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The role of truth and history in cinema

Cate Blanchett as ElizabethA recent BBC op-ed contends that historical distortion in Hollywood films doesn’t matter all that much. I know people will think that I’m being much too stuffy about history but this is something with which I really must disagree. In schools, we use history to teach moral lessons – SMSCD as the short form has it. Spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is integral to the National Curriculum. As far as I’ve ever been concerned, this involves direct personal engagement with history, to consider what the actors must have gone through and to determine one’s own orientation vis a vis historical events.

Just as we have recently been having the debate on monarchy through this website, so the other week I was teaching one of my year 7 classes about the results of 1066. The class was set up to represent the barons of the Witan, the council of Saxon nobles; since the King had just died, they were set the task of proclaiming a new king.

This moves on to more theoretical questions such as how the state is underpinned by force – though they aren’t taught it in that way. As far as many of them are concerned, all it means is that there’s going to be a bloody great battle or two. At least the foundation is there should they ever wish to return to it.

The aim of this is so that when confronted with the issues of the present, they can see them both as obstacles to be overcome and in their wider historical context. A goal not helped by the cheap plundering of the tapestry of history for spoils which shouldn’t belong to whatever lazy writer and lazy director end up with them.

One of the things that particularly irritated me about the op-ed was the author’s declaration of admiration for Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Elizabeth I. That is not enough in itself to bother me – personally I thought both Elizabeth films were dry and lacked a certain je ne sais croix but each to his own. What really annoyed me, galled me in fact, was that this admiration is apparently evinced because the author of the op-ed piece didn’t have the imagination and confidence to define the ‘spirit’ of the Elizabethan age for herself.

I have described this is an awkward fashion, so allow me to clarify. Poring over documents, the author laments that she could not get to grips with the emotions of the participants. Thus she excuses the expropriation of history by screen writers because they can do for her what she declares she was not able to do for herself.

Personally I think this amounts to laziness. The reason I became an historian is because I do get caught up in the emotional whirlpool of the societies I study. I do not look down on anyone else who cannot engage so deeply with their subjects – but I would expect anyone to admit that the truth is often more stirring than the fiction. One of the examples I’ve given when this subject has come up in the past is the stand of the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae.

Admittedly this sounds like the ramble of a disgruntled octogenarian, irritated that his pet subject is being played with outside his supervision. Believe me, that is not what this. Truthfully I enjoy many historical narratives remade by Hollywood, despite their departure from the truth. What concerns me is that the moral elements which I can see and discard at my choice are presented with the full force of history to other people. These people might not be so able to see the incongruity of the narrative and the morals Hollywood has displaced in time and space.

At least in a classroom, there is an environment in which discussion is positively encouraged and the moral can be challenged. This happened today. In a class on the early Nazi programme, the teacher was playing fast and loose with the definition of socialism and one of the pupils pulled him on it – and the two competing narratives were displayed side by side for the rest of the class to see, each attached to different arguments.

The might of Hollywood admits of no competitor in this regard.

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Categories: Films
  1. November 20, 2007 at 6:43 am

    I just can’t help but look at anything about “truth” and “history” in cinema and not see Enemy at the Gates playing over and over in my head. That movie was so bad at its history. Or say, “The Patriot.” Fake history, glorified patriot crap, sells. It’s unfortunate.

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