Hollywood Rewrites History

By Nicole Kobie

Think of when you’re sitting in a theatre. The commercials finish, the coming attractions end, and the title comes across the screen, followed by the words “based on a true story.”

But what exactly does that mean?

It’s been said that art reflects reality and in the case of many movies, it’s often nothing more than a reflection.

With the stream of true stories and biopics hitting the silver screen lately, there’s been a wide range of accuracy. Films like Black Hawk Down, U-571 and Pearl Harbor may teach a false version of history, while movies like Ali and A Beautiful Mind potentially misreport someone’s story.

Personal stories

It’s always more enticing if the characters are real. All you need to do is pay $12 and sit in a theatre for three hours to get inside someone amazing’s head. But, it might not be their life you watch. Most of the time, it’s a story “inspired” by the real individual.

One example is Ali. The recently released biography/drama isn’t criticized for the details it includes. On the contrary, it’s questioned for the details it leaves out. The film focuses on a small chapter of Muhummad Ali’s life–the 10 years from when he beat Sonny Liston to his fight with George Foreman. It ignores his childhood, the early years, and the latter years of his career, as well as his struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Just because these details are left out doesn’t mean audiences will assume they didn’t happen, however, other details aren’t as obvious.

First, Ali was definitely Muslim, and was associated with Muslim activists like Malcolm X. However, while he was attached to Elijah Muhammad’s radical version of Islam, Ali never accepted the belief in separatism or that whites were “devils.” Small, but important details if Ali’s character is to be truly established or understood.

Another aspect of Ali’s character that’s virtually ignored in the film is his cruelty. The man was unpopular for much of his career–including much of the decade showcased in the film–not only for his loud mouth, but for his calculated brutality in the ring.

In one fight, Ali was accused of thumbing opponent Ernie Terrell in the eye because of Terrell’s refusal to call him by his Muslim name. Ali’s fight with Floyd Patterson lasted 12 bloody rounds, though Ali was capable of a knockout much sooner. There’s no real proof, only speculation, that Ali kept the fight going to torture the “Black White Hope” Patterson.

However, the idea of Ali as a cruel individual is not one the movie ever suggests. Most people want to see Ali as a heroic figure, but this misses out on large areas of his character.

How can any writer or director truly see inside a man’s head? That’s the problem with A Beautiful Mind. This critically-acclaimed drama was partially based on an unauthorized biography of mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. Writer Silvia Nasar’s research is meticulous, not only in the personal areas depicted in the film, but in Nash’s mathematical achievements as well. However, the makers of the film claim they weren’t making a true biography, rather a movie inspired by Nash’s life. In other words, don’t believe that Russell Crowe’s display of delusions is what the real Nash saw.

For the most part, however, the film is true to what happened, just in a more melodramatic form.

One ignored detail was that Nash and his wife Alicia got divorced. One could argue that’s not as happy of a story, but in a way the real life version is more romantic. Alicia and John divorce, but she remained involved with him. They remarried in 1996, two years after he won the Nobel Prize.

Revising events in one man’s life is one thing, but revising major historical events is much more troublesome. Is Hollywood rewriting history?

War and hisstory

Retelling any story, regardless of the medium, creates mistakes. When the story deals with a major historical event, a point of pride for a nation, or the deaths of many, accuracy is important. How many people know the full story behind the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia? Few likely do, except avid readers, history aficionados and military experts. Most people will take the scenes of a movie like the soon to be released Black Hawk Down as truth. Most expect the dialogue not to be exact, but assume the sequence of events and eventual conclusion are correct. Black Hawk Down tells the story of a special U.S. military mission to capture a section of the torn city of Mogadishu and two warlords.

The battle is generally considered a failure for the American side. Dozens were injured, one American was held hostage and 18 were killed-two Marines were dragged through Mogadishu’s streets.On the Somali side, hundreds were killed and injured, including many innocent people.

The movie is based on a book, the book being based on a series of news articles that originally ran in the Philadelphia Enquirer. Those articles tell of military screw-ups, violent deaths and the soldiers’ fear and helplessness that led to the inevitable question: What were they even doing there? It’s impossible to say how well Black Hawk Down will portray this-it could be the next Saving Private Ryan, or it could be the next U-571 or Pearl Harbor.

There is a theme and tone difference between dramatic, serious movies like Saving Private Ryan and popcorn flicks like Pearl Harbor but both use real historical events as backdrops for their characters. When the focus is on action or romance however, historical accuracy tends to be forgotten.

