African American in the film. Which brings up the problem of a white wash of history that students learn without even knowing it. By showing Mary Surratt with slaves could that have changed the view of her throughout the film even in the courtroom? Redford though not mentioning slavery he blanketed the “slavery issue” with phrase, “the cause”. Which we hear time and time again, but do students really know what “the cause” is? By bring up this questions and allowing students to do their own research, hopefully they would realize that Redford was cherry- picking the sources, which causes bias.


Taylor K. Robinson, Appalachian State University, History Secondary Education


Grossman, James. “Historians and The Conspirator: Using Film to Ask Big Questions.” American Historical Association, April 13, 2011.
Lane, Anthony. “Casualties of War.” The New Yorker, April 18, 2011.
“Movie: The Conspirator.” The Conspirator Directed by Robert Redford
Redford, Robert. The Conspirator, 2011.
The American Film Company. The Conspirator: Educational Resource Guide.

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