domingo, 15 de julho de 2012

Hollywood and World History by George MacDonald Fraser

Half a century or so ago, when Ronald Colman and Clark Gable were giving new meaning to the mustache and half the civilized world yearned for Greta Garbo or Jean Harlow, while the other half gazed enraptured on Gary Cooper and Robert Taylor; when David Niven was an unknown extra being ejected from a Barbary Coast saloon, Buck Jones was still wearing that enormous hat, Fred Astaire was dancing the spirit of Wodehouse across the screen, and no one thought twice if John Wayne turned up as an ice-hockey player, or Humphrey Bogart as a Mexican bandit complete with accent—in those happy days, when the talkies were just a few years old, an interesting paradox was to be observed in the cinema.


Despite the coming of sound and a generation of actors and actresses who, unlike many of their successors, could speak clear and articulate English, it was still not enough for cinemagoers to be able merely to see, hear, and understand—they had to be able to read too.


Of course, this had also been vital in the silent' days, when captions—like "And so her dark suspicions grew" and "All night long he wrestled with his Beast" and "Harness my zebras, gift of the Nubian king!"—were essential  complements to the visual drama, but when motion pictures began to talk, there were those who supposed that the day of the written word was over, and not only in the cinema. My history teacher—and he was one who regarded motion pictures as the greatest disaster for education since the burning of Alexandria—saw the talking film as the final nail in the coffin of literacy. Why, he asked in despair, should his charges bother with reading, when that infernal silver screen talked to them?


He need not have worried. That flawed glory of the cinema, the costume picture, was going to demand a far higher standard of literacy from its viewers than ever the silent films had done. Rare was the historical epic of the 1930s that did not start off with a written prologue that might have taxed the comprehension of some of today s filmgoers. It usually began, portentously, with the words "In the Year of Our Lord,"
and then there would follow a concise summary of the War of the Spanish Succession, or the condition of the English peasantry in the twelfth century, or the progress of Christianity under Nero. And, by and large, they were not inaccurate. They and the films they introduced paid the audience the compliment of supposing them to have at least an elementary knowledge of, and interest in, times past, and with all their faults (and they were many) they took history seriously.


In view of some of the monstrosities that have been put on the screen in the past half century, that claim may seem bold. There is a popular belief that, where history is concerned, Hollywood always gets it wrong—and sometimes it does. What is overlooked is the astonishing amount of history Hollywood has got right and the immense unacknowledged debt we owe to the commercial cinema as an illuminator of the story of humankind; this even though films have sometimes blundered and distorted and falsified, have botched great themes and belittled great men and women, have trivialized and caricatured and cheapened,
have piled anachronism on solecism on downright lie—still, at their best, they have given a picture of the ages more vivid and memorable than anything in Tacitus or Edward Gibbon or Thomas Babington Macaulay and to an infinitely wider audience. Nor have they necessarily been less scrupulous.
At least they have shown history more fully than they are usually given credit for, as it was never seen before. For better or worse, nothing has been more influential in shaping our visions of the past than the commercial cinema.


For example, take a walk through the huge excavation of ruined ancient Rome, and consider that a tourist of two centuries ago could envisage the reality of the city of the Caesars only dimly, by reference to written accounts and a few highly imaginative paintings. But today all the world knows what it looked like, thanks to William Horning and Edward Carfagno and John de Cuir, among others. (And who outside the industry could identify them as cinema art directors?) Again, all the eyewitness accounts and historians' descriptions of Waterloo have less impact than Sergei Bondartchuk's breathtaking vista of the ragged British squares with Napoleons cavalry streaming past them. When Samuel Johnson wrote Rasselas,
he had no clear conception of what Abyssinia or old Egypt looked like; Cecil B. DeMille could have shown him, down to Cleopatra's hairpins, and parted the Red Sea for an encore. As James Thurber is alleged to have said of The Ten Commandments: "It makes you realize what God could have done if He'd had the money."


