HIST 320: Atlantic Revolutions on Film (Syllabus, Winter 2023)

HIST 320: Atlantic Revolutions on Film
Winter 2023

Professor Terry Bouton
E-MAIL: bouton[at]umbc.edu
Office: EMAIL
Office Hours: Online
Course Dates: Jan. 3 to Jan. 27, 2023

Course Description:

This course uses documentary and feature-length films to examine the revolutions that spread across the Atlantic World in the late-18th to early-19th century, a period some have called the “Age of Revolutions.” Specifically we will examine films about the American Revolution (which established independence from Great Britain), The French Revolution (which overthrew the French monarchy), the Haitian Revolution (which overthrew both French and white planter rule), and the Latin America Revolutions (which achieved independence for Spanish colonies in South America, Central America, and Mexico). The objective is less about learning the history of these revolutions than understanding how and why filmmakers portray these revolutions the particular ways they do. There are no prerequisites and you do not need any special knowledge of these revolutions to take this course. The focus here is using these revolutions to assess “film as history” rather than analyzing the revolutionary Atlantic itself. Before turning to those films, students will start by taking a step back and examining the relationship between history written by academics and historical films produced by documentary filmmakers and Hollywood studios. Students will learn to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of film as history and identify the particular problems raised when history moves from the pages of a book to the silver screen. Then students will turn to analyzing films about the four revolutions with several goals in mind. Students will evaluate film tropes and patterns, biases and blind spots, and the advantages and virtues film offers for telling history. Students will learn to fact-check films and analyze the effects when they include significant historical inaccuracy. Students will learn to identify the storytelling conventions common to “films on revolution” and understand the “rules” that filmmakers seem to follow when they make documentaries and features about revolutions. Students will analyze how films about Revolution portray a revolution’s elite leaders and explore how the focus on heroic elite characters shapes the kinds of stories that films tell about class, race, and gender power dynamics as well as the visions of freedom and democracy these revolutions enacted (or failed to enact). Students will also analyze how and why filmmakers have treated some revolutions in remarkably different ways than others. They will learn to identify the many hurdles that stand in the way of producing historically accurate documentaries and films that include a wide array of voices and perspectives beyond the traditional confines of the elite. Along the way, students will also learn how to construct a persuasive essay and effectively support opinions with evidence. My hope is that, by the end of the course, students will look at historical documentaries and movies in a different, more informed way (and exit the course a better writer than when they entered).

Course Format:

The course will be taught entirely online through its Blackboard site. If you have registered for the HIST 320, then you have access to the HIST 320 Blackboard site (if you don’t, contact me immediately and I will get you added). The course is broken down into five units: Unit 1 “Real History vs. Reel History,” Unit 2 “The American Revolution,” Unit 3 “The French Revolution,” Unit 4 “The Haitian Revolution,” and Unit 5 “The Latin American Revolutions.” Each unit has its own folder on Blackboard and contains a distinct set of learning objectives and assignments. Students will be required to complete a mix of readings and film viewings. Most of that material is available directly in the unit folders on Blackboard, either as PDF files or links to sites where students can stream films for free online (either through a streaming service to which UMBC subscribes or a reputable, independent site). There are two items—a film, The Patriot and the Netflix series Bolivar!—that will require purchase or rental. Students will analyze readings and films through five five-page essays and five “debates” conducted on the Blackboard Discussion Board. The debates will be interactive and put students in direct conversation with one another through an exchange of evidence-backed opinions expressed in a series of Discussion Board postings and replies. The essays and debates will each have specific guidelines, due dates, and grading rubrics. There are no exams or other graded assignments beyond the five essays and five debates.

