- Historic Sites
The author sent dozens of historians to the movies to find out how much—and how well—films could teach us about the past
September 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 5
For historians part of the glow of Hollywood History is its visual authenticity. Hollywood studios have often painstakingly reproduced the material culture of the past: clothing, furniture, architecture. Thus Walter Plunkett, a costume designer, searched through Atlanta’s museums, found swatches of clothing, and commissioned textile mills to reproduce them for the dresses in Gone With the Wind (1939); the women’s costumes alone cost nearly a hundred thousand dollars. John Ford’s reconstruction of Fort Apache for his 1948 movie by that name was consistent, Dee Brown observed, with “surviving glass-plate photographs of period and place.” John Wayne’s reconstruction of the Alamo for his 1960 movie stands to this day as a very satisfactory museum; many tourists presume it to be the original. While making All the President’s Men (1976), Warner Brothers built an almost exact duplicate of the Washington Post newsroom upon two sound stages at Burbank. The studio ordered two hundred desks from the firm that had supplied the Post and painted the room the identical colors of the original: 6 ½ PA Blue and 22 PE Green. Warner Brothers even shipped trash from the Post newsroom to fill wastebaskets on the set.
Apart from the visual details, movies sometimes succeed better than prose at replicating the pacing and intensity of historical events. Frances FitzGerald was stunned by the opening of Apocalypse Now (1979): palm trees rising out of the ocean, a helicopter moving through the top of the frame—like a “malevolent insect”—and the jungle erupting in a wall of flame. “When I first saw these breathtaking pyrotechnics I thought: [Francis Ford] Coppola has seen the war in Vietnam and filmed what the TV cameras could only approximate.” J. Anthony Lukas was similarly struck by the wordless beginning of The Molly Maguires (1970), which takes viewers into the depths of a coal mine: A match flares, and an explosion rips through the deep tunnels. “No audience of today can comprehend the Mollies without feeling that damp, drear, dangerous world.…Those twelve minutes of chop, drip, and hack evoke that world with precision and empathy.” Geoffrey C. Ward was moved by Richard Attenborough’s re-creation of the Amritsar massacre in Gandhi (1982); and Kenneth T. Jackson, by the final scene in Gallipoli (1981), where soldiers of the Australian 10th Light Horse Regiment, having witnessed their mates being shredded by Turkish machinegun fire, push letters, rings, and watches into the wall of the trench, where they will be found and sent home after their owners have also gone to confront certain death. James McPherson regarded the depiction in Glory (1989) of the assault upon Fort Wagner by the black troops of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a unit that suffered nearly 50 percent casualties in the battle, as “the most realistic combat footage in any Civil War movie.”
Sometimes the visual power of the movies transcends inaccuracies of chronology and character. Stephen Minta, author of a book on Lope de Aguirre, a soldier of fortune who murdered the commander of a 1560 expedition down the Amazon and initiated an exotically mad reign of terror, applauded Werner Herzog’s film on the subject, Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), despite the fact that Herzog folded into Aguirre’s story characters and details from Gonzalo Pizarro’s El Dorado expedition of 1541. What redeemed the movie for Minta was its evocation of that awesome river, especially the final scene showing Aguirre aboard his sinking raft. “The distorted features of Klaus Kinski (Aguirre) bring us as close to an understanding of Aguirre’s psychology as we are likely to get,” Minta wrote.
Sometimes filmmakers happen upon truths that have eluded historians. Scan Wilentz, for instance, argued that because it insisted on the significance of the Battle of New Orleans, The Buccaneer was “more trustworthy than many standard history textbooks,” which proclaim the battle irrelevant because it was fought after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed. Wilentz maintained that had the British won at New Orleans, they were prepared, treaty or no, “to seize the advantage, declare the Louisiana Purchase a dead letter, and redraw the political map of North America.”
During the first half of the twentieth century, similarly, historians generally assumed that the plantation mistress resembled the stereotypical Southern belle, passive and submissive, a fragile ornament to Southern gentility. But Vivien Leigh’s gritty performance as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) challenged the stereotype, and in recent years Catherine Clinton, author of Tara Revisited: Women, War, and the Plantation Legend , has studied the letters and diaries of plantation mistresses and found that Scarlett was closer to the actual history than the mythic Southern belle.