- 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
The very existence of a book such as Past Imperfect unsettled executives at Warner Brothers, who denied us historians permission to use for payment the stills the studio makes freely available to tabloids and popular magazines. They refused to say why.
When historians call for “historical accuracy” in this context, what they want, more than precision of detail, is an acknowledgment of the ambiguity and complexity of the past. “In my thirty years of research,” Carolly Erickson wrote, “I have found little drama but long stretches of bleakness and uneventful unfolding, many petty personalities and stunted lives, very little pure evil or unmitigated good. Historical research is, or ought to be, the unearthing of the quotidian, and not the stuff of mythic conflict.” Movies, however, Richard Marius warned, have conditioned us to “cast our political and social world in categories of saints and devils.” The former governor Mario Cuomo, who had complained in print of Marius’s rendering of Thomas More, explained somewhat abashedly to the author: “I want all of my heroes to be like the Lone Ranger.”
Or like Lincoln, if one is to judge from the movies made about him as the world was slipping from the Great Depression into war. Both Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) sought to present him in ways that set him apart from the politicians of the 1930s. In Young Mr. Lincoln Henry Fonda depicts a lawyer who is successful because he is decent. (“I may not know so much of law, Mr. Felder,” he tells a prosecutor, “but I know what’s right and wrong.”) And in Abe Lincoln in Illinois , Raymond Massey plays Lincoln as a rube wholly innocent of the sordid doings of politics. (“I don’t want to be no politician.”) Neither portrait, wrote Lincoln’s biographer Mark E. Neely, Jr., resembled the real young Lincoln, a wily lawyer who exhibited “vast electioneering skills.”
Of course Lincoln has been enshrined in movies from the dawn of the medium, but often films propound simplistic stereotypes in far more subtle—and thus effective—ways. On his first viewing of All the President’s Men , William E. Leuchtenburg was “so captivated with it I wanted it to go on for hours more.” But after repeated viewings he realized that the movie “deified the media” and “denigrated the political process.” The Post newsroom was always “bathed in light,” while official Washington appeared “in disagreeable and menacing darkness.” The film suggests that Woodward and Bernstein brought down the Nixon Presidency, thereby neglecting the essential roles of the prosecutors, Judge Sirica, the Supreme Court, and both houses of Congress. “One is given to understand from the movie that government is not to be trusted, that its officials are creatures of the night, and that all— all the president’s men—are complicit in evildoings.” From All the President’s Men it was perhaps not so long a descent into the vast labyrinthine conspiracy depicted in Oliver Stone’s JFK .
From All the President’s Men , it was perhaps not so long a descent into the vast conspiracy depicted in Oliver Stone’s JFK .
Historians listen for echoes of the past. But the echoes are often faint, and our hearing aids primitive. By imperfect means we try to translate these muffled sounds so that they speak to the present. What historical filmmakers do is analogous; but they choose simple languages that will be accessible to the most viewers. Filmmakers often translate the past into a handful of reiterated “story lines” and themes: X is a hero, and Y a villain. Evil lurks beyond our borders, and sometimes even within. Leaders must be strong, and the people vigilant. Pride is punished, and humility rewarded. And on and on.
In addition to these obligatory dramatic formulae, filmmakers resort to simplified explanations of historical processes. When John Hammond expresses his exuberance at having brought the dinosaurs back to life in Jurassic Park , Ian Malcolm, the mathematician, voices doubts: “Dinosaurs had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction.” Stephen Jay Gould disagreed with this type of thinking: A variety of historical forces and accidents did in the dinosaurs; they were not doomed. “The chief error of the movie is the denial of historical contingency: the assumption that species (and history more generally) evolve according to deterministic laws.” Life is too messy, too chancy, too contingent, too irrepressible; it bubbles through whatever analytical coating we apply to it.
“We cannot hope for even a vaguely accurate portrayal of the nub of history in film so long as movies must obey the literary conventions of ordinary plotting. But must film be so unimaginative?” Gould asked. “Why couldn’t a movie about genuine historical characters treat contingency as seriously as science fiction always has?” Let me broaden Gould’s question: Why can’t movies about the past confront our stereotypes and defy our expectations and thus deepen our understanding?