Course Learning Objectives (CLOs):

By the end of the course, students should be able to:

  • CLO1: Describe the strengths and weaknesses of using film (documentaries and feature length films) to tell history and compare those to the strengths and weaknesses of written history.
  • CLO2: Explain how a filmmaker’s biases, the limits of the medium, and the storytelling conventions of documentaries and feature films shape how history is presented in films on revolution.
  • CLO3: Understand the “rules” that filmmakers seem to follow when they make documentaries and feature films about revolution.
  • CLO4: Compare and Contrast the different ways filmmakers have treated the American, French, Haitian, and Latin American Revolutions and explain why those differences exist.
  • CLO5: Identify historical inaccuracies in movies about revolution, analyze what those inaccuracies reveal about the filmmaker’s message, and assess what is gained and lost by sacrificing historical accuracy to other objectives.
  • CLO6: Explain how films portray revolutionary leaders and how that portrait shapes the depiction of class, race, and gender power dynamics and concepts like freedom and democracy.
  • CLO7: Write analytical essays that are well organized around single-idea paragraphs that start with strong topic sentences and make effective use of evidence in the form of specific examples and quotations from readings and films.
  • CLO8: Defend opinions with persuasive arguments and evidence in Discussion Board debates.

Materials to Purchase:

Nearly all of the readings and films for the course are available through the Blackboard site, except the following two items that you will need to purchase or rent. Whatever method you choose to obtain these items, you MUST arrange to have them in time to complete the assignments for which they are required.

1) The feature film The Patriot (2000), starring Mel Gibson.

This title is available for purchase on DVD or rental through online streaming services.

2) A subscription to Netflix to watch episodes of the miniseries Bolivar! (2019).

NOTE: Other course items are available to stream online for free outside of the UMBC portal. I have included numerous links to each title being streamed online and put them in the respective unit folders on Blackboard. You can purchase DVDs or rent streaming versions of the titles. I will monitor those sites regularly to ensure that the films remain publicly available and, if they somehow get pulled from circulation, I will alert you immediately so that you can obtain the titles through purchase or rental.

Course Requirements:

(NOTE: If circumstances arise that make it difficult or impossible to complete an assignment, like Blackboard being down or technical difficulties access any of the films, I reserve the right to make changes to the requirements, assignments, and due dates for essays and debates.)

1) FOUR 1,500 WORD ESSAYS (About 5 double-spaced pages): 400 points (100 points each.):

There will be FIVE essay opportunities. At the end of the session, I will count your highest FOUR essays. You may write all five essay prompts, but you only need to complete four essays). Each of the essays asks students to respond to a particular question based on required course readings and film viewings. For each question students will write a 1,500 word, double-spaced essay, which translates into about 5 double-spaced pages. Essays will be graded based on the critical thinking displayed in answering the question, the evidence used to support the essay’s arguments, the length of the essay, and its writing mechanics (good organization and the use of strong topic sentences). Each essay has a specific set of guidelines and its own due date (the guidelines can be found in the Unit folders on Blackboard along with the due dates, which are also listed below). All the essays follow the same grading rubric, which can be found on the course Blackboard site. The rubric establishes expectations for the essays in terms of the different elements I want you to prioritize. For example, a 3-page essay will put you in the C-range on the length scale; a 4-page essay will put you in the B-range; a 5-page essay will put you in the A-range.

2) FOUR SETS OF DEBATE POSTINGS: 400 points (100 points each):

There will be FIVE debate opportunities. At the end of the session, I will count your highest FOUR debates. You may participate in all five debates, but you only need to complete four). The debates are the class-discussion portion of the course. For each debate, students will complete the required reading and/or viewing and then respond to the Debate topic prompt (all of the specific debate requirements and prompts can be found in the unit folders on Blackboard along with the Debate Rubric, called “Grading Rubric for Discussion Board”). Your Discussion Board Debate grade will depend on the quantity and quality of your participation. Students are required to make at least THREE substantive postings: an initial posting on the first day and then at least two are responses to the postings of other students. All postings use evidence rom the films and/or readings to demonstrate their points. I encourage you to make more than three posts. If you post more than three times, they need not all be substantive, meaning you can also include short posts asking questions, looking for clarification from a peer, or making a brief statement to spur debate. The only requirement is that, at some point, you also make at least three longer, substantive posts, one initial post and then at least two replies to other students. The Debate topic prompts ask a wide range of questions to spur discussion, so everyone should be able to find something new to add to an existing discussion or else start a new debate thread on different question when the older conversations have run their course.

