Hollywood demands that historical epics be simple… and Kevin Costner obliged with the trite western drama, Dances with Wolves. Costner provided everything the politically correct elite of the movie industry expected; white man- murderous, greedy, BAD : red man- peaceful, egalitarian, GOOD. Hollywood responded by heaping praise and awards (robbing Goodfellas) on Costner’s three-hour cinematic apology. This simplistic, naive tale passes for history in many circles, a fact that should frighten people concerned with historical accuracy. Filmmakers constantly use their medium for revision, but in terms of history, such efforts do more harm than good. No revision is required when a better example can be studied.
The complex history of American Indian policy… was better dramatized by the great filmmaker, John Ford, in the classic Fort Apache. Ford created a classic piece of historical fiction without passing judgements or applying modern moral standards to a by-gone era. The characters are real, not stereotypical (well, drunk Irishmen abound) cut-outs of revisionist fantasy. Not all white men are bad, not all Indians are noble; instead, the complex relationships build conflict throughout the film. Ford’s attention to the details of frontier military life provide a rich background to the tale of Cochise and the Apache wars.
The history of Westward expansion is too important… to leave to Hollywood. History as presented by California elites is convenient, judgemental, and ultimately, poorly told. Revisionist history has found a powerful ally in Hollywood, but discriminating audiences can and should resist the dubious lessons.