Saturday, 7 August 2004

Rewriting History

A few days ago I checked a book out called Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies from the library. It is a collection of essays on specific historical movies and how well they jibe, or don't jibe, with the history they purport to portray. So far I have found it a very interesting read.

Anyhow, when it comes to historical movies, I have always had a love/hate relationship. On the one hand, I have loved history since I was a boy. I also happen to be one of those people who feels that when someone makes a historical movie, it should be as loyal to the events it is portraying as it possibly can be. There are exceptions to this rule of mine. I have little problem with pirate movies, swashbucklers, costume dramas, and Westerns playing fast and loose with the historical record, as these genres are well known for not following the historical record with the utmost regard for accuracy. I think most people realise that. When it comes to more "serious (for lack of a better term)" historical films, however, I do expect some degree of accuracy. If a movie is about Abraham Lincoln, I expect it to accurately reflect his life. Unfortunately, most historical movies stray from the historical record in some way, often they stray very far indeed.

The perfect example of this is Braveheart. I have often heard my friends who know a good deal about Scotland complain that the Scots were not wearing kilts in the 13th century, but this is the least of the movie's problems. For one thing, no such custom as "prima nocte" or "first night," in which lords are allowed to sleep the brides of their inferiors on the wedding night, ever existed among the English or the Normans, and Edward I (also known as Edward Longshanks) never made such a decree. In fact, this so-called custom was never practised in northern Europe; it is to be found only as a motif in Celtic folk tales. For the movie to claim that Edward I would even entertain such a notion amounts to slander to me. But then to me the movie's potrayal of Edward I is unfair over all. Edward was indeed a hard man. He was very well known for his temper. And he did indeed sanction the use of atrocities against the Scots. But he was hardly the petty tyrant that the movie makes him out to be. He enacted government reforms and revised both English law and the court system. He was also the first king to regularly hold Parliament. He always kept the welfare of the English people at the forefront during his reign. In fact, contrary to the portrayal of Edward as a dictator, Longshanks believed that a king could only rule with the consent and advice of his subjects. Of course, just as the movie paints Edward I as a petty villain, it also whitewashes William Wallace. According to some sources, Wallace's career began with an argument between Wallace and English authorities which ended with Wallace killing a young constable named Selby. And just as Edward I committed atrocites against the Scots, so too did Wallace commit them against the English. Braveheart ignores the fact that both Edward I and William Wallace were remarkable men who each had their own virtues and their own faults. Neither was completely a hero nor completely a villain. I won't even mention the movie's portrayal of Robert the Bruce...

Of course, even when a movie is not as wildly inaccurate as Braveheart, it can give the viewer a skewed view of historical events. An example of this is Quiz Show. Quiz Show centres upon upon Charles Van Doren, the contestant on Twenty One who became an overnight celebrity, and Herb Strempel, the previous champion who "lost" to him. It covers the events from Van Doren's "defeat" of Stempel on the show to the discovery that show (like many other quiz shows of the time) was fixed and Van Doren's final admission in testimony before the government that the game was indeed rigged. Insofar as I can tell, the movie remains fairly loyal to the events as they had happened with regards to Twenty One, Van Doren, and Stempel. Unfotunately, in focusing exclusively on Twenty One, the movie gives the impression that the quiz show scandal entirely concerned NBC. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The show which started the entire "quiz show" cycle of the Fifties was The $64,000 Question, which debuted on CBS in the summer of 1955. It was created by Louis G. Cowan, who based the show on the 1940s radio show Take It or Leave It. The $64,000 Question became a huge hit and sometimes drew better ratings than I Love Lucy. In its wake, other quiz shows debuted (among which was Twenty One on NBC). In a large part due to its success, Cowan became president of CBS. The quiz show scandal broke in May 1958 when an individual revealed that the CBS daytime show Dotto was rigged. Other quiz show contestants came forward to reveal that other shows were rigged as well, among them The $64,000 Question, The $64,000 Challenge, and Twenty One. While there is no evidence to suggest Cowan knew that the The $64,000 Question and other shows were rigged, he was forced to resign as president of CBS. Unfortunately, none of this is mentioned in Quiz Show. Indeed, at no point is any other network than NBC even mentioned in the movie. This could lead to individuals unfamiliar with the quiz show scandal of the Fifties to believe that the scandal only affected NBC, when in fact CBS had even greater problems becuase of it. It seems to me that it would have been simple enough to add a few lines of dialogue to Quiz Show indicating that CBS was also affected by the scandal and that it was not something peculiar to NBC.

Of course, there are many more examples of movies that either wholly disregard history (like Braveheart) or give a wrong impression of historical events (like Quiz Show). I suppose it can be argued that the purpose of movies is not to educate, but to entertain. The problem I have with that idea is that many, many people, perhaps most people, will see these movies and assume that because they are purportedly based on a true story, then they must be true. Whether their makers intend it or not, these movies are then teaching history after a fashion. How many people honestly believe that Edward I decreed that lords should have a right to sleep with their inferior's wives on their wedding night? How many people honestly believe that the quiz show scandal only affected NBC? One would be too many for me. Besides which, often I have found that the actual events of history are more interesting than a movie based on them. An example of this is Titanic. I find the romance between the two fictional lead characters to be much duller than the actual stories of real people that took place aboard the ship. To me, then, Titanic was a wasted opportunity to tell the true (and much more interesting) stories of the people who sailed on the Titanic.

Unfortunately, I doubt that movies will become more historically accurate any time soon. As I said, the purpose of movies is to entertain. Another, perhaps more important purpose, is for them to make money. As long as movie makers are convinced that real history won't sell, I doubt we'll see too many movies that are absolutely loyal to history.

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