Saturday, July 4, 2015

Pet Peeves: Historical Movies

I love movies and I love history, so you might think I would love movies set in the historical past (as if there might be another kind of past; once it is past it is history to somebody).

The problem, of course, is historical accuracy, or, more precisely, the frequent lack of it.

Historical inaccuracy does not always peeve me. Sometimes it actually amuses me. A case in point is Randall Wallace's well-researched dramatization, "Braveheart," about the career of William Wallace and his royal contemporaries, Edward I (called Longshanks) and his Prince Junior, Edward II. I say that Wallace (the screenwriter, not the character played by Mel Gibson) researched well not because the movie is an historically accurate presentation of actual events--it isn't--but, rather, because Wallace so clearly had to know what the actual history was in order to do what he did, which was to embroider a collection of true historical incidents taken out of context and stuck in a previous generation where they serve his dramatic purpose. Consider, for example, the scene in which Edward Longshanks, played by the late Patrick McGoohan, unceremoniously defenestrates his son's gay lover, Gaveston. That Edward II may have had a gay lover who was murdered is an historically plausible claim. Wallace obviously knew this, but he also must have known that the murder took place years after the death of Edward I. The historical perpetrators were acting on behalf of several barons who, like the old king, were jealous of Gaveston, but Wallace is right that it works so much better if Edward I does it himself.

Then there are the multiple problems posed by the character of Princess Isabella. If she had been married to the Prince of Wales, then she and not Diana would have been the first Princess of Wales. In historical fact, Isabella did not marry Edward II until after he became king. She was never Princess of Wales, though she was Queen Isabella. Which brings us to the problem of her age. When William Wallace was alive, Isabella was only five-years-old--and living in France. She only came to England years after Wallace was executed (William, not Randall).

So she did not bear Wallace's child after all? No, but consider the historical facts: King Edward II may have been gay, though this is controversial, and if he had no interest in doing his royal duty in producing an heir, then how to explain Isabella's four children? She may have decided that somebody else had to do it. If the father could not have been a Scotsman who had been executed years before, the most likely suspect seems to have been a Welsh nobleman named Roger Mortimer. Mortimer and Isabella eventually made their relationship obvious. The question was whether it had been going on all along. Several noblemen later hanged Mortimer. (Killing intimates of the royals seems almost to have been a sport.) While the real father of Edward III might have been a Welshman, Randall Wallace took the liberty of making him a rebellious Scot. Seems more dramatic, and makes me admire the screenwriter's art in moving pieces around on his chess board in order to make up his own story.

BTW, William Wallace's backstory in the movie, involving the murder of his father, the rape and murder of his wife, and his escape to the continent where, like Mel Gibson, he learned Latin, is not a rearrangement of historical facts; rather it is entirely made up. The truth is that, in the words, I believe, of British historian H.R. Trevor-Roper, Wallace appeared on the stage of history as if out of nowhere; nothing whatsoever is known about his origins.

Contrast this with the more recent but less memorable movie "Defiance." Having read the book (well, one of several of the books that formed the basis of the movie), I was looking forward to a cinematic retelling of the true story of the Bielsky brothers, East European Jewish partisans who not only hectored the Nazi occupation with their hit-and-run guerrilla tactics but also collected a community of Jewish refugees in spite of the fact that supporting so many small children and elderly people was a hardship for guerrillas who would have been better off not dragging around the dead weight of so many "useless" civilians.

By camping in an extensive forest, the brothers kept their charges safe from the Germans for a long time, but eventually the Germans sent not only foot soldiers but tanks to sweep the forest and flush out anybody hiding therein. So the Bielsky brothers led their people on an arduous trek through a huge swamp in the middle of which was an island of dry land. The movie almost succeeds in portraying how arduous this must have been--and how dangerous, since it was so likely that someone would have collapsed and died or been drowned in quicksand. It was a miracle that everyone made it to the island, exhausted but alive.

In the movie, having reached the sanctuary of the island, the Bielskys are almost immediately confronted by their worst nightmare. A Panzer tank attacks them. Heroically, but in a scene too much like similar ones in too many other war pictures, the brothers, through teamwork and a couple of well-placed hand grenades, subdue the steel behemoth, after which the filmmakers apparently thought that they had their crowd-pleasing ending, so they rolled the credits.

The bother, of course, is that the reason that the Bielsky brothers took the risk of leading old people and small children through a treacherous swamp was precisely because they knew that it was impossible for tanks to follow them through such an extensive mire. Where in blazes did the tank they encountered on the island come from? Was it dropped by parachute from a cargo plane? (Not something that was technically feasible until after World War II.) No. This ending made a pointless mockery out of the desperate heroism of the trek through the swamp. Thumbs down on this travesty of a picture.

Speaking of World War II, "Patton" seems to be the favorite movie of many conservatives, but I, for one, have come to despise it. The script by Francis Ford Coppola is based, in part, on Gen. Omar Bradley's memoir. Now, my father met Omar Bradley and liked him. Most people who met him apparently did, but one of the conceits of "Patton" is that Bradley and Patton were friends, which they were not at all.

The movie's deep flaw is that it pretends to take an unbiased view, based on Bradley's skewed view of Patton. Whatever Patton's many shortcomings, he was a strategic and tactical genius who probably could have shortened World War II's European conflict by six months if he had been given the top field position that was, instead, given to Bradley. Bradley loved his men, but he loved them too much. His fear of endangering them was paradoxically what put them in danger. His affection did not prevent them from being slaughtered in Field Marshall Montgomery's ill-conceived Market Garden Campaign, for example, a campaign which Bradley approved while Patton recognized it as a bad idea in a trice. Yet this movie persists in showing Patton through Bradley's biased eyes.

So, historically inaccurate movies either burn me or amuse me. Can't think of any examples of films that do both, probably because if one scene--especially the ending--bothers me, I am not going to be amused by the rest of the movie.

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