When I was around 6 years old, I fell in love with history1. There were momentous events taking place all around me at that time but they did not spawn my interest in history. I have no memory to speak of about the implosion of the Soviet Union and the end of the Eastern Bloc or the Yugoslav Wars that were raging only 50 kilometers south of my Austrian home. What did stick in my memory and fueled my imagination back in 1991 and for years to come was instead an educational children’s cartoon series about the history of humanity, which was then broadcast on Austrian public TV, Once Upon a Time… Man. The series is a production by Albert Barillé from 1978 for French public broadcast, originally titled Il était une fois… l'Homme. (The German version that I watched as a child bears the title Es war einmal … der Mensch. Just like the English version, it is a literal translation of the original French title).2
Rewatching the series now nearly 30 years later and more than 40 years after its initial appearance, a set of questions that were of no concern to me as a child crossed my mind. Once Upon a Time… Man is an educational cartoon series about human history for children. That means it must present the knowledge about the past it provides, its main educational contents, in a form appropriate to this target audience, which arguably has rather different needs and interests from an adult audience interested in history, not to speak of professional historians. The medium of film itself and the actual form chosen as an animated cartoon series arguably also force some choices on the presentation of that content.
In short, what interested me this time around watching the series with my philosopher’s hat on was how the epistemic good of telling truths about the human past was packaged, delivered, and perhaps retracted or even distorted in the process of creating a product that is both attractive and educative for kids. In Once Upon a Time… Man epistemic, pedagogical, and entertainment ambitions all come together in the finished product, and it is not clear from the outset how they relate and impinge upon each other or that the epistemic objectives necessarily come out on top (or even should).
The goal of providing accurate historical knowledge should be uncontroversial to anyone who has had a look at the series, just as there are obviously other (valuable) goals at play as well. One such obvious non-epistemic goal is providing entertainment for children if perhaps only as a precondition or means for the actual acquisition of knowledge. Another is orientation and perspective in matters that are deemed important for the development of children, such as questions of moral behaviour and political perspective. The way history is presented in a children’s series is in this sense very different from the discourse of disciplinary historiography with its specific professional norms where pedagogical and entertainment considerations normally play a minor role at best. There are overlaps, though, with forms of public history as it is presented in museums and with various forms of “histotainment” as commonly seen on TV. These often join the goal of imparting knowledge together other pedagogical goals and providing entertainment, just as Once Upon a Time… Man does. (Museums often have real research and storage functions as well.)
Forms of Selectivity
Once Upon a Time… Man consists of 26 episodes that span the whole history since Earth’s creation more than 4 billion years ago up until the respective present of the creation of the series (1978) and beyond. The last episode goes well beyond history as they and we know it and talks about the potentially bleak future prospects of humanity, as they present themselves from the vantage point of 1978. While the series’ scope is vast and the general outlook evolutionary, talking about the early eons of Earth’s history, the age of the dinosaurs, other hominids (Neanderthals), and our species evolution takes up the first two episodes only, with the remaining 24 of them covering human history, or a specific segment of human history at that.3
The segment of history of interest for the series is the development of civilization, as conceived in the typical historiographies of the West. The narrative as such is not strictly Eurocentric as far as the beginning of civilization is concerned, as it is usual for narratives to begin outside of Europe where for a long time none of the usual hallmarks of civilization appeared. It is nevertheless a narrative of the West because after beginnings in the Middle East civilization shifts to Europe where it remains, much later only to be expanded to Northern America. This is also the narrative that I learned in the same outline during my school days, with amends made for the history of the Habsburg Monarchy, which plays no role in the series.
