The day our Yankee boys kicked butt at Waterloo

September 23, 2005

Inspired by the fact-free revisionism of the Hollywood historical blockbuster, leading academics outline their worst celluloid nightmares

The Death Of Old Europe
Richard Evans, professor of modern history, Cambridge University

The movie mogul waved my screenplay in the air with a pudgy hand. "This is great!" he said. "The struggle against tyranny and terror! Regime change! The victory of freedom and democratic values! It'll make millions!"

He paused. "We'll have to think about the title, though," he added more reflectively.

" Waterloo - it just doesn't give the right message. And another thing - our moviegoers won't buy the story if it's the Brits winning the battle."

A delighted smile crossed his broad countenance. "I've got it - American forces defeat the tyrant Napoleon and discover his weapons of mass destruction just in time!"

"But what about the Duke of Wellington?" I asked timidly.

The mogul looked aghast. "We can't have an English dook commanding the US Marines!" he exclaimed. "No - make it George Washington!"

"But... " He pressed a button on his desk. "Get me Leonardo!" he shouted through the intercom. "Tell him I have a great part lined up for him!"

He turned back to me. "So, how does it end?"

"Well," I said somewhat tentatively, "Wellington - I mean, Washington - holds his ground until the Germans arrive in the nick of time and the victory is won."

"The Germans?" he asked suspiciously. "You said the Allies won."

"Well, sir, the Germans were on the British - I mean, American side."

"We can't have the Germans fighting for freedom and democracy!" he shouted.

"And another thing... where's the love interest? We need a feisty, sexy, independent young woman."

His face lit up. "I've got it! That movie - Vanity Fair ! Becky Sharp! She'd be great!! We'll hire Sharon Stone! Now we just need someone to put her part into your screenplay. Who wrote Vanity Fair ?"

"William Makepeace Thackeray," I said, "but... " It was too late. He pressed the intercom button again: "Get me Bill Thackeray on the phone!!"

The Plot Thickens
Peter Edwards, professor of history, Roehampton University

James I, played by Graham Norton, negotiates a peace treaty with Spain and as a mark of his good intentions agrees to make Guido Fawkes Master of the Ordnance. Naturally, Fawkes (Billy Connolly) immediately plots with Spain to blow up King and Parliament. But with the Spanish ambassador, played by Andrew Sachs as Manuel, acting as intermediary, the dialogue between the incomprehensible Scotsman and the daft Spaniard becomes surreal.

Nevertheless, the attempt is scheduled for a Burns Night celebration in the Houses of Parliament, with the powder barrels to be smuggled in disguised as consignments of pressed haggis in jelly. But the courier is leant on by the Cray Brothers, East Indiamen and purveyors of fine herbs, who switch the gunpowder for cannabis. When Guido lights the blue touchpaper, the Palace of Westminster does not go up with a big bang, but instead drifts down the Thames in a purple haze. The film fades with Fawkes locked in an embrace with James I.

Clause Four: Omerta
Adrian Smith, senior lecturer in history, Southampton University

Marty Scorsese marks the sixtieth anniversary of Labour's landslide election victory with a searing portrayal of the socialist family that controls austerity-gripped London.

Robert De Niro's Prime Minister Clem Attlee is a study in sadism and succinctness ("Stafford, I ain't a quitter. Ernie - deal with him."). Joe Pesci's Health Minister Nye Bevan takes out the leadership of the British Medical Association with a blood-spattered assault on "Lord" Charlie Hill outside Broadcasting House ("Eat the consequence of keeping your bowels open, radio doc!").

And, in a brilliant valedictory performance, the original Godfather recreates his role, this time as a foreign secretary desperate to get the all-powerful Truman family off his back ("I don't need no Los Alamos guys telling me how to getta bigger bang for my buck!"), and ready to do a deal with the Stalin mob before their Berettas go nuclear - yes, Brando is Bevin.

Sex, Lies and Philosophy Mary Beard, professor of classics, Cambridge University

Consumed by jealousy after Socrates (Leonardo DiCaprio) beds his gorgeous mistress Aspasia ("Spasy", a cameo role for Jordan), Pericles (a digitally remastered Oliver Reed) determines that the egghead philanderer will play away from home no more.

