Early in 2000, the Smithsonian Museum of American History announced… it would assist in the production of an epic film about the American Revolution starring Mel Gibson. Historians, history buffs, and living historians were further enticed by the original script detailing the exploits of “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion. Disappointment with “The Patriot” started early, as producers ordered a substantial rewrite of the script after researching the complex life of Marion. Apparently, a slave-owning Indian fighter cannot be heroic in a major Hollywood production. Gibson instead portrays an anachronism- a South Carolina plantation owner who allows free blacks to work his land; a rebel torn between his family and the American cause.
Cute kids mask bad movie
It’s as if a group of impressionable, idealistic college sophomores… sat down and scripted the American Revolution “as it should have been.” Young women stand up and chastise their elders in town meetings, slaves struggle for freedom in the deepest parts of South Carolina, and the evil imperialist British forces commit mass murder similar to the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre of 1944. There’s plenty of speechifying, Gibson’s slow boiling, hunky Heath Ledger, and adorable children- but the film is woefully short on history. Couldn’t the Smithsonian have advised on more than just costuming? Gibson’s rage is incapable of overwhelming such a careless script (the same script that compares British soldiers to Nazis.) The Hollywood community doesn’t have the courage to make a film about the complexities of American history. We are either preached to with politically correct drivel like “Dances with Wolves,” or insulted with comic-book nonsense like this monstrosity.
1776 or 1944?
Steve McQueen is obsessed with startling… visuals, the kind that grab an audience and rarely let go. His first historical film detailed with nauseating frankness the hunger strike of IRA dissident, Bobby Sands. In his latest effort, 12 Years a Slave, McQueen brings to the screen the brutal captivity of freeman Solomon Northup. Based on Northup’s memoir of the same name, McQueen’s interpretation is far too concerned with shock value to capture the deeper messages of Northup’s writing. John Ridley’s conscientious script is at times sacrificed to the director’s need to visualize brutality even his subject could not describe.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor
Historians have been divided over... the academy award winning film. John Ridley’s script faithfully follows Northup’s memoir but McQueen wastes little time extrapolating the narrative with visceral images designed to enlighten, but often deliver little more than wincing. Events Northup leaves to the readers’ imaginations, McQueen brutally visualizes- primarily the whipping of Patsey. McQueen was more than willing to leave Northup’s story to show a fictional murder aboard a slave ship, again for effect, rather than plot. What saves the film from being a bloody mess are the performances. Much attention was awarded to Lupita Nyong’o for her harrowing portrayal of Patsey- but Chiwetel Ejiofor is a revelation as Northup; haunting and tragic, his performance is the real soul of the film.
Scenery, dialect, and costuming were …all well researched- this is not the glorified plantation living of Gone With the Wind, rather a dank, crumbling, stagnate world teetering on the edge of collapse. Michael Fassbender’s psychotic turn as Edwin Epps is symbolic of the self destructive nature of chattel slavery. Many critics cite McQueen’s ambivalence to religion as a weakness in the script- Northup spoke strongly of faith as well as the good Christian nature of his first master, William Ford(an understated Benedict Cumberbatch.) Strong performances, gritty scenery and cinematography, and a historically accurate script make 12 Years a Slave a must see experience. The film’s horrific depictions of violence are considered necessary by some, will be lamented by all- one has to consider whether McQueen could have told the story without as many scare tactics.
The Revenant- 2015 Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 20th Century Fox
The second Hollywood production detailing the harrowing plight… of mountain man Hugh Glass, Leonardo DiCaprio won an Academy Award for his performance. Mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions, Glass miraculously survived and in an improbable 200 mile journey, traveled to safety at Fort Kiowa in present day South Dakota. “The Revenant” plays fast and loose with history, creating a curious subplot involving a Pawnee wife and son who never existed. Instead of portraying actual events, screenwriter Mark Smith creates a frontier revenge fantasy- Glass’s motivation is changed from simply recovering his property to avenging his murdered family(fictional.)
The 1823 Ashley Expedition was a who’s who… of American frontier history: Jim Bridger, Jedidiah Smith, Giles Roberts, and Glass were all members of the ill fated journey up the Missouri River. “The Revenant” relegates the mighty Bridger to the minor role of conniving thief and does not mention Smith at all. The climactic death struggle between Glass and Fitzgerald is another Hollywood creation. Glass did confront the men who abandoned him, but history shows a simple exchange of money, not the blood and guts which sell movie tickets.
