The Debatable Importance of Historical Accuracy in Period Films
In retrospect it seems vaguely humorous that the future American President Ronald Reagan should have found himself cast as the celebrity-seeking martinet George Armstrong Custer in the 1940 Warner Bros. Western Santa Fe Trail (1940). The picture purports to recreate a famous chapter in American history, following its heroes — all recent graduates of West Point and future leaders of both the Union and Confederate armies — as they head out along the Santa Fe Trail and soon thereafter take a detour off the important caravan route from Missouri to New Mexico. The film Santa Fe Trail concentrates instead on the conflict between the Army and the abolitionist John Brown. In reality, only Errol Flynn’s character, J.E.B. Stuart, graduated from West Point in 1854, the year in which the film’s action is set. Sitting squarely in the middle the fence, refusing to side with either the South or the North, screenwriter Robert Buckner tries admirably to simplify matters as illustrated by the following dialogue delivered by J.E.B Stuart (Flynn) when he is asked about the dilemma between slavery and insurrection: “Our job is to be [soldiers], not to decide what is wrong or right.” Politically muddled and historically confused it may be, but the film rarely falters as entertainment.
General Custer, an oft-vilified and rather ambiguous figure in American history, was also brought to life on the big screen by comic actor Richard Mulligan in Arthur Penn’s Western epic Little Big Man (1970). Infused with the same serio-comic sensibility Penn brought to his revolutionary 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man is in essence a more politically aware precursor to the relatively harmless populism of Forrest Gump (1994).
The film opens in the present day with Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) — at this point a cantankerous 121-year-old who claims to be the only white man who survived the Battle of Little Big Horn — being interviewed by an incredulous young historian (William Hickey). Jack tells his misinformed interviewer to just sit back, shut up and listen — he has a few things to say about Gen. Custer, and an assortment of historic events from the latter half of the previous century. He was there. He experienced them.
What follows is a sprawling, not-too-serious investigation of terribly serious subjects such as manifest destiny, the government-sanctioned genocide of Native Americans, religious and sexual hypocrisy, and the folly of war. Jack’s sometimes absurd embellishments of each story are a particular highlight, because you’re never sure, in fact, if they are falsehoods or the truth. If history proves anything, this film tells us, it’s that crazier things have happened. Over the course of the film, Jack spends time variously as a Western settler who’s kidnapped and raised by peaceful Cheyenne Indians, as an orphan being pursued by a lecherous preacher’s wife (Faye Dunaway), as a snake-eyed gunfighter, as the sidekick of a medicine show con artist (Martin Balsam), as a down-and-out drunk, and as a scout for the vain, egotistical and utterly buffoonish General Custer (Mulligan). Sarcastic though its tone may be, I have a hunch that this picture’s portrayal of Custer is probably closer to fact than Ronald Reagan’s glorified iteration of the man in Santa Fe Trail. It is the rare film that manages to be both a reasonable facsimile of history and an immense entertainment simultaneously. Little Big Man does this. Santa Fe Trail does not.
Little Big Man fits nicely into the subgenre known as the Revisionist Western. Popularized primarily in the late ’60s and early ’70s, such films as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came to define this style of moviemaking, as audiences and directors alike began to question the idealistic way in which the old American West had been previously portrayed on film.
It may be that Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is the definitive Revisionist Western. Altman once called the film an “anti-Western,” owing to its subversive elements. The film focuses on the romance between a gambler named McCabe (Warren Beatty) who arrives in a town called Presbyterian Church — so named due to the central location of the house of worship. McCabe soon establishes a brothel, and quickly develops a romance with his business partner, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie at her best). Such risqué subject matter would have been prohibited under the strict rules of the recently abolished Production Code, and Altman took advantage of a momentary lapse in censorship to show audiences what he imagined the American West would actually have been like. He opted to shoot the film in the winter months in British Columbia, rather than in John Ford’s Monument Valley home base, which was largely responsible for mythicizing the West in the minds of the general public. This locale provided Altman with a heightened sense of realism and makes McCabe and Mrs. Miller one of the more authentic pieces of cinema to be produced by its genre. Indeed, this is quite probably as close as movie watching will ever get to time travel.
How interesting that Altman’s breakthrough film, the previous year’s MASH, should have turned out to be one of the most historically questionable films to come out of Hollywood. Ostensibly it is the story of a team of American doctors working at a frontline Army Hospital during the Korean War. But Altman’s genius is that he frames this story within a socio-political context which would be more relatable to disillusioned American audiences of the early ’70s. With their long hair and rebellious attitudes, the characters played in this film by Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould have more in common with the protagonists of Easy Rider than with the more traditional heroes of previous war films. MASH is really part of a subgenre of period films which are best understood as being intentionally anachronistic.
The best example of this kind of picture might be writer-director Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film of Marie Antoinette. It has been well-established that the doomed wife of Louis XVI of France was never actually quoted as saying “Let them eat cake,” yet Kirsten Dunst in the title role utters the infamous phrase almost, it seems, to deliberately vex the audience. As this film’s soundtrack proves, the music of the movies can be just as important as the dialogue and visuals in terms of capturing a specific moment in time. I am reasonably sure that audiences would have reacted to Coppola’s film differently had it been lacking a score comprised primarily of music from New Wave and post-punk bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees (“Hong Kong Garden”) and New Order (“Ceremony”). Coppola employs this music for a specific purpose, it is worth noting. Juxtaposing the decadence of eighteenth century Versailles with the Bow Wow Wow song “I Want Candy” lends this film a greater relevancy to modern audiences and places the story in a context that the average viewer can better grasp.
Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was an Oscar winner for its costume design and you would be hard-pressed to find a film which better captures the look of the period in which it is set — or at least our presumption of how a period should look. Admittedly, it is plainly clear that Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) was a profound influence on this film’s visual sensibilities. However, I would argue that Coppola’s unprecedented access to the Palace of Versailles increases this film’s visual authenticity inestimably above the Kubrick picture.
Certainly, at least, the importance of historical accuracy in period films is debatable. The historian A.E. Larson has pointed out the profound effect of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart on Scottish politics of the mid-1990s. The film’s negative portrayal of the English was largely inaccurate, but it nonetheless helped pave the way for the 1997 referendum which resulted in the foundation of the Scottish parliament. Likewise, Oliver Stone’s JFK persuaded an alarming number of Americans that Lee Harvey Oswald was not acting alone when he assassinated John F. Kennedy. In short, Larson argues, do not underestimate the power of films to alter a society’s beliefs.
In that sense one could make the case that it is somewhat troubling that the Scottish people were influenced, in part at least, by a fictitious Hollywood movie to fundamentally change their system of government. Having said that, I remain unconvinced that any intelligent and discerning moviegoer would blindly accept period films as fact rather than fiction. Since historical events are rarely as entertaining as the movies they inspire, it is crucial that filmmakers be granted a great deal of leeway when it comes to accuracy.
Indeed, as Oscar-nominated costume designer and historian Deborah Nadoolman Landis has stated, “Period costume design must always resemble the year in which the film was made. The audience wants to recognize, and relate to, the characters in every story.” In other words, if the appearance of the film is in any way distracting, filmmakers risk losing the attention of their audience. When Hollywood and international films turn their attention to historical events, modern relevancy is — for good or ill — more important than accuracy.
Nadoolman Landis, Deborah. Hollywood Costume. Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 9781419709821.
Phillips, James. Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema. Stanford University Press. Page 55. ISBN 9780804758000.
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