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History as bunk (or maybe not)

It inevitably comes with the territory that dramatic depictions of historical figures and events have a tenuous relationship with the actualité. On several levels there is nothing particularly bizarre in that statement if you think about it.

Let’s begin with the fact that virtually all dramatic representations are necessarily limited by their own nature.

A play, for example, usually lasts anywhere between one hour and four (allowing for intervals).

As regards operas, the Guinness Book of World Records lists Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as the world’s longest common-performed at 5 hours 15 minutes.

It’s arguable that this was pipped by a 1973 performance of Robert Wilson’s The Life And Times of Joseph Stalin at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City which endured for 13 hours and 25 minutes. (and let’s not talk about Stockhausen).

Commercial movies usually last between 75 minutes and 130 minutes although Wikipedia lists at least twenty that exceed 300 – at the summit is one called Resan (the Journey) that goes on for 873!

My point is that – as night follows day, literally – there’s no way that a screenwriter could depict, for example, the events of the last week leading up to the D-Day Landings on 6th June 1944 accurately, even in a three hour piece, for three very straightforward reasons.

Firstly, because (by their nature) dramatic depictions necessarily require a narrative or theme running through their core that conveys the ‘version’ or ‘message’ that they wish to present to the audience or viewer.

Whether your movie is aiming to be 75, 125 or 185 minutes long, it needs to have a thread bringing out that narrative and/or those themes: there is no way that any dramatic project on the planning and then execution of the D-Day Landings is going to be remotely accurate in terms of the hundreds, if not thousands, of activities that went to make up the whole as it actually unfolded.

[And, okay, let’s leave out examples like producer Stanley Kramer’s 1952 classic High Noon (starring Gary Cooper, screenplay by Carl Foreman, directed by Fred Zinnemann) in which a US marshal memorably took on a gang of killers in ‘real time’ whilst simultaneously wrestling internally between his duty and his love for his new wife].

Consider Winston Churchill’s activities in the week before D-Day.

He was an acknowledged heavy drinker and, though he appeared to be able to function with relatively little sleep he habitually took the odd cat-nap now and again.

What’s a movie going to do about depicting his periods of ‘down time’, e.g. when he cut his toe-nails, had a haircut, dealt with his bunker’s personnel matters, or had one of his 30-minute snoozes … have a box in the top right hand corner of the screen showing him snoring away whilst his generals and air marshals carry on the detailed preparations in the foreground?

Or what about him getting dressed in the morning, having a bath … or disappearing to the room at the end of the corridor with a copy of The Times after breakfast for his morning shit?

Thirdly, of course, every dramatic piece needs a set-up containing ‘a situation’, goodies and baddies … and then periodic crises, fortune reverses and conflicts.

Can you imagine a movie on the life of (say) St Francis of Assisi which was true to life?

As I understand it, he lived a quiet existence of intense contemplation and piety and talked to and made friends with species of animals and birds.

An outstanding and charismatic chap he might have been, yet showing him accurately – e.g. spending eight hours of a day gradually coaxing a robin to eat crumbs from his hand – isn’t going to butter many parsnips or break any box office records when it opens down at the Odeon on the Old Kent Road.

To recap, real historical figures and events present many problems as subjects for those devising dramatic projects.

Next in this context I want to raise the the issues around whether historical accuracy in dramatic projects even matters at all, even in those which are holding themselves out as telling ‘the true story’.

Short of someone inventing a Time Machine that can go back (and then return) we 21st Century people have little real idea as to whether the pharaoh Akhenaten, Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, Henry V, Henry VIII or even Richard III were ogres or perhaps, alternatively, just ordinary decent guys who just happen to have been served well or badly by ‘histories’ written by those who have come since.

Shakespeare towers over plenty of the Western World’s attitudes in this respect.

And many of the rewards and joys to be had from the Shakespeare canon, I would go so far as to suggest, stem directly from those playwrights, screenwriters, producers and directors have taken on this Everest and interpreted it.

Scarcely a year goes by without a new Shakespeare production devising a new and sometimes challenging take on the Bard’s work. Setting a Shakespeare play in the 1930s, or letting a female actor play King Lear – the examples are endless.

One of the best productions I ever witnessed of Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro was set in modern times, with the characters receiving messages not via hand-delivered letter but by fax.

The key thing about dramatic representations of history is ‘in the moment’, i.e. (if it is a theatrical production) in whether the audience emerges into the street afterwards buzzing with excitement and wonder at what it has just seen, not whether the third soldier on the right was wearing a uniform of the time that had four buttons down the front of his tunic, not three as it should have had.

I hope that Rusters reading my post today have registered my point – not that, as I type, I’m altogether sure I’m making it that well.

In which context, I now conclude by providing a link to an piece by Alexander Robinson listing some of the worst historical ‘blunders’ made in Hollywood movies down the years, as appears today upon the website of the – DAILY MAIL


[And if Rusters can think of other similar or hilarious examples, please do send them to us by postcard to the usual address …]




About Neil Rosen

Neil went to the City of London School and Manchester University graduating with a 1st in economics. After a brief stint in accountancy, Neil emigrated to a kibbutz In Israel. His articles on the burgeoning Israeli film industry earned comparisons to Truffaut and Godard in Cahiers du Cinema. Now one of the world's leading film critics and moderators at film Festivals Neil has written definitively in his book Kosher Nostra on Jewish post war actors. Neil lives with his family in North London. More Posts