Really, Really Bad History Movies…

Hollywood walks a fine line with… movies about history.  Making a film that is both entertaining and historically accurate is not easily done. Too often, filmmakers sacrifice historic detail for cheap thrills or romance.  In no particular order, here are some of the worst offenders:

Strong cast, weak result…

Midway 1976– With a cast like this: Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum…this should have been a sure-fire hit;  Instead, we get a convoluted mess of a film.  To trim costs, filmmakers reused miniature footage from the superior Tora!Tora!Tora!, spliced in documentary footage from Victory at Sea, and shot almost exclusively off the coast of California.  Fonda is wasted in the role of Chester Nimitz, who was not a central figure in the Battle of Midway.  Heston overacts nicely, but even his considerable emoting skills can’t rescue this dud.  Toss in the “forbidden” cross-culture love story and you’re left with one forgettable film.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

The Duke says “Support the War”

The Green Berets  1968–  Filmed and released at the peak of America’s involvement in the Vietnam war, this is nothing more than a piece of hastily made propaganda.   Shot almost entirely at Fort Benning, Georgia, viewers have to excuse the evergreen trees seen throughout the jungle sequences.  Made with full support of the US Army, the equipment, uniforms, and weapons are all relatively accurate; however, the characterization and politics are clearly right-wing.  John Wayne had grown frustrated with the turn in public opinion and wanted to counter the growing antiwar movement.  The NVA/VC are murderers, the South Vietnamese are helpless, and the press is subversive.  Along the way brave American soldiers battle the bad guys, care for refugees, and give an education to the pinko-commie media.  The irony is, the film’s release was too late to make a serious impact on public opinion already turned south by the Tet Offensive.  And to think Star Trek fans, George Takei missed filming Trouble with Tribles , to make this inept clunker.

 

A badly staged video game

Pearl Harbor  2001–  Definitive proof that formulaic movies are doomed, this bloated laugher fails to capitalize on the model set in Titanic:  Choose a romanticized historical period, wrap it around a love story, and use enough CGI to fool the crowd.  Jack and Rose provided a believable if clichéd romantic tale,  this film seems to mock James Cameron’s masterpiece.  Fearing his best friend dead in the battle of Britain, Danny promptly impregnates his buddy’s girl (what are friends for, right?)  The audience is supposed to be drawn to these nitwits as the scenery shifts to Pearl Harbor and the events of December 7, 1941  unfold.  Surprise, Rafe is quite alive (Rafe, really?)  and the two pals must put their salacious past aside and battle the Japanese in a badly staged CGI recreation.  Tora!Tora!Tora! got  much of this history right, utilizing real planes, ships and properly photographed miniatures.  All viewers are shown here is an elaborate video game.  Danny bites it in the final battle and Rafe agrees to raise his friend’s child….does anyone really care?  Thankfully, the film sank most of those involved.

The Patriot  2000– …. This  could have been a historically accurate and moving depiction of the American Revolutionary War. Sad to say, it’s far from that….  Filmmakers were afraid to allow history to speak for itself; instead, there are free blacks working on South Carolina plantations, women castigating men in public, and British soldiers committing mass murder.  Mel Gibson flies into a rage, about the limit of his range, and Heath Ledger looks cute for the cameras; only British bad boy Jason Isaacs gives a noteworthy performance.  German filmmaker Roland Emmerich misplaces atrocities committed by his countrymen during WW2 in an attempt to vilify the British antagonist.  Battles are never identified, historical figures are combined into politically correct caricatures, and the script labors on and on and on and on….until Yorktown! The end of the war !    Once conceived as a biopic of Revolutionary hero Frances Marion, filmmakers scrapped that plan when they learned Marion was a slave owner (they can never be good guys, right?)  The sanitized product is slick, violent, and easy to look at, but far from  historically accurate….

