History in Film
If film can never quite capture history as historians might wish, should it just assume creative license can allow for carte blanche: that filmmakers are rather like humpty dumpty and instead of words meaning whatever they wish them to mean, images are allowed to represent any history they like? "The most serious problem the historian has with the past on the screen arises out of the nature of the medium itself." ('History in Images.) So says Robert A Rosenstone, who is better placed than most to make this claim. He is a historian whose book on John Reed was turned into Reds, Warren Beatty's epic Oscar winner, and who also wrote a book on the involvement of Americans in the Spanish Civil War. Rosenstone also says, that "I want to suggest that historical film at its best provides...a counter-discourse on the past." (Cineaste) We might say that while film cannot expect to contain the numerous bibliographic citations that will make a history book seem faithful to the events, it can find its own fidelity in how it presents those events. What, then, are the motives behind the filmmakers' willingness to play a little hard with the facts? Let us work with five: the oppositional, the compactive, the conflational, the elided and the simply made up. We offer the above without assuming that any are categorically good or bad. What matters is how they are used: what we believe the film is seeking to achieve by choosing to present history in a certain way.
The oppositional some believe is vital to Hollywood historical presentation. As Robert Brent Toplin suggests, "instead of producing entertainment that gives expression to multiple outlooks, they design stories that essentially present only one viewpoint. Their favored technique for communicating their perspective involves the portrayal of heroes and villains." (Cineaste) One reason he believes Ang Lee's American civil war film Ride with the Devil wasn't a great success rested on this point. "There are many lead characters, and at some point in the drama the audience cannot clearly distinguish which actor is supposed to have the spotlight." Toplin offers this less as an aesthetic argument than a financially pragmatic one, echoing another article in Cineaste by Mark C. Carnes. "Hollywood makes films for the money. Same reason McDonalds makes burgers." Viewers like processed films, by this reckoning, just as they like processed meat. Yet while Ride with the Devil made only 635, 096 dollars domestically, according to Box office Mojo, a film with a similar approach to characterisation, the WWII film The Thin Red Line, made 36,400,491, more than Glory, a civil war film Toplin admires for its use of conventions and capacity to achieve commercial clout. But perhaps this is an unfair comparison. WII drama Saving Private Ryan earned 216,540,909, offering a far more conventional account of WWII than in The Thin Red Line. There would be little point trying to counter Toplin and Carnes' claims on the factual level. Convention sells. But we might want more from our history than an acceptance of the bottom the line, and Hollywood's insistence that pragmatics is what counts. But Colin McArthur, writing on Braveheart, sees that the approach to heroism that Toplin acknowledges can topple over into proto-Fascism, quoting Umberto Eco. "In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in the Ur-Facist ideology heroism is the norm", Eco notes, as McArthur looks at Braveheart's appeal to neo-facscist groups. "References to Braveheart abound in the speeches of Umberto Bossi, leader of the Italian Northern League...Braveheart also circulates widely in the rhetoric of Pat Buchanan, extreme rightwing candidate for the United States presidency." (Brigadoon, Braveheart,and the Scots) The problem with heroism and villainy so broadly drawn is that it suggests that the methods of past conflict can be usefully adopted in the president day. The simplification in narrative form can be picked up on by far right-leaders to say this is exactly how things should be done. It can become like a promotional video for suspect political positions. Is a film ever really just a movie: especially when making the sort of money Braveheart made, with a worldwide gross of 213, 216, 216?
Sometimes a film has to accept the limits of its running time and compact several characters into one, or several situations into a particular moment. As Terry (Some Mother's Son) George says "To make a film of a true story you must compress timelines, create composite characters and dramatize emotions." (Washington Post) He may have tried to be as accurate as possible, he believed, in Hotel Rwanda, but when a film is based on fact, there will be many who will question what has been put in and what has been left out. Numerous sources claimed that the presentation of the central character in the film was falsely heroic, a position taken that for George, examining the question in the Washington Post piece, amounted to a smear campaign. Such a debate wouldn't be taking place over a film set in the future, but the past is a foreign land: people do things differently there according to particular perspectives. Often films have to compact several different moments into one. As Charles Tashiro says, "it might be historically accurate that it took two weeks for everyone to sign the Declaration of Independence, for example, but it only makes dramatic sense to have it signed all at once." (Cineaste)
Conflating two completely different historical events can seem sometimes ethically problematic, with a well-known example evident in Roland Emmerich's The Patriot. Here a reality from WWII is transposed into the American war of Independence. Mark C. Carnes notes that the film has been scorned for its historical deviations, especially a scene in which British soldiers torch a church filled with civilians." (Cineaste) This was a Nazi act against the Russians and the French, but atrocity can be conflated across centuries: the British acted like Nazis before the event and the film must thus reenact anachronistically a Nazi atrocity. Yet, the film worked very hard at authenticity elsewhere. Emmerich "entirely rebuilt the set when historian-consultants from the Smithsonian complained of its lack of authenticity" Carnes notes in Cineaste A similar approach to the priorities of history could be found in Titanic. While the film cared little for the accurate presentation of reality when it came to characterization (evident when the captain is presented as a villain in the film, while he is seen as a hero in the small Scottish village from whence he came), director James Cameron was slavishly precise in costume design. Robert Brent Toplin says "...the production team had used carpet woven in the fashion of the original design, created a replica of the ships great clock at the central staircase, provided 450 authentic looking wigs for actors and extras, and trained numerous players in the etiquette of the Edwardian era." (Cineaste) The question is what matters to Hollywood; often literally style over substance: the look of the film over factual precision.
