Herstory on Film

Each month, the Herstory Club curates a selection of films that complement our monthly theme. This collection will be female-focused – both in front of the camera and ideally behind too – and range from fiction to biopics of real women in history. The films we’ll be recommending aim to both entertain and educate, showcasing cult classics, new hits, and movies you may never have heard of.

At a time when we’re all dreaming of finally being able to leave our homes and actually travel again at some point in the near future, it seems fitting that this month’s theme is transport. Hollywood hasn’t traditionally celebrated women in the field, but there are still plenty of gems to look out for. In many films, female performances linked to driving are often fleeting, or overlooked in favour of the actions of their male counterparts onscreen. However, Michelle Rodriguez holds her own behind the wheel in many a car chase as petrol-head Letty in the Fast and Furious franchise; and Rebecca Ferguson goes toe to toe with Tom Cruise on a breath-taking motorcycle chase scene round the Atlas Mountains in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Then there’s the unforgettable: Sandra Bullock driving a bus in 1994’s Speed; Cher struggling to stay in her lane in Clueless (it can’t be helped though – she’s a virgin who can’t drive); Lindsay Lohan racing her way to victory in the 2003 Disney masterpiece Herbie: Fully Loaded; and finally, one of the most iconic scenes in film history featuring a 1966 Thunderbird and two Hollywood legends in Thelma and Louise.

If trains are more your thing, then look no further than 2016’s The Girl on the Train, in which alcoholic Emily Blunt becomes embroiled in a missing person investigation after witnessing mysterious behaviour from the train she aimlessly rides each day. The 1932 film Shanghai Express follows a woman riding a train through a civil war. It featured Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong and, despite winning an Oscar, has subsequently faced criticism for whitewashing the cast, as was common practise at the time. Tilda Swinton received critical acclaim for her performance in Bong Joon-ho’s highly praised Snowpiercer, a thriller set on board a globe-spanning train. And it’s impossible to leave out every adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express from the queen of the crime novel, Agatha Christie.

Recent documentaries have shown women flourishing in the skies and at sea. Maiden charts the story of Tracy Edwards, the skipper of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989; and in Fly Like a Girl director Katie Wiatt traces women in aviation. These sorts of remarkable achievements can be seen in films such as Ladies Courageous, the 1944 film about the paramilitary Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron; and Felicity Jones’s turn as real-life hot air balloon pilot in The Aeronauts.

Our top five films for this month feature two biopics, a classic Jodie Foster thriller, the best car chase through a post-apocalyptic desert ever seen on film, and an underappreciated early ‘00s flight attendant romantic comedy (it’s an odd choice, but bear with us, we did promise to introduce you to films you hadn’t heard of!). Without further ado…

Amelia

(2009, Dir.: Mira Nair)

This 2009 Canadian-American film charts the life of famed pilot Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank). Told mostly in flashbacks, the film follows her life up to her mysterious disappearance in 1937 over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to fly around the world. This was the second film in 2009 to feature Amelia Earhart, with Amy Adams taking on the role in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.

Amelia is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

Flightplan

(2005, Dir.: Robert Schwentke)

At 30,000 feet during a flight from Berlin to America, recently bereaved aircraft engineer Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) loses her daughter and must fight to find her while proving her sanity. The cast of this psychological thriller were widely praised by critics, but the Association of Professional Flight Attendants called for the film to be boycotted due to the depiction of the flight attendants as rude and indifferent.

Flightplan is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl

(2020, Dir.: Sharan Sharma)

Inspired by a true story, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl follows a determined and fearless young pilot who became one of the first female Indian Air Force (IAF) officers to fly in a combat zone during the Kargil War in 1999. The film is the first biopic from female director Sharan Sharma and was picked up by Netflix following the cancellation of a theatrical release due to Covid-19. The IAF and Indian Defence Ministry criticised the film for its “undue negative portrayal” of IAF personnel and the gender bias displayed on screen, but the filmmakers defended their decisions, citing that not showing the gender-based struggles would “undermine the grit of women officers”.

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl is available to stream on Netflix

Mad Max: Fury Road

(2015, Dir.: George Miller)

In a post-apocalyptic wasteland where petrol and water are scarce commodities, a drifter named Max (Tom Hardy) joins Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as she flees from tyrannical ruler Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his army, with a group of female prisoners (the Five Wives) in an armoured tank. There’s a reason why this film is so beloved: it is astonishingly good (and if you can see it in black and chrome then all the better!). Not only do the road battles make for outstanding viewing – with mostly practical rather than digital effects – but the film is also rooted in female empowerment both on and off screen. Furiosa is a formidable hero, contrasting neatly to the male-orientated Mad Max films that came before; Margaret Sixel won the Oscar for Best Editing for her work here on her first action film; the older actresses playing the Vuvalini did their own stunts; and playwright and feminist Eve Ensler of The Vagina Monologues was consulted as an on-set advisor for the female characters. It’s brilliant, and really should not be missed!

Mad Max: Fury Road is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video; and stream on Sky Cinema

View from the Top

(2003, Dir.: Bruno Barreto)

Yes, Rotten Tomatoes has View from the Top sitting with an aggregate score of 14%, but don’t let that put you off. In this romantic comedy, small town girl Donna Jensen (Gwyneth Paltrow) wants to escape her life in a trailer park and sees her exit in the form of life as a flight attendant. The cast is outstanding – also featuring Christina Applegate, Candice Bergen, Kelly Preston, Mark Ruffalo, Rob Lowe and Mike Myers – and everything about it just screams early 00s. Let’s be honest, it will never go down as a classic. However, any film described as “perhaps the best cabin-crew dramedy ever filmed” 15 years after its release in the form of a critical analysis by Richard Ayoade in his satirical novel Ayoade on Top is a film definitely worth giving a try.

View from the Top is available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video


About the Author: Emma Forth

Contact:

I’m a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research combines my passions for the First World War and film by exploring the development of early cinema, 1909-1918, across all four nations of the United Kingdom. For the last six months I have been producing the first database and maps of British and Irish cinemas in 1914, showcasing the position of cinema at the outbreak of the Great War. In a four-year hiatus from education prior to postgraduate study in 2018 I worked as a risk analyst; ran the admissions department in a high school; and was a receptionist and volunteer at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden. I am an avid reader, theatregoer, and cross-stitcher, and when not frantically Marie Kondo-ing my possessions and renovating my flat and during a pandemic, I can be found watching superhero films and dreaming of museums.

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