The past masters: Hollywood and history

TOM CRUISE'S Count von Stauffenberg and Frank Langella's Richard Nixon dominated the box-office over the weekend. Milk, the story of the radical gay rights activist Harvey Milk, and Frost/Nixon led the pack at last week's Oscar nominations. Kate Winslet contends for best actress, playing a concentration camp guard forced to confront her responsibility in post-war Germany.

The relationship between Hollywood and history has rarely been more productive. But are these stories, as told on screen, at all accurate – and does it matter? Some historians complain that films distort the record of the recent past and add to false beliefs about history.

As a historian myself, I beg to differ. After all, Hollywood and history have been conducting a long, if uneasy love affair since well before Von Stauffenberg's failed plot to assassinate Hitler. One of the biggest blockbusters of the 1930s was Alexander Korda's wildly sensationalised The Private Life of Henry VIII, with a wonderful scenery-chewing performance from Charles Laughton as the royal ladykiller.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Although audiences have always loved history films, the air is thick with whingeing on the part of those who write about it themselves: if the Roman soldiers' sandals are not the wrong colour, then the Nazi officers' trousers are too baggy. "We play with facts at our peril," one distinguished chronicler of the 20th century, Antony Beevor, says of the current crop of movies.

In fact, there is something rather heartening about Hollywood's eagerness to embrace the recent past. In an age when thousands of children leave school with only the barest idea of our national story, any engagement with history should be welcomed – even when it comes from Tom Cruise.

And can anyone really be surprised that, from time to time, films deviate from the historical record? These are commercial products, designed to entertain as well as instruct. At just two hours long, Cruise's new thriller Valkyrie can hardly pay attention to every nuance of Nazi politics in the summer of 1944, and it would probably be extremely dull if it did.

No doubt the Duchess of Devonshire, as portrayed by Keira Knightley in The Duchess, was not so like Princess Diana as she is seen to be in this Oscar-nominated production. But it's not the end of the world.

Fiddling with the historical record has been part of the writer's craft since Homer told the story of the fall of Troy and Shakespeare had Richard III offering his kingdom for a horse. Nobody goes to the theatre expecting to see unvarnished truth. So why kick up a fuss when film-makers make similar alterations? The answer is cultural snobbery. It's fine for high art to distort history, the critics imply, but a disgrace when tawdry American movies do it, because those who pay to see them won't realise they're watching fantasy, not fact.

This is patronising nonsense. Ordinary moviegoers are capable of distinguishing fact from fiction, and intelligent enough to know that they are watching a Hollywood entertainment, not some perfectly accurate record of distant events.

Most of the current crop are surprisingly faithful to the historical truth. Valkyrie, for example, sticks pretty closely to the story of the failed conspiracy to topple the Nazi regime. True, it implies that the plot came closer to success than it really did. But the basic facts are all present and correct. Frost/Nixon, too, is firmly anchored in fact. Quite apart from Michael Sheen and Frank Langella's eerily accurate performances, the dialogue is closely based on the transcripts of the interviews. Nobody is in danger of being misled, and even David Frost said he enjoyed it.

Even if audiences are misled, so what? The fiction ends up exciting interest in the facts. Thanks to Valkyrie, there are several rival books on the Stauffenberg plot in the shops, and any number of biographies of other recent subjects, from Nixon to Che Guevara.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Even the most distorted film can do good. It was after seeing Oliver Stone's wildly paranoid JFK that I first fell in love with American history. While I now admit it's a terrible film, I owe it my career as a historian.

Telling ourselves stories about the past has been part of the human experience since Herodotus, the first recognised historian, wrote tales of the Persian wars in 5BC. He would have appreciated the sheer drama that turns history into thrilling entertainment. Critics should stop complaining. Nothing but good can come of cinema that commemorates the past.