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.
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.
In the Heart of the Sea- 2015 Dir. by Ron Howard
Final Grade- B
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.
Mel Gibson’s blueprint to “Braveheart” does a disservice to Turner’s rebellion Final Grade- D
First-time director Nate Parker takes full advantage of the Hollywood… surge in independent, minority filmmakers tackling long ignored characters and events. Parker wrote, directed, produced and stars as Nat Turner, leader of the bloodiest slave rebellion in US history. In August of 1831, Turner and a band of devoted followers murdered 60 white men, women, and children in Southampton, Virginia. Turner’s rebels killed nearly everyone they encountered, including the brutal beheading of an infant. The Virginia militia suppressed the rebellion on August 23, though Turner eluded capture until October. Virginia authorities executed 56 blacks in retaliation- historians believe as many as 120 slaves may have been killed in the aftermath. Turner was hanged on November 11.
Parker touches on the history with short strokes… choosing to follow the well-used revenge trope utilized by Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”. Turner’s true motivation was religious- a devout Baptist, Turner claimed to receive a calling from God to free his people and punish their oppressors. Parker’s Turner is religious, but it barely serves as a set piece- Parker focuses intently on the rape and beating of Turner’s wife and the wife of his chief conspirator(conjectural.) The comparisons to Gibson’s film about Scottish rebel William Wallace are striking- martyrdom driven by bloody revenge- a simple, yet effective way to make a movie. History is complex and often messy and Parker’s film misses the mark telling the accurate story of Turner’s rebellion. Villains are beheaded by righteous warriors and the heroes fall in a blaze of glory on the battlefield. Missing are the atrocities, drunkenness, and religion that comprised those complicated 48 hours. Far from a pitched battle, Turner’s rebellion could not be sustained when confronted with better armed, and determined troops. Parker’s final battle is complete with the slow motion charging, battle axes thrust defiantly into the air, muted cries of “Freedom” drowned out by the artillery of the antagonists- minus the face paint and kilts.
There are powerful images found in Parker’s film… but the script is too conventionally written to capture the historical relevance of Turner’s rebellion. Parker only briefly touches on Turner’s confessional, a stark testimony given by Turner to a lawyer shortly before his hanging. In his own words, Turner chillingly describes every murder he and his followers committed. He leaves little doubt that he believed it was God’s will, much like John Brown’s convictions thirty years later. The ironic title Parker conceived is far from proper acknowledgment of the impact this event had on history. States throughout the South strengthened already oppressive laws limiting freedoms to slaves and their owners- including the right to unconditional manumission. Many of these changes came about to placate poor whites, who felt especially vulnerable following the bloodshed. Too much attention falls upon Parker’s Turner and his motivations- lost are the deeper religious and cultural motivations for the uprising.
Nat Turner boldly declared “I had the same revelation, which fully confirmed me in the impression that I was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.” Nate Parker’s film fails to appropriately portray the complexities and historical relevance of Turner’s rebellion. Conventional Hollywood treatment of historical events often lead to missed opportunities- precisely how “Birth of a Nation” treats Nat Turner.
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.
Practically Historical Grade- C+
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.
Practically Historical Grade- A
True appreciation of John Lee Hanc0ck’s… 2004 epic cannot be achieved until viewers acknowledge it is not a remake of the 1960 John Wayne film of the same name. Wayne’s version is jingoistic in message, clumsy with history, and two dimensional about characterization. Hancock’s film shows the defenders as flawed freedom fighters, not hokey legends spouting patriotic platitudes. Historical accuracy often weighs down otherwise entertaining scripts; “The Alamo” walks the fine line between epic film making and history lesson.
Gone to Texas
Billy Bob Thorton steals every scene… as the most human David Crockett yet put on screen. Larger than life against his will, Thorton’s Crockett is a reluctant warrior forced to the Texas frontier out of political necessity. His fiddle playing and homespun Tennessee wisdom are awkwardly received by the firebrands dominating Tejas politics- Dennis Quaid’s Sam Houston balances the bottle with his ambition, while Jason Patrick broods as Jim Bowie- dying a slow consumptive death, mourning the life he could have had in Texas. William Travis, as portrayed by the understated Patrick Wilson, receives the most extensive reevaluation; long thought of as the rigid, inexperienced amateur, Hancock and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan more accurately show Travis as a deeply flawed man seeking redemption as a soldier in Texas. The well fleshed out performances are the strength that help the film stand on its own- and eliminates any comparisons to the two-dimensional caricatures of the 1960 version.
Victory or death
There is just enough action… to keep the pace of the film moving- at times it does get bogged down with dialogue. Thorton serves as comic relief and his scenes are always the most enjoyable (his harmonic interlude to the Mexican march of “Degüello”is the most powerful of the film.) Hancock is careful to use the historical record to dramatic effect- gone is the infamous line in the sand drawn by a wooden Travis- replaced with a painful, but honest appeal to troops facing certain death. Travis’s stirring letter to the Texas government provides proper context to the heroism of the defenders. Historical details are presented accurately(the final assault occurred before daybreak) and Hancock does an admirable job preventing the film from being just another dry history lesson. The film presents both points of view while, for the most part, avoiding the politically correct preaching of recent historical epics (see Kingdom of Heaven, Cold Mountain, Last Samurai.) The film does labor through Houston’s victory at San Jacinto, carrying the narrative well beyond the walls of the beleaguered mission. Focusing squarely on the Alamo is difficult with a script so rich in Tejas political maneuvering.
To many film fans… John Wayne will always be the burly incarnation of Davy Crockett, bravely meeting death at the point of a Mexican bayonet. It is more difficult to imagine Crockett being executed after surrender, regardless of what the historical record tells us. Hancock’s retelling of the story fits perfectly into film history as the perfect blend of character, legend, fact- even fiction. The critical analysis is that the film does justice to all those involved- a rare feat in an industry willing to sacrifice accuracy for self-righteous story telling.