History by Hollywood may be bunk – but don't write it off

Giles Marshall
13th July 2015 at 13:43

Historical Hollywood

How good are films at conveying history? Ask any history teacher and you'll probably get a pretty negative response. Films are there to entertain and they distort the truth considerably in doing so. Look at the Elizabeth I films starring Cate Blanchett, or Mel Gibson’s anti-English diatribe of a movie, Braveheart. Entertaining, certainly, but as representations of historical fact? Garbage!

Yet before dismissing historical films too quickly, we should also be aware of how they can engage the reluctant – and not so reluctant – learner. Using extracts of films in lessons is a tactic that’s as old as, well, the arrival of video recorders in classrooms. We use them to bring the era we're teaching to life, to engage the students via a medium with which they are keenly familiar, to provoke discussion. Historical films can be immensely annoying to us pedants but they can also be a fantastic springboard for discussion and further work.

Take, for example, Thirteen Days, the Kevin Costner vehicle about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The film shows the claustrophobic intensity of the build-up to the crisis within the White House. It highlights the ongoing problems for the Kennedy administration of not being able to communicate with the Kremlin. It illuminates president John F Kennedy’s moral dilemma in identifying a solution. It also conveys a daunting sense of imminent Armageddon if anything goes wrong. In all these respects, the film is excellent.

Set against that, however, are undeniable flaws. Costner’s character Kenny O’Donnell was in reality nowhere near the decision-making during the crisis, despite being front and centre throughout the film, and the US military chiefs are portrayed as cartoonishly hawkish. The real reason for Nikita Khrushchev’s eventual conciliation – fear of invasion by a vastly superior US military – is absent from the film, as is the role of vice-president Lyndon Johnson who chaired several Excomm meetings with skill. United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson, too, did not need any spine-stiffening from Costner’s character before his bravura performance in the Security Council.

The film is very watchable – although very long – and even contains scenes taken direct from the time, such as Walter Cronkite’s news reports. But it is certainly not an accurate view of the Cuban missile crisis.

Then there is the Second World War drama Valkyrie. Based on the Claus von Stauffenberg plot that nearly succeeded in killing Hitler, the film opened against a backdrop of controversy that stemmed from the von Stauffenberg family’s unhappiness at Cruise’s distinct dissimilarity from the legendary colonel.

It’s true that Cruise is too short and too unblond for the part, but he actually gives a terrific performance, and the film itself sticks far more closely to the actual sequence of events than I would have imagined. Valkyrie opens students up to an aspect of Nazi history that has recently become a key element in GCSE courses such as that offered by AQA, and does so with historical aplomb. Although it does not go very deeply into the varied motives of von Stauffenberg’s diverse associates and some characters are rather superficially portrayed, it is a gripping and worthwhile film as a whole. 

As well as Cruise, Kenneth Branagh gives a great performance as the perennial Hitler assassination plotter General von Tresckow, and Bill Nighy is terrific as the vacillating General Olbricht. The eventual outcome is never in doubt, but this does not stop the viewer's tension building – or a completely irrational desire to urge on von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators. The film certainly raises questions as to how the conspiracy might have succeeded in overthrowing the regime even if it failed to kill Hitler; it also highlights the need for determined, decisive action in the face of great odds. Von Stauffenberg himself didn’t lack nerve, but some of the conspirators in Berlin, required to get the coup moving as fast as possible, suffered from a fatal indecisiveness. 

Neither of these films pass muster as accurate history but they do something else instead. By tailoring reality to suit the demands of the film-makers – whether these be historiographical (as in the case of Thirteen Days, determined to portray a triumph of liberalism as embodied in the Kennedys) or dramatic (as with the casting and blurring of some events in Valkyrie) – they provoke discussion on the part of the intelligent viewer.

There can be few greater incentives to get down and dirty in the research of particular historical events than the desire to prove how the Hollywood storytellers have got something wrong. It appeals to our inner pedant, and as such is a positive tool with which to move students forward. Although I'm less sure about whether we can show the whole film in class, rather than set it as much-appreciated homework.

Giles Marshall teaches history in a London grammar school