Henry Ford said it is bunk. Napoleon said it is a set of lies, agreed upon. But history, as depicted in motion pictures, can revive interest in people and events that may otherwise remain generally overlooked.
Take, for example, the case of Akiva Goldsman who’s nominated for WGA and Academy Awards for his script about the schizophrenic, mathematical genius John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” based on a book by Sylvia Nasar. The biopic posed historical challenges, as Nasar’s book claimed that in reality, Nash divorced his wife, before returning to her, and had a child out of wedlock, as well as homosexual relationships.
Responding to criticisms about playing with biographical facts, Goldsman explains, “The architecture was really genius, madness, Nobel Prize.” As for the enduring commitment between Nash and Alicia, he acknowledges, “They divorced, then they lived together for decades. Then, they remarried. So, the fact of John and Alicia is that they started married and ended married. … He was in Europe for a year. That’s not the movie either, you know what I mean? There’s certainly compression.”
Perhaps Gregory Allan Howard had even more of a daunting task concerning economy of storytelling, as he is credited with the story and wrote the original draft for “Ali,” about one of the most recognizable people on the planet.
“What I wrote was a father- and-son story,” says Howard, one that concentrated on Muhammad Ali’s life from 12 to 40, as opposed to the decade covered in the film.
Howard prefers relying on interviewing to get at historical truth, a technique that proved quite effective when 60 interviews resulted in his script about a 1971 football team helping to integrate Alexandria, Va., in “Remember the Titans.”
But he feels that Hollywood generally fails at biopics. “If you have a true story, you should try to adhere to it above the 50% level, otherwise there is no point. You might as well just make everything up.”
When Richard Eyre co-wrote and directed “Iris,” he knew that most viewers would not be familiar with author and philosopher Iris Murdoch, her battle with Alzheimer’s disease or the book “Elegy for Iris,” which her husband, John Bayley, wrote about their life together. The film depicts Murdoch both young and old, with the help of Kate Winslet and Judi Dench.
“I never saw it as a biographical picture,” Eyre contends. “I saw it as a relationship and the story of the young and the old (Murdoch) was a necessary device.”
Eyre elucidated Murdoch’s views through a series of lectures in the film, but realizes that an emotional truth is often a substitute for a historical event.
“I’m not being entirely facetious where I say certain elements of it are not biographically true, in the literal sense,” he says. “You know, who knows what goes on in private in a marriage?”
As resident historian for the series “History Vs. Hollywood” on the History Channel, Steve Gillon gives Hollywood high marks on its recent biopics. “Historians have not been involved enough in using the opportunity of these historical films to engage the public in a larger debate about the events that are described in film,” he says.
History bears repeating
As an author specializing in post-New Deal America and a professor at the University of Oklahoma, Gillon has consulted on the History Channel’s examination of films like “The Patriot,” “U-571,” “13 Days” and its powerful two-hour doc “The True Story of Black Hawk Down.”
“The most difficult question a historian has to grapple with is causation, is what leads people to do the things they do,” he says. “When you take that 300- or 400-page book and try to turn it into a film that is dramatic and can reach a wide audience, you make further compromises to the complexity of the personality you can present.”
Gillon, whose books include “That’s Not What We Meant to Do,” examining legislation that achieved the opposite of its intended effect, lays out clearly the battle lines between historians and historical films: “I think historians have to understand the requirements of filmmaking, sort of the limitations … and the need and desire to reach a wider audience. And filmmakers also need to understand the importance of presenting as much as possible a portrait that’s historically accurate.”