Condemned to death on a trumped-up treason charge, Socrates plans to make the most of his last evening with a surprise party for old girlfriends (including a memorable stagger-on part for Elizabeth Taylor).

The surprise twist comes when Spasy, ably assisted by the moody Plato (Michael Jackson), engineers an ingenious escape route for the thinking girl's playboy. But which of the beauties will get to leave with him?

A visual extravaganza that brilliantly captures not only the luxury and corruption but also the intellectual hothouse of ancient Athens.

Return of the President
Jeremy Black, professor of history, Exeter University

The American Revolution as presented by Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings movies, with a cast drawn from the ranks of historians.

Simon Schama stars as Sauron as the jerky, crazed George III who controls the 13 colonies in his Evil Empire with his German-speaking Ringwraiths and the self-satisfied Lord George Germain, as played by Niall Ferguson.

Peter Hennessy is Gandalf as George Washington, who rejects help from the French, led by David Cannadine's smug Saruman, and instead relies on the agrarian virtues of the Hobbits to free America from Sauron's yoke.

Meanwhile, David Starkey is the tricky, ambiguous Gollum as the American general Benedict Arnold, whose treachery is discovered at a key moment.

Wall of Death
Jonathan Osmond, professor of modern European history, Cardiff University

Smarting from the Cuban missile crisis, Nikita Khrushchev (Richard Griffiths) plots his revenge - the Berlin Wall. He bangs his shoe on the desk in his Kremlin office and orders an elite squad of Russian bricklayers to fly to Germany at a moment's notice, while the evil Erich Honecker (Vic Reeves) skulks in the corner.

Cut to John F. Kennedy (Matt Damon) in bed with Marilyn Monroe (Renee Zellweger). Warned about the Soviet machinations, the President mobilises US troops in Germany and delivers his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech from the Reichstag - even as Khrushchev personally lays the foundation stone of the wall.

Back in America, Marilyn is murdered by Honecker, who is then seen buying a bus ticket to Dallas. A violent storm hits Berlin and, in the driving rain, American Marines fight off Soviet attacks to help thousands of East Berliners cross to the West.

The action flashes forwards to 1989 with the easterners toppling the wall and flocking to the McDonald's on the Ku'damm. The aged Honecker (now played by Bernard Hepton) is accidentally trampled to death in the stampede.

Mr Cheney Goes to Town
(A Fox Production) Simon Newman, professor of American history, Glasgow University

Longfellow Cheney (Jimmy Stewart) is a happy tuba-playing businessman in Halliburton Hole, Wyoming, where he and other God-fearing local businessmen live and work according to small-town American values.

One day, Cousin George, a senior government official, sends a telegram requesting Longfellow's help in reforming social security, protecting US oil interests abroad and rebuilding tornado-stricken businesses. Such noble efforts are being thwarted by evil liberals, so Longfellow rushes to Washington to breathe new life into the Government's programmes.

The evil liberals send Babe Bennet, an undercover New York Times reporter, to undermine Longfellow and his friends. She prints stories that turn them into figures of fun throughout polite Washington society. Slowly, however, Babe begins to doubt her liberal beliefs as her respect for the men from Halliburton Hole grows and she falls in love with Longfellow.

Meanwhile, the evil liberal media tries to use the evil liberal justice system to have the corporation set up by the men from Halliburton Hole to help Cousin George declared unconstitutional and Longfellow Cheney declared insane. Babe then admits her duplicity and her love for Longfellow.

A packed Supreme Court cheers as Chief Justice Scalia declares: "Not only are you sane, but you're the sanest man who ever walked in this courtroom!"

The camera fades as Longfellow, followed by the men from Halliburton Hole, emerges from the cheering crowd and strides purposefully towards the White House.

