|FACT IN FICTION
Should historical dramatizations hold accuracy above all?
March 19, 1998
in this forum:
What examples of fictionalized history have you seen recently? Can't viewers be trusted to separate fact from fiction? Is it necessary for a movie to be completely accurate? What about the role of technology in film making? Are movies held up to a higher standard than books? Viewer comments. The Online NewsHour asks: What movies or productions have you seen recently that offer a fictionalized account of history? What did you think of the production's interpretation of historical facts?
Cynthia Ozick responds:None. Does that shock, or render what follows irrelevant and inappropriate, hence instantly dismissible? I haven't seen "Amistad," or "Titanic," or "Schindler's List," or the Broadway productions of "The Diary of Anne Frank" or "The Cape Man," or anything else, current or recent, in this category. It's true that I've read a great many reviews and discussions about all of these works in a considerable number of periodicals; but reviews and discussions - other people's responses - are hardly comparable to seeing for oneself and forming (and championing) one's own response. Other people's opinions add up to Buzz. What we think out for ourselves deserves to be called Conviction.
But there's a more important issue at stake: am I after information or am I after entertainment? Do I want history or do I want fable, legend, tale? You can argue that written histories are themselves subject to interpretation, slant, fragmentation, heightening, and everything else that film and theater inevitably end up doing (or set out to do). Still, there's bound to be more substance in written history, which generally comes with citations, sources, and at least the appearance of a striving for accuracy.
I don't mean to be a fanatic about all this. Look, if the story of the sinking of the Titanic turns out, on film, to be mostly a love story ... well, so what? What's the great harm? No huge scar is torn across the face of history. One glamorous ship went down. (And the glamorous Carol Lombard was killed in an air crash.) But if the history of the twentieth century's most horrendous atrocity is romanticized or trivialized or given over to purposeful misunderstanding, that's something else. I refer (need this be spelled out?) to the murder of six million Jews, including a million and a half children, in what we have come to call the Holocaust - the murder of these millions having been perpetrated entirely apart from reasons of war, or tribal or territorial or ideological conflict. For this no fiction will do, however well-meaning. To fictionalize is to misrepresent; to misrepresent is to mislead; to mislead is to betray.
For some historical events, nothing but the documents!
Prof. Robert Toplin responds:
The most recent examples of historical fiction from Hollywood are, of course, "Titanic" and "Amistad." I give "Titanic" an "A" grade for historical sensitivity and a grade of "B" to "Amistad." This scoring may surprise some viewers.
It does not trouble me tremendously that James Cameron used the fictional characters of Jack and Rose to tell his story about the 1912 tragedy. Cameron's focus on the two young lovers served nicely to introduce us to many aspects of life on the ship. Through the travels pf Jack and Rose, we could see life in first class and steerage, the world of the elites and the world of the immigrants. The story of Jack and Rose also served to introduce us to the ugly working conditions of the coal stokers in the bowels of the ship, and it took us to diverse sections of the vessel after the iceberg incident so that we could see how different people struggled and reacted to the crisis. Most important, the events depicted in the story are quite close to what actually happened. Cameron gives us a good understanding of the reasons for the disaster: inadequate lifeboats, speeding in the ice zone, absence of binoculars for the lookouts, inadequate attention to messages coming through the wireless, indecision on the part of the captain, and much more. Also significant, the movie does a splendid job giving us a feeling for social conditions in 1912 and a feeling for the experience of the 2200 people who struggled on that terrible night. Often a Hollywood movie's greatest contribution to the public's appreciation of history is in giving audiences an emotional hook to the past. Books often work better for introducing us to an abundance of facts or to abstract analysis; movies provide the emotional hook. "Titanic" certainly presents that hook.
In short, the fictional Jack and Rose stories represent artistic devices to draw our interest, to help us to see the tragedy in human terms, and to introduce us to many places and events. Cameron used bells and whistles not simply to shock and excite: the special effects made the emotional experience powerful. The violence was not gratuitous; it was essential for the storytelling.
"Amistad" did a wonderful job exposing audiences to the horrors of the Middle Passage on a slave ship. I was troubled, though, by the screenwriter's loose handling of historical details. My concern is not intended to be petty. We do not need to expect every uniform or dinner plate in a drama to be completely right. There were many liberties evident in the story, though -- enough to make me a bit uncomfortable. The Morgan Freedman character didn't really exist (he was supposed to represent a variety of individuals; he was a composite character). Why, then, did the film's promoters urge school children to discuss the historical significance of this character in the educational booklets that they distributed to many of the nation's schools? If the filmmakers had employed a few good historians when preparing the booklet, such slips would not have occurred. There are numerous other small complaints. I get the sense the historical verisimilitude wasn't as high a priority as we would wish for such a film.
If we look back over the last decade, which film seems to win the most applause from historians for showing considerable respect for the historical record and for dramatizing the past with sophistication? Among professional historians, "Glory" usually rates very high. Sure, it showed the men attacking a fort in the wrong direction, and it presented the African American soldiers as former slaves when, in fact, the real ones in the unit were free men. But the slip about attacking a fort is small potatoes, and the story about former slaves relates to a larger reality: most of the African Americans who put on a Union army uniform in the Civil War were former slaves. "Glory" did a splendid job taking us back to a distant time. It gave us a strong emotional feeling for the war era and presented a story largely unknown in Hollywood moviemaking -- the important message about the African Americans' contribution to the Union cause and to their own freedom.