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Should historical films be like documentaries?

It seems we’re in an age where relativism prevails. Taking American Idol as our touchstone, no-one wants to be seen “judging” whether sensitive youngsters have a natural sense of rhythm and can actually sing in tune. In the cinema, the same problem persists. When it comes to other people’s cultural preferences, those of us who write reviews are allowed to think a film is rubbish, but we’re not supposed to say so. Paying customers have the right to queue up for dross if they choose. So, when it comes to reviewing films like The King’s Speech, we’re to look the other way when the history is rewritten. For the paying customer, it’s supposedly irrelevant that reality has been warped to fit the story the director wanted to tell. It’s like using a drone to take out a terrorist. All the collateral damage is an unfortunate side effect. In our case, the uninformed viewers will be even more misled if they believe what they see on the screen to be true. But what people think happened in the past is hardly important, is it? I mean, who cares if Lionel Logue’s major effort to help Bertie was not in a crumbling basement, but on a yacht taking the Duke to Australia where he was due to give a major speech. It’s far more dramatic to have it appear Logue’s primary input was to build Bertie up to make “the” big speech to rally the Empire for what was to become WWII. Indeed, the need to maximise the drama, on its own, makes the rewriting of the past all right. After all, no-one gets hurt in any real way.

 

Except, Colin Firth’s magnificent performance could have been used to tell any story where the “cure” was to be put to the test. Any major speaking event would have sufficed to give us the feel-good factor when he was able to speak with some fluency. For example, The Blind Side (2009) offered us an inspirational Sandra Bullock steering Michael Other towards his selection in the NFL draft. It achieves its effect without being mawkish and by being relatively low key. Contrast The King’s Speech where the director felt the need to introduce all the complications of the Abdication and the politics of the build-up to the declaration of war. Unfortunately, he was then faced with major time constraints. There was no room for any of the historical detail. As time was compressed, even the daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, stayed the same age although the years were passing. The result was a superficial mess where reality was subordinated to the need to have Logue arrive slightly late and breathless at the Palace to be able to coach Bertie for his big moment. What rubbish! Or is it?

 

Some might argue that a film based on real events doesn’t have to be accurate. Thinking about the Oscars, accuracy would be a reasonable factor in the judging if there was an award for the best historical film. As it is, the process of making a film about real events is rather the same as adapting a book for the screen. When it comes to the Oscars, we’re solely interested in whether it’s a good film. How well the adaptation follows the book or historical reality is not the criterion. While I feel betrayed that a British team would so willfully misrepresent British history, others might say that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

 

I’m reminded of Anand Tucker‘s controversial Hilary and Jackie (1998) which supposedly tells the story of Hilary and Jacqueline du Pré. Many of those who knew Jacqueline were outraged and asserted the only reason it could be made is that you cannot defame the dead. This naturally leads me to ask whether film is ever capable of being a true historical record. Let’s start off by thinking about what history is. This is not a convenient bundle of facts we can pick up and examine. It’s a shifting mess of information that we continuously review and reinterpret for our own purposes. When you think about what happens to any individual during their lifetime, we cannot know everything. So we pick events that we say are significant and remember those. Except, the moment we start picking from the mass of facts and editorialising, we are inevitably remaking the past for our own purposes. This year, we choose to remember the good stuff about a national hero. Next year, it may be convenient only to remember the bad stuff about this terrorist.

 

If we call our film “fiction”, should the directors perhaps be allowed some latitude? Ah, but that’s the thin end of the wedge. Once we begin to offer different labels for our films, whether as historical fiction, as drama documentary or docu-drama, this changes the game. It becomes more dangerous because some labels are signalling a pretence of greater accuracy. For example, in Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), Michael Winterbottom mixed real and staged footage in a faux cinéma vérité. Like many who make films, he was striving to create a sense of reality or credibility. If there was no actual film record, he created something that would “feel” right. When the events historically take place before the invention of cameras and we stage our version, everything is fictionalised. How the costumes are designed, the make-up is done, the scenes are lit, and so on: it all combines as our version of history. Similarly, when we see the label “bio-pic” or the phase “based on true events”, we should feel no greater confidence. At best, the life story is sanitised, omitting embarrassing details to protect reputations. At worst, key events are rewritten.

 

Slightly changing the basis of the debate, how should we react if the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) showed Anne being liberated from the concentration camp at the end of the war? Say the focus group thought the original ending too depressing so they reshot her being rescued by a smiling GI. Well, this is the well-worn SF trope of alternate reality. So Richard III (1995) has the King jump to his death rather than be captured, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004) assumes the South won the Civil War, and Scott Free, the production company run by Ridley and Tony Scott, has announced its intention to make a version of The Man in the High Castle in which the Axis Powers win WWII. To my mind, all of this is fair game so long as you warn people in advance. This is no longer “historical” drama in which we see “real” people. Rather it’s a “what-if” drama showing how “real” people might have reacted had history turned out some other way.

 

It all comes down to how much faith people put in the validity of the labels. If people are led to believe a film is substantially accurate, then it should be. But if they understand that, for the purposes of making a “better” story, the director changed the facts to create more drama, they can have fun looking up the history to see which bits are fiction, i.e. they are not misled. To my mind, the failure to warn people of the extent of the historical revision is potentially dishonest. Hence this rather strange new phase, “Based on a true story” which we now take as a warning that the production company made up most of what we see on the screen. I think The King’s Speech should have carried a warning that major parts of the story were fictionalised. That would have played fair with the audience. Alternatively, the film should have been scaled down to show an ending with Bertie speaking in Australia. If a low-key approach works for films like Finding Forrester (2000), in which a shy young writer grows in confidence under the guidance of an established author, it would work for films about stammerers being shown how to speak in public. The King’s Speech doesn’t have to be an epic to be a success just as cinéma vérité doesn’t have to show real events.

 

My thanks to Angela-35 at imdb.com who prompted me to think about the issue and whose opinions are reflected in this piece.

 

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