Each Debate will have a 2-day window in which students must make all of their posts. Students MUST post within that 2-day window to receive credit for the debate. Each debate is divided into two “Rounds.” For Round 1, each student needs to make at least their first posting that answers the question directly (this almost certainly be your longest of the three postings). Round 1 will have a 24-hour window. You may also reply to other students’ postings in Round 1 but you are required to submit your initial post. For Round 2, students will reply to other student postings and there can (and should) be back-and-forth debate. You must make at least one of your postings during Round 2. Do not wait until the end of the 24-hour window to make both your response postings. The point of the debates is for there to be interaction among students in the course and that means responding to one another’s posts and then replying to the responses from others. If you try to get all your posts done at once, by making three postings as soon as the window opens or (more likely) right before it closes, you are not fully engaging in the conversation and are denying yourself and your peers the give-and-take discussion and feedback needed to make the debates a success. When you post the third substantive posting is up to you provided you have posted at least once in Round 1 and once in the Round 2 of the full Debate Window.

Although the debates are about expressing your opinions, each of the three required posts for every Debate must include evidence to support your opinions. This will primarily be in the form of specific examples and quotations from the readings and films. A few assignments encourage (but do not require) students to incorporate evidence they find from outside the course.

I will grade the Debate postings based on several factors: 1) The length of the combined responses and whether they were submitted in accordance with the Round 1 and 2 guidelines; 2) The mechanics of writing, including clear, logical organization, the use of topic sentences for paragraphs, and proper grammar and spelling; 3) The use of evidence in from of specific examples and quotations from the readings; 4) The critical thinking and analysis displayed by the posts, including the originality of the points made, the level of engagement with course material demonstrated, and the factual accuracy of the posts; and 5) The student’s overall contribution toward creating community, promoting interaction, and observing “netiquette.” All of these elements are spelled out in the Debate Grading Rubric.

Backup Copies of Work Submitted Online:

IMPORTANT: I require each student to save a personal copy of all of their essays and debate postings on their home computer, thumb drive, cd, or whatever storage device they choose.

IMPORTANT: Blackboard is occasionally buggy. I HIGHLY suggest that you type out your response with a word processing program and then cut and paste it into Blackboard rather than the other way around. If you have a problem with Blackboard, it is your responsibility to ensure that I receive a copy of your posting by the deadline. DO NOT automatically email me a copy of every essay or posting. ONLY email essays or postings in the event of a Blackboard emergency.

Policy on Submitting Late Work:

For the debates, I will NOT accept late work. You either make your three postings within the debate window or receive no credit for that debate or partial credit for whatever you have posted posted short of the required three substantive postings. The point of the debates is for students to interact with one another. Late work submitted after the debate has closed would not be entering into conversation with anyone and, therefore, would not meet the assignment objectives and as a result will not be counted.

For the essays, late work will be penalized 10 points per day late. NOTE: if you post one minute past the due date and time (11:59pm on the date the essay is due), I will consider your essay to be 1 day late and deduct 10 points from whatever score it would have earned had you submitted it on time.

If Blackboard goes out, this will affect everyone trying to post and can be easily verified (it can likewise be easily verified by OIT if Blackboard has not gone down–so don’t use this as an excuse unless it actually happens because I will check. If Blackboard does go out, simply wait to see if it comes back online. If it does not come back before the assignment deadline or if you are unable to wait, submit your assignment to me via email by the deadline.

Finally, I understand that emergencies happen. These will be handled on a case-by-case basis and will require documentation of proof.

(Note: the “internet was down at my house” is not an excuse. In this day and age, free internet and temporary fee-based internet is available nearly everywhere. Work could also be submitted via smartphone. In other words, there are plenty of reasonable backup options even if your home internet goes out).


