- 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
In several instances movies that were dismissed when they were made have gained credibility with the passage of time. An outstanding example is PT 109 , a film made “out of time in 1963,” Richard Reeves noted, because the boat’s twenty-six-year-old commander, Lt. John F. Kennedy, had become President of the United States. The movie, released just months before the presidential campaign (and JFK’s assassination), received harsh treatment from critics. Time complained that Kennedy’s exploits had been blown up “out of proportion in deference to the man who is now the Great Big Skipper.” The movie had become “a widescreen campaign poster,” filmed with “a reverence usually reserved for a New Testament spectacle.” Yet Reeves found that despite the movie’s modifications of words, facts, and events, the filmmakers “did all right. As corny as Cliff Robertson’s dialogue may sound to some, it gets to the truth of John F. Kennedy: The man had an iron will. No matter how you rearrange the facts of his life- including the fact that his health was such that he never should have been in the navy, particularly the PT service—JFK was not an easy man to discourage.”
Critics of Hollywood History often seize on the howling anachronism: the Roman senator with a Timex on his wrist. We found few of these, but errors of context were fairly common: Michael Grant noticed busts that looked “suspiciously like Hadrian” ( A.D. 76–138) in the 1953 film Julius Caesar (Caesar, of course, lived from 100 B.C. to 44 B.C. ); Carolly Erickson that in The Scarlett Empress (1934) the music of Wagner thunders over scenes of the eighteenthcentury Russian court; Paul Fussell that the “American” tanks in Patton were German and had been rented from the Spanish Army; Akira Iriye that in Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) the Japanese refer in their own language to the great attack of December 8, a date that is mistranslated into English, for understandable reasons, as December 7; David Carradine that in Murder by Decree (1979) the Tower Bridge, not yet complete, is shown intact at the time of the Ripper murders; Marshall de Bruhl that in The Alamo (1960), Richard Boone’s Sam Houston orders the defenders of the Alamo to stop Santa Anna “right here on the Rio Grande,” which doesn’t flow within a hundred miles of the place; Anthony F. C. Wallace that in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) Henry Fonda helps break the siege of Fort Stanwix (which occurred in 1777) and announces that Cornwallis has surrendered, thus shortening the war by four years.
We did find many more serious mistakes of historical presentation and interpretation, and error, as Hawthorne demonstrated in The Scarlet Letter , is more interesting than virtue. But let me concede from the outset that a movie script is (mercifully) not a dissertation; a feature film is not a documentary. We do not mean to censure film-makers, much less censor them, for making feature films. Shakespeare, by omitting the fact that Henry V slaughtered hundreds of French prisoners at Agincourt, perhaps failed as a historian, yet we do not propose that some committee of earnest historians undertake the revision of Henry V . But sometimes filmmakers become so smitten with their creations they proclaim them to be “accurate” or “truthful,” and many viewers presume them to be so.
Partly that’s because the elaborate costumes, sets, and furniture and the powerful presence of the actors give the illusion of authenticity. That a film carefully replicates the material culture of a period, however, is no guarantee that it conforms even vaguely to the historical record. In making The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), for example, Warner Brothers simulated a “sense of authenticity” among the crew by printing replicas of Victorian postage stamps and using them on interoffice correspondence—though none would ever appear on-screen. Yet as Richard Slotkin observed, this “authenticity” did not extend to the plot, which proposes that several years before the charge a “Suristani” potentate named Surat Khan butchered a British garrison on the frontier of India, killing Errol Flynn’s friends and family. Somehow Surat Khan, who has become allied to the Russians, ends up on Balaklava Heights in the Crimea. There he is spotted by Errol Flynn, who, eyes brimming with vengeance, charges straight for him, leading the Light Brigade to its doom. British India did exist, and so did the Light Brigade and Balaklava Heights; the rest of the story was fantasy.
Along a continuum ranging from “dead wrong” to “close to the verifiable history,” The Charge of the Light Brigade sits near one edge, though every movie in the vicinity is in danger of being swallowed up by that black hole of deceit, Oliver Stone ‘s JFK (1991). The movie amplifies the discredited thesis of the New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison that Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among countless others, conspired in the President’s assassination, fearing that Kennedy was planning to pull the United States out of Vietnam. Stanley Karnow’s essay showed that Stone was wrong about Kennedy’s intentions toward Vietnam. Even worse, Stone twisted the evidence—including Karnow’s own book—beyond recognition.