Of course, we know that no physical re-creation of the past can be wholly accurate; television reminds us of this regularly with its dramatized attempts to show us what we looked like (and did, and said, and even thought without apparently realizing it, God help us) in the 1930s and 1940s. And that is just the recent, visible past. This came home forcibly to me on a film location when I and a member of the cast, a former paratroop sergeant, labored in vain to make a modern- actor look right in wartime battle dress.
He was a splendid actor, too, of international reputation, but while we could crease his trousers with soap and put lead weights above his anklets and rest his hands just so on his pouches, we could not make him look or move like a soldier of 1944; he would have had to spend five years in the Second World War, we concluded.

Still, we got him reasonably right, and the director and the man's own acting talent did the rest; the result might not have satisfied Field Marshal Montgomery, but it served. Similarly, the re-creators of ancient Babylon, Shakespeare's London, and colonial Virginia do their best, and it too serves.


More or less, anyway. You cannot please everyone, not in the twentieth century. Where our ancestors gaped in awe at the magic lantern and the bioscope, we take a more critical view. We accept as a matter of course the technical miracle of the Ben-Hur chariot race, Sabu flying on the Genie's back, John Ford s aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, and the huge spectacle of Cleopatra's arrival in Rome—and we are moved to mirth when she says to Caesar: "We've gotten off to a bad start, haven't we? I've done nothing but rub you the wrong way." Of course we are; we are only human, even scriptwriters.


This is only one of the pitfalls in the path of the historical filmmaker; more than ordinary films, they are liable to strike a false note. Those who make them know that, while millions of dollars' worth of planning and building, painstaking research beyond the dreams of many academics, and sheer technical brilliance can pass without much notice, one bad line (and it doesn't even have to be a bad line, it just has to sound amiss) or one visual anachronism, one piece of unhappy casting, one directorial slip, will have the customers falling about. There have been enough of these—as well as more culpable commissions of bad taste, willful philistinism, and sheer ignorance—to give costume movies, if not a bad name, at least a patronized and faintly derided status. My history teacher was reluctant to see The Sign of the Cross because he feared he might be offended by the sight of gladiators who chewed gum and talked like gangsters.


Without being unduly defensive on their behalf, one has to say that those who make historical films face hazards unknown to workers in other artistic fields. Take the novelist, pampered creature, in his or her one-dimensional world; the novelist can state simply that Sir Francis Drake rolled in and bowed to the queen or that Marie-Antoinette flung herself, sobbing wildly, on the bed, and that's it; the reader visualizes the scene. The filmmaker has to create it entire, from the coat of arms above the throne to the last diamond in the queen's ruff, and while cinema audiences contain mercifully few authorities on Elizabethan costume, they are well able to spot a wristwatch worn by a cutlass-waving pirate, a microphone boom reflected in a Roman breastplate, a zip fastener on a kilt, an uplift bra on a Byzantine bosom, or a Greyhound bus in the far background of a Western—all of which have happened, and no doubt there is worse to come.

Getting it visually right is one thing; it must also sound right, and historical films abound with instances when it didn t. This is a delicate area, since the writer is usually committing an enforced anachronism by writing in English, when the characters should by rights be talking Norman French or Latin. But it must be English, and acceptable in both North Shields and Wichita, Kansas, at that; so, given the task of constructing a conversation between King John and the abbot of Canterbury, the screenwriter must simply use his mother wit and sense of period, avoid anachronisms not only of fact but of usage, respect the author (if adapting a historical novel),
and hope that the producers will cast George C. Scott or Charlton Heston or Oliver Reed, who will give it that indefinable thing called style. He or she must also bear in mind that, while there are mistakes that don't matter much (only a few experts are going to frown at the anachronism of the word sabotage in the mouth of Captain Bligh), there are times when strict accuracy can be fatal—let the script refer, quite properly, to an English public school junior as a fag, and no one in Wichita is going to hear the next line.


