History In The Right Frame

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DW. GRIFFITH WAS NOT easily satisfied. In the autumn of 1915 he was filming the great Babylonian battle sequence for Intolerance . The massive, turreted set stood one hundred and fifty feet above the ground and was stout enough so that, at the height of the fighting, Belshazzar himself could drive his chariot along the top of the wall at full gallop to rally his men against the besieging Persians. Elephants hauled siege towers into place and wielded a battering ram. Hundreds of extras milled along the walls, hurling balls of fire and papier-mâche boulders down onto hundreds of besiegers, their historical authenticity heightened by Persian-style beards fashioned from crepe paper and suspended from wires hooked over their ears. Still, according to Richard Schickel’s solid new biography, D. W. Griffith: An American Life , the director thought something was missing. Falling bodies— that was it! He halted the action and asked for volunteers, men willing to tumble from the walls into (unseen) nets when he gave the signal. No one stepped forward. Griffith then offered double a day’s pay—an additional five crisp dollar bills—for every extra willing to take the plunge. The signal was given, and Babylon’s defenders lost heart; scores of tiny figures leaped from the parapet. “Stop those crazy fools,” the director shouted through his megaphone. “I haven’t enough nets—or enough money. ”

American makers of historical films have always had a problem with scale; the people to whom history happens too often get lost in the pageantry. The same holds true for their smallscreen successors. Two mini-series made for television, one American and recently shown here, the other British and to begin airing this month, illustrate what I mean. They happen to deal with the history of India, not America, but each reveals a good deal about the different ways in which we and the British often seem to approach the dramatized past.

Both are based on novels that sold well on each side of the Atlantic during the late 1970s. The Far Pavilions is a fat, humid book, set in the nineteenth century and “unforgettable,” according to its publisher, “in the fire of its pomp and pageantry, jealousy and treachery, bloody battle and forbidden passions—a story that haunts like a dream and helps us remember just what it is we want most from a novel.” The executives of Home Box Office, the U.S. cable network, evidently thought television viewers would want it, too, and chose to film The Far Pavilions as one in a costly new series of “movies for television.” The outcome, made on location and shown over several consecutive nights last season, was a gaudy six-hour travelogue. Its plot, glimpsed now and again between the carved palaces and painted elephants, the dancing girls and mountain vistas, involved a craggy, half-caste British officer and the woman he loves, a Rajput princess betrothed against her will to an odious despot. (I am not spoiling your pleasure in the reruns, believe me, when I tell you that, although things look hopeless for a time, East and West unite before the credits roll.)

Stripped of its exotic trappings, this story could have happened anywhere. In fact, you have already seen it a hundred times, played out in togas and armor, feathers and top hats. But that is the point. To most American producers the past seems to have no intrinsic interest; history is useful only for embroidering the standard-issue boymeets-girl story, which is the only one they think we want to hear. Even last season’s CBS mini-series about George Washington suffered from this: the truly suspenseful issue raised by that script was not whether a wealthy and conservative Virginia planter would join a revolution against his king, or even if he could lead that cause to victory, but whether he finally would bed his best friend’s wife. That he did not shows there are at least some limits beyond which Hollywood dares not go. But Washington’s relentless fidelity must have gone down hard at the story conferences.

In 1975, three years before The Far Pavilions appeared in England, Paul Scott published the last of the four novels that make up The Raj Quartet . This is a rich and fully realized work of fiction whose intricate plot centers around a serious historical question: What went wrong with British rule in India? The quartet begins in 1942, with India threatened by a Japanese invasion from the east, and ends five years later, in the summer of 1947, just days before the British are to withdraw from the great subcontinent whose bloody division into the two rival republics of India and Pakistan they find themselves powerless to prevent. The novels’ nearly two thousand pages are not easy reading: characters come and go and come back again, obscure and long-forgotten turns in British and Indian politics intrude upon the narrative, and identical events are replayed as seen from different perspectives. The author was at least as interested in subtleties of attitude as he was in action, and the emotional impact of his complicated story is cumulative, constructed with almost agonizing slowness upon a foundation of minutely observed detail.