Past Imperfect: History

If everything Hollywood said about the past were true, the annals of history would be overflowing with clear-cut confrontations ending in ennobling moral lessons. All hardship would result in progress. No major historical figure would be single. And everyone would have great hair.

In the compulsively readable Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, 60 prominent historians assess Hollywood-style revisionism. Each essayist analyzes a fact-based film or group of films, and returns the expected tally of glaring errors and critical omissions. When he dubs Freud: The Secret Passion “well-meaning pseudo-history,” contributor Peter Gay represents the general consensus. Yet Past Imperfect is not simply an exercise in spotting inaccuracy; in a larger sense, it’s about how popular culture assimilates history.

The collection is formatted like a high-school textbook, complete with sidebars (“The Farm Security Administration” for The Grapes of Wrath; “Joan and Men’s Clothing” for Joan of Arc) and a juxtaposition of “History” and “Hollywood” illustrations (the pictures for The Ten Commandments, for instance, contrast Michelangelo’s Moses with a costumed Charlton Heston). The essays, presented in chronological order according to subject matter and accompanied by an instructive time line, proceed from Jurassic Park to All the President’s Men. Following each entry, such contributors as Antonia Fraser, Gore Vidal, and James M. McPherson recommend background reading material; their own titles often make the lists.

One drawback to Past Imperfect’s large number of contributors is that all must address, in addition to their specific films, several basic themes. This leads to an extraordinary amount of redundancy, as writer after writer assays the same topics: Can movies, whose primary commercial function is to feed fantasy and assuage fear, also hope to be historically accurate? And who’s to say such accuracy would be entertaining? Stephen Jay Gould poses the latter question in his opening essay on Jurassic Park, asking, “What would history look like on film if presented with the themes that most historians regard as dominant? Could we stand such presentations as drama?”

All the writers agree that historical trappings are most often used only for effect. This point is made repeatedly, but Richard White has the last word on the subject in his wonderfully mean-spirited essay on The Last of the Mohicans: “It is not that all the details are all wrong; it is that they never were combined in this fashion,” he explains. “It’s like having George Washington, properly costumed, throwing out the first ball for a 1843 Washington Senators baseball season opener. Sure, there was a George Washington; sure, there once were Washington Senators; sure, the president throws out the first ball; sure, there was an 1843. So what’s the problem?” Of course, there’s getting it wrong and then there’s getting it wrong, and the assessments run the gamut from amused indulgence to spittle-spewing outrage.

As the contributors decide whether the discrepancies between their chosen film(s) and the historical record are benign or insidious, their critical paths diverge. Richard Slotkin savages The Charge of the Light Brigade, noting that “it gets the place and date of the battle right, also the costumes—but absolutely nothing else.” John F. Kasson is equally appalled by Houdini, suggesting that, should the conjurer ever come back from the dead, “he might make his first visit a vengeful one to Paramount Studios.” Other films’ blunders are mundane (Jurassic Park’s Tyrannosaurus rex lived during the Cretaceous Period, not the Jurassic Period); pragmatic (for accuracy’s sake, Shanghai Express should have been called P’u-k’ou Express); or just plain stoopid (in The Alamo, John Wayne announces that San Antonio is situated on the Rio Grande, a river 130 miles away).

The films’ small nips and tucks, however, prove more revealing than their outright fictions. It is here that the distinction between manipulation and the legitimate exercise of cinematic artistry blurs, and here that apologists sputter about films being “true to the spirit of the facts.” In his piece on Fat Man and Little Boy, for instance, Past Imperfect editor Mark C. Carnes observes that during the Trinity A-bomb test, loudspeakers at the site picked up a radio signal broadcasting a waltz from Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings.” In the film, the music becomes The Nutcracker’s “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” a piece whose “traipsing lilt” ostensibly adds a sense of irony to the scene. (Carnes could have gone further and pointed out that most people associate “Dance of the Reed Flutes” with Fantasia’s tutu-wearing hippos.)