FOUR 1,500 WORD ESSAYS:      400 points (100 points each)
FOUR SETS OF DEBATE POSTINGS:    400 points (100 points each)

TOTAL GRADE:                                         800 pts.

At the end of the semester:
360-400 total points will be an A
320-359 total points will be a B
280-319 total points will be a C
240-279 total points will be a D
Below 240 points will be an F


Students enrolled in this course must have an active email account and access to the internet. HIST 320 uses Blackboard online software. This means that you will have online access to course materials 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Most assignments will be submitted online at the Blackboard course website. As a UMBC student, you have a personal email account and access to the internet and through the many on-campus computer labs (locations, hours, etc.).  You can also access Blackboard off campus through a personal account or from the UMBC dial-up.

Getting started on Blackboard: Your registration with the UMBC Registrar for HIST 320 will make you eligible to enroll in Blackboard. To gain entrance to discussion boards and course material, you MUST enroll in the online version of HIST 320 on the course Blackboard site in order to have full access.  BEFORE you do anything else, enroll in the course online at: http://blackboard.umbc.edu.


Because all of this course takes place online, it is absolutely imperative that you have regular access to your email and to Blackboard. I am best reached by email at bouton[at]umbc.edu. You can expect a response from me in 24 hours. If you do not hear back in that time, please resend the email. Please check your school email and at least once per day.

All changes to assignments or the syllabus will be made via Blackboard Announcements, so be sure to check in to stay on top of any changes.

Academic Integrity:

I expect students enrolled in this course to abide by the UMBC Code of Student Conduct for Academic Integrity (http://www.umbc.edu/sjp/articles/code.html). If you are unclear about what plagiarism is, take a look at the Indiana University website: Plagiarism: What It Is and How to Recognize and Avoid It (http://www.indiana.edu/~wts/pamphlets/plagiarism.shtml).

By enrolling in this course, each student assumes the responsibilities of an active participant in UMBC’s scholarly community in which everyone’s academic work and behavior are held to the highest standards of honesty. Cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, and helping others to commit these acts are all forms of academic dishonesty, and they are wrong.  Academic misconduct could result in disciplinary action that may include, but is not limited to, suspension or dismissal.  To read the full Student Academic Conduct Policy, consult the UMBC Student Handbook, the Faculty Handbook, or the UMBC Policies section of the UMBC Directory.


Success in this course will require that everyone follow the rules of “netiquette,” which are a set of guidelines to help you communicate effectively and appropriate in online environments with your instructor and your classmates. Following the rule of netiquette will ensure that students maintain civility and respect for each other and one another’s views even as they might disagree over controversial issues on which all sides feel have passionate feelings. For specific guidelines, see the “Netiquette” file in the “Course Policies” folder on Blackboard.

Course Schedule and Due Dates:

UNIT 1: Reel History vs Reel History

Tues., Jan. 3: Introduction to the course and self-introduction on Blackboard Discussion Board

Wed., Jan. 4: READ: Unit 1, Readings 1-5

Thurs., Jan. 5: Essay # 1: Real History Vs Reel History: What are the primary differences between written history and history as it appears in documentary film and in feature length movies? Based on these readings, what issues or problems will we need to be attentive to when analyzing documentary and feature length films as history? (Due by 11:59pm)

Fri., Jan. 6: Debate #1: Film, Emotion, and History: Does the kind of appeal to emotion that we see in film add to historical understanding or detract from it? Academic historians who write emotionally are often accused of taking sides or pandering or being “political” or biased or ahistorical or presenting a too simplistic “good guy vs bad guy” interpretation. Do you agree? Or does an appeal to emotion make history more effective? Does academic history cross a line of credibility or professionalism by inviting readers to experience emotion? What is gained and lost if written history becomes more emotional like film? (Window Opens at 12:01am)

Sat., Jan. 7: Debate #1: Film, Emotion, and History (Window Closes at 11:59pm)

