Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Historical Inaccuracy in the Movies: or Why It’s OK for Quentin Tarantino to Kill Hitler

So this weekend I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds with a group of people – among who was my wife (who is a history major, who now teaches religion) as well as a friend of ours that is a history teacher at the same school. So of course, after the movie the conversation centered on the historical inaccuracy of Tarantino’s film. Of course it was inaccurate. After all, the war does not come to a nice, peaceful conclusion in the film, with a bunch of old men sitting around and making a deal, but instead ends with fire, explosions and two Jewish-American soldiers filling Hitler’s body with bullets from their machine guns. So yeah, the film is historically inaccurate in the extreme. My question is this though: who cares? You are an idiot if you expect to get accurate historical information from a movie in the first place and an even bigger idiot if you expect Tarantino to be the filmmaker to give it to you. If you are stupid enough to walk out of Inglorious Basterds believing that the war ended when Eli Roth burst into a cinema balcony and blew Hitler away, then you should probably consider suing your old school for letting you out into the real world being that big of a moron.

The issue in Inglorious Basterds is not whether Tarantino’s film is accurate – it isn’t and makes no apologies for being so – but whether or not Tarantino was right to change history for the sake of his movie. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it, as filmmakers have been doing this forever, and at least in Tarantino’s case no one but complete idiots would believe his version of the truth. But we’ll get back to Tarantino is a second, after we visit some other notoriously inaccurate movies.

From the earliest days of cinema, there have been movies made about history that got the facts all wrong. D.W. Griffth’s Birth of a Nation (1915) is one of cinema’s first feature length masterpieces, but it’s version of history is grossly inaccurate – and extremely racist. The film depicts the lead up to the Civil War, the war itself and finally its aftermath. Its basic premise in the aftermath is that Reconstruction was a disaster, blacks could never be integrated into white society as equals, and the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were justified to reestablish honest government. The film even ends with Jesus looking down from heaven and blessing the KKK.

So yes, Birth of a Nation is a rather evil little film, yet it will forever be historically significant because of the massive leaps forward in moviemaking that Griffith popularized in the film (many had been done before, but Griffith perfected it). Among those innovations are such basic film grammar as cross cutting and camera movement. Watched today, I’m sure Birth of a Nation feels rather stale and old fashioned, but in 1915, these were exciting, complex new innovations. Griffth’s storytelling is meticulous and his scope breathtaking. Yes, the movie is evil. But it is still a great film, one that must be seen by anyone who has an interest in film history. Go on Rotten Tomatoes today, and the film still has a 100% fresh rating. Here is an evil film that had real world implications (it helped to resurrect the KKK which was pretty much dormant at the time and the organization continued to use the film as a recruiting tool until the 1970s, when undoubtedly all of their followers became too fucking stupid to watch a silent movie).

Now let’s flash forward many decades to 1984’s Amadeus, which won the best picture, director, actor and adapted screenplay Oscars among many others that year, and remains for me one of my favorite films. The film depicts the bitter rivalry between Mozart (Tom Hulce) a brilliant composer, who is also a complete goof off, who spends most of his time drinking, partying and fucking, and in between somehow produces masterful music and Saleri (F. Murrary Abraham), his bitter rival, who labors away at his rather simplistic music and is resentful that Mozart has it all so easy. The movie even goes as far as to suggest that Saleri kills Mozart in order to take credit for his final masterwork. But of course, none of that actually happened. Yes, Mozart was a drinker and a womanizer, but he was not the giggling idiot you see in this movie – and he did work long and hard at his musical. His relationship with Saleri was one of mutual respect and friendship, and yes because they were contemporaries that were a rivalry between them, but it was a friendly one. Saleri certainly had nothing to do with Mozart dying – as he quite literally drank himself to death.

But do you care? Would you rather see a movie about two guys who respect each other, or a movie about a bitter rivalry? Amadeus is a tragedy of the highest order, and absolutely brilliant as drama. Who gives a shit if it is historically inaccurate? It exposes more truth in different way.

One of my absolute favorite films of all time is Oliver Stone’s magnificent 1991 masterpiece JFK. The film was attacked even before Stone starting shooting the damn thing for being historically inaccurate. For one thing, it portrays New Orleans DA Jim Garrison as somewhat of a crusading hero, but in actual fact, Garrison was a little bit of a nutjob. Stone gives Garrison much more information than he actually had at the time when he charged businessman Clay Shaw with conspiracy to kill JFK. Also, much of what Stone depicts as happening in the film is mere myth or conjecture. Stone has absolutely no proof to back up much of what he says in this film. He was attacked by newscasters and reporters, as well as the MPAA, which took the odd step of condemning the film for being as harmful to film as Birth of a Nation (when JFK got nominated for 10 Oscars, and won several, it served as further proof that the MPAA was nothing but a bunch of idiots).

