I am almost sure that telling a historical story through a movie is fraught with as many perils for the story-teller as doing so through the medium of historical fiction – it’s just that the movie-maker’s pratfalls are so much more … public, I guess is the word that I’m fishing for. There are big-name, serious historical fiction writers who abuse history almost beyond recognition in their attempt to weave a tale of the past – Philippa Gregory, anyone? – but to my mind, the really, really egregious mainstream offenses are committed in the service of movie-making.
I was reminded of this again, in reading yet another 100-year-anniversary-of-the-Titanic sinking, and how James Cameron had to apologize to the descendants of First Officer William Murdoch for the manner in which Murdoch’s character was maligned and his fate dramatized in Titanic … all in the service of punching up the drama a couple of degrees. Which was really not necessary, since – like most dramatic historical episodes – a strict accounting of the facts usually provides all the drama required. But Cameron isn’t the only movie-maker guilty of over-egging the pudding and re-making the characters of participants in events to suit the need for higher drama. The movie Zulu – also based on a supremely dramatic incident – felt obliged to portray one of the participants in the battle of Rorke’s Drift as an insubordinate drunkard and a malingerer. The man was actually a teetotaler and a model professional soldier, and his then still-living daughters were outraged, to the point of walking out of the premiere. The mega-flopperoo Heaven’s Gate did the same with Nate Champion, Jim Averill, and Frank Canton – real participants in the historical Johnson County war, but not quite as how they were drawn. I suppose the funniest take on the clash between historical accuracy and the needs of cinematic spectacle must be the old Alan Alda movie, Sweet Liberty.
Anyway – it’s a problem, using the names of real people, and it just seems to be worse with movies. Curiously, the worst offenders that I can think of make a great big deal about their fidelity to historical accuracy, but usually that means they will try very, very, very hard to nail down small details; the general appearance of things, but trip and fall over plot points as well as character development. I’m still shaking my head over Mel Gibson’s The Patriot – heck, they even scored a cover story about their fidelity to historical accuracy in The Smithsonian Magazine. At least, though – they had the decency to change all the names of the characters. The Patriot was only inspired by the adventures of certain historical characters in the American Revolution; mercifully, they didn’t even try to do an accurate rendering of the adventures of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox. And that is the honest and ethical thing to do when re-telling a historical story in a novel or a movie; if it would have been impossible for a historical figure to have done, or said, or behaved in way that advances the plot, then one is perfectly free to make up a character to carry out those functions. Just be absolutely straight with the real people. Always. The thing about it is – just telling the story absolutely straight is often more dramatic, improbable and fantastic than anything you might have made up.
(Cross-posted at www.ncobrief.com, and at my Celia Hayes Blog …curiously, I am unable presently to post links within this post to support various points. Those links are here:
[Jonathan adds: The links should be OK now.]