Civilization begins in this story with sedentism, the domestication of beast and plant (episode 3), and the invention of writing in wider Mesopotamia and Egypt (episode 4). It waxes and wanes in its first few millennia (episode 5) only to come to bloom in Ancient Greece and Rome where it reached a first apex (episodes 6, 7). Then comes the Migration Period, which leads to the destruction of the Western Roman Empire and ushers in the early medieval period leading up to the Carolingians and Charlemagne (episodes 8, 9). A short time later, the Vikings enter the scene with their pillaging of the rest of Europe (episode 10), and civilization is on the uptick again with the beginning of renewed urbanization after the turn of the first millennium (episode 13). Enter Quattrocento Italy and then the Renaissance—no story without Leonardo and his exploits—from where on history diversifies and deserves to be told in more detail and parallel fashion (episode 14); recounting the maritime adventures of the Spanish conquista of the Americas (episode 15), the story of Elizabethan Era England with Her Majesty’s privateers (episode 16), and the burgeoning of the Dutch United Provinces (episode 17). On to the 17th century, where social issues are becoming more and more pressing. Now we find ourselves in the company of Louis XIV., the Sun King , and his immense riches that were squeezed out of France by taxes (episode 18), witness the times of Enlightenment after his passing (episodes 19, 20), with honorary mention of the Russia of Peter the Great, a modernizer in his own right, and march on to the American Revolutionary War and the French Revolution at the end of that century (episodes 21, 22). Thereafter the focus broadens even further and social and technical developments such as the Industrial Revolution take centre stage instead of kings and conquests (episode 23). We are introduced to the mechanical and electrical wonders of the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, to self-propelled locomotion and powered aircraft in the form of trains, cars, and planes, and the upheavals they create, not the least of them the making of impoverished working classes throughout the industrial centres of Europe (episodes 24, 25).
This is the technological and industrial civilization that is critically scrutinized in the very last episode of the series (episode 26). In it, history is left behind and the social anxieties of the 1970s become the centre of attention: environmental pollution and the inhospitality of the modern metropolises, consumerism, overpopulation, and the depletion of the planet’s resources. The episode even paints the dark scenario of the planet being destroyed by humanity, with the Star Trek-like sci-fi coda that we, having overcome strife and divisions, will live blissfully in outer space by the year 2150, waiting for Earth to be habitable again after the nuclear overkill. This more sombre tale of civilization or at least its end, spurred as it was by the real threat of what was called the “nuclear holocaust” during the Cold War, is even baked into the framing of the whole series. Its intro that replays human evolution and cultural development in fast forward ends with the scene of people scrambling for a rocket that takes off just before the planet explodes. Not everyone makes it onto the rocket. This tragic scene made a big impression on me as a child and the image of the exploding Earth stuck with me ever since, in stark contrast to the otherwise upbeat and optimistic tone of the whole series.4
Earth exploding as seen in the end of the intro to every episode.
The narrative presented is of the genre “The West and the rest”, with a rather specific political perspective owed to the 1970s and certain emphases and lacunae to it. An obvious issue in every such a narrative is the depiction of non-European peoples and cultures, or the lack thereof. It is not the case that all those peoples are omitted from the series. Some are introduced when interacting with Western powers and individuals that are deemed significant by the series. In this setup, the fate of Byzantium and Spain introduces us to Mohammed and the Islamic caliphates (episode 8); the 13th century journeys of Marco Polo make us visit the China of Kublai Khan (episode 12); Cortez’s campaign brings us to the Aztec civilization at the brink of its destruction by the Spaniards (episode 15); and the voyages of the Mayflower give us insights into the lives of the Native Americans of Northern America (episode 21). There is no real discussion, even in this limited setting, of Africa, India, Australia or Oceania throughout the series. (Some, but not all, of these [sub-]continents are mentioned in a passing sentence or two occasionally, though).
The depiction itself of those peoples and cultures is not mean-spirited or overtly nasty, though. While they draw on typical visual representations of Non-Europeans taken from public and colonial discourse–some of them insensitive and even racist, especially when it comes to the representation of black Africans and Native Americans–they are still portrayed as valuable part of humanity with no denigration of their cultural specificity. Cultural and other achievements of those peoples are mentioned as well.
There are also specific emphases and lacunae when it comes to the main focus of the series, the history of the (western) civilization, that seem mainly pedagogically motivated: Conflicts of big intensity and suffering are visually softened when depicted at all and given little space as compared to other issues, especially the closer we come to the present. Colonialism is mentioned in a few sentences here and there; the two World Wars of the last century receive short descriptions towards the end of two episodes with not much detail or any real portrayal of the horrors and cruelty. The Hiroshima bomb is mentioned in line with the emphasis on the possibility of a “nuclear holocaust”, the Shoah is not. Instead, the technical achievements of those times are highlighted and given the majority of screen time. More than half of the episode that includes the short account of the Second World War (episode 25) deals with the history of aviation in the 20th century, and the episode that includes the First World War (episode 24) treats us mostly to a history of the locomotive and automobile. Blood and injuries, as obvious marks of suffering, are also absent from conflicts as far as they are depicted.
