Monday, January 24, 2011

History - According To The Movies

While only a modest student of the history and certainly no expert on cinema, I cannot help but notice that more of the former is apparently being defined by the latter these days. For some inexplicable reason, screenwriters in Hollywood appear to have become our new historians. This became glaringly apparent to me lately while watching a day of programs covering a variety of past events (or supposed ones) shown on the network devoted to the topic, 'The History Channel'.  

The Battle of Thermopylae is understood these days only through the eyes of screenwriter and Director Zack Snyder's "300". The Declaration of Independence and Founding Fathers now appear to be defined by "National Treasure". Knowledge of The Ark of the Covenant is understood, but only according George Lucas in "Raiders of the Lost Ark". George make a similar contribution regarding another Biblical artifact in a later effort, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" regarding the Holy Grail. Of course the Holy Grail is also (and perhaps even more confusingly defined) by the movie adapted from the Dan Brown novel, "The Di Vinci Code". 
(Though personally I find more humor and meaning in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"; as well as a more realistic depiction of the sometimes bizarre beliefs of the period surrounding the quests searching for it.) 

The tragedy in these somewhat entertaining shows were the comments by at least supposedly reputable historians (mostly professors from colleges that I had never heard of) regarding the relation of these fictional movie efforts with actual events in history. These entertainment efforts were treated by these educators as legitimate sources of reference material, and the merits and interpretations of directors and screenwriters who were trying to write a story that would sell tickets and popcorn as data worthy of consideration in a careful study of the subject. 

Are movie-makers then to become the new academics of history? Will we have to dumb the world down to the level of an Adam Sandler film and throw in some computer-generated effects in order to make it palatable to a society that increasingly accepts Reality Shows as a non-dramatic depictions of modern society? Have we sunk so low in the science of history and so bastardized the process of educating our young on such subjects that we are no longer concerned about the facts, but only about the entertainment value of their greater truth? Shall we ignore any factual details that don't move the plot along. throw in some occasional fictitious romance to tug at the heartstrings of an audience, or add a car chase (whether automobiles had been invented or not) in order to keep them riveted to their seats.  

By such standards of academia, how can Robin Hood ever be considered as a fictional character when he's been played by Errol Flynn, Sean Connery, Kevin Costner (yeesh), and Russell Crowe? (Yes, I know I left out Cary Elwes playing the role in "Robin Hood: Men In Tights", but I suspect that most at least still understand that Mel Brooks is not a historian, in spite of making the movie "History of the World: Part I".)

Shall we further accept that German soldiers and Roman Senators alike speak with crisp British accents and that Hitler was the only Nazi to speak with a German one? So let me state for the record for those of you apparently unable to understand the rudiments of critical thinking, academic study, or fictional entertainment:

These are movies damn it!

This would be the equivalent of taking a degree in Biblical studies comprised of courses consisting of the collected efforts of the major studios on the subject (which is probably offered at a university as we speak and that I am simply unaware of). "The Ten Commandments", "Samson and Delilah", "David and Bathsheba","The Robe", and "King of Kings" among others, could provide all of the material required to pass such a course and perhaps even earn a Bachelor's degree on the subject. You could even throw in Norman Jewison's "Jesus Christ Superstar" and Kevin Smith's "Dogma" for post-graduate studies. 

Better still, maybe we can have them run up a CG animated version and make every subject of academia more entertaining. If all of the facts fail to matter, why not make these historical characters more handsome, the voices more stirring, and maybe even drop a safe or two on their heads and have some stars dancing around their melons to lighten the dark moments of the Dark Ages. Of course we could just go back to treating the science of the study of history as an academic pursuit, and allow the fascinating nature of events that occurred to be entertainment enough. Nah ....

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