24 August 2009


Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds has sparked off a host of thought pieces all centered around historical inaccuracy in motion pictures, but so far none of them have been all that interesting, to me at least. This is for two reasons:

-Nobody seems to care about films from before the mid-1980s

-All the films in the discussion suck

So here was my thought: what about movies, riddled with historical flaws, that are good or great anyway? They're out there, ranging from films that are just perfectly fine, despite having bad history, to films that are good precisely because of their bad history. Anyway, without further ado:

Ten Good Films That Are Bad History Lessons

The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, 1933)
A magnificent, career-making turn by Charles Laughton is just one of the many delights of this Renaissance potboiler about a deeply lustful man and his destruction of everyone in his wake. But even if we recognise Laughton as the storybook version of the English monarch, the film's treatment of his 38-year reign is un-rigorous, to say the least: there's no sense of time passing at all, and one of the king's six wives doesn't even put in a cameo appearance. To say nothing of the monstrous compression of events and people, enough to make Elizabeth look like an encyclopedia article.

Mutiny on the Bounty (Frank Lloyd, 1935)
Man, that Laughton fella. You couldn't pay him enough to star in a movie with even a whisper of historical credibility, I guess. Now, the film is of course based on a novel that was always meant to be an adventure story first, a documentary account second - but it does not do, I think, to let a man's reputation suffer as darkly as William Bligh's has in the years since the book, and then doubly so after the movie's depiction (thanks to Laughton's best performance ever - and I say that as something of a Laughton fanboy). He was, according to the best scholarship, not a baby-eating tyrant; he may in fact have been an unusually lenient captain, who had the misfortune to command a crew of layabouts who enjoyed the easy life on Tahiti more than they enjoyed sailing a ship. And the film's ending is a complete fabrication.

My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946)
The director who years later made a timeless catchphrase out of "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" got a start on it early, with the first of his "meta-mythic" Westerns. The basic facts of the gunfight at the OK Corral are almost all in place, by which I mean the names are mostly accurate; but practically every detail is tweaked or massively shifted, often for no apparent gain (such as bumping the events back by one year). And often, it must be said, for a very good gain indeed: the bulk of the changes considerably streamline the drama, turning what was in reality a convoluted and morally grey dispute into a simpler, more powerful tale of heroes and villains (though being a Ford film, there's still some grey area). The legend is usually better, don't you think?

One Million Years B.C. (Don Chaffey, 1966)
Of the robust genre of "cavemen and dinosaurs", why single out this one? Easy: because in addition to having cavemen and dinosaurs, it also gave the world the fur bikini. It's also the best of them all, since those dinosaurs were given life by the incomparable Ray Harryhausen, and that fur bikini was filled by the very capable body of Raquel Welch.

Bonnie and Clyde
(Arthur Penn, 1967)
Talk about printing the legend. I suppose most people would never have imagined that this extraordinary, watershed crime drama was anything but the stone-cold truth, as filtered through a thick veil of poetry; I didn't, until I was researching this list. The fact is that the whole plot is basically a jumbled-up version of what happened, never as outlandishly false as, say, the last film on this list, but probably no more true to history than the far more fanciful Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow did rob banks in the area and time-frame specified, but that's as far as you can take it on faith. The real question: does anyone actually care when the results are this great?

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
Because you can't make a list about films that tell wildly ahistorical lies without mentioning Herzog somewhere, that's why.

Jack the Ripper (Jesus Franco, 1976)
Okay, so I'm not just cheating, I'm kind of ripping the rules apart and pissing all over the shredded remains. I said "good or great" movies, and nothing made by Jess Franco - particularly, nothing made by Jess Franco in the 1970s - can possibly deserve either of those adjectives. But I'm including it anyway, for including my single favorite historical fuck-up ever. So, Jack the Ripper, right? What is the one single absolutely undeniable fact about this individual? We don't know who he was (if he was a he at all!), because he was never caught. Would you care to guess how this film ends? Oh, Jess. You are such a shitty, shitty director.

Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
The tragic story of a mediocre composer overshadowed by a truly brilliant rival and driven to jealous rage was never presented more stirringly than in this adaptation of Peter Shaffer's play about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. Unfortunately, this tremendously effective costume drama - one of the better American films of the 1980s, and maybe the cinema's all-time greatest depiction of envy - has also perpetuated a host of myths obscuring the known facts of the matter: Salieri and Mozart were, at worst, friendly rivals who supported each other's work during their acquaintance in Vienna; Salieri was hardly a mediocre composer - no Mozart, of course, but there's plenty to like in his work (it would be like suggesting that Ben Jonson was murderously envious of Shakespeare); and Mozart wasn't a vulgar clown. Of course, we can rationalise this all as the ravings of a madman left to wither away in an asylum. Except that, oops, Salieri didn't die in an asylum.