Take U-571 for example. In the case of this submarine flick, history wasn’t much of a concern. The film depicts World War II-era American submariners disguising themselves and sneaking onto a U-571 submarine in an attempt to capture the Enigma cipher from the Germans. Not only was the sub type wrong–it was a U-110–but more importantly, the Americans had nothing to do with the capture. It was the British, not the Americans who managed to capture Enigma.

Then again, who expects historical accuracy from a movie starring Jon Bon Jovi? But is it really that hard to give the characters British accents to make the story right? Or, just stop using actual details, and fabricate all the details. However, in a movie like this, it’s just national pride on the line and a minor point in the historical record. With a grander story like Pearl Harbor, more is at stake.

Obviously, with this film, the main storyline–the romantic triangle between Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck), Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) and Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale)–isn’t real. However, by using the attack on Pearl Harbor as a backdrop, the director suggests the other events really happened. When Pearl Harbor was first released, it was criticized not only for its deficiencies as a movie, but also for its historical inaccuracies. While there are many mistakes, the film is more accurate than most people may think.

Midway through the attack scenes, there’s a cheesy sequence where Rafe and Danny hop into a convertible and, under heavy fire from the Japanese planes, drive to an airfield that hasn’t been bombed yet. Then, they each gets into a plane, and start fighting back. Surprisingly, that actually happened. Two men did drive to an airfield while being shot at by the Japanese and did manage to get planes in the air–they weren’t named Rafe and Danny, but Lieutenants Taylor and Welch. A minor error is that it happened during the second wave of the bombings, not the first, as depicted in the film.

Director Michael Bay noted in an interview that historians criticized his script for misrepresenting the actual sequence of events of the attack. Pearl Harbor only shows the first wave of the attack, not the second and has no mention of the fact that Japanese commanders didn’t follow through with the third wave.

There are a few other minor errors–the Japanese bombers flew too close to the U.S. ships, there were too many explosions and the American ships were spread too far apart. There were some more significant errors as well.

First, Rafe is apparently such a good pilot that he ships out for Britain to serve with the Royal Air Force. There he gets shot down-apparently he wasn’t that good-and is presumed dead. However, no active officers of the U.S. Armed Forces were allowed to serve in the RAF. A mistake, but not one of much historical significance.

The Japanese American Citizens’ League complained the film is essentially racist. According to them, it doesn’t show the many Asian-Americans of Hawaii who helped the war effort against the Japanese. As well, some are insulted and some are just amused by the portrayal of the Japanese commanders. According to Pearl Harbor, the Japanese planned the attack using toy boats in a serene pond, while children played nearby.

The biggest problem with the film are the final battle scenes. As in the film, Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle did lead a bombing raid on Tokyo, and that raid did feature short runways for take-offs, planes running out of fuel, and the deaths of several pilots. However, the suggestion at the end that the Tokyo raid won the Pacific war is incorrect. The raid was revenge for the Pearl Harbor attack, but the actual turning points of the Pacific war were arguably the battles of the Coral Sea or Midway or several other fights, but not the bombing of Tokyo.

Arguably, if audiences are using Hollywood blockbusters as their only source of information, they aren’t too interested in getting their facts straight.

According to Bay, Pearl Harbor was intended to be like Titanic. There, without Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s love story “it would just be a sinking ship.” Without stock romance, the deaths of thousands just isn’t interesting, But he has a point. If people wanted real information, they’d rent a documentary. However, if the Titanic is just a sinking ship and Pearl Harbor needs a love story to hold interest, why even use them in the movie?

Fargo and graves

What’s shown on the screen isn’t reality. It’s filtered and biased. That doesn’t mean such films lack value but that audiences should think about what they see and not believe so easily.

Consider this. The first minute of the film Fargo says:

“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

When a movie starts with a passage like that, don’t always assume it’s true. In fact, the story behind Fargo is entirely from the minds of the Coen brothers, and they admit to it. In other words, there is no million dollars buried by the side of a highway as the movie suggests. One woman, Takako Konishi, flew all the way from Japan late last year to search for the buried loot. She wasn’t prepared for the cold weather and froze to death in her search. She actually visited a police station first, asking for assistance, but the best efforts of the officers couldn’t dissuade Konishi from her search.

In other words, those who don’t know their history are doomed to believe Hollywood movies–or end up looking for Leonardo DiCaprio’s grave.

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