Are Historians Too Hard on Hollywood History?

By Colin Woodward

The new issue of the academic journal Civil War History contains two reviews of historical films, the first an assessment of the Robert Redford film The Conspirator, about the trial of Mary Surratt following the Lincoln assassination. The second is a review of the recent PBS documentary about Robert E. Lee.

Elizabeth Leonard and Richard McCaslin take their respective filmmakers to task for sacrificing historical accuracy and complexity for the sake of entertainment. While I understand historians’ desire, indeed duty, to make sure that filmmakers respect the integrity of a historical subject, my question is: should we be surprised when a movie–even a documentary–chooses drama or narrative flow over being true to the historical record? I think not.

Historians criticizing Hollywood is almost as old as Hollywood itself. One need only consult the many words written about D. W. Griffith’s Birth of  Nation to see how a controversial a filmmaker can be when he tackles “history.” Birth of a Nation was notorious even in its own time–based as it was on a novel titled The Klansman–and remains an infamous portrayal of late nineteenth and early twentieth century racist attitudes toward African Americans.

Putting its unrelenting racism aside, Griffith’s film was an epic in an era of short films; and parts of it are impressive for their historical subject matter. When, for example, was the last time you saw an actor portray Lincoln and Robert E. Lee in the same movie? Or a dramatic film that attempted to address The Civil War and Reconstruction seriously (albeit wrong-minded)? Griffith benefited from an audience that wanted “history”–in the era before wikipedia and youtube–put on the screen. Griffith’s audience was much closer to the Civil War than the filmgoers of 2012. When Birth of a Nation was made, there were still many Civil War veterans alive.

Griffith’s panoramas of Civil War battle scenes, for example, had never been attempted before. The war scenes still hold up pretty well today, though young viewers would likely never see a second of the film outside of a classroom. It’s Griffith’s politics that we remember most, unfortunately, but it seems his pro-Confederate Lost Cause views have never disappeared from the film industry. Gone with the Wind, for example, only reinforced the moonlight and magnolias view of the Old South. Gods and Generals, made generations later, featured a sanitized version of the Confederacy not that different from the one depicted in Gone with the Wind.

Recently, I saw The Conspirator, which I thought was a good and thoughtful film. At no point did I assume it was about exactly what happened in real life. I was mindful of its politics, but it is interesting how my take differs from Elizabeth Leonard’s review. According to Leonard, The Conspirator reinforces, through its portrayal of hardass Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the old Lost Cause idea of a vindictive North avenging itself on a helpless South.

I guess one could possibly read the film’s message that way, but I think to do so misses the point. Robert Redford, hardly a conservative defender of the Lost Cause, directed the film, which is more about the Bush administration’s war on terror and detention of individuals than the events of 1865. In Redford’s’ movie, cold-blooded Stanton takes on the role of Dick Cheney, who defended water-boarding and throwing men in Guantanamo and tossing away the key. Leonard is correct in saying the omission of Andrew Johnson in The Conspirator is puzzling, but perhaps he doesn’t appear because the film is making a statement of how an administration can exert powers beyond oversight of the chief executive.

In her review, Leonard, who was a historical consultant to the film, complains about the usual Hollywood historical inaccuracies, oversights, and embellishments. But I think you’d be hard pressed to find a historical film, good or bad, that does not change characters names, alter their personalities, invent some people entirely, or make composites of others. Movies are about telling an interesting story, and filmmakers will sacrifice accuracy for drama. Every. Time.

Sometimes, Hollywood takes historical liberties to absurd lengths, as in Mel Gibson Rambo-wanna-be The Patriot. In others, such as Lawrence of Arabia, the film’s director is more subtle. Lawrence is one of my favorite movies, but it has its own problems of authenticity. Many of the Arabs are played by Latin Americans. And England’s Alec Guinness certainly was not of Middle Eastern stock. I would be a fool to take Lawrence as a true history of what happened in the Arab revolt of World War I. Is it historical? Surely. But Lawrence is trying to tell a great story about a great man, not please perfectionist historians.

Filmmakers must please their audience and investors foremost, which is why they annoy historians to no end. Really, academics are too hard on Hollywood. Were I make a film about my own life, I’d hire actors and probably have to change filming locations that sacrificed historical accuracy for convenience. Three girlfriends would turn into one. Four years of events might be condensed down to a minute of screen time. I can’t think of a single Hollywood movie that does not take great license with what happened in the past.

In Richard McCaslin’s review of the Robert E. Lee documentary that aired last year on American Experience, he criticizes not the film’s factual merits, but its interpretive inconsistencies, simplistic attention to subjects such as slavery (which, McCaslin argues, places Lee too much in a proslavery light), and its overemphasis on battles and military leadership. McCaslin probably expects too much of a film that’s less than 90 minutes long and is intended for non-Civil War experts.

I saw the documentary, and it was a fine film for undergraduates to watch. Likely most young people, unlike McCaslin, who is an authority on the subject, know very little about Robert E. Lee. The American Experience documentary would be a good place to start. Undergraduates are not going to find as historical a portrait of Lee in a Hollywood film anytime soon.

So, for academics and history buffs, Hollywood can never get it right. Either films sacrifice accuracy for drama, or they get the history right but it’s not fresh enough. It would seem Ken Burns’ 9-hour 1990 documentary on the Civil War would be enough for anyone. Yet, there were some who complained that he left out things such as the 1861 battle of Wilson’s Creek. Others thought Shelby Foote was a mush-mouthed cracker who got too much screen time. You can never please everyone.

McCaslin disses Burns and historical documentaries in general, saying “very fine historians find themselves participating in projects intended mostly to reinforce stereotypes or pander to historical fads, which attract wary audiences and lead to better advertising opportunities. Ken Burns proved that this template can be effective, and legions of young filmmakers have followed his model for broadcasting success, to the distress of the many teachers who struggle to counteract their effect.” Okay. Well, all I can say is that Ken Burns was the one who got me interested in the Civil War. His documentary wasn’t perfect, but the history is solid. Apparently the millions of people who watched and bought the companion book to the series thought the same.

Steven Spielberg is making a film about Abraham Lincoln, and he’s been filming parts of it in my old stomping grounds in Richmond and Petersburg. I’m not sure how good the film will be, or how historically accurate (ack! Daniel Day Lewis, who plays Lincoln, is British!). But what I do know is that there will be historians ready to knock it down a peg.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

6 thoughts on “Are Historians Too Hard on Hollywood History?

  1. Why do you say that Alec Guinness (who played Lawrence) was not of Middle-Eastern stock? The real Lawrence was not of Middle-Eastern stock — he was British.

    • No! Alec Guinness played Prince Faisal! Lawrence was played by Peter O’Toole. The casting of Guinness as an Arab is precisely my point: it doesn’t really matter what the ethnicity was of the actor, so long as he was convincing. Anthony Quinn (aka Antonio Rodolfo Quinn-Oaxaca) played an Arab in the same movie, and he was Mexican American. He also played Zorba the Greek. I don’t get so hung up on authenticity issues. Either the movie is good or bad, and we can forgive it’s limitations regarding authenticity accordingly.

  2. My dissertation examined Civil Rights-themed films and historical memory. I looked at The Help, The Butler, and many others. And you are right, historians are sometimes too hard on films. The book “In Defense of Hollywood” is great. Films have opportunities, in ways, to get history more accurate than academic books as they can directly show feelings and artifacts and can use music, for example. I look at films and generally examine how they show the overall feelings, hopes, and fears of a given topic. What do they represent? What do they leave out?

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