 

Gods and Generals  2003–  This movie is 50 minutes longer than Gone with the Wind.  That is really all the casual viewer needs to know, in other words, skip it.  What the film really needed was a script.  The filmmakers try to thrust every internal monologue from the novel onto the screen and the result is a ceaseless string of speeches, mostly about the Confederate cause.  ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, one of the more disagreeable personalities from the war, is our hero.  He tells us repeatedly the Civil War was not about slavery, it was  about states rights, prayer, Christmas carols (two full renditions!), prayer, Pro-secession songs, prayer…..you get the idea.   Confused viewers ask, “Did they really talk like that?”  No, people did not communicate in 5 minute soliloquies.  The battle sequences are competent if not understated, clearly the result of the film’s limited budget.  Novelist Jeff Shaara was disappointed with the film, as were most Civil War buffs.  Jackson’s death sequence is so long, one wonders if the filmmakers were tinkering with the idea of a Civil War/zombie cross over.

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Weekly History News Roundup

UN designates new historical sitessix areas join places like Yellowstone and Stonehenge

 

Ancient coins found in British cave… dig reveals stash that predates the Roman conquest

 

Strange changes to JFK Wikipedia entry… alterations traced to a government computer

 

Current poll rates Presidential intelligence… Clinton ranks highest in questionable data

 

Preservation groups buy more land in Tennessee… endangered Franklin battle sites to be preserved

Preserving Franklin for my sake

Preserving Franklin for my sake

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Review of “The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson…” by Howard Means

Originally posted on My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies:

The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation” by Howard Means was published in 2006. Means is a former writer and editor for Washingtonian magazine, an editorial board member at the Orlando Sentinel and op-ed columnist. He has also written several books including a biography of Colin Powell.

Perhaps evident from its title, Mean’s book is less a comprehensive biography of Andrew Johnson and more an examination of the weeks following Lincoln’s assassination and Johnson’s ascension to the presidency. But lest the reader take the inference too far, while this book does not provide a systematic exploration of Johnson’s full life neither does it focus primarily on the first forty-five days of Johnson’s presidency.

In fact, although Means is an articulate and interesting writer, the most frustrating aspect of this book is its organizational structure. It is neither a biography nor a…

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Battle of Cool Spring—July 18th

Originally posted on Emerging Civil War:

Colonel Joseph Thoburn

Colonel Joseph Thoburn

Today we welcome back guest author Kyle Rothemich.

Following Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s withdrawal into the Shenandoah Valley in early July 1864, thousands of Union soldiers followed in pursuit. Many of them were part of the Union 6th Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright. Early’s retreat west was not met without resistance.

The Army of West Virginia was a conglomeration of Union soldiers from West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois and other ‘western’ states. Leading these men in the field was Brig. Gen. George Crook. Attempting to cut off Early’s retreat, Crook was ordered to move towards Harpers Ferry. Earlier in the summer, Crook’s men suffered defeat at the hand of Early at the Battle of Lynchburg and fled into the Allegheny Mountains. Resupplied and ready for a fight, the Army of West Virginia joined forces with Wright in the pursuit of Early.

By July…

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Variety is the Spice

Edmund Morgan passed away last yearto little fanfare outside academic circles.  Morgan was an historian familiar to any student of history active the last 40 years.  His studies of Colonial New England, like “The Puritan Family”, became standard reading in graduate history programs across the country.  The trilogy of books he composed shed much needed light on Puritanism and life in Colonial New England.  After 25 years of work, Morgan decided to study something else– academia shook. 

From Massachusetts to Virginia- he had it covered

From Massachusetts to Virginia- he had it covered

In 1975 he published… “American Slavery: American Freedom”, a study of the slave-holding society of Colonial Virginia.  Could an historian of Colonial New England provide the same rigorous analysis to a different historical region?  Winning the Parkman and Beveridge awards, the book exposed Morgan to a wider and more diverse group of future historians.  The great historian, Bernard Bailyn observed of Morgan’s body of work, “He covered large territories of the past with great clarity, precision and wit…”

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The spirit of discovery… and storytelling Edmund Morgan brought to academic history is essential for the viability of the discipline.  New media and digital transfers are replacing libraries and traditional research methods.  Historical dissertations are becoming so narrow, so specialized, as to render their readability moot.  The best histories read like great stories, not explanations  of tedious research– and master storytellers are becoming scarce in today’s compartmentalized field of historical study.

