Hollywood rewrites history...
July 3, 2000 11:19 AM   Subscribe

Hollywood rewrites history... and (surprise, surprise) the Brits come off worst. It's particularly galling to have the Redcoats in The Patriot carrying out the kind of atrocities associated with the Nazis, given that recent WWII films have either ignored the roles of non-Americans (Saving Private Ryan) or simply cast Americans in their place (U-571 and the forthcoming remake of Colditz).
posted by holgate (37 comments total)
My main gripe being that I can cope with the high camp of the British-accented villains of Die Hard and other flash-bang bollocks, but when Hollywood puts on the mask of history, it becomes part of a particularly insidious cultural indoctrination: "they have still told a big lie about the war that brought the United States into existence, one that feeds an even greater lie about the war and the enemy the U.S. and Britain fought half a century ago. It's a shameful way to make money."
posted by holgate at 11:25 AM on July 3, 2000

Are you trying to say the British aren't all evil, dastardly criminals out to terrorize and torture Americans at every opportunity??? My Metafilter experience has certainly given me that perspective.

Ha ha, just teasing there. :)
posted by daveadams at 11:44 AM on July 3, 2000

Go watch The Patriot ! It was brilliant. I must say I liked the British bad guy more than Mel! ;-) Seeeeexy!
posted by FAB4GIRL at 12:08 PM on July 3, 2000

I didn't like the movie. Both for it's historical inaccuracy, and because it was slllooowwww, predictable, and the characters didn't seem particularly well developed. My quote after I walked out of the theatre (it finally ended!) was, "If Braveheart is a Guiness, The Patriot is a third of a bud light".

Not that Braveheart is the paragon of historical accuracy, but it least it was a great story with great characters.

My advice, if you decide you really must see this movie, is wait for the dvd.. at least at home, you can smoke and drink while it plods along.
posted by katchomko at 12:45 PM on July 3, 2000

Since when has Hollywood ever been historically accurate? Show me a single 100% historically accurate movie. I'm surprised they stick with green camoflage cuz any costumer will tell you military work uniforms look terrible on screen. Better to show everyone in their flashier show uniforms cuz they look cool.

My personal favorite Hollywood films reflecting total disregard for historical accuracy include Under the Rainbow, 1941, and all the Indiana Jones flicks.

But I wouldn't blame Hollywood on the general attitude today's American adults have regarding how evil and untrustworthy the English are. I'd blame something else for that. =)

posted by ZachsMind at 1:07 PM on July 3, 2000

You know, while I understand feeling a bit put upon, why is it always the English who complain about being the bad guys in movies like Braveheart and The Patriot? I've got news for you...it is impossible to make a movie about Scotland in the twelfth, thirteenth or fourteenth centuries without casting Englishmen as bad guys. They were the enemy! They were the ones the Scots were fighting. Same deal with Rob Roy, even though it takes place in the Seventeenth Century. (Note: Their distaste for such doesn't seem to stop Englishmen from being in these movies, now does it?)

Similarly, I've had to sit through many a lecture about Revolutionary War-era Brits and their Hussar allies...Bristol, RI, is one of the cities that Lafayette and Washington traveled through during the war, and is the site of the nation's oldest 4th of July parade, and I went to college there. Here's the thing; they tell stories of British and Hussar atrocities during that war. Whole families shot. People tortured. Suspected rebels tarred and feathered and forced to run at bayonet point until they died. These are part of the mythology of the uprising, and whether or not they have any bearing in reality (and I'll just bet they did, based on the actions of the same generals in India not five years after the end of the war) they aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

When Dances with Wolves came out, a whole bunch of people bitched about the way the Cavalry was depicted. Well, it was the Cavalry who massacred the Natives, and it'd be hard to show that without showing it. Similarly, no matter how cozy relations are now between the US and UK, the US was born in open rebellion against what the people of that time saw as onerous taxation and arrogance on the part of their former countrymen. (Speeches in Parliament calling the colonists 'disloyal dogs' didn't help, either.)

The war happened. Atrocities were committed on both sides of it, loyalist and rebel alike. And furthermore, it may not mean much to you, but it's our tale of triumph. Do you think the Vietnamese give two shits in hell how we feel about their tales of defeating the rapaciously cruel American empire, the most powerful country in the world? Hell no.