There is also at least one case where there seems to be not only selectivity at work but where there are would be good epistemic reasons not to include a certain story, which is given as if it were a fact: In episode 4, tales of the Old Testament such as the Crossing of the Red Sea and The Judgment of Solomon are told as actual historical happenings, which is something of an oddity in comparison with the rest of the series where biblical stories are not taken up anymore in any detail at all. Without any further religious intent visible, it must remain something of a mystery why these Bible tales were exactly included in the overall account (with The Judgment of Solomon having moral quality I suppose but not the Crossing of the Red Sea).
By itself, selectivity of an account does not speak against its epistemic goodness, quite the contrary. We cannot tell the history of everything, even if we were in a position to know it, and Once Upon a Time… Man does a good job of presenting knowledge about the select part of human history it decided to tell, history from its earliest times to today, with many of the main stages of the development of western civilization being covered. There might even be some added value to exactly this selection of historical episodes for the intended target audience are children in the core countries of the West whose own history in a sense is being told in the series.
The story is still that of the West, at the expense of the rest. This makes the depiction of non-European peoples secondary and in some respects racist, as described above, if mostly not viciously so. Assessing the overall epistemic goodness of the account, these two opposing aspects have to be weighed against each other. In my book, the assessment remains overall a positive one with the epistemic good of giving children a true account of (their own) past far outweighing the damage done by the racist depiction of “othered” peoples. Kids can learn a lot of interesting historical stuff through the series, with its racist aspects being incidental to the development of the story. Especially as other cultures and peoples are usually described and depicted respectfully with the problem mainly being the caricatures of their physical appearance, which in principle can easily be corrected for, and not the focus on the West in and of itself.
On another level, the selectivity seems to have pedagogical roots, as we have seen. It is generally thought that children should not be exposed to violence and (excessive) suffering. This explains why the World Wars and other violent episodes of history are only mentioned in passing and there is basically no showing of blood or serious injury in the series. It is my hunch that the emphasis that is instead put on technology—from Leonardo to trains, cars, and airplanes—can be explained by the intended main audience of the series: young boys. Again, while such a focus is not without its own issues as it reproduces gender stereotypes, just as the series itself is not without its share of such stereotypes, this selection delivers knowledge on social history and especially the history of technology to a young audience. This pedagogically driven lopsidedness of the account can be and is regularly amended in later educational settings, such as middle and high schools, where wars and other atrocities are taught as part of history curricula.
Lastly, there are the odd Old Testament stories mentioned and the future scenario of the destruction of Earth that have no immediate epistemic mooring and cannot be defended on such grounds. It is my impression that they were included for pedagogical reasons, particularly to impart certain moral and political values deemed central for the character development of children. The explosion of the world and “nuclear holocaust” scenarios seem to be intended for sensitizing the young audience to the problems of their own times as seen from the perspective of the late 1970s. While coloured by specific context of that time, many of the issues raised are still with us today, and some such as environmental degradation have even risen to political prominence and urgency again. These reflections, in any case, take up a very small part of the series and, while having no epistemic basis on their own, do not interfere negatively with the historical knowledge that is being conferred in the series. In any sense, some of these values such as temperateness, open and honest discussion and perseverance can be seen as metacognitive values and skills that underpin to a certain extent any open-ended truth-seeking discourse central to both science and society (on the values held by the discipline of historiography, see Tucker 2004).
We have seen in this section how the specific selection of the past that is considered worth telling by the series is mediated by pedagogical concerns about what is interesting and proper to tell children. There is also a general political and ethical impulse underlying the whole series, which affects at least the general framing of the story told. In this framework, a lot of knowledge about the past is provided to children through the series, one episode at a time. Now we can to turn to how this content is actually put onto the screen. Next to the goals of the series discussed so far, its entertaining character will become especially palpable.
