History gets a makeover

Past Imperfect
June 28, 1996

Life is full of disappointments. For some it began with the awful truth about Santa Claus, and continued with the dreary reality of the Easter Bunny. For many, the news that history was not like it is in the movies is just another of life's grim disillusionments: Spartacus never was crucified along the Appian Way, General Custer never did meet Crazy Horse, and Captain Bligh, by all accounts, was actually quite liberal in comparison with some of his seafaring contemporaries.

Historians, academics and those in general possession of inquiring minds, however, tend to revel in such discrepancies. There is a great deal of pedantic pleasure to be taken in blowing the whistle, bursting the balloon and altogether drawing erudite attention to public misconception when history and the cinema part dramatic company.

Mark C. Carnes' compilation, Past Imperfect, will come as a delight to those in search of further ammunition for the continuing battle between historical fact and celluloid fiction. This volume assembles 60 essays mostly by academic historians, although some others are by journalists, generalists and a paleontologist. Each chooses one movie (or, occasionally, a small group of movies) on which to base a specific comparison of Hollywood and history. The emphasis is mainly, but not exclusively, on American film, reasonably reflecting the dominance of Hollywood in world cinema.

There is certainly some stiff competition in finding the film that, according to the essayist, provides the grossest distortion of fact. Stephen Jay Gould speaks of "a compendium of factual errors" in Jurassic Park and declares that its basic premise is "impossible". Greg Dening, however, heats up the competition with his assessment of the Marlon Brando version of Mutiny on the Bounty: "Never was a past more imperfect," he declares. Marshall de Bruhl describes John Wayne's version of The Alamo as "nearly all wrong,"and according to Alvin M. Josephy, Jr: "contrived distortions and dramatic liberties tumble one upon the other" in They Died with Their Boots On, Hollywood's version of Custer's last stand. It is a film that, ultimately, "runs completely amok" with history and metamorphoses into "cock-and-bull melodrama".

That movies take liberties with history should come as no surprise, no matter how genuinely amusing such instances may be. But it is one of the great strengths of this volume that it does not seek simply to bury historical films. Rather, it demonstrates that the relationship between film and history is much more complex and important than a simplistic comparison between "fact and fiction" might suggest.

Shakespeare, for example, was not much of a historian, but historical veracity is not the only criterion for a worthwhile work of art. As Carnes points out in his introduction, nobody is arguing that Henry V should be struck from the literary canon because of its incomplete grasp of Agincourt. Nor should a committee of historians be asked to revise the literary text, or even the subsequent films.

Even when a vision of the past is technically inaccurate, it can still be hugely revealing of the time in which it was made. Nancy F. Cott argues, for example, that although Bonnie and Clyde takes great liberties with the history of America in the 1930s, it is nevertheless genuinely imprinted "with 1960s themes of youth revolt and women's liberation". Bonnie and Clyde, argues Cott, even looks like a 1960s picture. Some films, on the other hand, mix great fidelity in period detail with glaring errors in the larger story. In the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, for example, Dening tells us that MGM went to enormous lengths to use genuine 18th-century wooden legs, but made the error of affixing one of them to an historical character who was, in reality, entirely sound in mind and (both) limbs.

This heady combination of fact and fiction is a feature of many "historical" films. Richard White explains that in The Last of the Mohicans director Michael Mann combines authentic details of both past and present in jarringly anachronistic combinations so as to assemble "a junkyard full of motifs" and thus create a picture of Indian life which is, "to put it generously, postmodern".

Errors of omission are matched by those of commission in movie history as much as in any other history. William Manchester notes the inclusion, for example, of a "completely bogus" maiden speech in Young Winston but feels the film is all the more remarkable for what it disregards of the young Churchill's family life. Clayborne Carson declines to dwell too deeply on the overt inaccuracies in Spike Lee's Malcolm X, but specifically lists the episodes he feels the film has either skated over or ignored completely. Similarly, William E. Leuchtenburg laments that All the President's Men suggests that Richard M. Nixon was forced to resign simply because of the revelations of two Washington Post journalists.

Truth, as every historian knows, is a very difficult concept. Similarly, as Leuchtenburg points out, "a film can be accurate without being true." This is a truth that ought almost universally to be acknowledged, and leads scholars in many fields, not only in history and film, to wonder to what extent the truth is not always best served by mere facts. As anthropologist Joanne Rappaport observed of the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, they seek quickly to record the truth of the Columbian experience "before the historians have time to arrive". Social memory comprises so much more than historical fact. This social memory contributes, in turn, to social action. If movies reflect and contribute to the social memory, then movies have a value to academics far beyond their factual (in)accuracy. If, as Stanley Karnow argues, Oliver Stone's JFK is the truth for many students, then to point out any inaccuracies and fabrications within the film is a vital but only partial obligation. If a film is palpably inaccurate, then scholars should be equally concerned to discover the reason for those inaccuracies, the continuing appeal of such films in the face of their inaccuracies, and the potential consequences of an inaccurate social memory.

It is for reasons such as these that there is today a growing scholarly interest in the complex confluence between history and film. Past Imperfect provides a stimulating contribution to the debate.

Richard Howells is lecturer in communication arts, University of Leeds.

Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies

Editor - Mark Carnes
ISBN - 0 8050 3759 4
Publisher - Henry Holt
Price - $30.00
Pages - 304

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