The true star of the film is the bleak North American landscape… filmed primarily in Northern Alberta, the cinematography is stark and stunning; effectively illustrating the hopeless nature of Glass’s journey. Tom Hardy is an effective villainous presence, but the rest of the cast is swallowed by the expansive scenery. Long stretches of the film focus exclusively on DiCaprio’s vengeful Glass, the lack of dialogue drawing more attention to the desolate backdrop. Despite his best efforts, DiCaprio is unable to compensate for the simplistic and historically inaccurate script.
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp is forever linked to Arizona... A ruthless self-promoter, Earp lived long enough to see his legend cemented in popular culture. Much of the story was laid out in his ghost-written biography, “Wyatt Earp; Frontier Marshall”
He’s not who you think
Words associated with the Earp legend… justice, law, honor, peacemaker….are difficult to remove from popular culture; History is not nearly as flattering. Earp was first and foremost a capitalist, looking for new and more efficient ways to manipulate frontier economic conditions. Earp and his extended family were masters at separating miners, cowboys, and settlers from their hard-earned western cash. Wearing the badge shielded Earp and his brothers from scrutiny as they eliminated competition to their gambling, saloon, and prostitution enterprises.
Not the reluctant lawman
There is no doubt that Wyatt Earp was a man of action… accounts from contemporaries like Bat Masterson, Luke Short, Charlie Bassett, and John Clum all indicate a fearless individual who never shied from a confrontation. But does this no-nonsense attitude amount to true heroism?
In the Heart of the Sea- 2015 Dir. by Ron Howard
Somewhere between fact and fiction… resides the story of the whale ship Essex. Often claimed to be the inspiration behind Melville’s Moby Dick, the story of the Essex and her crew is the essence of sea fables; a terrible battle with a mythical sea creature, salty determination of the crew, and the unspeakable limits of survival. Nathaniel Philbrick’s tremendous account, In the Heart of the Sea, separated legend from fact while fairly examining the whaling industry that inspired Melville’s masterpiece.
A hunky Owen Chase
Director Ron Howard and writer Charles Leavitt… decided to blur the lines in their cinematic interpretation of Philbrick’s study. Weaving factual elements of the story with the pursuit of a vengeful sperm whale makes a decent Hollywood adventure, but a poor rendering of the historical record. Like Melville, Howard cannot seem to divert attention from an abnormally large whale sinking the Essex, choosing to merely highlight the harrowing journey of the men. Philbrick’s rendering does justice to the crew and their 95 day ordeal, where seven members were cannibalized. The film depicts the whale stalking the crew as it drifts across the South Pacific, more Melville than history.
You can never go wrong with the source material
The story of whaleship Essex… deserves more than the two hour running time filmmakers grant it. Nathaniel Philbrick’s study skillfully blends the rich detail, harrowing adventure, and tortured humanity involved in the tragedy. Ron Howard’s film only scratches the surface of the tragic events, choosing instead to focus far too much energy on a computer generated sperm whale and the hunky leading man.
Black Robe- 1991; Directed by Bruce Beresford
Too often great films are overshadowed… by inferior productions with slicker marketing, more funding, and appearances by A-list stars. Such is the case with Bruce Beresford’s moving tragedy, Black Robe. Released the same year as the stunningly inferior Kevin Costner vanity piece, Dances with Wolves, Beresford’s haunting epic is now relegated to bargain bins and syllabi of Colonial American history courses.
Black Robe tells the tale of a 17th century… French Jesuit and his journey deep into the Niagara frontier to a Huron mission. Cultures clash as the Priest struggles with his own faith during the difficult process of converting the natives. Father LaForgue (Lothaire Bluteau) is trusted into the care of Algonquins who must guide him on the dangerous mission. The ensuing journey tries the beliefs of both the indigenous cultures and the Europeans- exposing their vulnerabilities with the harshness of pre-colonial North America.
Father LaForgue explains the written word
The film is meticulously researched …presenting authenticity in everything from weapons, customs, to native dialects. Whereas, Dances with Wolves portrays the laundry list of politically correct platitudes and simplistic mythology presented as all-too-convenient fact- Black Robe is frank; both brutal and poignant in its interpretation of a wondrous and tragic period of history. Few films have so accurately captured indigenous culture. Beresford’s underrated masterpiece stands as a testament to the historical and cultural potential of film.
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.
Plays with Camera- distorts our history
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.
Sad when great films are forgotten
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.