By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 14, 2015
Last night I watched Belle Starr, an old 1941 western with Gene Tierney and Randolph Scott. I didn’t know anything about Belle Starr before the movie, other than her famous name. So after the show I looked her up on Wikipedia. The movie was complete bullshit. Now this is a particularly bad example to ask this question: Should we avoid movies that claim to be based on history?
In the past year I’ve seen films about Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and J. M. W. Turner. All three films won awards and received much critical praise. In each case I felt like I was looking at detailed recreations of the past. Yet, when I read “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing” by Christian Caryl, I was troubled that I might have gotten a very wrong impression about Alan Turing. I now wonder about my history lessons on Hawking and Turner. Watching those films let me feel I was getting to know those men. Now the more I read, the more I doubt, the more I feel confused, and even misled.
Movies make a far greater impact on our brains than reading black and white words on paper. Even documentaries can give the wrong impression, so we must be extra cautious with historical fiction. Should we assume any fictional account of history is only fiction? That’s really hard for me to do. I can’t turn off my sense that I’m learning history when I’m watching a film, or reading a historical novel. If I know some of its real, then all of it feels real, especially if the storytelling is good. Fiction can be very convincing.
We have all kinds of ways of learning about history. History books, journals and courses are the most respected sources, but there is also museums, paintings, photographs, archival film, newsreels, sound recordings, transcribed interviews, letters, diaries and even archeological artifacts. If you’ve ever seen a Ken Burns documentary, you know how powerful such evidence can be. Yet, when we watch a movie, it feels like we’re reliving history. It’s very hard not to let Hollywood teach us about the past.
I must wonder, did The Imitation Game treat Alan Turing fairly? Would Alan Turing have been flattered to see himself on the big screen as a cinematic hero? In a way, it was vindication for being mistreated in life. In another way, it was an insult, because they still got him wrong. I’m pretty sure the real Belle Starr would have laughed her ass off at seeing Gene Tierney’s version of herself. Stephen Hawking has been very kind in his praise for The Theory of Everything, saying it was broadly true, and at times it felt like he was seeing himself on the screen. However, Slate magazine compares film and history in “How Accurate Is The Theory of Everything?” and again, I’m disappointed by how I’ve been tricked. How disconcerting must it be for a real person to compare what they see on the big screen to real memories?
Our approach to history has always been fast and loose. Often shows on The History Channel are an abomination. Remember, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and the quote, “When the legend becomes fact… print the legend.” Of course, that’s the movie’s side of things. Quite often when I see clips from Fox News, I get the feeling their sense of reality was learned from Ronald Reagan’s screenplay tinted view of history. We often remember the facts the way we need them remembered.
I’m starting to wonder if I should avoid any film or television show that claims to be based on truth, because movies are so powerful, that once I see them, that’s how I see history.