Mise en Scène
With films, and cartoons at that, being visual media there are certain scenic decisions that need to be taken, something called mise en scène in film theory. Even if the exact number of people storming the Winter Palace or the Bastille are not known, in a film you need to put a definite amount of people in the scene. Depicting those events5 The mise en scène of Once Upon a Time… Man follows principles especially geared to its educational purposes and its young audience. The stories revolve around a main cast of six figures that recur in every episode in different styles and garments fitted to the times and societies they are portraying. At the centre of the unfolding of history is Maestro, a bearded wise and old man who represents progress and usually depicts a philosopher, inventor, expert or counselor of sorts but not someone taking any decisions of historical import. He is not immediately in power but comments on it and sees things going awry over and over again, despite his constant admonitions to the contrary. Always close to him, you have two ordinary men, Adam and Jumbo in the German version, who are honest and do their best to make do under the circumstances they are dealt by history. Adam is the thoughtful one and Jumbo the muscle who is nevertheless good and honest. On the side of Adam stands Eva who is a caring mother but also a strong woman. Eventually there are Klotz and das Ekel, their names meaning something like uncouth fool and stinker in German, who are haughty and vain and always putting their own immediate interests ahead of everything else. In trying to obtain their selfish goals, they are out to thwart the sincere life plans of the other characters.6
The main cast of six characters throughout different historical periods (from left to right): Jumbo, Eva, Adam, Maestro, Klotz, das Ekel. In front of the former three also stand their child versions.
Episodes are constructed in the form of giving general information about the time and subject of the episode before the actual mise en scène takes place, where our 6 main characters appear and play out a scenario indicated by the informational contents. In a single episode, there can be several informational segments followed by vignettes with the characters exemplifying the contents. Often, real historical figures appear and are part of the story. Mostly the stories played out are fictional though, even if they contain historical figures.
Epistemically, these settings, even when they contain real historical figures, cannot be said to be true, as opposed to the informational segments. They might be called “true enough” in a more relaxed manner of speaking, though. The informational bits give us at least the kind of things that happened and the kind of people involved, but sometimes also the actual historical actors, and how things roughly happened within the bounds set by the information given. Episodes then put them in scene in the setting of mostly our six main characters. Such a setting of historical exemplification can also often be seen in many historical documentaries, minus the specific comical element and the general upbeat tone, which often also put more general information about what happened into concrete scenes to be experienced by the audience.7
The mise en scène contains a recurring comical element obviously catered to the target audience of children. The conflict between the good and mischievous characters is usually solved physically with Jumbo beating Klotz and Ekel up with a swift blow to the head, often resulting in them having visible bumps growing out of their heads. This is the only violence that is regularly depicted in the series and it is obviously softened and cushioned up violence, neither Klotz nor Ekel are ever seriously injured. The purpose of those scenes is flatly entertainment and comic relief for children with no immediate epistemic gain. (Secondarily, such comical scenes might very well be epistemically valuable, as it might be that they keep the children focused and interested in the series and the knowledge it provides.). As a form of humor all of this is very simple (bump follows hit on the head), immediate and visual and it is one of a few places where the series fell flat for me rewatching it as an adult.
The setting as such with its familiar stock characters with fixed traits and regularly recurring behaviours also offers immediate recognition value and orientation to the children audience. It breaks complex developments down into the mentioned vignettes with their comical elements. All of this makes the historical information provided more palpable and easily understandable to children whose cognitive abilities and attention span are limited compared to adults. It also creates the generally positive and upbeat “emplotment” (White 1973: 10) of the whole series that can be characterized with White as comedic in character. The general message throughout is that progress and honesty, underpinned by courage and inventiveness, do win out, though there are dangers and setbacks all the way through set up by the powers that be.
Emplotment is not all there is to the mise en scène, though. There are, as we have seen, the epistemically central information segments that set the boundaries for the scenes and what can happen in them, which then are mainly played out by the main six characters. The setting with six recurring characters has pedagogical value and the comical scenes are obviously there for entertainment purposes (but they might have positive secondary epistemic effects as I indicated above). Beyond that, there is the generally upbeat tone and comedic emplotment of the whole series, which can at least partially be explained by the series being aimed at kids as its main audience. Intermixed with the positive tone there are also political and moral issues that are ambivalent, coming to the fore in the threats and anxieties depicted in the last episode but present throughout the series with the destruction of planet Earth in the intro. In some sense, the depiction and discussion of these issues can be seen as pedagogically motivated as well, with the goal of educating children and helping them to avoid disasters that were seen as real possibilities in the late 1970s.
