Where Romance and History Meet - www.heartsthroughhistory.com/

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hollywood's View of History

For the most part, writers of historical romance strive for accuracy in capturing historical events and characters. Can the same be said of Hollywood?

I’d suspect that ninety-nine percent of book editors would run screaming from a plot that featured a beautiful, tempting Pocahontas and a very studly Captain John Smith…after all, history tells us that Pocahontas was about seven when Smith and his crew landed in Jamestown in 1607. The New World, starring Colin Farrell as Captain John Smith (who obviously was not cast due to a striking resemblance to the legendary colonist) highlighted the romantic attraction between Smith and a teenaged Pocahontas, portrayed by a striking young actress, Q’orianka Kilcher.

Before its release, the studio was said to have deleted several love scenes deemed too steamy between the nearly thirty-year old actor and the fourteen year-old actress. Besides the “ick” factor here, this romance is completely inaccurate. Many other scenes in the movie are historically wrong as well, but the romance is the most glaring example of Hollywood mauling the truth in this film.

Disney’s Pocahontas isn’t quite as bad, but as a teacher who works with children who have to learn the facts about the Jamestown expedition and its key players, it’s difficult to overcome the portrayals of Pocahontas as someone who looks like Barbie’s Native American cousin and Captain John Smith as Jamestown Expedition Ken. At least, that’s a fantasy, complete with the requisite Disney talking animals, and that offers a teaching point about fiction versus non-fiction.

Hollywood has always taken liberties with the truth...huge liberties, in some cases. Henry VIII is portrayed as a studly hunk in many films, not a gout-ridden, portly monarch. Of course, some would say that Henry was not always fat and was known to be rather athletic in his youth, but how on Earth did anyone decide to cast gorgeous, dark Eric Bana as the monarch in The Other Boleyn Girl ? The portrait of Henry VIII in his twenties shows a man who certainly would not have made a girl lose her head (yes, I know…such a bad pun) if he were not a monarch.

Of course, The Tudors casting of Jonathan Rhys Meyers isn’t any more visually accurate, although I think he captures the moods and manipulations of Henry far more convincingly than hulky Eric Bana (yes, another bad pun), who came across to me as a rather dull-witted monarch.

I could go on and on about Hollywood’s historical inaccuracies. Bonnie and Clyde portrayed the notorious bank robbers as lovers on the run, not the cold-blooded killers they were. Braveheart depicts a kilt-clad Mel Gibson even though kilts weren’t worn in Scotland until about three hundred years after William Wallace died. More remarkably, the film depicts Wallace as the father of Edward III, who was born seven years after Wallace’s death (and I thought nine months was a long time to be pregnant). Mel was at it again with The Patriot, in which he almost single-handedly wins a battle that history recorded as a win for the British…a minor detail, I suppose, in the minds of Hollywood. Gladiator’s villain, Emperor Commodus, was certainly not a nice guy, but it’s believed his father died of disease, not at Commodus’ hand. Commodus was murdered after ruling for more than a decade…in his bathtub, not fighting in a gladiator’s ring. I suppose a guy dying in his bathtub would not have created the heroic ending the folks behind Gladiator were looking for, and as I adore Russell Crowe, I’ll forgive this particular inaccuracy.

What about movies that got it right, or at least, close to right? Are there any? Tombstone and Wyatt Earp might have played loosely with the truth and selectively omitted some of Earp’s less than favorable qualities, but both films portray the era with a feel for the times. Plus, Tombstone has Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo...I just love the actor in that character and root for the villain, much to my husband's chagrin. Cinderella Man is more of an essay about the hardships of the Depression than a boxing movie, and Russell Crowe depicts Jim Braddock with a feel for the desperation of a man during those times trying to keep his family afloat. The Untouchables, while depicting Eliot Ness and his men as almost saintly, does capture the flavor of the times while depicting the truth…all the gun power in Chicago couldn't bring Capone down, but crooked income tax returns did.

What do you think of Hollywood’s view of history? Could authors get away with the gross inaccuracies sometimes found in films? I’m curiously awaiting the new film, Public Enemies, which portrays John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis. Of course, the casting of Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as Purvis (an obvious choice, given that Purvis was about 5’ 4” and looked absolutely nothing like the hunky Bale) might influence my mad dash to the theaters this summer.


Andrea Jackson said...

This post kept me chuckling all alone here in front of my computer. Thanks for a good laugh in these examples. I try to just think of these films as fiction, not history, when I watch them. No editor I know of would allow so many liberties. We authors have to do our research. And not just because of editors. The readers know their genre. I've heard of readers ranting on-line because a character didn't wear the right kind of dress or ate the wrong food.
Oh, well, we go to the movies to look at the studs, not get a history lesson. BTW, I hate Disney's Pocahantas! lol!

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

I agree; Hollywood's interpretation of literary license is more an alternate reality scenerio than taking a few minor liberties to move the story. And, sadly, too many people are ignorant of the actual history so take the celluloid versions for fact.

Of course, they tend to do the same with the novels they read. I want to scream, "Hey, people, they call it fiction for a reason!" Not that it would do any good.