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)
I'm just saying, when you make a Kennedy assassination conspiracy movie so far out there that the other Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists are all like, "Dude, that movie is crazy. Don't judge all of us by that movie", that is when you know that you have strayed into some very perilous waters. I like to pretend it's an extended episode of The X-Files, and that way it seems like the best political thriller of the last 25 years.

(Mel Gibson, 1995)
Oh yes, I went there. We can certainly debate whether or not this is a good movie at all - many very smart people think it's absolute shit - but this is my list, and I like it, flaws and all. But we can never debate its historical authenticity. Rather than check off its cavalcade of mistakes, it might be faster to list the things it gets right:
-There was a man named William Wallace, and
-He fought against the English.


Cameron said...

what about The Bridge on the River Kwai?

Samuel Wilson said...

Any such list begs a question of whether the filmmakers didn't know or didn't care about historical truth. I'd presume dramatic license in most cases, but it'd be interesting to discover films based on authentic (or maybe willful) ignorance of history. Birth of a Nation probably counts as an early and still definitive example of what I mean.

By the way, what about the wildly contrasting yet pretty much equally inaccurate accounts of John Dillinger's career that appeared in 1945, 1973 and 2009 -- the last having the audacity to claim itself an adaptation of a non-fiction book?

Gloria said...

In favour of "The Private Life of Henry VIII", which was always meant to be a sexual (tragi)comedy more than a history lesson... And I should add that at least in 1933, they bothered to get an actor who actually did look like Holbein's portrait, and took care in recreating the era through costumes, decors: in our modern days, "The Tudors" downgrades Henry VIII to an Hugo Boss model in Tudor style jeans (!) and T-Shirt (!!).

Re the 1936 Bounty film there are glimpses of the actual Bligh: he may have not been the twisted sadist we see in the first part of the film, but he was a very bad human resources manager and had an explosive temper that alienated him from his crew. Another point made in the picture is Bligh resentment against those more privileged than him: as someone who has worked his captaincy from the way down, he thought that young men of the gentry like Christian had it easier (and how right he was about it!). Also, in teh voyage to Timor, the 1936 Bligh is shown as an excellent sailor, a corageous man and a capable leader: later versions ignore this feat of his (it is simply ignored in the "Bligh is a boob" 1960 version), or present Bligh in the boat as a milksop full of doubts (as in the 80s version)

To end with, the historical Bligh had bushy eyebrows(as in the film: yes, actors bothered with characterization, back then) and by the time of the mutiny he was, as Laughton, in his thirties: the other Bounty pictures have presented us with actors nearing the age of Bligh... Bligh's grandad I mean ;p

A Laughton fanboy? That's grand!, please feel free to drop by:

Sean said...

The complexity Samuel brings up is very interesting...what does historical inaccuracy in film often mean? We can assume it's making the story more enjoyable for the audience, possibly in terms of being more exciting, taking a more positive view of the audience's country, etc. I think, however, if the historical inaccuracies are authentic inaccuracies, such as Samuel brought up with the example of 'Birth of a Nation,' they're more or less the same thing. The inaccuracies in that specific film for example, were there because of a vast cultural myth against African Americans, which increased White feelings of racial superiority. In all cases, people are lying to make others feel better.

Is a review of Inglourious Basterds coming soon? I can't wait to hear what you think.

Tim said...

It's been so far difficult to find time to see Inglourious Basterds. Unforgivable, I know. My best guess is a review tomorrow night.

Y'all have a pretty fine discussion starting up. Come on, everyone else, chip in!

Rebecca said...

Ah, I remember the days in French class where we were forced to watch The Messenger to learn about Joan of Arc and no one in my class or anyone I talked to outside of my class (you) could figure out why we weren't watching something (a) better, (b) more historically accurate, or (c) in French.

Also, one of us is remembering the Liberty Valance quote backwards. I believe fact and legend are reversed.

Tim said...

You're completely right, of course. I've fixed it.

dfantico said...

How about a list of deus ex machinas saving the character in the nick of time. My pick is Michael Clayton, a film I saw recently and adored, and Gilroy actually gets away with it with a flashforward!

Rick said...

I would add Gone With the Wind (even though I think it's great) only because its images of slavery are so genteel one wonders what the fighting was all about.