- 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
Hollywood, naturally, is more effective at depicting vigorous activity than the role of ideas, and this can matter. Stanford’s Clayborne Carson, for example, faulted Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) for neglecting Malcolm’s evolving political thought. The movie thus portrays Malcolm’s break with Elijah Muhammad as an emotional response rather than an intellectual one, a son’s disillusionment with his surrogate father. But even before Malcolm had learned of the Prophet’s marital infidelities, he had grown dissatisfied with Muhammad’s refusal to allow the Nation of Islam to vote or to participate in civil rights protests. After he had separated from Muhammad, the real Malcolm X moved forcefully toward broader political involvement with other black groups. Carson lamented that young viewers, unaware of Malcolm’s growing recognition of the need for political engagement, would “emulate the self-destructive rebelliousness of Malcolm’s youth or the racist demagoguery of his years in the Nation of Islam rather than his mature statesmanship.”
Of the nearly one hundred movies discussed in the book, the one I liked best was A Man for All Seasons (1966), and it did succeed at depicting complex ideas: religious and political thought in sixteenth-century England. The movie culminates in the trial and execution of Thomas More, the lord chancellor who steadfastly adhered to his religious beliefs, refused to endorse Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of AragĜn, and was beheaded in 1535 for high treason. Paul Scofield is brilliant as More and plays him as a gentle man of exquisite conscience, radiant wit, and burning integrity. Then I received the essay by Richard Marius, More’s biographer. Thomas More, it turns out, was no Paul Scofield. Page after page of More’s voluminous writings were stained with deadly vitriol. “The burning of heretics,” he repeatedly insisted, “is lawful, necessary, and well done.” “The film gives us a More who died heroically for the sake of his conscience,” Marius observed. “It does not give us a hint of the More willing to kill others for their conscience.”
I was dismayed. A Man for All Seasons was plainly Hollywood History at its best, a powerful drama that illuminated a remote and tangled patch of the past. And the movie voiced an incontrovertible truth: that suppression of thought and conscience and speech is wrong. Yet the ostensible hero of the story did not believe in the message he was to have embodied. I wondered: If the story conveyed a truth “for all seasons,” did the identity of that particular man make a difference? Did the movie’s larger meaning transcend its historical errors? Yale’s John Mack Faragher apparently chewed on this question while watching a cluster of movies on Wyatt Earp; and Faragher came down in favor of meaning (see box on page 88). History, Faragher reminds us, is not just a gathering up of clues but the assembling of them so as to make sense of the past. If a filmmaker succeeds at the latter, should one fuss about the former?
One evening, while mulling over this question, I was reading a book with Stephanie, our eleven-year-old. It was Don’t Call Me Angelica , by Scott O’Dell, about a slave rebellion in 1733 on the island of St. John. In the final pages the half-starved runaway slaves are confronted by a formidable contingent of French soldiers. Rather than risk capture, terrible punishment, and return to captivity, the slaves toss down their weapons and leap from a cliff to their death.
“Did that really happen?” Stephanie asked.
“I don’t know.”
An idea: I asked, “If it’s a good story, does it have to be true?” She didn’t answer.
I tried again. “I mean, does it really matter to you whether the story was true?”
She remained silent for a time and then stared at me. “Dad, is this some sort of psychology question?”
Only a professor could ask a question of such ponderous silliness. Of course we want stories to be true. We want to identify with real heroes and heroines. Youngsters and perhaps the downtrodden of all ages may prefer fantasies of transcendent potency—of Superman bounding buildings, of Power Rangers zapping evildoers, of divine powers intervening in human affairs—but most of us crave to learn from real people who have endured what we fear and done what we dream, whose experiences offer guidance as we seek to understand our place upon this planet.
The movie studios know what Stephanie intuited. John Sayles, director of Matewan and Eight Men Out , reported that producers have “many, many times” told him that “the only way a movie is going to work is if the ad says ‘based on a true story.’” And historians are often dismayed to learn that they have been hired as consultants to film projects chiefly to attest to their accuracy. The Columbia historian Eric Foner, who wrote a supportive, if qualified, endorsement of Glory , heard back from the studio that his statement was “of no use” to them. “Well, what do you want?” Foner asked.
“We want a statement that says the film is accurate from a historian’s point of view.”
“I couldn’t do that,” said Foner. “What I mean by accurate is not exactly what they meant.”