Thought provoking blog---and a great chance to vent. Thanks.

Eliza Knight said...

GREAT post Wendy!

My girls love Pocohontas! lol, it is hard when they've seen things like that to actually teach them the REAL history.

While I love gazing at Jonathan Rhys Myers, I do often get irriatated at how they cast. Despite the attractive and well built YOUNG body Myers displays, Henry VIII was supposedly over six feet tall and Myers is like 5'8, lol

I supposed movies do it the same way writers do in a way. No historical romance author will write that her heroine has harry legs, instead they are smooth. We also don't talk too much about body odor, not to mention the morning makeout sessions when you know the h/h have killer breath! lol

Its all in the name of fun I say, as long as you don't tote what you read and watch in fiction as fact.

Tess said...

I find Hollywood's view of history frustrating, yet, as I have argued for years, if it gets people INTERESTED in history, as happened with Scottish history after Braveheart, that's no bad thing.

I just wish they would include notes at the end, similar to Author's Notes in books, explaining where they changed things. Take for instance, Braveheart - the note could have made clear that Isabella of France was actually about 7 years old and didn't really have an affair with Wallace, much less bear him a child.

Re: Rhys-Davies as Henry VIII - you think like I do, physically he's completely wrong, but personality-wise, he's pretty much bang on and does a great job. Though the other changes they made in the Tudors, that wiped out entire family lines (by merging Henry's two sisters and then killing her off way too early) did require me to suspend a whole hell of a lot of disbelief! But if it gets people interested in history, I can live with that :) And enjoy the show as a drama with pretty costumes *g*.

And Hollywood has been playing with history for decades - anyone remember Cecil B. deMille's The Crusades (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026249/)? Wow - it got pretty much everything wrong, yet somehow sucked me in just for the sheer fun and pageantry of it.

Victoria Gray said...

Can you imagine The New World if the casting had been more factual? Captain John Smith looked more like Dennis Franz on NYPD Blue...ugh! The miniseries John Adams seemed pretty realistic to me, although I would have preferred to see Russell Crowe in the role of John Adams (just kidding, although I'd rather see Russell in just about anything...he could play Helen Keller and I'd watch!)

Laura Kitchell said...

Just like your stories, your blog is both funny and intelligent. Andrea Jackson has it write in that readers know their genres and don't easily tolerate anachronisms. I think that's why editors are so hard on historical writers when it comes to them. As for Hollywood? Well, they're just in it to make a buck. That means beautiful people, snappy dialogue, and as much sex as they think they can get away with to pack the theaters. Great blog, Ms. Gray. I look forward to your next one.

Kathryn Albright said...

Great post! And so true. I have one movie example that got it right IMHO. In The Alamo with Dennis Quaid (not John Wayne!)the producers were careful to portray everything realistically right down to the uniforms and the muskets. Unfortunately, I think the movie bombed because it was hard to decide if it was a documentary or entertainment. It needed to lean one way or the other.

Terry Blain said...

Great post. I'm glad I don't have HBO so or The Tudor's would have driven me insane since I was a history professor.

I do think Hollywood should take a little more care. What has more impact? Having the professor tell that a lot of people died in the American Civil War -- or seeing Scarlet O'Hara going down to the railway station and stepping over the bodies of wounded and dying men as the camera pulls back to show hundreds, then thousands of men.

Our perception of where we come from and what happened before is the basis for how we decide where we go from here -- so I'd prefer that the movies did a little better job.

Good comment about Braveheart, Tess. When Isabelle tell the guard that she's now the queen and he jumps to do her bidding, I'm (metaphoracally) yelling no! at the screen. Everyone knew that Edward II was homosexual and had no intrest in Isabelle, so no one was interested in currying favor with her.

Ah, this post hit one of my hot buttons, so I'll stop now. Glad to know I'm not alone wishing for a little more accuracy.

Anonymous said...

I understand your angst over what Hollywood and many authors do to history. However, I must take issue with your comment about Bonnie and Clyde being cold blooded murders. Clyde often only killed when he was cornered and not with intention. Frequently it was the men he was with that opened fire, and Clyde had to follow suit so he wouldn't be shot to death. This in no way excuses what he did, but provides an explanation for what he did. And Bonnie never killed anyone. Yes, she was an accomplice to what he did and helped him, but she never shot anyone despite one witness claim that she "shot him in the head like a it was a rubber ball." Also regarding the attractiveness of Henry VII, he was known to be one of the most handsome monarchs in Europe when he was a young man, as the reports of many ambassadors can attest. Your comment that his portrait does not give any indication that he is something a girl would lose her head over is twenty-first century bias. What passes for beauty is relative to ones culture, and what women found attractive in the 16th century is probably quite different to what we accept for male beauty today. However, again his contemporaries seemed to agree that he was a very attractive man.

All in all, I think you hit the nail on the head with your post about how Hollywood and many writers eviscerate history to suit their purposes. Dan Brown should not be allowed near a history book. But I guess they think that whatever serves their art makes it ok.