Basically, it comes down to this; every time you guys make a film with Americans in it, we come off as cowboy assholes. Fine. We don't complain. Why should we? We make more movies than you do, and in ours, you come off as arrogant ciphers and villains.

In 1776, we declared war on England. It's impossible to tell a tale about that war from our perspective without casting the English as the enemy. Now, The Patriot is crap. I'm not defending it. But just like America has to live with the worldwide conception of itself as this barbarous hinterland filled with guns and psychopaths, the English have to live with the memories of their years spent sailing as far as they could and conquering everyone they met.
posted by Ezrael at 1:18 PM on July 3, 2000

For 2001: Hugh Grant plays a dashing Redcoat in Slaughter the Splitter Dogs.

Nah, can't see it.

My point to Hollywood: fictionalise your own myths of heroism and nationhood, but don't appropriate everyone else's. We don't make films about the role of the English in conquering the West, so don't stick a bunch of Americans in Colditz.
posted by holgate at 1:39 PM on July 3, 2000

And: while spending a summer in the US, I watched the PBS series Liberty, which taught me more about the American War of Independence than any school or college in Britain. And I was cheering on the Patriots, because let's face it, they were getting fucked over. But more people will regard Mel Gibson, who really seems to enjoy slapping down the Brits on screen, as the exemplar of historical truth, which pisses me right off.
posted by holgate at 1:43 PM on July 3, 2000

I think the diehard villains were german...
posted by muta at 3:28 PM on July 3, 2000

We kicked British Butt! HAHAHAHAHA! ;-)
posted by FAB4GIRL at 6:00 PM on July 3, 2000

Ugh! I just read about Colditz and who is starring in it. I'm not even British and I'm angry. What bad casting!
posted by FAB4GIRL at 6:15 PM on July 3, 2000

Hey! I'm sparticus.
posted by tiaka at 8:17 PM on July 3, 2000

I used to be sparticus, but antibiotics cleared it up.

What's an admitted Australian doing playing historical/literary figures from every country EXCEPT Australia? (Fletcher Christian, Hamlet, William Wallace, John Smith, Brett Maverick, Rocky the Rhode Island Red) Aren't there any Australian heroes? Besides "Reckless Kelly". (Yahoo Serious knows how to do a historically accuate film...)

And why wasn't "Under the Rainbow" on the AFI list? (Chevy Chase and Billy Barty together on the same screen! That's alliteration!)
posted by wendell at 9:28 PM on July 3, 2000

Mel Gibson's a natural-born American citizen, Wendell, and only moved to Sydney when he was 12. Legally, he's as much an Aussie as he is a Scot (or a Prince of Denmark).
posted by holgate at 9:42 PM on July 3, 2000

I believe Mel Gibson was born here, and moved to Australia in his teens. Mad Max is a historical figure from Australia's near future, it is one of those time travel paradoxi that he was able to play himself in a role before the role being portrayed actually occured. Give it 10 years and you will see that I am right.
posted by thirteen at 9:45 PM on July 3, 2000

As I haven't seen the movie, I will make my comments based on the Salon article. I agree with holgate. As an Antipodean, I have no problem criticizing the British (in fact, I rather enjoy it), but my problem with the Patriot is the direct parallel with Nazi crimes. You can make the British out to be pathetic at sports, conservative, aristocratic, and pompous gits, but to make them look like Nazis I think is a disgrace. For me, this is a rather disturbing idea and one wonders what is the purpose of it?
posted by jay at 11:20 PM on July 3, 2000

Guys? It's fiction. Fiction, for those who don't remember, means not real.

There's a word for fully historically accurate movies about the past: documentaries.

And it's not as if this is something new and unique about movies... Or does everyone think Shakespeare's "history plays" really happened? (Though if it comes to that, have you ever read Poul Anderson's novel, A Midsummer's Tempest, that plays with the idea that they did? Fascinating book...)

posted by aurelian at 12:27 AM on July 4, 2000

Ooops, my bad, bygones, nevermind, d'oh!
That's the last time I get Mel Gibson bio information from Homer Simpson...
posted by wendell at 1:35 AM on July 4, 2000

I don't think the portrayal of us Brits as people constantly whinging about our portrayal in films is entirely true. We do recognise that American films made in America with American money are going to favour American audiences. There is something very peculiar though about Hollywood's obsession with English actors playing bad guys even when the bad guys are South African or German.

