Letter from Military History – November 2011

But Is It History?

Hollywood has long had an uneasy relationship with history. On the one hand, history—especially military history—has provided feature filmmakers with some of their most rewarding subjects and stories. Think Henry V, War and Peace, Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day, Casablanca, Flags of Our Fathers, Apocalypse Now and The Hurt Locker—to name only a few spectacular cinema tales. Undeniably vivid and compelling, they are, nonetheless, fiction and by definition not history. “Based on a true story” is the usual qualifier. As the joke about Fleet Street reporters goes, “They never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Taking that approach further, some directors deliberately distort historical facts to craft films that are wholly fantasy and wish fulfillment—Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds comes to mind.

On the other hand, history is anchored firmly to facts and directly linked to reality. Fiction, whether on paper or onscreen, is not an act of research and reporting but of the human imagination. Most people are likely confident they can readily distinguish between facts and fiction, between historical events that really happened and what appears on a screen. But with popular movies—especially in this age of visual wizardry that appears to invalidate the laws of physics (see The Matrix, for one)—the medium is so emotionally hot, so sensually persuasive and reaches such a vast audience that it can seem more real than reality. It becomes a cultural force.

That seductive lure of cinematic “reality” began at the dawn of moviemaking, as Allen Barra’s account in this issue of Pancho Villa’s 1914 film demonstrates. Talk about the fog of war. Fact and fiction become one inseparable blur in which director Raoul Walsh blithely restages events of a real revolution for his cameras. This was an actual conflict in which actual human beings were killed—though none (hopefully) for the benefit of the cinematographers. And this in a pioneer film in black and white and with no sound.

None of this is to deny the validity of fictional filmmaking, which carries indisputably high entertainment values and can so vividly depict the sights, sounds, scale and emotions of genuine warfare. Many veterans have testified that parts of some movies—notably the first minutes of Saving Private Ryan—are frighteningly faithful to the look, feel, confusion and terror of actual combat. Such films can show what it is like. But they are not it.

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