- 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
Just as preposterous, if less poisonous, was They Died With Their Boots On (1941), the story of George Custer and his wife, Libbie. The director Raoul Walsh’s Custer, Errol Flynn, despondent that the Civil War has ended, becomes a drunkard. Eventually Libbie (Olivia de Havilland) turns him around and saves his career. He heads out West, befriends the Sioux, promises to preserve their sacred burial grounds in the Black Hills, and writes Libbie a letter in which he asserts that the Indians must “be protected in their right to an existence in their own country.” In the final scene, after Flynn’s heroic death at the Little Bighorn, Libbie shows her husband’s letter to General Sheridan, who promises that President Grant will carry out Custer’s request and treat the Indians well. “Come, my dear,” Sheridan tells Custer’s teary widow, “your soldier won his last fight after all.” Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., found these scenes offensively fraudulent. The real Custer, Josephy noted, never took a drink after he had humiliated himself on the streets of Monroe, Michigan, in 1862; and Custer himself started the gold rush that caused developers to scramble onto Sioux territory in the Black Hills. Whether the real General Sheridan did in fact say the phrase widely attributed to him about the only good Indian being a dead one, he was no friend to them, nor was his boss, President Grant, who avenged Custer’s death by waging a harsh and punitive military campaign against the Sioux.
Bonnie and Clyde and Anne of the Thousand Days , made just two years apart, reveal the generational fracture of the 1960s.
Hollywood has depicted historical women less egregiously, partly because it has depicted them less or not at all. Yet even when the movie is about a famous woman, she is often squeezed into the tight constraints of twentiethcentury expectations. Carolly Erickson found that The Scarlet Empress (1934) transformed Catherine the Great, “a dynamic and boisterous intellectual,” into “a sex goddess.” Lady Antonia Fraser was similarly disappointed that Hal B. Wallis’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) depicted young Anne Boleyn as hopelessly smitten by Henry VIII; the movie thus missed the more interesting story of an ambitious woman who longed to be part of the king’s world and to use her influence to affect the course of Protestantism.
Fortunately Hollywood has sometimes put aside the iron of conventional domesticity with which it flattens historical women. One atypical representation appeared in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), in which Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie calls the shots (literally), taunting Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) to go off on crime sprees. But Yale’s Nancy Cott noted that the real Bonnie Parker was very different. A tiny person, only four feet ten inches and less than ninety pounds, with curly blonde hair and blue eyes, Parker, a waitress, was charmed by Clyde Barrow the first time she met him, and he was already a confirmed criminal who expected, and received, deference from his girl friend.
Thus, while Bonnie and Clyde transformed a fairly conventional 1930s girl friend into a precursor of Thelma and Louise, Anne of the Thousand Days took an ambitious and independent-minded Anne Boleyn and filmed her as a conventional love-stricken girl. These movies, made within two years of each other, reveal the emerging generational fracture of the late 1960s. As Antonia Fraser put it, Anne of the Thousand Days offered “more of the same” to its audience of mature viewers, while Bonnie and Clyde enshrined for the young a new type of feminist style. “Bonnie’s multivalent character—simultaneously punk and moll—suggested both the threat and the promise of changing the gender order,” Cott wrote.
Because viewers prefer movies that confirm their beliefs, Hollywood History usually reflects prevailing attitudes, especially in politics. The list of such films stretches back to the origins of cinema, certainly to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). “Few if any films in the history of the cinema,” Berkeley’s Leon Litwack wrote, “had such tragic and far-reaching consequences,” for “more than any historian or textbook, the movie molded and reinforced racial stereotypes by its vividly demeaning portrayal of African Americans.” Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), like The Birth of a Nation , was hailed as another masterpiece of cinematic innovation. But Columbia’s Simon Schama was struck by the film’s resonance to the tragic political movements of the era in which it was made: “ Napoleon seems to me now, as it did when I first saw it, a proto-fascist film that fetishizes the charismatic leader. I love its visual inventiveness and despise the cause it serves.”