- 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
Richard Slotkin noted that by the mid-1930s, with fascism and communism on the rise in Europe, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) constituted a thinly veiled plea for the rearmament of the West against the forces of totalitarianism. The threat remained after the Second World War, though now it had been narrowed down to Sovietinspired communism. Even a subject so remote as the Bible could provide a parable for the present peril. In the prologue to The Ten Commandments (1956), Cecil B. DeMille walks onstage and lays it on the line: “The theme of this picture is whether men are to be ruled by God’s laws, or by a dictator.…This same battle continues throughout the world today.” The metaphor, Barnard’s Alan Segal observed, was oddly inconsistent, for while ancient Egypt stood for Soviet communism, the glamour and splendor of the pharaoh’s palace seemingly indicted American prosperity and materialism. The movie, made when McCarthyism still hung over the political landscape, suggested that the true enemy was within.
By the 1960s the enemies of the West had been identified as the restive peoples of the Third World. David Levering Lewis saw Khartoum (1966) in this light. Its message was encapsulated in the final scene: Charles George Gordon (Charlton Heston), standing alone at the top of the stairs to his palace, resplendent in a dark blue uniform, saber unsheathed, watching impassively as an angry sea of darkskinned peoples surges upward. For a moment Heston’s stare stops the dervishes in their tracks; then they regain their wits, spear him, and lop off his head. The sun sets, the screen darkens, and a sepulchral voice warns, “A world without Gordons would return to the sands.” Here, Lewis wrote, was “an occidental cinematic cliché in splendid culmination.”
Khartoum was filmed during the great buildup of American ground forces in Vietnam; several years—and tens of thousands of American lives—later, when the costs of policing the world had become far more evident than its wisdom, attitudes toward foreign military interventions had changed. And so did the movies, giving rise to a new genre of vividly violent films about the Vietnam War. The most influential was, of course, Apocalypse Now . But for all its visual brilliance and jolting special effects, the movie never seemed to light on Vietnamese soil. Frances FitzGerald was unsettled by references to Montagnards in panflat Cambodia, by rivers that scale mountains, by MarIon Brando’s role as mere symbol, “Colonel Thanatos.” “Life is missing, and so is an attention to landscape, to detail,” FitzGerald wrote. It was a failing shared by the movie’s successors. In Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hue during the Tet offensive resembles “a bombed-out suburb of Miami.” Casualties of War (1989) features huge railway bridges and trains, though the only railroad in Vietnam had been built early in the century and was unused during the war. In The Deer Hunter (1978) the Vietnamese speak Thai and play Russian roulette. These films are much like the war itself, FitzGerald concluded, for “to most Americans, including those in positions of authority, Vietnam was an abstraction or a symbol.”
By the 1980s the political debate had shifted from Vietnam to the escalating nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The director Roland Joffe’s contribution to the debate was Fat Man and Little Boy (1989), which argues that the frenzied expansion of nuclear weaponry was from the outset driven by pigheaded militarists (like Gen. Leslie Groves, military commander of the Manhattan Project), who intimidate morally sensitive people (like the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the bomb design team at Los Alamos) into doing what they know is wrong. Joffe claimed that his film was “more truthful to what actually happened than any documentary will ever be,” but the movie’s central dramatic figure—Michael Merriman (John Cusack), who accidentally absorbs a lethal dose of radiation—is fictitious. He pleads that the bomb not be dropped on Japan, then dies just minutes before the Trinity explosion, neatly underscoring Joffe’s point: that Los Alamos represented the monitory triumph of death over life. “Merriman” was based on Louis Slotin, a thirty-fouryear old Canadian physicist who died almost exactly as depicted in the movie. There is no evidence, however, that Slotin opposed using the bomb; in any case his death provided no cautionary warning to Oppenheimer since it occurred on May 30, 1946, nearly a year after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nearly six months after Oppenheimer had quit the project.