Keep telling yourself: it's only a movie...

This editorial really came about from two directions: firstly, an email which arrived here at TC Towers:

Are your comments about the English your own views or do you mean it tongue in cheek (The English are all scum etc.)? These might not be your sentiments as I got the link from a review of Braveheart...I meet lots of Politicians - Alex Salmond and Rosie Cunningham, most of the time. As Alex is at the moment trumpeting 'The new Maturity of the Scots in their dealings with their southern neighbours' I am sending examples to him of various Scottish web sites with a virulent anti English Bias. Of course its a two way traffic (See the England supporters web site and comments about who they term the 'Sweaty Socks') I'm just sad that this sort of hatred seems to be on the increase.

My reaction to this email was one of some bafflement - largely because I wasn't sure whether the writer was joking or not. I suspect not, although he was largely vague on what he found on the site which qualified as "virulent anti-English bias". I obviously pointed out that I've been living in England for 13 years, so I can't think it's that bad, but also suggested that he take a look at Hollywood -- this is largely a film site, after all, and there seems to be a growing number of films with English villains, for more or less justifiable reasons. Gone in Sixty Seconds and X-Men both have them, although the latter as least has Patrick Stewart leading the good guys too. Which brings me to the second point: a savage mauling of The Patriot in yesterday's Daily Telegraph (disclaimer: I only bought it for the fantasy cricket scores), in which the film was ripped apart for being historical "porn". My feelings on this are somewhat ambivalent. Part of me wants to say "It's only a movie, get over it." But the problem is, that a Hollywood production is quite likely to have more of an impact on people than long-forgotten history lessons, and the potential for, at best, confusion, is significant.

There is an inherent problem with basing films on real-life dramas. Real-life is not cinematic - it doesn't come in convenient three-act structure, with a tidy ending. So something has to give, and it's usually the facts. But when you start discarding them, what you are making is effectively a propaganda film, since you are skewing the truth towards a certain point of view. This applies whether we are talking about The Patriot or Schindler's List: both are equally dubious (though I doubt the former is quite as blatantly manipulative). And this is on top of the questions about history in general: it's generally written by winners, and so is rarely a reflection of what actually happened. If the Nazis had won the war, for example, we would certainly be hearing what a total bastard Churchill was.

With ancient history (and in these terms, I mean anything beyond living memory), this is probably less important: it's not that crucial whether some people in mid-West America think Robin Hood had an American accent. But the closer you get to the present day, the greater the dangers, as recent fusses over films like U-571 and the proposed Colditz Story shows, where history is being rewritten to show Americans in the fote-front of World War II, rather than turning up three years late (albeit with much enthusiasm). Because if present history gets a little bit skewed, then down the line, that "little bit" has the potential to become "a lot", and the cinematic version also has a better chance of getting locked into popular consciousness. I imagine there are people out there who think, thanks to Schindler's List, that the Holocaust was invented by Hollywood, and took place in black-and-white. The risks of this hardly need mentioning...

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