Presentation on theme: "History and Hollywood “There is no truth, there is only you, and what you make the truth.” -Connor Oberst."— Presentation transcript:
History and Hollywood “There is no truth, there is only you, and what you make the truth.” -Connor Oberst
Period Pieces From the beginning of the film industry, motion pictures based on historical events or the lives of historical figures have been made. Many of the most successful films in history have been, well, about history, or at least some famous historical incident or character from the past. Inevitably, the relationship between what Hollywood portrays, and what actually happened, can be a little murky, to say the least.
Historiography All historians approach history from a particular perspective, i.e. political history, military history, Marxist history, social history, etc. (there are many more). The way to think about this, is to think of a dozens of pairs of eyeglasses. Each one you put on is different from the others, and allows you to see things you can only see when you are wearing that particular pair. For example, Marxists historians view all of history as a struggle between the rich and powerful bourgeoisie, and the poor or working class proletariat.
Historical Bias Needless to say, some low quality historians can show bias, that is, they can impose their own preference on the past. This is a bad thing, and dangerous, but usually easy to spot. Another type of bias is the unconscious bias that causes a person, acting in good faith, to ask one question instead of another. Perhaps the most dangerous bias, is the bias of the audience, that is, the desire to give people what they want to see or hear. One way to avoid this problem is by approaching all history with a sense of true detachment. In short, the ideal investigator is the person who wants to find an answer, but doesn’t care what the answer is.
Academic History vs. “Pop” History Professional historians who try their best to be detached investigators of the past, spend thousands of hours in the library, in archives, or on location, pouring over primary sources, getting the best information from the existing secondary sources, and interviewing eye witnesses or experts, do so in the name of their profession. While a good living as an academic, and a measure of prestige, may await them, huge fortunes almost never do, because very few people ordinary people want to read what they are publishing. Most of the “history” books you see in a Barnes and Nobles, are what we refer to as “pop” history. “Pop” history is written and marketed to a huge audience, with the hope of making a lot of money. Some legitimate, respected historians write “pop” history, but most of it is written by amateurs or quasi-professionals, and not typically researched as thoroughly as academic history. The argument in favor of “pop” history is that it gets many more people familiar with history than does academic history. The problem with “pop” history, is that when someone is writing primarily to gain a wide audience, they will give that audience what they want, and typically be prone to bias.
Back to Hollywood By its very nature, a major motion picture is designed to make money. No studio or producer would finance a project without the idea of making at least some cash. Anytime they get a script, they need to make sure it is going to appeal to as large an audience as possible. This can lead to many scripts being adjusted, and certain facts and details being omitted, all to ensure the best reception. Therein lies the problem with period pieces: Stories may be changed, crucial facts and details are omitted. Of course some film makers are terribly biased, and literally work to impose their preferences on the historical events they depict, essentially making propaganda. Even the most conscientious film makers, who hire professional historians to ensure accuracy, can fall victim to bias.
The Cost of Bad Historical Films You may be thinking to yourself, “Aww, who cares if history gets a little glossing over, if it makes the story better. Why do I care if some director has a character shooting a rifle that didn’t exist when the movie was supposed to take place?” The problem is that many people learn all they are ever really going to know about history, from the few period pieces they see. In some ways, our collective sense of history is affected by Hollywood in a way that professional historians could never touch. For example: If a film maker has a long standing admiration for a certain figure, he makes a film that glamourizes that character, and leaves out flaws. If a film maker has a prejudice against certain groups, that can appear in his work. If a film maker has a particular political or social agenda, they can make a film that advances that agenda in a way that appeals to a mass audience, convincing people to believe something they wouldn’t normally believe, or take action they wouldn’t normally take.
The Most Famous Example of All Time In 1915, brilliant film maker D.W. Griffith released the silent film The Birth of a Nation. The film tells the story of the relationship between two families, the abolitionist Stonemen’s from the North, and the Southern Cameron’s from the South. Part I portrays the period previous to and during the Civil War. In Part II, the era of Reconstruction is presented. In this portion of the film, freed African Americans are given the right to vote, enter the legislature, and gain power in the South, where they deprive whites of their rights. They are depicted as lazy, incompetent, corrupt, and unable to control themselves. In particular, black men are depicted as sex crazed savages, bent on sexual conquest of white women. To regain their rights, and to protect the South from the clearly “sub-human” blacks, the Ku Klux Klan is formed by Ben Cameron. Repeatedly in the film, the heroes are the Ku Klux Klan, and the villains are African Americans.
Impact The film was a landmark achievement in cinema, ushering dozens of advancements in film making. The Birth of a Nation was also the highest grossing film in history until Gone With the Wind surpassed it in the 1940’s. Millions of people saw the film, reinforcing bitter racism in the South, and legitimizing Jim Crow laws. Of course many people, who had little knowledge of Reconstruction believed the film to be an accurate depiction of the period, and many of the falsehoods portrayed are still etched in the collective memory of our society. The Ku Klux Klan reformed in the South the year the film was released, and eventually spread nation wide, reaching its peak with 4-5 million members in the 1920’s. Many historians believe The Birth of a Nation inspired this resurgence.
Rebellion in Film One very popular subject for film, is the concept of rebellion. Some of cinemas most famous pictures have portrayed an individual or group, rebelling, or standing against what appear to be overwhelming forces. Sometimes this can be an individual rebelling against societal convention, as in Marlon Brando’s Johnny in The Wild One, or James Dean’s Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, or Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke. Other times, an individual rebels against the authority of a personal nemesis, as does Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, or Charlton Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur.. Quite often the rebels fight injustice, as does Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Henry Fonda’s Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men, Al Pacino’s Serpico, Brando’s Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, and Sally Field’s Norma Rae.
Particular Aspects to Films about Rebellion Most films about rebellion make clear who the “good guys” are from the outset, and work to make you sympathetic to them. Typically, the rebel is either a bold non-conformist or a humble individual who takes a righteous stand. The villains are usually despicable, but oddly enough, have a strange sense charisma, which makes the protagonist all the more sympathetic. Typically the film will present not just a villain to stand against, but an entire system, which is portrayed with scorn. Many times the rebel will be particularly sensitive to female characters, portraying a “soft” side to contrast with their “rough” rebellious exterior and actions. Typically, the rebel either loses against overwhelming odds, or the story is left open ended. This device often times works to add a sense of romantic doom to rebellion, which ironically, makes rebellion more appealing.
Two Fine Examples The first example we will encounter is Spartacus (1960), starring Kirk Douglas, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Charles Lawton, Peter Ustinov, and Gene Simmons, and directed by the great Stanley Kubrick. In Spartacus, a gladiator in ancient Rome leads a slave rebellion against the legions of Rome. The second example will be The Grapes of Wrath (1940), starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, and John Carradine, and directed by the great John Ford. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family loses their family farm in Oklahoma to greedy bankers during the Dust Bowl, migrates to California to work as migrant farm workers, where they encounter more corporate greed and injustice. Both films offer interesting narratives on rebellion, and have influenced our societies concepts of justice, and love of the underdog, all while we embrace many of the same forces of injustice in our daily lives.