If you turn on the TV or go to a cinema, you'll most likely see movies and shows focused on the present. This is as it should be - the present should be lived in and understood. But one might assume from this that people aren't interested in history. To some degree, they aren't; but even though shows about the past are in the minority, you still see a sizable number of movies about World War II and other recent history. Once in a while, you even get a movie about some older history - anything from a John Adams miniseries or a Lincoln movie, to films about the Roman Empire or the medieval period.
But they're not as common as media about more modern history, like World War II or Vietnam. Even in the documentary world, talking about the more distant events is rare. Why is this?
Modern history is remembered by the living ...
I think there are a number of reasons. One is that the most modern history can still be remembered by people who lived through those times. There are still films about World War II being made, because at the time I write this, there are still guys living who fought in it. Even for the younger viewers who don't remember these times, they feel a connection with it because Grandpa fought in France or the Pacific, and so the telling of those stories is more personal. They can understand the characters in the movie, because they've met people like them in real life.
My Marine grandfather during World War II
Nonetheless, many movies about older history have done fairly well at the box office ...
But I don't think this is the whole story. It's sometimes said that the public isn't interested in older history, and that these films are rare and unsuccessful because of this. It's true that they're rare; but witness the Academy Awards given to Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, or the popular interest in the unknown Founding Father John Adams, and one can see that there's still public interest in those times.
... so why are so few films made about these times?
But if this is true, you might be wondering, then why is it that there are so few films made about these times?
Law & Order: Criminal Intent, one of my favorite contemporary crime dramas
Filming about recent times is cheaper, in short ...
I think part of the reason is that filming about these times is more expensive. Filming about more recent times is easier, because you don't have to work so hard to re-create the time period. If you shoot a crime drama that takes place at the time the show is made, you can film in any crowded city or busy street, because you really are filming it in your show's time period.
Expressway in modern-day Long Island (New York City), where the Battle of Long Island was fought in 1776
... while filming about older times is more expensive
But if your show takes place in the eighteenth century, you're less likely to find a place that looks like it's from the time period. Even older parts of town often have traffic lights and phone lines; anachronisms that interfere with the illusion of seeing history. And the further back in time you go, the more likely you are to find anachronisms, or to find that the old buildings have been remodeled or torn down to make room for newer ones. The world you want to film doesn't exist anymore, and so it must be re-created with expensive budgets. Consequently, many a distant-period piece is left unfilmed.
Ulysses S. Grant
The revenues don't always justify the costs for Hollywood
I'd wager that if it was advertised right, there'd be popular interest in an epic war film about Ulysses S. Grant, or a literary bio film about the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave in painfully humble circumstances. But the revenues from such a project still aren't necessarily enough to justify the costs, because filming about these periods is more expensive than filming about World War II. The contemporary crime drama can be produced on the cheap, or spend its budget on things other than period sets. But a historical drama must re-create the world it is filming. Thus, the public has fewer options available for older history.
Documentaries about modern times are often made on the cheap, with photographs and film footage ...
With documentaries, the cost difference is even more pronounced; because modern periods have a wealth of visual records from photographs and films. Ken Burns' Civil War miniseries can show actual photographs from its period, allowing its re-enactment budget to focus entirely on sound. And "The World at War" can show actual footage from World War II, paying little more than the costs of going to film archives, and traveling the world to interview participants. They can get higher visual accuracy for lower cost.
... while documentaries about the distant past can often require expensive re-enactments
But if you want to make a documentary about the American Revolution (something two networks did), your period visual sources don't go much further than paintings, and you must first find yourself a significant re-enactment budget. Consequently, media choices in this area are limited.
The older history is still worth one's time, though, and the public is still interested in it
I'm not saying that modern history subjects are unworthy - far from it. I'm a tremendous fan of all the series mentioned above, and a lifelong enthusiast in World War II. I'm just saying that the older history is also worth one's time, and that the public is more interested in these periods than the dearth of media options would indicate. I'm not saying that those media options will proliferate anytime soon (they probably won't); but if you share my interest in things that happened in more distant times, you're not as alone as you might think.
The past is worth preserving
If the past were better preserved, you'd have more media choices; and stories from distant times would be more talked about.
Some thoughts about history education
Specific topics within history:
Countries & regions
Ancient Greece & Rome
History of Britain
History of France
History of Germany
History of Russia
History of Canada
History of America
The French and Indian War
The American Revolution
The War of 1812
The U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848
The Civil War (USA)
The Spanish-American War
World War One
World War Two
The Cold War
Military history generally
Founding Fathers (USA)
Biographies generally (includes some outside USA)
Native American history
Other ethnic history categories may follow