History as children’s series
Children’s series such as Once Upon a Time… Man are a specific form of “histotainment” for a particular audience and in this sense it represents a discourse on history of its own, very different in its main elements from the disciplinary and scholarly discourse of professional historiography. As I have tried to show throughout this text, there are certain criteria and goals beyond purely epistemic ones that affect the character of the end product that is Once Upon a Time… Man. These goals and criteria are visible in the “what”, the contents of the series, and the “how”, the way it is brought onto the screen. Those other goals are mainly pedagogical and entertainment-driven. As such, they are at best at the sidelines of the discourse of professional historiography. There are, however, overlaps between Once Upon a Time… Man and the way history is presented in some museums, especially those with an explicit pedagogic mission, and in historical documentaries and movies for grown-ups. It will be interesting to have a closer look in the future on how epistemic, pedagogic and entertainment goals intermesh in those historical representations, in comparison to Upon a Time… Man and scholarly historiography.
The fundamental goal of Once Upon a Time… Man is getting kids interested in and teaching them about history, and doing this in a fun way, as testified by its creator Albert Barillé.8 Plenty of nostalgic and highly appreciative comments under episodes of the series on YouTube by now adults and my own experience are anecdotal evidence that this goal has been amply achieved. It would seem history can indeed be taught in an authentic manner while being tailored to the specific needs of different audiences. And it can be fun all the while too. This is a timely lesson about history for the present.
Danto, A. C. 1985. Narration and Knowledge. New York: Columbia University Press.
Doussot, M. 2012. “Il était une fois… ALBERT BARILLÉ” https://blogpasblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/14/il-etait-une-fois-albert-barille/ (23.04.2020).
Elgin, C. Z. 2004. “True Enough” Philosophical Issues 14, 113-131.
Glennan, S. 2016. “Ephermeral Mechanisms and Historical Explanation” Erkenntnis 72, 251-266.
Noyes, J. 2017. “Walt Disney's Dinosaurs: The Story of The Rite of Spring” http://www.extinctblog.org/extinct/2017/2/17/walt-disneys-dinosaurs-the-story-of-the-rite-of-spring (22.04.2020).
Pence, Ch. 2017. “Bringing Evolution to the Masses: Disney’s Fantasia as History of Biology” http://www.extinctblog.org/extinct/2017/11/29/bringing-evolution-to-the-masses-disneys-fantasia-as-history-of-biology (22.04.2020).
Tucker, A. 2004. Our Knowledge of the Past. A Philosophy of Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
White, H. 1973. Metahistory. Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
Zemon Davis, N. 1983. The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.
Zemon Davis, N. 1988. “’Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead’: film and the challenge of authenticity” Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television 8(3), 269-283.
1 I thank Mikko Kurttila, David Černín, Ilkka Lähteenmäki, and Fu Lo for comments on a previous version of this text.
2 There were several more children’s cartoon series by Albert Barillé that followed Once Upon a Time … Man, employing the same main characters and visual style and meeting with similar success as the first series. Among them were Once Upon a Time... Life from 1986 and Once Upon a Time... The Americas from 1991. Especially Once Upon a Time... Life was a big success after Once Upon a Time … Man. Like Once Upon a Time … Man did for history, a few years after it Once Upon a Time... Life first introduced me to biological knowledge about the human body. It did not leave, however, the same mark on my memory as Once Upon a Time… Man did. All series can be viewed on YouTube in various languages.
