Fact and fiction

Feature Hollywood has often been known to sacrifice accuracy to serve a good narrative, and the recent spate of Second World War films is no different.

Film still from 'Saving Private Ryan' (1998), featuring Tom Hanks (front right) & Tom Sizemore (front left).

REF al19AU-tvRYAN 19/08/08
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Perhaps it's the dashing shape he cuts in that German colonel's uniform. Or maybe it's his North African war wounds that do it. Or it could be, simply, the purity of his purpose or his unflappable sense of heroism. Either way, Tom Cruise emerges as one of cinema's most saintly Nazis in the recent historical thriller, Valkyrie. And he's not alone. The Lord of the Rings star Viggo Mortensen plays a German college professor who reluctantly joins the SS, but is still basically a great guy, in the upcoming war drama Good, while Kate Winslet proved that a Nazi concentration camp guard needn't be all that bad by playing one tortured with guilt and regret in The Reader.

Something is clearly wrong here. Taken individually, each movie is an unremarkable example of Hollywood's typically cavalier and self-serving approach to historical fact. But regarded collectively, and seen alongside recent Second World War films such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (David Thewlis plays a sensitive family man and concentration camp commandant) and Defiance (Daniel Craig leads a heroic band of gun-toting Nazi killers), they represent nothing less than a gross distortion of the moral parameters of 20th-century history.

"I read the script of Valkyrie and I first thought how incredibly suspenseful it was," said Cruise recently, describing his first encounter with the story of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, and how he led the failed July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. "When I put it down I thought, 'This can't be true! How much of this is actually true?' And then when I found out it was, I thought it was great." Similarly, the Valkyrie director Bryan Singer added, "The movie is a conspiracy thriller about assassinating Hitler. The bonus is that it happens to be true. Even the things that you might think are film conventions, some of those twists and turns, they turn out to be true."

Truth, of course, is relative. And Hollywood, especially, has never let the truth get in the way of a good story, says Richard Evans, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, and author of the definitive Third Reich historical trilogy. In a few short character strokes, Evans explodes the heroic myth of the saintly Stauffenberg as portrayed by Cruise, explaining that the real Stauffenberg "was a very complex character". Evans elaborates in detail, adding that Stauffenberg was a quasi-mystic who believed in a "perfect Reich of the future", who was anti-Semitic, and who "started off by admiring Nazism and only gradually revised his views". This, naturally, is not the Nazi-hating and pure-hearted Stauffenberg we see on screen in Valkyrie.

Similarly, the historical ambiguities of these modern movies can be troubling, not just to historians and critical observers, but even to the stars of the films themselves. Ralph Fiennes, co-starring opposite Winslet in The Reader, recently confessed that he found some of the moral implications of the movie "troubling". "The movie is fraught with danger areas," he said, describing how it seems to suggest that because Winslet's character, Hanna, was illiterate she was less culpable for her actions as a concentration camp guard, and therefore more sympathetic to a modern audience. Of course, Fiennes is correct, and yet, in order for the film to work, especially to an audience conditioned by noble heroes and evil villains, the ambiguities surrounding Winslet's character must never be explicit enough to alienate the movie's core audience (or, indeed, awards juries).

Hollywood, typically, has always claimed a certain parasitical relationship with history. From the very earliest days of the medium, from one of the very first blockbusters, in fact - 1917's Cleopatra, starring the original screen siren Theda Bara - Hollywood has plundered the annals of history for dramatic source material. No era has been safe from the hands of tinkering Tinseltown producers. From the stone age (One Million Years BC) to the Roman Empire (Ben Hur) to the Middle Ages (A Man for All Seasons) to the 19th century (Gone With the Wind) to modern times (Platoon) to near-contemporary events (United 93), Hollywood has happily taken historical events - obscure, well recorded or infamous - and unapologetically moulded, trimmed and twisted them into classical movie products.

Here, the messy variables of historical reality readily clash with the three-act structure, the need for delineated heroes and villains, the vanities of the Hollywood star system, and the narrative demands for a lesson learned. Invariably, the movies that emerge from history are often regarded as the medium's finest product. Gone With the Wind, Braveheart and Schindler's List all acquire the extra weight of gravitas that historical source material allows.

And yet, as argued in books like Robert Brent Toplin's definitive History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past, historical movies reveal more about their makers than the history they describe. In other words, it is argued, if we recognise that film is a storytelling compromise and that life, unlike movies, doesn't unfold at 24 frames per second, then we can see that, at best, these palatable mainstream entertainments simply reflect how a culture feels about itself in any given era. Thus, the war movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which were straight-faced and action packed (The Longest Day, or The Battle of the Bulge) reflected a post-war society in search of stability. The left wing historical westerns of the 1970s (Soldier Blue, or McCabe & Mrs Miller) were, like much of the youth at the time, angry and anti-authoritarian. While the current spate of Second World War movies seem to reflect a western culture obsessed with moral ambiguity, a world where the boundaries between right and wrong, and good and evil are increasingly muddied.

And why, for that matter, should we even expect historical accuracy from cinema, when every other artistic medium, from theatre to painting to literature, has used history as a mere springboard for greater work - think Homer's Iliad, Shakespeare's plays, or Picasso's Guernica. The answer, says Evans, is that today, cinema, more than any other art form, really matters. "There are many different ways in which history is conveyed to a popular audience," says Evans. "Through film, television, radio, museums and books. But what we, as historians, have to contend with is that films, firstly, are the main way that people get their information about the past. Think of how many million people go to see a movie, and then think about how many ever read even popular history books - it's a tiny fragment."

Furthermore, in an age where digital effects and hyper-real filmmaking techniques have made on-screen events seem perilously accurate (the noted Second World War historian Stephen Ambrose, at a personal screening of Saving Private Ryan, famously asked the projectionist to pause the film after the initial Omaha Beach sequence because he felt woozy and battle weary) it is perhaps incumbent upon modern moviemakers to reflect upon just what version of immersive screen history they are presenting. Especially when their younger audiences, argues Susan Greenfield in ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century, increasingly regard the screen as a source of information, divorced completely from grounded historical context, or fact. In this particular climate, the release of a plethora of movies about kindly Nazis is unfortunate, if not somewhat irresponsible.

The solution, says Evans, is not going to be easy. And, ironically, just as the moral responsibility foisted upon the historical movie increases, so does its popularity - it was recently announced that three separate and competing Battle of Hastings movies have been rushed into preproduction (including one by the Gladiator scribe William Nicholson and one by The Duchess producer Michael Kuhn). But if Hollywood wants to meet history with maturity, it will have to relinquish some of its age old obsessions. Heroes and villains for one, says Evans, are out. "In history, almost everyone is morally compromised in one way or another, and that's something that Hollywood finds difficult to convey," he says, imagining a world where Cruise in Valkyrie was genuinely disturbing, Winslet in The Reader truly appalling and Viggo Mortensen in Good a gritty piece of work.

From there, it could be argued, that the new historical film would have to be less structurally rigid (no more upbeat final reel resolutions - that means you, Schindler's List), and more respectful to the factual minutiae of events. And if this is too much to ask from a medium that's inherently artificial, then, says Evans, it's up to the audience to respond appropriately. "The questions has always been, and will always be," he says. "How much do the people swallow of that they see on film?" Judging by the recent attempts by Hollywood to re-imagine the Second World War for us all, the answer should surely be, and remain for some time, nothing.