Anthony Pagden, professor of political science and history, University of California Los Angeles

Hernán Cortés (Colin Farrell), at the head of a vast Spanish army and with his translator and mistress Malinche (Penelope Cruz) at his side, is greeted by Montezuma (Antonio Banderas) in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

Montezuma: "Take our lands. We have always known that we were only the custodians and that one day a god from the East would take it from us."

Cortés [excitedly]: "Yes, the Emperor Charles V is the god Quetzalcoatl and in his name I accept your land. But what we have really come for is gold."

Montezuma: "Vile creature! Clearly your king is no god! He does not care for nature."

Malinche [eyeing Cortés]: "This man give me children who will bring our two peoples together."

Cortés: "Fire!"

Die Hard Russia
Christopher Read, reader in 20th century European history, Warwick University

US neo-con agent Rasputin (Johnny Depp) rescues the gorgeous but empty-headed Tsarina (Sadie Frost) and her unresponsive but decent husband, Tsar Nicholas (Jeremy Irons) from the clutches of the February mob in St Petersburg.

He then returns with an elite squad of American doughboys led by an heroic lieutenant (it has to be Bruce Willis) to save Russia from the Bolshevik party led by a mean-minded Lenin (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a deeply vindictive Stalin (Colin Firth).

After the villains are captured, a grateful crowd is reunited with the now-constitutionalist Tsar Nicholas. Russian and American flags are waved.

The 20th century is cancelled.

The Battle of Hastings
Helen Nicholson, reader in history, Cardiff University, and family William the Conqueror - played by Leonardo DiCaprio - liberates England from the moustachioed upper-class usurper Harold, played by Saddam Hussein. Before the decisive battle, William makes an uplifting speech about truth, justice, democracy and the American dream. His wife, Matilda - blonde, beautiful, keen on women's rights and played by the young Joan Greenwood - wins over many of the English to the Norman side and Harold dies cursing truth, justice and so on. The film ends with William's coronation as the English common folk cheer and look forward to truth, justice and so on.

Oliver Stone's Nelson
Nicholas Cull, professor of American studies at Leicester University As soon as Oliver Stone announces Kevin Costner's casting in the lead role, British actors protest the choice of an American in the role, while disability rights groups object to a non-amputee.

The plot hinges on an investigation by Beau Brummel (Brad Pitt) into Nelson's death at Trafalgar. He discovers a fiendish conspiracy by cuckolded Sir William Hamilton (Anthony Hopkins), jealous rival the Duke of Wellington (Alan Rickman) and the Prince Regent (John Goodman) to smuggle a deadly sniper into the crow's nest of HMS Victory ...

Mr Gladstone and Mr Ripper
Michael Bentley, professor of modern history, St Andrews University

William Gladstone, four times prime minister and icon of Christian values, is also Jack the Ripper. Obsessed with meeting prostitutes, he cuts down trees... but does the cutting stop there?

Starring Jack Nicholson as the disturbed and violent premier, with Helen Mirren as his tragic, deceived wife and Helena Bonham Carter as his sultry victim.

The Da Vinci Clone
Alexander Grant, reader in medieval British history,Lancaster University

The movie starts with the marriage of Christ (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Mary Magdalene (Angelina Jolie), before St Paul (Ian McKellan) "reshapes" early Christianity in an anti-woman way. The "truth" is maintained against the lies of the Church by Templars and Cathars who, in the 15th century, end up at Rosslyn in Scotland fleeing persecution by an inquisitor (McKellan again).

There, they build the celebrated chapel. In Florence, Leonardo Da Vinci (DiCaprio again) has a relationship with Mona Lisa (Jolie again).

Da Vinci is, of course, a descendant of Christ. Lisa likewise. But Da Vinci's enemies, led by that well-known papal stooge Michelangelo (Russell Crowe), kill the couple's child - who united the divine bloodline. Da Vinci flees, carrying with him the heart of his offspring, and finds refuge in Rosslyn.

In modern times, a research institute is set up nearby, which becomes famous for the creation of Dolly the sheep (another sheep). But the laboratory has an ulterior purpose: to use the DNA in the preserved heart of Da Vinci's child, which was hidden in the chapel, to produce a clone of Christ.

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