I have been fascinated, somewhat frustrated, and occasionally amused by the continuing chatter over various movies that are reportedly based upon historical events.
First off, don’t tell me it’s “just a movie.” People understand that movies such as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind had a rather significant impact on the historical consciousness of Americans.
Second, people tend to criticize movies they don’t like by complaining about issues of historical accuracy … and I don’t just mean the small things. When someone likes a movie, they might concede a few errors, but they cast them aside. Want proof of this? Both Gods and Generals and Glory have their share of errors. So does Lincoln. If you didn’t like one of those movies, you tell everyone that it’s riddled with errors and tells the wrong story. But if you like the movie, you tend to shrug off the matter of errors or tell us why a movie can’t meet the standards of accuracy that we expect from scholarship. After all, you say, the movie tells us essential truths … which means you liked it and it told what you believe to be the truth.
I happen to enjoy a great many movies based on historical figures and events where I know the movie’s flawed in little and big ways. Take Patton, for example, or Waterloo … and then there’s A Bridge Too Far. I like All the President’s Men as well. Each one has its problems as history, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the movie as a movie … unlike, say, Pearl Harbor, which did not speak to me as a movie, and so I really didn’t care about the issue of historical accuracy.
The fact is that historians face quite a conundrum when it comes to discussions about a movie based upon a historical event. People are bound to ask you for your professional opinion about it. Given that nearly everyone agrees that the vast majority of historical dramas have some problems with accuracy … maybe because of time compression, maybe because of the stories told and ignored, maybe because of more serious issues … a scholar who does not choose to duck the question will raise some points. It does not take a genius to figure out how some people will respond. It’s a movie, not a book (or a documentary); you’re nit-picking; that’s artistic license; you’re jealous; make your own movie; look at the box office. Yadda yadda yadda. Note that these comments tend to come from people who liked the movie and its message. So, one wonders, given these assumptions, why ask historians for their opinion? You’ve already figured how to discount it in any case if you don’t like it, because you liked the movie and its message.
The eagerness with which some people awaited the release of Lincoln struck me as a bit off-putting. It stood to reason that most of those people were fairly determined to like what they saw, and you could anticipate what would follow. Compare this to Hyde Park on Hudson, which came out soon afterwards, and which soon faded away, although in many ways it was not all that different a movie (no, I’m not saying they are identical or of equal worth or quality). That film also had its problems, played with chronology, and addressed a president making important decisions in wartime while struggling with issues in his private life. However, far fewer people were invested in it doing well: Bill Murray as FDR is no Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, although Murray wasn’t all that bad, either.
But this conflict reminds me of a little story …
When I was a boy, a classmate’s mothers told my mother that children’s breakfast cereals contained one of two preservatives, and that while one of the preservatives was “good,” the other was “bad.” As I recall, BHA was “good,” and “BHT” was “bad.” Being the conscientious mother that she was, my mother would look carefully at every box of cereal to ascertain whether the preservative was “good” or “bad,” and my sister and I soon learned that we’d never get to eat certain cereals, among which was the just-introduced Cap’n Crunch. We accepted our fate without much complaint.
One day my mother returned from the grocery store somewhat disgusted. She soon shared why. It seemed that as she was going down the cereal aisle at the local supermarket, she came across my classmate’s mother pushing a cart along … with none other than a box of Cap’n Crunch in the basket. Knowing full well that the cereal contained the supposedly “bad” preservative, my mother asked why my classmate’s mother, after all she had said, was buying Cap’n Crunch. The answer was straight and to the point: because her daughter liked it.
After that, my mother paid far less attention to the ingredients on cereal boxes … although she never did buy Cap’n Crunch.
So it is about historical accuracy and the movies. We’re ready to point out all the missteps and errors and so on, and say that they discredit a movie as history … unless we like the movie. At times, some folks who have defended Lincoln have sounded a little bit like Tony Kushner … and that’s not a good thing. As for myself, I keep “movie as movie” and “movie as history” separate, so that I can enjoy the movie as a movie (note I’ve said not a word here about Lincoln as a movie) while understanding full well that as a rendering of history it may be found wanting. So when you tell me that my observations about the movie as history are besides the point because you like the movie, understand that just because you like the movie doesn’t mean I’m wrong about the movie as history. It just means you like Cap’n Crunch.