But does it really matter? Stone has described JFK as his counter myth to the myth created by the Warren Commission with their famed “magic bullet” theory that claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing JFK. Just as the Warren Commission concentrated on weird facts and suppressed evidence, Stone decides to blow the lid off of everything – real or fake it hardly matters – Stone simply sets out to make a film that says there was a conspiracy to kill JFK. Pure and simple.

And not only that, but JFK is a masterpiece of film construction. For more than three hours, Stone weaves his multiple plot threads, his amazing camera work and editing, and spins an elaborate tapestry of fact, fiction and conjecture. The film is a cry of rage directed at the people who took Kennedy away from the American people, as well as the people who Stone thinks have helped to cover the crime up. If he’s wrong, so be it. Stone’s film is a masterpiece like no other film in history.

There are many other examples. How about 1940’s They Died With Their Boots On with Errol Flynn, where it portrayed General Custer as sympathetic to the Natives? Or 1978’s Oscar winner The Deer Hunter where Americans taken prisoner during Vietnam are forced to play Russian Roulette (it’s true they were tortured, but no one has ever claimed that one)? Or Gladiator, that portrays Emperor Commodus, who in reality was highly respected by the Senate and ruled for 13 years before being killed by a wrestler in the bath, as an incestuous little coward, who was an ineffectual leader and killed by Russell Crowe in the Coliseum. Or Braveheart, which portrays the rather wealthy, knighted William Wallace as some sort of poor folk hero. Or The Patrior (sorry if it seems like I’m picking on Mel Gibson, but let’s face facts, the asshole deserves it) that depicted his character as a noble hero who single handedly killed a British infantry unit, when in reality he slaughtered dozens of unarmed Cherokee Indians, and raped his female slaves. Sofia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette depicts her husband King Louis as an impotent man afraid of sex, when he really had a medical condition where his foreskin was not fully retracted, and once he had an operation to correct it, they did indeed have children (in this case, I will again defend the movie. Who the hell wants to see Jason Schwartzman get circumcised on screen? Not me.) What about 300 that depicted the Sparatans as fighting for freedom and democracy – and hated homosexuals, when in reality they were a fascist church state that really, really liked to have sex with young boys. How about Shakespeare in Love, who completely invents Shakespeare’s story, as little is actually known about the man? Or how about just about any movie set before the 20th Century in which women have spotless, shaved legs. In reality, they should be pretty fucking hairy down there. Not to mention that everything back then was also incredibly smelly. The only film that can I think of that addresses that specific accurately is Tom Tykwer’s underrated Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, but then again that films ends with the “hero” creating a perfume that causes an entire town to have an orgy, so maybe realism really wasn’t that film main goal after all. Some of these films are great, and some of them are horrible. But historical accuracy does not really play a role when I decide if the movie is good or not. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story is what I always say.

Which brings me back to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (where I will now add a spoiler warning, but really you’ve probably already heard about the ending of the film). According the movie, WWII ended when a Jewish woman sets her movie theater on fire in retaliation for all the evil done to her people and her family, while at the same time, a group of Jewish American soldiers plan to blow up the same theater, where Hitler, Goebbels, Goring and Bohrman will all be at the same time. When things do not go quite as planned, the two the American soldiers burst into the balcony holding Hitler and Goebells and blows them away with machine guns.

So yeah, the movie not only plays fast and loose with the facts, but in fact decides to completely and totally ignore them, giving the film, and the war, a more cathartic, satisfying ending. Admit it, would you rather have seen two Jews kills Hitler at a movie premiere, rather than the cowardly suicide that was Hitler’s real end. The end of the film fits perfectly with the rest of the film. In fact, by the time we reach the end, this really is the only way the movie could logically end.

Not only do I not have a problem with changing the history of the War to this major degree, I would actually argue that the history, in this case anyway, is irrelevant. With the rest of the films on this list - to a certain degree anyway - present the history in such a way that you may actually believe the history presented in them. But with Inglorious Basterds, it is clear from the start that this film is a work of imagination, not fact. Why do you think the film’s first chapter is entitled “Once Upon a Time, in Nazi Occupied France” (the words appear on the screen at about the same time most movies have the “Based on a True Story” line popping up on screen). Tarantino makes it clear from the start that his film is essentially a very violent fairy tale. It is in fact, an act of wish fulfillment.

In conclusion, the only thing I really have left to say is that movies and history really do not go together. If you want to learn about history, read a book. The movies have a responsibility to tell a good story that makes sense, emotionally and dramatically (and wrap everything up in two to three hours), so sorry, but they really do not have time to worry about getting the facts. To quote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. All Tarantino is doing, much like Griffth, Forman, Stone and countless others before him, is printing his own legend.

NOTE: while doing research for this article, I found much of the information in this articled on Cracked.com. It is a humorous take on movies saved by historical inaccuracies, and I should give credit where credit is due. http://www.cracked.com/article_15014_p4.html

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