Sometimes an event or characteristic of a well- known historical figure doesn't work with the way that an event or person fits into the narrative the film wants to focus upon, and hence we move to our fourth category, elision As historian Howard Zinn puts it, on the question of documentaries versus narrative films. "One might think that documentaries must naturally be more true to the history of an event or period, but they are subject to distortion as narrative films. That is so because any history is a selection of data out of an enormous base, with the historian (or filmmaker), deciding what to include and what to omit." Zinn adds that there are nevertheless sins of omission. It might be all very well to leave out Columbus's preparations as he leaves for the Americas, "but if you omit the mutilations, kidnapping and killing of the Indians he encountered, a false impression has been left." (Cineaste) One reason why Cineaste lists They Died with Their Boots on as one of the ten worst historical films rests on this type of whitewashing as the film, Toplin notes, "thus excused Custer's fatal errors at the Battle of Little Big Horn." (Cineaste) Indeed one reason why the western became revisionist in the seventies was to attend to some of these elisions in earlier westerns. While the mythic image consists of Custer's bravely fighting to the last as Indians encircled him and his remaining troops, the historical reality was more complicated, and suggested fool-hardy behaviour. "When it was reported that they were facing a huge concentration of Indians, possibly as many as four thousand warriors, Custer refused to believe his scouts and decided to attack." (BFI Companion to the Western) Little Big Man offers less an heroic than a preening Custer, putting in what the earlier film left out.
This leads us to the question of making things up. In All the President's Men, there is a moment where journalist Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) "outfakes a secretary to get in to see someone." The scene is mentioned in William Godman's Adventures in the Screen Trade where he talks about his screenplay for the film. "And it didn't happen - they made it up. It was a phony Holywood moment. I have no aversion to such things. God knows I've written enough of them - but I would never have dreamed of using it in a movie about the fall of the president of the United States." Another example would be The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino's majestic account of friends going off to fight in the Vietnam war. It wasn't the improbabilities that worried some critics (the idea that they would all be captured simultaneously, based on the unlikehood they would all be in the same regiment), but the fact (or lack thereof) that Cimino invented the games of Russian Roulette that the soldiers are forced to play by their Vietcong captors. This was artistic license to the point that the license should perhaps have been revoked. The film was made in 1978 just three years after the end of the war: it was hardly an event so lost in time that nobody could claim in the absence of hard evidence fiction could intrude. Film critics from Jonathan Rosenbaum, to political commentators like John Pilger found it not only inaccurate but racist - with the film using the Roulette as a means by which to make the viewers detest the enemy.
Yet if we believe both All the President's Men and The Deer Hunter are great films despite making things up, this means that we cannot easily praise or dismiss a film on the basis of the five categories we have looked at thus far. Can a film be inaccurate and brilliant at the same time; can a more accurate film actually be of far less interest? We needn't go as far as production designer Richard La Motte and his acceptance of the pragmatics of the dramatic. "With a movie it all starts here -it's a story after all. The rules of drama haven't changed in 2,500 years - man against man, man against self, man against nature, protagonist versus antagonist, hero-heroine-villain." For La Motte, "the effectiveness of a movie's communication, then, relies on the strength and accuracy of the physical illustration, not of the superficial, qausi-historical aspect, but of the character-symbols that embody the theme." (Cineaste) La Motte has a point but we wouldn't want to stretch it. Indeed, the French theorist Roland Barthes says: "in...Julius Caesar, all the characters are wearing fringes. Some have them curly, some straggly, some tufted, some oily, all of them well combed, and the bald are not admitted, although there are plenty to be found in Roman history." Here he mocks history Hollywood style. If we believe The Deer Hunter is a vastly superior film to Rambo or Missing in Action, it is that it makes something up within the context of detail which allows the distortions to meet the authentic. The Russian Roulette appears all the more vivid because we have spent an hour of the film with the characters in their Pennsylvanian milieu, at a wedding and going on a deer hunt. The director looks for a powerful metaphor to explore friendship, otherness and self-destruction and finds it in the Roulette. We may very understandably have problems with this as it turns members of the Vietcong into monstrous figures, but that isn't the same as saying they are hopeless caricatures - central to the difference between Rambo: First Blood and The Deer Hunter. Throughout the production, Cimino would find ways in which the film could feel as real as possible. He cast a steel mill worker in a small but key role after scouting locations, and the person who plays the main Vietcong figure arranging the games of Russian Roulette was a "local Thai man with a particular dislike of Americans..." according to the film's producer, Michael Deeley. Blade Runners, Deer Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off). Of course 'real' is a loaded word, but if The Deer Hunter stands out as an important film of American self-examination as Rambo does not, it rests partly on Cimino's desire to capture the vivid within the conceit of invention. In All the President's Men the film went to great lengths to make things look plausible. Director Alan J. Pakula built an exact replica of the Washington Post office in Hollywood, according to Carnes, "going so far as to ship authentic Washington Post newsroom garbage to fill wastebaskets on the set." (Cineaste) Of course this idea of authenticity doesn't make for an important film, yet it might contribute to a verisimilitude can indicating the film is taking its milieu seriously, and consequently seeking out of that milieu a relationship with character, situation and the moment in time more than offering up entertainment. It may be the case as Charles Tashiro notes that we often get our notion of historical accuracy from other films. "...because ancient Rome has been the backdrop to so many films, we 'know' how it should look. 1810, while much more recent, is considerably less popular as a setting for films" (Cineaste) as Tashiro reckons it is a far more difficult period to recognize instantly. We may assume to know something of Roman history because we know a lot about Romans in films. But as Barthes suggests amusingly there is quite a difference between the two. Our notion of plausibility is influenced by what we see as authentic based ironically on what is not authentic at all - previous fictional incarnations of a period in time. Watching a historical film we can think of our five categories - the oppositional, the compactive, the conflational, the elided and the simply made up - and utilise them not for instant judgement, but for further, albeit often wry, enquiry.
© Tony McKibbin