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History In The Right Frame

July 2024
6min read

DW. GRIFFITH WAS NOT easily satisfied. In the autumn of 1915 he was filming the great Babylonian battle sequence for Intolerance . The massive, turreted set stood one hundred and fifty feet above the ground and was stout enough so that, at the height of the fighting, Belshazzar himself could drive his chariot along the top of the wall at full gallop to rally his men against the besieging Persians. Elephants hauled siege towers into place and wielded a battering ram. Hundreds of extras milled along the walls, hurling balls of fire and papier-mâche boulders down onto hundreds of besiegers, their historical authenticity heightened by Persian-style beards fashioned from crepe paper and suspended from wires hooked over their ears. Still, according to Richard Schickel’s solid new biography, D. W. Griffith: An American Life , the director thought something was missing. Falling bodies— that was it! He halted the action and asked for volunteers, men willing to tumble from the walls into (unseen) nets when he gave the signal. No one stepped forward. Griffith then offered double a day’s pay—an additional five crisp dollar bills—for every extra willing to take the plunge. The signal was given, and Babylon’s defenders lost heart; scores of tiny figures leaped from the parapet. “Stop those crazy fools,” the director shouted through his megaphone. “I haven’t enough nets—or enough money. ”

American makers of historical films have always had a problem with scale; the people to whom history happens too often get lost in the pageantry. The same holds true for their smallscreen successors. Two mini-series made for television, one American and recently shown here, the other British and to begin airing this month, illustrate what I mean. They happen to deal with the history of India, not America, but each reveals a good deal about the different ways in which we and the British often seem to approach the dramatized past.

Both are based on novels that sold well on each side of the Atlantic during the late 1970s. The Far Pavilions is a fat, humid book, set in the nineteenth century and “unforgettable,” according to its publisher, “in the fire of its pomp and pageantry, jealousy and treachery, bloody battle and forbidden passions—a story that haunts like a dream and helps us remember just what it is we want most from a novel.” The executives of Home Box Office, the U.S. cable network, evidently thought television viewers would want it, too, and chose to film The Far Pavilions as one in a costly new series of “movies for television.” The outcome, made on location and shown over several consecutive nights last season, was a gaudy six-hour travelogue. Its plot, glimpsed now and again between the carved palaces and painted elephants, the dancing girls and mountain vistas, involved a craggy, half-caste British officer and the woman he loves, a Rajput princess betrothed against her will to an odious despot. (I am not spoiling your pleasure in the reruns, believe me, when I tell you that, although things look hopeless for a time, East and West unite before the credits roll.)

Stripped of its exotic trappings, this story could have happened anywhere. In fact, you have already seen it a hundred times, played out in togas and armor, feathers and top hats. But that is the point. To most American producers the past seems to have no intrinsic interest; history is useful only for embroidering the standard-issue boymeets-girl story, which is the only one they think we want to hear. Even last season’s CBS mini-series about George Washington suffered from this: the truly suspenseful issue raised by that script was not whether a wealthy and conservative Virginia planter would join a revolution against his king, or even if he could lead that cause to victory, but whether he finally would bed his best friend’s wife. That he did not shows there are at least some limits beyond which Hollywood dares not go. But Washington’s relentless fidelity must have gone down hard at the story conferences.

In 1975, three years before The Far Pavilions appeared in England, Paul Scott published the last of the four novels that make up The Raj Quartet . This is a rich and fully realized work of fiction whose intricate plot centers around a serious historical question: What went wrong with British rule in India? The quartet begins in 1942, with India threatened by a Japanese invasion from the east, and ends five years later, in the summer of 1947, just days before the British are to withdraw from the great subcontinent whose bloody division into the two rival republics of India and Pakistan they find themselves powerless to prevent. The novels’ nearly two thousand pages are not easy reading: characters come and go and come back again, obscure and long-forgotten turns in British and Indian politics intrude upon the narrative, and identical events are replayed as seen from different perspectives. The author was at least as interested in subtleties of attitude as he was in action, and the emotional impact of his complicated story is cumulative, constructed with almost agonizing slowness upon a foundation of minutely observed detail.

In short, just the sort of book most American television executives routinely shun. But to Sir Denis Forman, deputy chairman of Granada Television, it was “a natural … the chance of a lifetime.” He bought the rights to the book, put his crews to work, and the result—fifteen hours of it, spread out over fourteen weeks—will start its American run on the Public Broadcasting System’s “Masterpiece Theater” the evening of December 16. If there has been a better historical drama made for television, I have not seen it.

THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN —the series title comes from the first of Scott’s four novels—has all the strengths we have come to expect from the best British television drama. The script, by Ken Taylor, is literate, unafraid of good talk, faithful to the book, and retains a considerable measure of the quartet’s complexity. There are some twenty-five major characters, and not one is poorly played or out of place. They include all kinds of people, not just young lovers (though there are several pairs of those), but also the old and middle-aged, intelligent and dim, Indian and English. Perhaps the most affecting character is Barbie Batchelor, an elderly missionary who has lost her faith in God and the Raj and herself, played with harrowing power by Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Paul Scott was wise enough to see that history envelops all of us—and so were his television interpreters. Also, the story incorporates themes that in less sure hands could have been sensationalized—rape, homosexuality, sadomasochism, seduction, murder. But here they always involve individuals about whom we have been made to care, and everything takes place within a convincing historical context.

Why can’t we make good historical motion pictures?

The rightness of that context is one of the things that sets this series apart. It is not just that much of it was filmed in India; so was The Far Pavilions , after all, and its glittering background only got in the way. What the producers clearly recognized was that, for all its color, India was first of all a place where real people lived and worked and endured the heat. There are spectacular settings—the Vale of Kashmir, the British summer capital of Simla in the blue Himalayan foothills, the lake palace of the Maharanas of Udaipur—but they are never allowed to become more than settings. The characters stay firmly in the foreground. That style is set in episode one, when the English girl, whose brief, unforeseen love affair with a British-educated Indian sets the whole tragedy in motion, ventures alone for the first time into the Indian section of town in a horse-drawn tonga. Most directors would have seized the opportunity for a bright splash of tourist India—holy men, chattering monkeys, a cluster of snake charmers. Here the camera sees only what the girl sees: loungers peering in at her as she passes; four women in scarlet, their heads covered, hurrying home with pots of water; the twisting, narrow lane itself. The result for the viewer is a vivid sense of being in a specific place at a specific time. (For what it’s worth, I should add that I spent some of my own boyhood in India not long after the British sahibs sailed for home, and so far as I can remember, the producers have got it all right, from the flowered English chintz that covers the parlor sofa on a Kashmir! houseboat to the oddly sullen sound of the crows in the bungalow gardens at dawn.)

But it is in its thoughtful attitude toward history that this production is especially refreshing. The Jewel in the Crown , like the novels on which it is based, is at once understanding and unflinching in its portrayal of the English in India. There are no heroes, though there are plenty of more or less admirable people, who, after three hundred years of contact with India and nearly a century of direct rule, discover that they have never understood the place at all. India has outlasted them, just as it outlasted half a dozen earlier occupiers. It is left to Ronald Merrick, the corrupt officer of Indian police who comes as close as the series gets to villainy, to betray the brutal secret of imperial rule. Comradeship, the egalitarian ideal toward which Britain claimed to be working, would never come about, could never come about, because the Raj was built upon a lie: however good their manners, the rulers were finally contemptuous of the ruled—who feared their rulers in return.

When men and women wonder in the future what life was like at the end of empire, they would do well to watch this series. So would American producers who want to see how history can be rendered honestly for grown-ups.

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