In fact this has become a great industry for British actors and you would be hard pressed to think of any decent villain of recent years who wasn't a Brit.

Maybe it's because American actors fear unpopular parts and that British actors are just glad to get any jobs at all for such great pay.

U571 is a different story however. Many people are lazy and stupid and when Hollywood presents a movie as fact in it's usual crass fashion a lot of folk tend to believe it. Belittleing peoples efforts in the war is no laughing matter and surely more respect is due.

America has had enough successes and notable achievements of it's own that it doesn't need to appropriate those of other countries.

Maybe Hollywood should make a blockbuster celebrating Thomas Edison's invention of the cuckoo clock.
posted by dodgygeezer at 2:56 AM on July 4, 2000

It's fiction. Fiction, for those who don't remember, means not real.The problem with historical fiction like this being so horrifically inaccurate is that in a few short years I guarantee this film will be shown in high school humanities classes by lazy teachers who don't want to teach this or that aspect of the American Revolution. The students will write a two-page response to the film, and the lesson will be over. And that fiction will now be fact for hundreds of thousands of kids. I went to what is considered one of the top 10 public high schools in the nation, and we watched more crappy movies in humanities than you can imagine. This is the problem with films like The Patriot.
posted by sudama at 8:33 AM on July 4, 2000

No, that's the problem with the lazy teachers, not the movie. Not that the movie is a hallmark of historical accuracy, because it isn't, but the teacher has a full choice to make in that case: teach or let the entertainment industry teach.

I'd find the fault with the instructor.
posted by hijinx at 8:48 AM on July 4, 2000

I think the true stories would probably make for better films. Imagine the real story of the capture of the u-boat enigma machine, filmed in say, 1958 starring Alec Guiness. I would not miss that for anything. As it was, I passed on U-571, as I will on the Patriot. I probably will catch them on video because I see so many movies, that even those poor examples shine slightly amongst the stuff available on the new relese rack. It is the same problem I have when I watch Xena (yes, I watch Xena, wanna make something of it?) The history is awful, and Xena is gonna be the one who found the Golden Fleece to a million kids, or slayed Zeus or whatever. My wife has to suffer my drone about how they got it wrong. I do not think I could bear the Colditz story don't in the US tho.
If we made more movies that required butlers, British actors could pass on these villian roles. Thankfully Cary Grant did not have to put up with this junk.
posted by thirteen at 9:48 AM on July 4, 2000

I always figured Brits got the villain roles because of their accent. In the U.S. practically any British accent sounds aristocratic... -Mars
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:39 AM on July 4, 2000

Damn those innacurate stories about who *really* found the golden fleece!
posted by CrazyUncleJoe at 12:14 PM on July 4, 2000

Film is entertainment. When it put on airs that it isn't, it fails. It is a foolish crusade to ever place movies up to historical light. Hypothetical theories on what fools might take as fact does not elevate their thoughts beyond foolish and can be dismissed as always.

The history in books is only slightly more legitimate. The perspective of the author must always be taken into account.


You know why you watch Xena in the way women know why they watch Mel Gibson movies.
posted by john at 1:52 PM on July 4, 2000

Again, to flog this horse unto death:

It's not as if the Brits don't expropriate other countries' achievments. Look at The Sound Barrier, the movie that almost drove Chuck Yeager to violence, made by some of the best talent the UK has -- David Lean, Ralph Richardson, Terence Rattigan, etc. Or any movie from source material from Rudyard Kipling, where the Raj is established in Inja through sheer hard work and the moral fortitude of the Empire, eh, wot?

Sure, there are true stories that would make interesting movies... Take Winston Churchill being saved from drowning in a fountain at Blenheim by a gardner, whose name happened to be Fleming. In thanks, the Churchill family put the gardner's son through med school. After graduation, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, again almost purely through chance. So millions of lives and the entire Free World were saved because one gardner fished a brat out of a fountain one bright day.

And? So what?

