Why Do Some Filmmakers Revise History?
It’s August 8, 1969, in the Beverly Crest neighborhood of Los Angeles. Tucked comfortably away behind hedges on Cielo Drive, a French country-style mansion sits with five people alive and well inside. It’s the end of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Leonardo DiCaprio stands outside the gates. He’s playing the role of faded movie star Rick Dalton, talking to the voice of Margo Robbie through a speaker. She is Sharon Tate, the pregnant starlet married to world-renowned director Roman Polanski. There’s a twist in narrative Tarantino uses, and countless others before him, that has covered thousands of stories and public figures since the beginning of time. Screenwriters and filmmakers create their own reinterpretations, reworkings, or reimaginings, which are not necessarily inaccurate, but depending on the impact of the film, can bring out new evidence that influences society’s view of historically recorded events.
“For me, they make us question and review our own perspectives on history,” said Gary Goldman, a producer and director on shows like Shameless, Entourage, Valley of the Boom, and House of Lies. “Did we get it right? Can I learn something new that will affect my perception of the world?… Whether it’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler starring Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines or Tom Hanks’ Forest Gump, we like to see history revised just enough so we can practically participate with the hero. We all know Gump did not get a medal of honor at the White House or speak at the Monument in DC. But we now have a perspective of what that time was like to be there.”
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ended lightheartedly, the only true parallel being the address. Tate and her friends really were in the house that night, but as we all know, the movie is a far cry from what actually happened. On the same date in real life, Margot Robbie wasn’t Tate and Rick Dalton didn’t exist. While Polanski was away in Europe, three shadowy figures lurked through the dark, drawing knives as they crept onto the sprawling three-acre property. The mansion became a slaughterhouse, invaded by brainwashed hippies slicing away like puppets on strings tied to the fingers of Charles Manson.
Michael A. Simpson of Cairo Simpson Entertainment and Informant Media, producer of Crazy Heart, Kidnapping Mr. Heineken with Anthony Hopkins and Candy Jar with Helen Hunt on Netflix, shared his perspective on this controversial area. “I love the line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance when the newspaper journalist opines, ‘When legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ I think all movies based on true events are revisionist to some degree. History isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s most often biased and revisionist in the telling.”
“They include exactly what is inferred from the phrase ‘A recasting of history to provide an alternate timeline expressing varied storylines,’” said film enthusiast and USC graduate Jeff Watson. “The director most aligned with this oeuvre is Quentin Tarantino, whose triptych of films, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, playfully twisted historical narratives and timelines to create his unique sense of entertainment.”
“The ultimate verdict on humanity’s past, its catalogue of triumph and cataclysmic defeat is rendered in turns by the artist and by the academic,” said filmmaker Mark Oliver, who focuses predominantly on cinema history and culture. “But as we move further into the bewildering post-truth era of ‘alternative’ facts, into whose capable hands can entrust the past? Who has the final word when Wikipedia (and its unseen contributors) becomes the final authority? For cinema’s storytellers, there are fewer prospects more intriguing than to reframe historical events through the eyes of the ‘anti-hero,’ and by so doing take revenge for the injustices committed by our ancestors.”
“History is a never-ending fountain of knowledge,” said Moonchild writer Reinhard Denke. “Motion pictures and TV shows have taken on mythological status with many. They are our modern-day equivalent of epic poems or great pageants of history. It’s our responsibility as screenwriters to adhere as closely to the overall facts that have been documented and present a story where the viewer can make up their minds whether or not it’s true. To change the historical record to fit a current narrative or set of beliefs is worrisome and reckless.”
This contradicts what many believe this particular niche in the wheelhouse of storytelling is all about, although there is a fine line between rewriting and revising. Some films alter major events, which falls more under the rewriting category, forcing the viewer to see a completely new world that strays from everything we’ve learned about those events. Hitler, for example, died by suicide in a bunker, not burned alive at the Le Gamaar Cinema as in Inglourious Basterds. Others follow history more closely, using the Civil War or 1950s as a backdrop and concentrating on a specific story. Films “Based On Actual Events” or “Inspired By A True Story” often explore characters and their relationships without changing the time period or setting.
“We, the audience, simply prefer fiction over hard, sometimes boring, truth,” explained author and film historian David Grove. “By the time that any film or screenplay that’s based on a factual or historical event makes it through the Hollywood machinery it has, undoubtedly, become so adjusted and compromised that it is less comparable to the truth of the event and more akin to pure Hollywood fiction.”
“Their popularity lies in the fact that movie audiences want to be entertained rather than be given a full and accurate history lesson from a film,” said Anthony Francis, podcast host at Widescreen: A Film Discussion Podcast and critic/contributor for Screen Comment. “A great example is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from 1969. Except for their names and a few situations and characters, there is not much historical accuracy there, but director George Roy Hill and screenwriter William Goldman set out to entertain, and that they did.”
“Revisionist films question the assumptions and illusions perpetuated by the dominant narrative and the way it tends to embed itself into a particular genre,” explained Budd Wilkins, a longtime film historian and contributor for Video Watchdog and Slant Magazine. “So a revisionist Western-like Run of the Arrow aligns its hero with Native Americans and their culture and against his ‘own kind’ years before Costner’s Dances with Wolves. As we see around us every day, history, the past, is constantly up for grabs.”
Many films have stood the test of time, leaving behind extraordinary marks on the world. This applies especially to the Revisionist Western (also Anti-Western or Post-Western), a subgenre that includes a wide range of films tracing back to the 1960s and 1970s. Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man and McCabe & Mrs. Miller are all comparable. The heroes and villains become resemblances of each other, not “all good or all bad,” making them anti-heroes and sympathetic villains, both of which can be viewed as morally questionable, living in the gray area to fight for a greater cause. Whether the film is a Western or a war epic, the elements are all similar.
“Truly spectacular revisionist content dismantles implicit bias in presenting an allegorical sense of history,” said Jillian Dale, film critic at The Huffington Post, producer/director and founder of Bella Luce Productions. “One of the most stimulating recent examples was demonstrated by director and screenwriter, Spike Lee. BlacKkKlansman reanalyzed popular ideas about Civil Rights era America. Every generation of screenwriters should critically reexamine history and the political narratives that guide our lives.”
“As like retellings of classic literature gives up fresh and modernized aspect about epic masterpieces, the revisionist approach to history brings out unique, distinguished tastes and help to improve its visionary aspects of movies,” said screenwriter and Winter Film Awards judge Nilüfer Özmekik, who appraised 1974’s Arabian Nights for “its poetic approach to epic middle eastern tales.”
Simpson continued with a closing thought. “Movies are escapism. The room darkens and we immerse ourselves in an experience, and, hopefully, if we’re lucky, the movie gods smile on us and we’re entertained. In rare instances, films are elevated through the power of storytelling and performance to some definition of art.”
The most extreme version of revisionist storytelling can be seen in television series The Man In The High Castle where history has not been remolded, it has been rewritten into a chilling alternate world where the Axis powers won World War II. Nazi Germany occupies America’s East Coast and the Empire of Japan controls the West Coast.
“Hollywood is notorious for ‘adjusting’ history to make it either more cinematic or to make a political point,” explained producer/filmmaker Gary Theroux, Emmy nominee, and New York Festivals’ award-winner. “Audiences come away from most biographical motion pictures with a highly distorted understanding of actual events, motivations, outcomes, and personalities.”
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