Films often inform our understanding of history, but sometimes they can change how we remember events. Here's how films can "make" history
“History,” wrote the novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje in his memoir Running in the Family, “is an agreed-upon fiction.” If we can accept Ondaatje’s definition as true, motion pictures may be considered one of the great definers of history in the 20th century.
Movies, history and public imagination
From The Great Train Robbery in 1903 to Saving Private Ryan 95 years later, movies have taken such a large slice of the public imagination that sometimes they seem to supplant the historical events they represent. The American perception of the antebellum South has been forever romanticised by the 1939 film Gone With the Wind. And William Randolph Hearst is perhaps remembered today mainly because Orson Welles used him as his inspiration for Charles Foster Kane in his film Citizen Kane.
"Motion pictures may be considered one of the great definers of history in the 20th century"
But if movies “make” history, sometimes they have also taken liberties with the real record. By age 25, Welles had become Hollywood’s enfant terrible with his 1941 masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Welles had sprung to national prominence only a few years earlier with his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which had convinced thousands of listeners that the world was being attacked by aliens. His historical sleight of hand would be more subtle in Citizen Kane. The film examines, through a series of flashbacks, the psychological state of a penniless boy turned newspaper tycoon.
Citizen Kane and Citizen Hearst
Though the film entrances audiences today for its brilliance, viewers in 1941 had a context in which to place the story. The parallels between Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst could hardly be missed. Hearst had started his yellow-journalism but soon spread out to own papers in most of America’s major cities. Hearst amassed, like Kane, a great fortune, leading him to build a castle in California on a property half the size of Rhode Island. He named it San Simeon, which would serve as the prototype for the film’s Xanadu.
Hearst and his Hollywood friends tried to buy the original negative and destroy the film, but when that proved impossible Hearst did his best to make sure it didn’t get a wide viewing—mainly because of the portrayal of Susan Alexander, a girl based on Hearst's real life wife Marion Davies. It has been said that Hearst tried to suppress the film to preserve Davies’s honour.
"Citizen Kane may well survive as the record by which both Hearst and his wife will be remembered"
William Randolph Hearst’s money and clout meant that much of the Hollywood establishment of the time publicly reviled the film, to the point that it was kept from most theaters. But now, more than half a century later, the film is often cited as one of the great movies of all time; it may well survive as the record by which both Hearst and his wife will be remembered.
Films leave very lasting impressions
One of the strange advantages films have over real history is that they outlast (or are produced long after) the times they depict; an audience member rarely has enough understanding of the era or the events to be able to question the authenticity of their portrayal. Gone With the Wind shows slavery as a benevolent institution corrupted by the arrival of the Northern army and carpetbaggers—a message that also marks DW Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which glorifies the Old South and blames the rise of the Ku Klux Klan on congressional efforts to raise the station of African-Americans after the Civil War.
The release of The Birth of a Nation sparked rioting, lawsuits, and protests across the country, but the movie remains largely unseen today except by film students. Gone With the Wind, however, continues to be thought of in much of the world as a largely accurate representation of life in the Old South.
The case of JFK (the movie)
Then there is the assassination of John F. Kennedy, one of the most controversial events of the century. In his 1991 Academy Award-winning film, JFK, director Oliver Stone presents such a nefarious and complicated counter-myth to the single-assassin theory that it prompted Time magazine to ask, “So, you want to know who killed the President and connived in the cover-up? Everybody! High officials in the CIA, the FBI, the Dallas constabulary, all three armed services, Big Business, and the White House.”
Stone particularly suggests a link to the assassination with the military-industrial complex; Kennedy intended to get America out of the war in Vietnam, his movie argues, and the powers that profit from the war industry were less than happy.
"People often seem quite willing to forgive a film's slight manipulations of the historical record for the sake of dramatic effect"
Stone’s movie is an extreme case, but most people—even participants in a historical event—seem quite willing to forgive slight manipulations of the historical record for the sake of dramatic effect. The main plot and climactic battle in Saving Private Ryan are entirely fictitious creations. Nevertheless, veterans of the war have praised the accuracy of the Normandy landing sequence, and seem inclined to forgive the rest.
Can films replace history?
As historical movies outlive the history they describe, however, to what extent can they replace—and not merely represent—history? Perhaps in an era like ours, when people live a large part of their existence second-hand, a film called Titanic can become as almost historic as the sinking itself. “The movies make emotions look so strong and real,” said pop artist Andy Warhol, “whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television—you don’t feel anything."
Banner credit: Director (Kyle Loftus)
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