Aside from flat-out inaccuracy, fabricated romantic intrigue is the most frequent target of Past Imperfect’s authors. In his dryly humorous essay on The Ten Commandments, Alan F. Segal points out that only Hollywood would go so far as spicing up the Bible by giving Moses a girlfriend—the fictional Egyptian princess “Nefretiri.” While historians debate the “great man” theory of history, moviemakers have traditionally proposed a “great relationship” theory—with predictably skewed results. As Sean Wilentz writes of both cinematic versions of The Buccaneer, “Uninformed viewers may come away from either film thinking that New Orleans (and, in all likelihood, the entire Mississippi Valley) escaped British conquest during the War of 1812 largely because of Jean Lafitte’s longings for an American belle.”

Many of Past Imperfect’s critics are galled by films that alter or whitewash history not on moral grounds, but because the truth is almost invariably more interesting. You’d never find out at the movies that Gandhi was “obsessed with the workings of his own and other people’s bowels,” that Wyatt Earp and his brothers were known as “the fighting pimps,” or that Charles George Gordon was a “repressed pedophile subject to fits of black, immobilizing depression.” It’s not only the character of historic personages that is dullified in the rush to eliminate ambiguity. As Paul Fussell writes of Patton, “There are other real moments the film wouldn’t think of including, such as the sotto voce remark of one junior officer to another after being forced to listen to a vainglorious Patton harangue: ‘What an asshole!’ That would constitute an interesting cinematic moment. I know it took place because I was the one who said it.”

Historic films often say more about the era in which they are made than the era they attempt to depict. Women’s appearances, for instance, rarely reflect the aesthetic standards of years past. The Young Lincoln’s Ann Rutledge sports “improbable lipstick and eye shadow,” while Sigourney Weaver’s Queen Isabella in 1492 is clad in “coquettish, off-the-shoulder gowns…even in Segovia in the dead of winter.” It stands to reason that Hollywood disallows ugliness altogether: In The Scarlet Empress, Marlena Dietrich plays Queen Catherine, a woman who was “large and boisterous and slightly walleyed” in real life.

And though it is often unintentional, most films interpret the past with what Richard Slotkin calls a “presentist agenda.” Anthony Lewis contrasts Laurence Olivier’s Henry V with Kenneth Branagh’s, proposing that the former represents “heroic Britain standing against the Nazis” and the latter a present in which “the idea of British exceptionalism is as dead, for English intellectuals, as the idea of noble wars.” Some filmmakers’ timing is worse than others’: While Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind celebrated what author Catherine Clinton calls “Lost Cause romanticism” and “Confederate nostalgia” on screen, actress Hattie McDaniel was barred from attending the 1939 Atlanta premiere because of that city’s segregation laws.

All of the historians writing in Past Imperfect find flaws in the movies they discuss, but they come to unpredictable conclusions. W.V. Harris, writing about Spartacus, sides with the filmmakers, noting that “They were responding to the American mass imagination of the 1950s (itself, in good part, a Hollywood creation).” Other contributors argue that particular films convey a larger historic truth despite their botched facts. “John Ford’s picture [My Darling Clementine],” writes John Mack Faragher, “lies about the past but locates in the Earp story a logos for American history.” Likewise, Kenneth T. Jackson rebukes Gallipoli for its “glaring omissions,” but calls it “one of the greatest anti-war movies of all time.” In her perceptive discussion of Apocalypse Now, Frances FitzGerald suggests that the only meaningful creative symbiosis between history and Hollywood may be inadvertent: She posits the pointless, overblown film as the perfect metaphor for the Vietnam War. “Just like those who made the war,” she observes, “the filmmakers put extravagant resources to work and got almost nothing right.”

The authors of Past Imperfect aren’t the first to suggest that the functions of history and entertainment are incompatible. In writing about The Longest Day, Stephen E. Ambrose quotes a notorious remark by legendary movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck. “There is nothing duller on the screen,” Zanuck declared, “than being accurate but not dramatic.” This may be overstating the case, but if accuracy and drama are not mutually exclusive, there are precious few movies to prove it. CP