Don't knock Hollywood

10th December 2004 at 00:00
Brits should stop whingeing about the historical inaccuracies of American movies and enjoy them as works of art, says Dan Snow.

Churchill the Hollywood Years is now showing at a silver screen near you.

American cinematographers come to Britain during World War Two to make a film about Churchill but find him too unattractive and replace him with a good-looking Christian Slater. While this is a spoof it will be too close for comfort for those who regularly denounce the evil that is Hollywood.

Are these yet more lies about Britain's glorious past? Is Edward Gibbon under threat from Mel Gibson?

Few topics in the arts world provoke so much hot air as Hollywood's flirtation with history. Perhaps it is because people confuse it with real history. This is odd - these films are clearly drama. They are entertaining, moving, thought-provoking works of art. Emphatically not history.

They are the latest incarnation of man's age-old desire to depict the past using songs, stories, painting and drama. Carvings of the victory at Megiddo at the Ramesseum in Thebes, the Buland Darwaza gate to the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri and Diego Rivera's Mexican murals are not accurate depictions of historic events but works of art designed to commemorate, inspire and overawe. The Emperor Titus even flooded the Colosseum to re-enact ancient sea battles.

Today, films like Saving Private Ryan do this job. They provide a colourful, vivid and almost tangible vision of the past. History suddenly seems like it might actually have happened, and not just in textbooks. The wonderful illustrations in the now much-derided book, H E Marshall's Our Island Story, had a similar purpose. These showed improbable scenes from British history such as a noble Black Prince receiving tribute from grateful-looking Frenchmen. Like Saving Private Ryan these pictures inspired a youthful audience far more than pages of dusty prose. "History"

films get people hooked on real history, if only to find out which, if any, parts of the film were true. Anthony Beevor's excellent Stalingrad was mandatory reading for those who enjoyed Enemy at the Gates; my local Waterstones sold out of The Iliad after Troy, and anyone who enjoyed Master and Commander should read Peter Padfield's Maritime Power.

As art these films tell us more about the society which created them than the events they attempt to portray. History-inspired art in Victorian Britain was self-confident and imperial. Look no further than Westminster Bridge where a strident Boudicca rides her ahistorical chariot towards global domination. Similarly Hollywood films today do not give an accurate portrayal of the past, but they tell us a lot about who we think we are today. The tough Roman General Maximus in Gladiator is a character rooted in the aspirations of early 21st century manhood. He loves his wife to the exclusion of others, courts inter-racial friendships and only kills when he absolutely must. Hero is an overtly nationalist tale about the foundation of China. It told me very little about the unification of China in the 3rd century BC but plenty about the way China sees her place in the world today.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of the great one. William Shakespeare wrote numerous "history" plays. They are much loved by the anti-Hollywood brigade yet you would be hard-pressed to find a more historically inaccurate version of the past. They make Braveheart look like an A-level textbook. The "sceptered isle" speech by "John of Gaunt" is one of the most eloquent and patriotic in the English language. Never mind that in reality Jean de Gand spent much of his life in Aquitaine and had an uncertain grasp of English. Nor does it matter that Richard III and Macbeth will never recover from the slanders of Shakespeare's pen, or that his view of the Hundred Years War is absurd. He was writing plays not history.

Shakespeare's audiences loved his plays because they felt that they had "won". He made Tudor England feel singularly blessed. Earlier this century British cinema did the same job. No one complained about inaccuracies when British films showed Laurence Olivier swaying about on a fake quarter deck of the HMS Victory swapping patriotic banalities with Captain Hardy. I suspect that Brits, and the English especially, harp on about distortions not because we are historical purists but because the only time "we" appear in films nowadays is as homicidal imperialists. If Brits aren't burning churches in The Patriot they are murdering civilians in Michael Collins. It is not inaccuracy people complain about, it is the anti-Britishness.

Artists, authors and cinematographers must continue to illustrate the past and we should enjoy their vision and stop patronising everybody. People, young and old, are not too stupid to ask: "That was good - was it true?"

Dan Snow is a military historian and co-author of Battlefield Britain published by BBC Books

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