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Distorting History For Fun and Profit (originally published 10/95)

One of the silliest spectacles I've witnessed lately is the protracted breast-beating over the Historical inaccuracies in Disney's "Pocahontas." Not that the breast-beaters are wrong, mind you. Obviously, there were distortions in the picture that would have made P.T. Barnum blush. What amused me was the idea that anyone would expect rigorous historical accuracy from a movie.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the scene in "Casablanca" in which Claude Rains as Captain Renault needs a quick pretext for shutting down Bogie's cafe. "I am shocked," he intones solemnly, "shocked to find that gambling is going on in here," at which point he is interrupted by the croupier bringing him his winnings for the evening.

Can anyone honestly be dismayed and disillusioned to learn that a Disney cartoon wouldn't pass muster with the editorial board at "American Heritage?" If so, I'll resist the temptation to sell you some prime real estate and send you instead to the corner video store for some other prime examples of historical scholarship, movie-style. They're all good, entertaining movies, but if you plan on paying attention to the historical context, better bring along your hip-waders.

"The Crusades" (1935). Nobody was better at making a glorious mess of history than Cecil B. DeMille. This spectacular and supremely entertaining fairy tale features rock-jawed Henry Wilcoxon as Richard the Lion-Heart. This, however, is the Richard of Sir Walter Scott, not the indifferent monarch of the history books. The film actually deals only with the third Crusade, despite the all-inclusive title, but that hardly matters. What it's actually all about are some really nifty battle scenes.

"Queen Christina" (1933). The great Greta Garbo is at her absolute greatest in this lavishly romantic tale of the 17th century Swedish queen who abdicated her throne for the love of a man. Except that she actually did no such thing. It was a combination of her devotion to art and philosophy and her desire to convert to Catholicism that led Christina to renounce the throne of Sweden. Moreover, by all accounts her habits of personal hygiene pretty much precluded the possibility of a lover in any case.

"The General" (1927). Silent film comic Buster Keaton gave the American cinema one of its crown jewels with this classic Civil War story. Keaton plays the engineer of the Confederate locomotive called "The General." When the General is stolen by Yankee spies, Buster takes off in pursuit on another train. The locomotive chase really did happen, but Keaton would have you believe that this spunky engineer singlehandedly captured a Yankee general, and all because he loved his train too much to stand by and allow it to be stolen. It's great filmmaking, but as history it won't wash.

"My Darling Clementine" (1946). This retelling of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is one of director John Ford's masterpieces. Henry Fonda is brilliant as Wyatt Earp. As history, however, it's mush. Doc Holliday is portrayed as a surgeon (he was a dentist) and Wyatt is portrayed as the sheriff of Tombstone (it was actually his brother, Virgil Earp, who held that office). Also, the actual gunfight was more of a massacre to settle a grudge than a desperate struggle over high principles.

"Richard III" (1955). Laurence Olivier's adaptation of the Shakespeare classic is a noble effort to capture a difficult play on film. Once again, however, it fails as history. There's very little to support the idea that Richard was a psychotic villain. He probably wasn't a Boy Scout -- nice guys generally didn't get to be king in 15th century England -- but he almost certainly wasn't the ogre that Shakespeare creates for us.

If this last example doesn't make my point for me, nothing will. If you're going to berate every period movie that doesn't square with the history books, you're going to end up watching a bare handful of very dull films over and over. And you're going to miss out on some of the best entertainment ever created. When you're throwing the Bard of Avon out with the bathwater, maybe it's time to take a step back and reconsider your standards.

Instead of getting worked up over "Pocahontas," maybe we'd be better off keeping our powder dry for the next Disney assault on Manassas. In fact, now that they own a network, it wouldn't hurt to keep a close eye on the "ABC Evening News." But for mercy's sake, let's not lose our grip when a cartoon fudges the historical facts.

This post first appeared on Vintage Video, please read the originial post: here

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Distorting History For Fun and Profit (originally published 10/95)


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