Which brings us to the subject which scriptwriters hate and movie buffs delight in—those famous lines that seemed all right when written in good faith and cold blood but were not. There is no insurance against them and no defense. Let the Lionheart's queen exclaim, "War, war! That's all you think about, Dick Plantagenet!" and the audience will erupt, and it is not a blind bit of use pointing out that Berengária of Navarre probably said something very like that to Richard I» more than once. As who knows better than I, who coined the deathless protest: "But I don't want to marry the Queen of Scots! She's only six years old!" It may well have been a true reflection of the feelings of his youthful majesty Edward VI, but that didn't save it. The list is endless: "Take a letter. Mark Antony, the Senate, Rome . . ."; "This Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, 'Take her!'"; "Delilah, what a dimpled dragon you can be"; and so on. We can console ourselves that the greatest screenwriter of all had clocks striking in ancient Rome and caused his Latin workingmen to talk like Elizabethan Londoners (and who knows that Burbage did not throw Hamlets soliloquy back at him, swearing that he would sooner retire than repeat that in public. And how, exactly, would Burbage have phrased his rebuke to the unhappy playwright? There's an interesting exercise in dialogue writing.)


Such matters are the small change of historical filmmaking. Honest mistakes and follies happen; but what does one say to those more solemn critics who charge Hollywood with trivializing and distorting history, as well as with vulgarity, ignorance, bad taste, and all those other faults that my history teacher recited as, against his better judgment and with grave misgivings, he conducted us to the local cinema to see The Sign of the Cross?


Well, Hollywood is not a school for teaching history. Its business is making money out of entertainment, and history needs considerable editing and adaptation (which can, in some cases, justifiably be called distortion and falsification) before it is submitted to the paying public. This is something from which writers, directors, and producers have seldom flinched. In this they are not necessarily more culpable than many serious historians who, if they seldom deliberately falsify, are often inclined to arrange, shape, select, emphasize, and omit in order to prove a case, or confound a rival, or make propaganda, or simply present what they wish to believe is the truth. This, it seems to me, is a rather greater offense than that of the screenwriter who knows perfectly well that Charles Gordon and the Mahdi never met but who still makes them meet in the script. The screenwriter is not writing history but fashioning drama, and like Shakespeare before him he supplements fact with fiction as seems best to him. For me, provided a writer does not break faith with the spirit of history by willful misrepresentation or hatchet job, he or she may take liberties with the letter—but as few as possible.


My own impression, from a lifelong addiction to costume pictures and the history on which they are based (so far as I know it), is that Hollywood's liberties have been fairly venial and that its virtues far outweigh its faults. There have been glaring cases of distortion (the first two Bounty mutiny films come to mind), more often of civialization and, most frequently of all, of harmless embroidery. Under the last heading, one may place the case of Josef von Sternberg and the vestal virgins, which is typical of good box-office (if not of good historical) thinking and is a common failing of costume pictures.


In the documentary The Epic That Never Was, which dealt with Alexander Korda s aborted production of /, Claudius, the costume designer John Armstrong described how he obtained from a Neapolitan statue authentic details of the dresses for vestal virgins, of whom there were to be six, the proper number, fully clothed. This was not good enough for the director, Sternberg. "I want sixty, and I want them naked," he told Armstrong, who obediently came up with costumes resembling bikinis under gauzy drapery. "It looked lovely," Armstrong conceded, "but it had nothing to do with the Roman religion." How far that kind of departure from truth matters is debatable; my history master might well have condemned it—but recalling his reaction to Claudette Colbert in The Sign of the Cross, I doubt it.

On a different plane, there was the experience of the late Alan Badel in a biblical epic. Going through the script, it seemed to him that unjustifiable liberties had been taken with Holy Writ; the words of Christ, in fact, had been rewritten. Badel complained to the director, high words ensued, minions ran to and fro, the head of the studio (one of the celebrated Hollywood moguls) was summoned, and finally the scriptwriter was asked to explain himself. And according to Badel, the poor soul leafed nervously through the script, compared it with a Bible, coughed, shuffled, and finally said: "Well, you see, Alan, we thought Jesus sounded just a bit cocky in there."

