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The Movies: "Best" Means Different Things to Different People

October 2019

Is telling a good story more important than historical accuracy?

Nothing makes me crazier than being asked to identify “best” and “worst” in movies involving history. It’s all too easy to decide “historically accurate” equals “best” and “historically inaccurate” equals “worst.” A movie isn’t a textbook! I know historical accountability is important, but I don’t judge movies on that basis alone. Most people would agree that no credible World War II movie could claim Hitler was blown up and killed in a movie theatre by a bunch of Jewish guerillas. How inaccurate can you get?

Does that mean that Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) should go on my “worst” list? It’s a hilarious work of cartoon art that asks us to consider how movies shape our ideas about history. Its inaccuracy serves a purpose. My “best” WWII films are those that, like Basterds, tell a good story, use the tools of the cinema well, and find a purpose beyond the facts. One of the most successful WWII movies was Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan. It’s a “best” because it found a modern purpose for depicting the war. It challenged the “me” generation to think. As an old man, the “saved” Private Ryan asks his wife, “Did I earn it?” Was what he had done with his life worth all that death and destruction? The movie is also asking the audience, comfortable in their seats and a long way from any kind of sacrifice: are you worthy? Is what we’ve become as a nation worthy? “Best” and “Worst” labels shift over time. I was a child during the war, and I saw movies that were successful then that I would condemn today as propagandistic “worsts.” Bataan (1943) called the Japanese “yellow-skinned, slanty-eyed devils.” Gung Ho (1944) openly celebrated killing. (“We’ve got our chaplains. What we want now is killers.”) Desperate Journey (1942) treated fighting Germans like frat boy hi-jinks. (Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn were the boys, jauntily boasting that next they’ll take “a crack at those Japs.”) Wake Island (1942) used a major American defeat to talk about other historical battles—the Alamo, Bunker Hill, Custer’s Last Stand, Valley Forge. Its story presented a famous historical battle, but its underlying issue is about what it means to be an American. Today Wake Island seems sentimental and false, but it was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar of 1942. Audiences felt its emotional power, were shocked by all its ugly deaths (including civilians), and bought the rallying cry of its ending: “This is not the end! There are other Marines!” On a cold night in December of 1949, I saw Battleground in a sold-out theatre packed with combat veterans. Battleground recreated the Battle of the Bulge, and it starred, along with a roster of Hollywood names (Van Johnson, Ricardo Montalban), “the original ‘Screaming Eagles’ of the 101st Airborne Division, who play themselves.” Battleground was about the average soldier, and it had rousing music, lusty humor, a busty French heroine (Denise Darcel), plenty of action, and some history. When it ended, the veterans leaped to their feet and cheered their heads off. Battleground was a “best” for them because it said something they needed to hear: You were brave, you were important, and the glory of history is yours. There’s a difference between historical truth and emotional truth, and movies are very good at emotion. It makes that “best” and “worst” thing hard for a film historian.