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:
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 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.
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.