Book review: Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, Mark C. Carnes, ed, reviewed by Richard the Poor

Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies

Mark C. Carnes, General Editor

Henry Holt and Company, New York

Copyright 1995, Agincourt Press

Reviewer: Master Richard the Poor of Ely

I’m sure that for most of us SCAdians, a favorite form of entertainment involves putting a “medieval” movie into the ol’ VCR (then sitting back and looking for errors).  But what do real historians have to say about how the movie industry presents history?

Carnes and the Society of American Historians have asked sixty authors and historians to comment on around one hundred movies related to their fields of expertise.  For example, Stephen E. Ambrose is the Boyd Professor of History at the University of New Orleans and the chairman of the National D-Day Foundation.  Who better, then, to write about The Longest Day (1962)?  And wouldn’t you like to know what paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould has to say about Jurassic Park (1993)?

The movies are discussed in the order of the history they present, from the Exodus (The Ten Commandments (1956)) to Watergate (All the President’s Men (1976)).  I must say that an appendix listing the films in the order they were made would have been a useful addition, but the editors don’t include one.  Each essay gives suggestions for further reading as well as the major cast and credits for the movie (they are all available on video).  Sidebars accompanying the essays flesh out the historical background.

The movies chosen are a diverse group.  In addition to the more “documentary” movies, some are included for their depiction of an era (Hester Street (1975), The Front Page (1931)), and others for what they tell about when they were made (Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Dr. Strangelove (1964)).

The essays in general grapple with the scope of artistic license.  How much accuracy can be sacrificed to make an entertaining movie?  It’s never been an easy question to answer.  For some years before he died in 1929, Wyatt Earp would hang around Hollywood kibbitzing with the cast and crew of Western movies, including a young John Ford.  After Ford released My Darling Clementine (1946), his version of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, a film historian asked him why, if he knew Earp, the movie wasn’t more accurate.  A flustered Ford asked him if he liked the film.  The historian answered sheepishly that it was one of his favorites.  Ford shot back, “What more do you want?”

To succeed as a historical movie, there are three requirements that stand out in all the essays.  First, if the events of the movie occur in a larger context, show that context.  Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) deals with one couple’s struggle to survive in west-central New York during the Revolutionary War.  But it fails to give any indication that the British campaign in the Mohawk valley was one of the most important campaigns of the war.  Second, try to capture the spirit of the era. Despite getting many of its facts completely wrong, 1776 (1972) succeeds because it accurately conveys the sense of the politicking of the Second Continental Congress during that hot, tense summer. Finally, if your major characters are real historical figures, get their true character right.  Capt. William Bligh of the H.M.S. Bounty (Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)) was a cruel, almost sadistic tyrant. Right?  Wrong!  The real Bligh was more inept than tyrannical, and it’s likely that the mutiny happened because he was simply incapable of leading his crew.  With a more correct depiction, the story could still have made a good movie.

SCAdians are likely to overlook this book since only a tenth of the movies included are what can be called “Period”.  But as we try to re-create history for entertainment, shouldn’t we give some attention to how others do the same thing?

[from the June 1996 Seahorse]

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