3 When it comes to evolution, Once Upon a Time… Man is more realistic than the famed Rite of Spring segment of Disney’s cartoon film Fantasia from 1940, a real classic of film history. Rite of Spring goes for over 20 minutes and depicts the early history of earth up until the extinction of the dinosaurs, with Stravinsky’s eponymous The Rite of Spring as musical accompaniment, but leaves the evolution of humans out of the picture. Fantasia is the aesthetically and otherwise more ambitious project, but Rite of Spring also contains factual errors of a magnitude unseen in Once Upon a Time… Man. In its most celebrated scene, a Tyrannosaurus rex fights a Stegosaurus, but Tyrannosaurus lived in the upper Cretaceous up to 66 million years ago and Stegosaurus in the late Jurassic around 150 million years ago, many tens of millions of years apart. (The famous T-Rex Stegosaurus battle scene can be watched here on YouTube.) While this was known in 1940, another grave error was not: Rite of Spring claims that the dinosaurs went extinct due to an extensive drought period of the planet, whereas today it is firmly established that the Chicxulub impactor that hit the Yucatan peninsula roughly 66 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs. Another inaccuracy is that T-rex is depicted with three fingers instead of two, an artistic choice of Walt Disney himself, who thought the claw looked better that way. Despite these inaccuracies, Rite of Spring has been for many children the entree into the world of dinosaurs, just as Once Upon a Time… Man has been the beginning of an interest in history for many kids, myself included. On this effect of Rite of Spring and its epistemic and aesthetic properties, see very instructively Noyes 2017. According to Charles Pence (Pence 2017), human evolution was still too prickly a topic in the US at the 1930s to be included into Fantasia. Some 40 years later, there was no such issue at all for Once Upon a Time… Man in France. It was instead preoccupied with the potential destruction of our planet by humanity, which in turn was of no concern to Fantasia.
4 There are also differences in the music chosen for the intro, at least between the German and the French version. The French original has Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) as musical accompaniment, the German version the song “Tausend Jahre” (“A thousand years”) by the Austrian singer Udo Jürgens. The German version adds to the eeriness and somberness of the ending with the text of Jürgens’ song whose chorus goes: “Was ist Zeit? Ein Augenblick. Ein Stundenschlag. Tausend Jahre sind ein Tag” (“What is time? A moment. The striking of an hour. A thousand years are one day”). The original has the primal quality of Bach’s organ work for it, which evokes a mélange of contradictory feelings and ends on a sad note. The different versions can be watched on YouTube here and here.
5 The historian Nathalie Zemon Davis has reflected on the tension between historical knowledge and filmic representation throughout her work. She is with her The Return of Martin Guerre one of a few historians who has worked on both a movie and a scholarly account about the same subject, the case of an impostor in rural 16th century France (Zemon Davis 1983). Actually, she worked on the film first before writing the historical account of Martin Guerre, which is unusual even for those historians that work on historical movies. Reflecting on the differences between movies and scholarly texts, she writes: “I felt like I had my own historical laboratory, generating not proofs, but historical possibilities. At the same time, the film was departing from the historical record, and I found this troubling. (…) Where was there room in this beautiful and cinematographic recreation of a village for the uncertainties, the “perhapses”, the “may-have-beens”, to which the historian has recourse when the evidence is inadequate or perplexing?” (Zemon Davis 1983: viii). See also Zemon Davis 1988 for a more detailed account of the differences between various media of representing history and possible tensions between them.
6 The names of the main characters might differ to a certain extent in the different language versions. In the French original, for instance, the two main male good characters are called Pierre and le Gros, which translates as the big or chubby one, instead of Adam and Jumbo. Maestro is Maestro in both versions, and Eva is called Pierrette in the original. The biblical allusion of Adam and Eve is therefore specific to the German translation. The two bad characters are called le Teigneux and le Nabot in the original meaning something like stubborn one or blockhead and shorty in English. The English version renders the main characters as Maestro, Peter, Jumbo, Pierrette, The Pest, and The Dwarf.
7 I can’t argue for the philosophical validity of the notion of ”true enough” here. On it, see Elgin 2004. It is also very close to what Stuart Glennan called “generalized narrative” (Glennan 2016: 263). Danto (1985: 238) also offers a similar thought in the context of earlier philosophy of history
8 In Barillé own words: ”Les enfants passent tellement de temps devant la télévision : alors autant meubler le vide en leur offrant une distraction qui véhicule un savoir. S’ils ne comprennent pas tout, je m’en fous. L’important est que ces séries ouvrent la porte au désir de connaître. Mais pour obtenir ce résultat, « qu’est-ce qu’il a fallu avaler comme connaissances ! On a le droit de faire des blagues, mais on doit être irréprochable sur la véracité des faits. «” (quoted in Doussot 2012).
Last updated: 29.4.2020