The Patriot has about as much relevance to real history as Johnny Tremaine to the US Revolution, or Adam of the Road to late medieval England. Again, so what? What would you expect?

And any teacher using TV in a classroom that isn't about, say, drama, should have their credentials yanked and sent to clean out the stables in Kettleman City, Calif. TV is antithetical to learning, or haven't y'all noticed that by now?

posted by aurelian at 4:38 PM on July 4, 2000

C'mon, no matter how much you say "it's just entertainment", there's always been a part of Hollywood which takes up the pretense of "tackling issues" to add a veneer of moralism to its work. Off the top of my head from the last few years: Philadelphia, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Dead Man Walking. The idea being that popular entertainment has the power to appeal to the masses as more than just some flickering circus. In a sense, Spielberg desparately wants to be regarded as a "serious entertainer" in the same terms as Shakespeare.

But, while Shakespeare plagiarised other stories and distorted history for his plays, he was working in a time before "realism": the desire for verisimilitude in representation. But that's not necessarily a problem: Greek drama, Noh theatre, and other stylised drama shows that it's still possible to "make it real" even when you're not aspiring for the "realistic".

The problem with Hollywood, I think, is that the huge budgets and the investment in CGI means that you get it arse-backwards: lots of verisimilitude, but not much reality. And because a culture built around television blurs the distinction between the real and the representational, especially when the networks follow "eyewitness news" with celebrity gossip every single fucking night, it's easy to think that if it's "live", or "filmed before a studio audience", or "on the spot", or simply on the screen, it must be the real thing(tm). And yeah: to distinguish the two is a job for teachers.

But I sound like an edition of Adbusters.
posted by holgate at 9:29 PM on July 4, 2000

Don't worry holgate, with our plummy English accents we can take over MeFi and make those snivelling American fools pay, bwoahahahahaha!
This whole thing is hardly surprising though, I've travelled to many countries and the US is probably one of, if not the most insular when it comes to world events being reported. The good folks here at MeFi are *much* more aware of the world outside America (aka 'nothing to do with us, bud') than the average American, whereas the rest of the world receives much of our popular culture from Hollywood. Hollywood's primary aim is to gross as much as possible from each film, the domestic market is the most lucrative so a few historical 'inaccuracies' are OK so long as we don't alienate the American public.
Must go, I'm orf to have tea with the Queen, Gawd bless her, before I'm flamed out of existence.

posted by Markb at 5:13 AM on July 5, 2000

I just saw The Patriot yesterday, and I think all this arguing is pretty silly. Sure, the one British commander did some bad stuff (killing wounded, women, children, surrendering soldiers; burning homes, etc.), but he was portrayed as the black sheep. General Cornwallis and all his officers resisted the Dragoon captain's tactics as un-gentlemanly and dishonorable. I didn't come away with an anti-British feeling. Just an anti-that-mean-Dragoon-man feeling.

It was pretty obvious that while the setting was real, the interactions of Mel Gibson's character's family and the Dragoons was purely fiction.

And whether it was historically accurate or not, I did learn what a well-aimed cannonball can do to one's head or limbs. Yuck.
posted by daveadams at 7:27 AM on July 5, 2000

Isn't James Bond British?

Yeah, I thought so.

American movie companies put that one out, right?

Just making sure.

Geeze, everyone gets so tunnel visioned when trying to make a point.
posted by rich at 8:14 AM on July 5, 2000


Tackling issues IS entertainment and not history. It is something movie studies do to give them a warm fuzzy in between releasing the next string of Die Hard and Animal House clones.


It's pretty funny to hear people claiming Hollywood has any intention other then making money. If people would stop going to certain movies, they would stop making them. Audiences are calling for more of this and more of that. Movie studios are simply meeting market demands.
posted by john at 8:33 AM on July 5, 2000

John, you don't know Goldman's First Law: Nobody in Hollywood knows anything. Every movie is expected to make money, but very few of them do. And you know what? Nobody knows why. They don't. Scuttlebutt in the industry was that Warners was being damned fools by sticking to their Fourth of July release for The Perfect Storm, because everyone knew The Patriot would blow it away, at least two-to-one. Somebody thought Ishtar would make money.