Plainly, it takes all kinds to make historical films; some have the passion of DeMille for accuracy, and some have not. I am no Egyptologist, but I am told that the research done for The Ten Commandments was so exhaustive that it eventually extended scholarship on the subject, and it probably did.


Longships built to scale with meticulous exactness for The Vikings were so successful that they astonished their builders by cutting through waves without pitching or roiling and were eventually sailed across the Atlantic. In both cases, the producers could have compromised, and probably no one would have been any the wiser; it is not strictly necessary to hunt out the details of Nelsons uniform from his naval tailors, or study the technique of stone-masonry in the twelfth century B.C., or scour medieval records for everything from recipes to hairstyles, but the fact that these things have been done as a matter of course should weigh for something with those who, misled by some of the film industry's wilder flights at history, mistakenly conclude that Hollywood could never care less so long as the money comes in at the box office.


It is worth remembering that the often-despised film moguls were the greatest patrons of the arts since time began; Hollywood employed more scholars and experts and diverse talents than any philanthropic or learned institution—and, incidentally, paid them better.
They gave, and got, their moneys worth, and in the process they built us old Baghdad, new and shiny, and the pyramids and the Colosseum; they refought Trafalgar and Thermopylae for our benefit and sent Christopher Columbus to. the sands of Watling Island, Marco Polo to the courts of Cathay, Major Rogers to St. Francis, Rowan to Garcia; they sent Drake around the world and Stanley in search of Livingstone (to the tune of "Onward, Christian Soldiers," which hadn't been written then but sounded wonderful); they brought Clive and Zola, Lincoln and Saladin, Buffalo Bill and Catherine the Great, the duke of Wellington and Dick Turpin, Florence Nightingale and Calamity Jane, to life again; they showed us Argonauts and mountain men, Vikings and Jane Austen's ladies, gladiators and Roundheads, Chinese warlords and Pilgrim fathers, Regency bucks and Zulu impis. Really, it was the greatest show on earth.

Some of it was historical nonsense; most of it was not. If some of the images were blemished, they were better than no images at all. Samuel Pepys has given the most brilliant and finely detailed memorial of Restoration London that could be imagined—but imagine is the word; we must form our mental pictures from what he tells us and from artists like Peter Leiy and Godfrey Kneller; is it sacrilege to suggest that Forever Amber, Frenchman's Creek, and Hudson's Bay add something worthwhile, if it is only a visual impression? All the world knows that when the Light Brigade charged in the San Fernando Valley, it was as the climax to a film that had no more to do with Raglan, Cardigan, and Balaklava than did Little Women—but even Alfred, Lord Tennyson might have had his imagination enlarged by the most spectacular re-creation ever seen of cavalry going neck or nothing into cannon fire. Bette Davis or Flora Robson could play only an imaginative personation of the great Elizabeth I, but each gave us something that the historian cannot.
Personally, I always doubted that an army could be stopped by flashing polished shields until I watched it on the screen; I envisaged the Gordian knot as a vague tangle of rope until Richard Burton was confronted with something that looked like a spherical doormat. What the beginning of the Exodus was like no one will ever know—DeMille brought it to life. The sight of old Vladimir Sokolov perishing in the snow while Charles Boyer made sympathetic noises conveyed some sense of what the retreat from Moscow was like; the scene in which Jack Palance pulls on his glove while Elisha Cook stands wary and angry in the mud is art of a high order; it is also as true an impression of a Western gunfight as we are ever likely to get. There is something else that the costume picture has done. I have lived long enough in the world of historical fiction to know how strongly it can work in turning readers to historical fact. Hollywood, by providing splendid entertainment, has sent people to the history shelves in their millions.



In: Why Docudrama ? Fact-Fiction on Film and TV. Edited by Alan Rosenthal. Carbondalle and Edwardsville. Southern Illinois University Press, 1999, pp. 12-18.

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