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What shall we make of filmmakers who twist history for propaganda purposes? In an extreme way, they are doing what all historians do: They are not only recording history, they are also interpreting it—and can history be done without interpreting the facts?…

mythSome time ago I watched a fascinating documentary on the assassination of President Kennedy. It was a scientifically accurate study of the controversial events of that November afternoon in 1963. The scientist involved gathered every scrap of data available and correlated them. He used photographs, film footage, sound recordings, speedometer readings, ballistics reports, surveyor’s measurements of the buildings involved, floor plans of the limousines and measurements of seats, heights and weights of the victims, and every other piece of information available. He ran the whole thing through a computer and produced a three-dimensional, animated, slow-motion rendering of the crucial minutes leading up to, into, and after the killing.

The scientist’s findings were cautious but clear: The president was shot from the book depository window by one assassin using the gun that was alleged to have been used by Lee Harvey Oswald. In other words, things were simply what they appeared to be: A lone gunman decided to assassinate the President of the United States and carried out his plan. At the end of the film, the scientist said, with some cynicism, “I have proved that President Kennedy was shot by a single gunman from the school warehouse. However, I realize that 90% of Americans will not believe this to be true. Instead they will choose to believe Oliver Stone’s version.”

Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK is an exciting mystery film that leads us to conclude that Kennedy was shot by a number of gunmen working together who were backed by members of the Washington military elite, who then went on to cover up the assassination. Critics have shown how Mr. Stone’s film plays fast and loose with the facts and uses the dramatic events of the Kennedy assassination to promote a cynical anti-establishment agenda. In other words, history film as propaganda.

Film treatments of historical events have been used as propaganda vehicles from the start. The classic 1925 film Battleship Potemkin portrayed the mutiny on the Russian imperial battleship as part of the class struggle between the Bolsheviks and the Tsarist forces. The problem is that director Sergei Eisenstein deliberately exaggerated, distorted, and altered the facts to make his propagandistic point.

What shall we make of filmmakers who twist history for propaganda purposes? In an extreme way, they are doing what all historians do: They are not only recording history, they are also interpreting it—and can history be done without interpreting the facts? The most carefully objective historian must interpret the facts to some extent, and the good historian will accept that the interpretation of facts is part of his work. Even the historian who does nothing but chronicle events and personalities in a chronological list will interpret because he must select which facts, events, and personalities he includes in his list.

When we add to this work the complexity of the filmic media and film language, the task for the maker of a historical film becomes even more difficult. The historical genre of films will include raw film footage from the actual event or of the historical personage, news footage, and documentaries. It will include fictional films set in historical periods, fictional films set in historical events like Titanic, Bridge Over the River Kwaior Saving Private Ryan. Historical films also include biopics like Gandhi, Nixon, JFK, or Coal Miner’s Daughter. Each of these films must portray the historical time periods, events or personalities accurately, yet interpret them truthfully.

At the same time, the filmmaker has an eye on his audience. In addition to accurately portraying the time period and the personalities, he must captivate his audience with a good storyline, developing characters, plot-moving conflict, and a dramatic arc. That’s not all. If the filmmaker also has a message (and most filmmakers do) the message must also be communicated in this most complex and powerful art form.

How can this be done with honesty and integrity? The historical filmmaker must understand some of the underlying principles of the study of history. Why do we study history, or why, for that matter, do we study anything? It is part of our pursuit of truth, and when it comes to history we cannot come to any larger or deeper truth if we sacrifice the factual truth that history presents us with. We can’t change the facts of history to support the truth we want to promote. Instead, the truth we want to promote must be determined by the facts of history. In other words, to produce an honest historical film history may be interpreted, but it should not be changed.

Oliver Stone’s film JFK is a perfect example of a historical film that is dishonest in its intent and its execution. Mr. Stone attempts to make an American hero out of his courageous attorney Garrison, but his technique in the film is deceitful because he portrays events in the film which have no basis in fact as accurate. Most notoriously, he films original footage using the same grainy, realistic film stock and jerky, hand-held camera work as the famous authentic footage from the assassination itself. Mr. Stone fools the audience into thinking a lie is the truth, and once he has convinced them that they are seeing the truth he then uses that sleight of hand to get them to swallow his propagandistic message.

As a basic rule, the more a film purports to portray historical events or personalities the more the director must strive to communicate every aspect of that time period, that event or that person consistently with the known facts. A biopic like Gandhi must stick to the facts. They may be condensed and dramatized, but they can’t be changed completely. On the other hand, a historical romance like Titanic which is set within a historical context, may be less consistent in its portrayal, and a story that is simply set in, let’s say, eighteenth-century Paris, may be even more casual in its historical verisimilitude.

Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan, is a perfect example of a historical film that is done with honesty and integrity. We know from the start that the story is not history, even though it is set in a recognizable historical event. That being the case, Mr. Spielberg uses historical film styles for verisimilitude. His D-Day Normandy landings are shot with realistic, handheld camera technique, and the blurry, black-and-white imagery echoes the grueling images of war photographer Robert Capa. He and his team also go to great effort to portray the D-Day landings down to the last detail. The difference between him and Mr. Stone is that he interprets the history through his story, and does not impose his story on the history.

Thinking through the relationship between history and film leads to a connection between the storytelling that went on in the gospels. The foundation of the story is the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. However, New Testament scholars have debated how much that story has been re-told for evangelistic (or some would say propagandistic) purposes. They evangelists say as much. They “have written these things so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God.”

The debates on historicity can, therefore, be seen in the same light as the debates about historical films. Did the gospel writers compose a fictional story set in a particular cultural milieu and historical context like Mr. Spielberg did in Saving Private Ryan or was it more like his film Schindler’s List, which took an essentially historical story and inflated the central character to be a kind of mythic hero? Were the evangelists like Oliver Stone, distorting a historical event so much so that the propaganda swamped the historicity or was it even worse and they re-told a story that was merely “based on real events”?

In fact, many scholars believe the gospel accounts are a mixture of history, legend, and myth, and their work is to sift out the mystery from the history. This is one of the challenges I faced when writing my book The Mystery of the Magi. The received opinion among many New Testament scholars is that the infancy narratives of Jesus are, for the most part, later legendary or even mythical additions to the basic stories about Jesus. Of all the infancy narratives, the story of the Magi who traveled to Bethlehem was considered the most mythological of all.

However, I set out to disprove that assumption, and the quest was very intriguing. What I found was that there was indeed considerable legendary accretion to the story. Gnostic writers had elaborated Matthew’s story and those mythical understandings came into the Western tradition and colored the way Matthew’s simple account was read. The myth and the legend, it turned out, was the problem, but not Matthew’s gospel. When I took just the gospel and connected with the culture, economics, politics, geography, and religions of the time, Matthew’s account fit perfectly.

Like the filmmaker who proved JFK was shot by a lone assassin, just as the basic history says, I show that Matthew’s gospel, in its simplicity, is historically accurate. However, as the filmmaker admitted, most people will continue to believe the myth. So it is with the story of the Magi. I showed who they most probably were, but most people will choose to believe the enchanting story of three camel caravanners from afar who followed a star across the distant desert sands.

Matthew doesn’t actually say that… but it makes for a good movie.

A version of this essay was originally published in the St. Austin Review (2013).

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2 replies to this post
  1. You raise what may have been the biggest question for historians in the 20th century, and continues into the 21st century. How should the facts be considered, and how should they be interpreted? As you mentioned, some of the facts are almost indisputable, such as JFK was assassinated 22 November 1963 at 12:30 PM in Dallas, TX. There are other facts that support what happened, but when it comes to the why and how aspects, it does become very subjective. Even when those who have tried to be as objective as possible, they come to certain points where subjectivity takes over to fill in gaps, or to expand upon something minor, making it much more than it really was at the time.
    When dealing with filmmakers, who have no respect for history, or duty to doing anything but telling a story, the way they want to tell it, then it becomes an anything goes situation. Oliver Stone could have had done anything from showing Adolph Hitler as the shooter on the grassy knoll, to it being Daffy Duck, all depending on what Oliver Stone wants to communicate, true or not. I suppose that is the real difference. A historian, regardless of interpretation, tries to stick to the facts. A filmmaker, being a storyteller, could careless about the facts so long as he/she has a good story to tell.
    Unfortunately, as you point out, the average person tends to believe movies, TV, and stories, rather than actually trying to learn anything about what really happened in a particular situation. They just want to be entertained, and so long as they are entertained it doesn’t matter what the facts are.
    A friend of mine told me I should see the movie Idiocracy, because it was a funny look at the future. So, I did see it, and when I saw this friend again, said sarcastically, “I saw the movie, but you didn’t tell me it was a documentary!”
    We both got a good laugh out of it. People see and hear what they want to see and hear, and they are not interested, for the most part, in really knowing what happened. They just want to be entertained.

  2. For humans, “seeing is believing”, and a good story is more convincing than any bald recitation of facts or virtuoso demonstrations of impeccable logic. Verisimilitude is more important than veracity, since the essence is “verse” — narrative and poetry. (Yes, I know I am stretching here.) If it don’t rhyme, people ain’t got the time.

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