Money is vastly overrated as a primal cause. Studios make particular movies for the most basic human reason: It makes someone feel good about themself. Whether that's as an artist, or as a captain of industry, or to prove they can't be trifled with, or to screw somebody over... It's ego all the way, baby.

Holgate: So, let me see if I have this right. Shakespeare didn't have to worry about verisimilitude, but those of us in more recent times do....except for the fact that we're so busy putting out fantasy stories that verisimilitude goes out the window.


Perhaps it's more accurate to say that "realism" has always been a niche market, and that most people, most of the time, crave fantasy, eh?

As to "tackling issues"... every single one of the movies you cite were complained about at the time. (Even -- especially -- the ones based on books.) Again, this isn't anything new, nor unique to movies. Every publisher, say, loves to have a William Shawcross "think-piece" to point to, while making their money from Steven King or Ms. Rowling (and why Diana Wynne Jones hasn't sued Rowling, I'll never fathom).

rich: Yeah, Cubby Broccoli (and now his daughter, since his death) are American. (He's the producer of the Bond films.) But Bond was written by a Brit, and originally published in Britain. More UK self-aggrandizement. (shrug) I'd rather read stories about when David Hume was a spy, but hey, that's just me... I might end up having to write them... :)

posted by aurelian at 9:36 AM on July 5, 2000

Jumping in on this a day late, that Fleming/Churchill thing is a just as much a myth Jason and the Golden Fleece.

Part of the reason stories get transposed to America is that we're making the movies; with the exception of India, the American film industry towers over the rest of the world like a colussus. I thought the move from London to Chicago was handled pretty well in High Fidelity, but often Americanization just results in a big mess.

And then there's the issue of recognition. How many Australian novelists can you name? (I can think of Patrick White and Peter Carey.) I'm loving Chester Brown's Louis Riel comic books, but do you think people would pay to go see an epic movie about the founding of Manitoba? If I hadn't had it recommended to me, I might not have picked it up myself.
posted by snarkout at 9:59 AM on July 5, 2000

Huh. And I thought I had the Fleming/Churchill thing from a fairly reliable source. Proves Tom Digby's idea that the easiest way to get real information on the Net is not to ask a question, but to post the wrong info and wait for someone to correct you. :)

posted by aurelian at 10:32 AM on July 5, 2000

Aurelian, you take back what you said about Jonathan Light Tremaine!!! He was the embodiment of the plucky spirit of the Revolution! Besides, if you want to talk historical accuracy, I think we need go no further than 1776. Like that time when John Adams called John Dickenson a fribble and then Dickenson called him a lawyer - it's like the past just came to life before of my eyes. Now THAT is History! The rest is just Die Hard with a Declaration.
posted by CrazyUncleJoe at 11:12 AM on July 5, 2000


Of course, it is hard for me to arguee that movie makers DO know something. I just don't see how that when the majority of movies made are plastered bits of titillation to fill a movie trailer, that it somehow points to some higher purpose. The service of ego can't be denied, but neither can the equally ego feeding drive to become stickin rich.
posted by john at 11:22 AM on July 5, 2000

Johnny Tremaine would serve its goal--getting kids interested in history--more admirably if they called it Johnny Deformed.

Based on friends reports (full disclousre--I haven't seen it yet), the thing I find most perturbing about The Patriot is the fact that they whitewashed the treatment of slaves in colonial plantations. No, wait, he didn't have slaves, just contented freedmen paid a fair wage and happy to do his pickin', yassuh.

That's far more insidious, in my mind, than making the British out to be worse than they were. Thomas Jefferson, one of my personal heroes, was blinded by his fantasies of an agrarian Republic and never able to come to the conclusion George Washington did: that slavery was wrong. (This may have something to do with the fact that Washington didn't have children to which he could pass on his slaves, but I prefer to think that Washington was making a painful and long-delayed moral decision.) To deny the fact that colonial America was a society built on the back of slavery is a damning distortion of history.

Especially as Francis Marion (aka "the Swamp Fox"), the person Gibson's character is loosely modeled on, was apparently notorious for abusing his slaves, this could have been a fine place to at least give nodding acknowledgement of some of the contradictions in American history... But that would detract from the summer blockbusterness of it all, I suppose.
posted by snarkout at 12:57 PM on July 5, 2000

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