UNIT 2: The American Revolution

Sun., Jan. 8: WATCH: Liberty!: The American Revolution, Episodes 1 and 6

Mon., Jan. 9: Essay #2: “The People” and the “Founding Fathers” in Liberty!. How well does the documentary Liberty! succeed in its goal of presenting an inclusive story of the American Revolution that moves beyond the traditional focus on elite leaders to include a wide range of voices and perspectives? (Due by 11:59pm)

Tues., Jan. 10: WATCH: The Patriot (2000)

Wed., Jan. 11: Essay #3: The Patriot and Glorifying Revolution. The Hollywood blockbuster The Patriot is typical of the genre of “films about revolutions” in how it presents a patriotic and triumphalist story. How do the filmmakers of The Patriot glorify the American Revolution? (Due by 11:59pm).

Thurs., Jan. 12: Debate #2: Do the Historical Inaccuracies of The Patriot Matter? (Window Opens at 12:01am)

Fri., Jan. 13: Debate #2: Do the Historical Inaccuracies of The Patriot Matter? (Window Closes at 11:59pm).

UNIT 3: The French Revolution

Sat., Jan. 14: WATCH: Documentaries on the French Revolution: 1) History Channel: The French Revolution (2005) and 2) BBC: Terror!: Robespierre and the French Revolution (2009).

Sun., Jan. 15: Essay #4: Demonizing the French Revolution? To what extent do US and British documentaries portray the French Revolution in a negative light? (Due by 11:59pm)

Mon., Jan. 16: WATCH: Danton (1983, French with English Subtitles)

Tues., Jan. 17: Debate #3: Where Does Danton Fit? Does it celebrate or demonize the French Revolution? (Window Opens at 12:01am)

Wed., Jan. 18: Debate #3: Where Does Danton Fit? Does it celebrate or demonize the French Revolution? (Window Closes at 11:59pm)

Unit 4: The Haitian Revolution

Thurs., Jan. 19: WATCH: Egalite for All: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution (2009).

Fri., Jan. 20: Essay #5: “Great Black Man History”? Is the documentary Egalite for All a Black version of “Great White Man History” that presents a relatively uncritical view of elite leaders? Does the documentary portray Toussaint Loverture (who is often called “The Black George Washington”) in the same uncomplicated and celebratory ways that documentaries like Liberty! portray the US “founding fathers”? Or does it present a more balanced view than we might expect find in a documentary about George Washington? (Due by 11:59pm).

Sat., Jan. 21: WATCH: Toussaint Loverture (2012, French with English Subtitles)

Sun., Jan. 22: Debate #4: Glorifying the Haitian Revolution? Does the film Toussaint Louverture over-glorify its titular hero and the Haitian Revolution? To what extent is this movie a Haitian/French version of The Patriot that celebrates Toussaint Louverture and simplifies a complex revolution that produced mixed results for the Black inhabitants of Saint Domingue?  (Window Opens at 12:01am)

Mon., Jan. 23: Debate #4: Glorifying the Haitian Revolution? (Window Closes at 11:59pm)

Unit 5: The Latin American Revolutions

Tues., Jan. 24: WATCH: Netflix miniseries Bolivar!, episodes 25, 26, and 55 (2019, Spanish with English Subtitles)

Wed., Jan. 25: WATCH: Netflix miniseries Bolivar!, episodes 25, 26, and 55 (2019, Spanish with English Subtitles)

Thurs., Jan. 26: Debate #5: Whitewashing Bolivar. How does the Netflix miniseries Bolivar! misrepresent Simon Bolivar’s views of democracy, dictatorship, and the non-white majorities of the Spanish American casta? (Window Opens at 12:01am).

Fri., Jan 27: Debate #5: Whitewashing Bolivar. How does the Netflix miniseries Bolivar! misrepresent Simon Bolivar’s views of democracy, dictatorship, and the non-white majorities of the Spanish American casta? (Window Closes at 11:59pm).