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Reel History: The World According to the Movies Hardcover – November 1, 2016
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
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'Von Tunzelmann, a British journalist and historian opens by reminding us that despite the oft repeated claim by film makers, “But it’s only a movie,” far too many people get their “history” from film. She then draws on her Guardian column “Reel History,” to give us a witty, intelligent, and historically annotated survey of the history of the world from prehistoric times to the present as seen in over 100 films. These are grouped into eight broad periods (e.g. “The Ancient World”, “Oh, What Lovely Wars”), with a commentary that touches upon many more pictures. For each of the main films, she gives us a brief summary of setting, plot, characters, and casting, plus commentary, with “grades” for “Entertainment” and “History”. So the 1971 'Waterloo', has a C- for Entertainment, but an A- for history, and she notes that Rod Steiger’s Napoleon tends to chew the scenery, but Orson Welles is good as Louis XVIII, since they both looked like “Jabba the Hutt,” while the best line is the historically correct exchange between Lord Uxbridge, who has lost his leg, and the Duke of Wellington. Although von Tunzelmann misses a chance to compare different films on the same subject, giving us an excellent look at the 1968 'Charge of the Light Brigade', but not of the 1936 version, this is an amusing, useful book for historian and film buff alike.'
For the full review, see StrategyPageRating the History in the Cinema
There’s also such gems as the magnificent “It’s odd to make a homophobic remark (calling the Athenians ‘philosophers and boy lovers’) if you are in charge of the Spartan army, which insisted on homosexual contact between mature male warriors and young boys as part of social and martial training”.
It’s quite clear that author Von Tunzelmann knows her history and loves her film, and this is not the usual book of cheap shots at Hollywood idiocy, carping about commercial dictates, or pointless pedantry of the “this military officer only had two bars when he should have had three” variety.
It is, as I said, brilliantly, wickedly funny, but sensible about the fair expectations of film makers (who are not educators, certainly not socially responsible, or in many cases even educated) and their audience. Accuracy is important, but we can’t and shouldn’t expect it of people making commercial entertainments in a tight time frame for a mass audience. As someone whose favorite TV show is the glorious insanity of The Time Tunnel, a wonderful example of a Hollywood view of history that never lets the facts get in the way of a good story or a great performance, I was completely on message.
Nevertheless, real history is important too, and Von Tunzelmann (who points out that even politicians now repeat the impossible tosh that Jewish slaves built the pyramids) finds a wonderful quote from a professor who points out that the best way to teach history is through ‘myth-busting’ rather than ‘myth-making’. Films and TV shows can be a great way of provoking interest in historical people and events, the minor (or major) errors in which can be intriguingly unravelled later through the joy of learning. After all, the only thing more interesting than finding something out that’s true, is finding out something that was never true. People love to debunk.
Von Tunzelmann sets out her parameters in a careful and wise introduction, accepting the limitations of artists, industry, and audience, while at the same time offering some always interesting fact-checking in the main text. As someone often accused of putting too much glib humor in my own books about film and TV, and as a reader who tires quickly of dry, fun-draining, poker-faced reference works whose authors have forgotten how to enjoy a good read and a good film, I found Reel History a refreshing bedtime read that only tiredness forced me to close each night.
And I lied earlier when I said there were no cheap shots. There are a few, but they’re funny. The iconic John Wayne, whose westerns I love, but always made a fool of himself when he took his cowboy hat off, is “the centurion at the crucifixion”: “It’s not an ideal moment to have the audience hooting with laughter” says Von Tunzelmann. And here she is on Ben Hur: “According to Vidal, Boyd faithfully acted this as a love scene. Heston, less cosmopolitan, was not told what was going on”.
But it’s not all laffs, either. Von Tunzelmann mounts a solid defence for Alan Turing and other real individuals outrageously marginalised or maligned by mendacious morons more concerned with pandering to contemporary audiences than with their responsibility to real people’s honor or reputations (not a new phenomenon, as Zulu indicates, and one of my major pet peeves). If I were an actor, I could never, under any circumstances, knowingly take a role that slandered a real person. It’s amazing how many of these happily posturing and pontificating big Hollywood stars twittering away about this and that outrage on social media are able to sweep away any concerns when a big juicy role is on offer.
However, like all of us, she occasionally falls into contemporary traps. Having only just pointed out that everyone in the 1940s should be smoking like chimneys (a minor point in my view, like insisting that everyone in the distant past should be short), the author then complains about the “1950s prejudice” that homosexuals were a security risk. Gays/homosexuals most certainly were serious security risks at that time, which was one of the major reasons for decriminalisation in the late ’60s, precisely to put an end to the sordid blackmail threats that so compromised people in positions of trust or authority. It wasn’t about “homophobia”, it was simply a matter of gays breaking an absurd law, and the attendant public disgrace and punishment that came with it, making them vulnerable to threats of exposure. It is a matter of historical record that many of the most notorious post-war spies were homosexuals. It was, as usual, naked self-interest that drove Parliament to do the right thing, not decency, nobility or compassion, those were side-dishes.
On the subject of myth and counter-myth, it’s said that when Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was asked if it was true that he named his company so out of tribute to Turing and his unusual suicide, he replied no, but by God, I wish it was. I love that story.
There are two other books of this nature that I know of, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, edited by Mark Carnes (Cassell, 1996), and The Hollywood History of the World, by George MacDonald Fraser (Harvell Press, 1996) and both of them are heavy, surprising, fascinating, and useful. But this one is fun, accessible, informative, and breezy, a quick, light, stimulating read. If you love film, love history, or just love a good laugh, this is highly recommended.