Cinema verite?

January 26, 1996

Tim Cornwell reports on the perils for academics of relying on Hollywood's version of history.

Hollywood's take on history is back in the news with the latest work of the man called, for good or ill, its most serious contemporary historical producer. Oliver Stone's Nixon starring Anthony Hopkins was released in the United States at Christmas. Given the extraordinary brouhaha over JFK, widely regarded as a brilliantly seductive rendering of the worst historical tripe, journalists have not wasted time locking horns with Stone again. He portrays a president tortured by his role in CIA assassination plots against Fidel Castro that supposedly backfired on Kennedy. Historical nonsense, say the critics, betraying not Nixon's obsessions but the director's own.

Nixon raises an old question, but one that is very much in play among US historians, who increasingly rely on films in their classes to interest students who draw less and less information from books. To what standards should historical movies be held? How much does it matter that Gandhi, often used as a US classroom primer in Indian history, idolises the Mahatma while it portrays the chief architect of an independent Pakistan, the Muslim leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah, as a "malevolent fop"? Or conversely that busts of the Emperor Hadrian pop up as props on the set of Julius Caesar?

Historical movies make movie history, some of it ugly. In The Birth of a Nation in 1915, D. W. Griffith took on the subject of the reconstruction of the South, describing the Ku-Klux-Klan in his silent plot lines as "the organisation that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule". When the film was shown on the East Coast, black leaders demanded a boycott, large demonstrations converged on cinemas and in some cases rioting broke out. Showings remain deeply controversial.

In Past Imperfect, a recent and highly successful book of short film reviews mostly written by historians, California history professor Leon Litwack observes that while the film inspired laws against negative depictions of blacks, it moulded and reinforced racial stereotypes for years to come - "distorting the physical appearance of black men and women, making a mockery of their lives and aspirations, and fixing in the public mind the image of a race of inferiors - sometimes amusing and comical, sometimes brutal and subhuman, but in either case less than white men and women".

Since Griffith, American film makers have shied away from reconstructing the period immediately following the civil war when blacks were briefly given some measure of political control.

We all recognise the moment in those black and white films from the second world war when some unlikely character - say Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes - launches into a patriotic appeal for little England. Queen Elizabeth in that amiable 1939 swashbuckler The Sea Hawk wakes to the foreign threat and in a rousing speech proclaims a "grave duty I to prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants". It was actually a clear case of foreign policy by Warner Brothers. Studio chief Jack Warner took his cue from the man he helped put in the White House, the increasingly interventionist President Franklin Roosevelt; critics of his movies of the period trace a tangible swing from isolationism in neat step with Roosevelt's own thinking.

In Spartacus, the romanticised 1960 account of the slave rebellion of 71-73 bc, a screenwriter who was blacklisted in the McCarthy era puts these words in the mouth of Senator Crassus, played by Laurence Olivier: "Lists of the disloyal have been compiled!" Spartacus and The Sea Hawk suffer from the sort of silliness that has made scholars inclined to treat Hollywood's version of history with a contemptuous snort. We go to the movies to be entertained, after all, and so Kirk Douglas not only must be crucified outside the gates of Rome, he must also acquire a love interest who is there to bid him farewell - both totally fictitious.

But according to Robert Rosenstone, of the California Institute of Technology, picking films apart for their historical inaccuracies may be an amusing intellectual game but it will not wash as serious criticism. Subsequent research found many factual flaws in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire but no one dismisses his work. And a growing number of historians are "willing to deal with what a film is about rather than what the details are about", he says.

It was after appointing Rosenstone to develop a film section that the American Historical Review, the oldest and traditionally the stuffiest historical journal in the US, marked JFK's arrival by putting Oliver Stone and Kevin Costner on its cover. And Past Imperfect, a Society of American Historians book edited by its executive secretary Mark Carnes, has been widely reviewed and praised, and was a Book of the Month club selection.

The number of notable names ready to weigh in on their favourite movies in Past Imperfect suggests a great deal of interest. Increasingly it is reported that when US scholars teach the Russian Revolution they screen Battleship Potemkin or maybe Reds, and when they teach early modern France they use the Return of Martin Guerre.

"Most historians love historical films, right or wrong," says Carnes, chairman of the history department at Barnard College, Columbia University. "Even if it's a view we are offended by. Many historians have been fussing about Nixon, but most historians have enjoyed the experience." Historical films, he says, "are entertaining, they stimulate thought, and they may draw people into further consideration" of the subject.

Carnes speaks of "revelatory moments" in the editing of Past Imperfect: one, when it came to his favourite movie in the book, A Man for All Seasons. The 1966 film starred Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More, the lord chancellor of England tried and beheaded by Henry VIII for his refusal to condone the King's first divorce and subsequent break with Rome. For all its unlikely subject, it swept the US; as More biographer Richard Marius notes in his review of the film, a couple of colleges actually renamed themselves in More's honour.

"It was so intelligent and reflective and Scofield was so terrific as an actor it seemed inconceivable that it wasn't good history as well," says Carnes. "When the review arrived, it turned out that Scofield wasn't More, that More was someone who instead of being a martyr to freedom of conscience gloated when people who disagreed with his views were burned to a crisp. It demolished my presumption that a literate, intelligent film was a historically accurate one."

Yet like Rosenstone, Carnes is inclined to be charitable in his view of Hollywood's errors. Yes in The Scarlet Empress, the music of Wagner is heard playing in Catherine the Great's court. But if film studio researchers are wide of the mark when it comes to telling a story, their attention to physical detail can be extraordinary.

In the 1936 Charge of the Light Brigade starring Errol Flynn, as Past Imperfect records, Warner Brothers recreated Victorian postage stamps and used them in their correspondence for the film even though they would never be seen on camera. "Relatively few Americans go to museums or costume institutes," says Carnes, "but we've all been exposed to a remarkable visual and dramatic rendering of the past in the movies." And recently, if historians have taken movies more seriously, movies have tended to take history more seriously: even Disney was sensitive to its interpretation of the legendary Indian princess who marries a settler in Pocahontas.

In his analysis of Nixon, Evan Thomas, the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, suggests the standard of "basic truth" for modern docu-dramas. Nixon, he suggests, though a "credible effort" with an undercurrent of Shakespearean tragedy, falls short because there is simply very little historical evidence that Nixon knew of CIA assassination plots, let alone blamed himself for Kennedy's death.

Stone is also blamed for perpetuating California's feel-good, lefty take on conservative politicians. The problem remains that "basic truth" frequently eluded Shakespeare himself, who also played to the conspiracy theories of his time - raising the prospect that one day, 400 years from now, Stone could still qualify as Hollywood's 20th-century bard.

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