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Fighting Consensus History

Peter Charles Hoffer sees nothing worse… than “consensus” historians selling millions of books.  In his book, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Frauds – American History From Bancroft And Parkman To Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, And Goodwin,  Hoffer rails against the scholarly sins of popular historical writers Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Mistakes in citation now pass for pure plagiarism in academic circles, and Hoffer revels in tearing down the reputations of popular writers  more familiar to the American public.  He relentlessly assails Goodwin’s defense of her mistakes(she and Ambrose both claimed simple oversight due to volume of writing) – his attacks on Ambrose ring hollow considering the confrontation was posthumous(Ambrose died in 2002.)  

No room for popularity

No room for popularity

At the heart of Hoffer’s book is a struggle…  for the spirit of American history.  “Consensus history,” as it was labeled in the 1960′s, was the study of dead white men and their battles– exemplified by George Bancroft and Francis Parkman.  Through their glorification of nationalistic images, America’s true history(usually class struggle)  is lost.  Hoffer judges his forebears  falsified and fabricated by omission and commission, and substituted opinion for scholarship”  and equates it to the perceived wrongdoings of current popular history.  As a former member of the American Historical Association’s Professional division, Hoffer wants to know why these “frauds” were not punished more harshly.  Kearns-Goodwin is again a television pundit, Joe Ellis still writes bestsellers, and Ambrose, well,  he’s dead- no fair!

No frauds on television

No frauds on television

 

By the end of his book… Hoffer’s analysis borders on the absurd.  He praises the sensationalism(some outlets likened it to a scandal of Nixonian proportion) of the media for ruining the reputations of the writers in question.  The book poses the disturbing proposition- history is either going to be popular and unscholarly or erudite and inaccessible.   The works of Nathaniel Philbrick, David McCullough, and Evan Thomas have shown just the opposite.  Hoffer’s simplistic attempt to banish popular historians from academic ranks exposes a weakening grip the New Left has on American historiography.

Unite us, David

Unite us, David

 

 

 

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And Now, From Your Host….

There is little need to manufacture a case… against the scholarship of Howard Zinn.  Simply turn a few pages in his mammoth collection of neo-marxist myths and his utter lack of historical discipline is apparent.  With sneers, winks, and contrived expertise, Zinn proclaims his biased interpretation of America’s founding documents.  He offers no evidence to support his contentious positions- simply stating that “bias” excuses this lack of basic academic rigor.

Be sure to talk about tyranny ! The commoners think they hate that !

All this language of popular control over governments, the right of rebellion and revolution, indignation at political tyranny, economic burdens, and military attacks, was language well suited to unite large numbers of colonists, and persuade even those who had grievances against one another to turn against England.”    Zinn cannot acknowledge that ordinary colonial citizens had a grudge with England.  The wicked colonial elites used “Common Sense” and the Declaration of Independence to manipulate the masses into fighting the British.  The obvious deduction is that Zinn believed  Colonial grievances were not legitimate.  His source material throughout this section of his book is Charles Beard’s “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution”- the long discredited study of the economic origins of our nation’s founding.  Beard was taken to task by the next generation of historians, but Zinn refuses to acknowledge the deficiencies of his source material.

The people of Boston were clearly manipulated into dumping tea….

The academic dishonesty is the toughest part… of Zinn’s work to swallow.  Ignoring volumes of well researched, balanced studies to persistently argue his “biased” view of history is what earns Zinn his “radical” credentials.  The very core of his radicalism was a disregard to academic standards and peer review.  The reputation he built as an anti-establishment hero protects his work from proper scrutiny.  Enlisting celebrities for a dramatic reading of the A People’s History  will further deflect attention from the lack of substance in the words Matt Damon recites.  Zinn is definitive proof that lousy work can be remembered if it has been done colorfully.

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