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Tim Blagg

Blagg: The screening of history

John Walsh of British newspaper The Independent had an interesting column the other day on the use of movies, as well as TV, to teach history.

It was prompted by a suggestion by an actor, Eddie Redmayne, who is familiar from appearances in “Les Misérables,” “War Horse” and “Birdsong,” who was supporting an initiative to encourage children to make, watch and understand films.

Redmayne said that film should be taught in schools “to inspire the next generation to work in that medium” — fair enough — but then added that schools “could also use film to teach pupils about history.”


Walsh commented that teachers could certainly use films to show “how blatantly, crazily and gleefully film-makers have consistently screwed around with history, down the decades, in the interests of amusing audiences, until it’s now a full-time job to balance the filmic bollocks with the prosaic actualité.”

Walsh has a way with words.

He points out that Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” would have us believe that the queen, played by Kirsten Dunst, spent all her time wearing Manolo Blahniks and scoffing Ladurie macaroons, and that her most famous directive was “Let them eat custard.”

And of course, there are a host of movies based on conspiracy theories, usually presented as absolute fact, such as Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” which asserts that President Kennedy was assassinated by a cabal of military, CIA and FBI types to stop him pulling out of Vietnam.

Walsh: “Children interested in English history will enjoy discovering what a bitch Queen Elizabeth I was to her chief adviser, Sir William Cecil, whom she forced into retirement. That’s if you believe Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 film “Elizabeth,” starring Cate Blanchett as the ruthless-but-virginal monarch. Tudor historians will tell you that Sir William remained her devoted adviser until she died, but what do they know?”

Naturally, as a Brit, Walsh is particularly pointed about American movies that give credit for historical triumphs to Yanks while downplaying or ignoring other nations’ contributions. In “U-571,” for example, the U.S. Navy captures an Enigma coding machine from a stricken U-boat, whereas it was actually the Royal Navy that did that, or in “The Monuments Men,” it’s George Clooney’s character, George Stout, who had the idea of saving priceless artwork from Nazi looters while, in fact, it was two British lieutenant-colonels in Libya, doing their best to protect old Roman ruins, who got the ball rolling.

I could go on, but you get the message. On the other hand, I routinely recommend that my American History students at GCC watch “The Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day Lewis for its very accurate rendering of the French and Indian War in colonial America.

And, given the restrictions of cinema, the Normandy Beach scenes of “Saving Private Ryan” are shocking and traumatic ... and as accurate as possible, given that they are carrying the plot forward by following a small, fictional group of Rangers.

“Lincoln,” with its inside look at the rough and tumble politics of 1865, is an eye opener, and the mini-series “John Adams” puts a human face on this remarkable family while sticking as close to the historical fact as possible.

So there are movies ... and there are movies. Picking out the gold from the dross could, and does, advance the teaching of history.

But only if the choices are very, very carefully made.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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