History and Film: an uneasy relationship

The power of film is no longer something to be marvelled at but simply something to be expected. The capacity for motion pictures to arouse emotive action and prompt spirited debate have long been recognised and used by individual directors and governments alike. Historical films often give exposure to events unknown, overlooked or forgotten by society. This can provoke a positive response by stimulating interest in a particular historical topic. However, it can also raise tension. The most recent example of a historical film dividing movie-goers and politicians equally is Yimou Zhang’s Flowers of War, a study of the atrocities committed by invading Japanese forces in Nanjing, China in 1937. The film claims to depict “the rape of Nanjing”, which is how the event is referred to in China, whose experts claim at least 300,000 civilians were brutally slaughtered. Yet, many Japanese historians and politicians do not acknowledge that a massacre took place in Nanjing, rather suggesting that the people that died were legitimate casualties of war. Considering the traditional enmity between the two nations such cultural productions carry an added political burden. Whether The Flowers of War can be considered a propaganda film is open to interpretation. Most impartial historians agree that a massacre did take place at Nanjing in 1937, but there is no consensus on the number of civilians killed given the lack of documentation and ruining power of war.

There is still no consensus as to how many people died at Nanjing in 1937

Perhaps the reason The Flowers of War has received added attention from the world’s media is because of its release date. 2011 is the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and its officials have marked it accordingly. Aside from brash naval displays and military parades, a number of overtly political films have been released. Sanping Han’s The Founding of a Party, starring famous actors like John Woo and Andy Lau, chronicles the events leading up to the CCP’s creation. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan’s 1911 depicts the Xinhai Revolution of that year, which saw the end of the Qing Dynasty and would set in motion the events that led to the rise of the CCP. Both these films have been criticised for their lack of historical accuracy and pro-Communist stance. Similarly in 2009, during the sixtieth anniversary of the CCP’s rise to power at the expense of the nationalist Kuomintang, Sanping Han’s The Founding of a Republic was released. Featuring a host of nationally-known actors, the film has also been derided as a propaganda piece for the ruling party.

Here lies the problem of historical films. Whilst they have the power to captivate and inform, they are often used to popularise a particular, controversial message. Perhaps more worryingly for the historical profession, filmmakers are happy to manipulate factual evidence if it means creating a more exciting story. To then say that the film in question is “based on true events” is more misleading than an overt propaganda piece. There is thus a difference between clearly-discernible propaganda films and historically manipulative films which both have an adverse affect on the educative powers of history.

Overt Propaganda Films

From its conception, cinema has been used for propaganda purposes. One need only watch D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic Birth of a Nation, with its denigrating portrayal of the African-American race and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan to see the early manipulative power of film. Indeed, the second incarnation of the Klan grew significantly in popularity in the period after the film’s release, showing the direct links between propaganda movies and social events. The reason the film’s message was so influential was because it was excellently made, on a grand scale and using techniques never before seen in the cinema. This would be a recurring feature of early propaganda films.

Black legislators - portrayed by white actors in blackface - were portrayed as drunk and ignorant

Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever films, from both the silent and sound era. Using fast editing, dramatic acting and a plethora of extras, the film depicts the mutiny aboard the said battleship during Russia’s disastrous naval defeat to Japan during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. The political message comes from the fact that the ship’s incompetent and barbaric officers are part of the Tsarist elite, whereas the brutalised sailors are clearly working-class. Furthermore, the famous massacre scene on the Odessa Steps, when innocent civilians supporting the mutineers are mowed down by the guns of royal soldiers, is a clear sign of the ruthless, autocratic nature of Tsarist rule. This message was something the Communist Party perpetually emphasised throughout their cultural depictions, even after the 1917 revolution gave them power. Eisenstein therefore helped solidify the “enemy” in the people’s minds as the petty bourgeoisie and Tsarist remnants that were depicted so menacingly in his film.

Perhaps the epitome of the brilliant director/propagandist was Leni Riefenstahl. A filmmaker of great daring, capable of arousing fierce emotions through sweeping camera angles and dramatic displays of pomp and reverence, she became an integral part of the Nazi propaganda machine. Her Triumph of the Will (1935), depicting the Nazi Party Congress of 1934 in Nuremburg is a cinematic masterpiece. Stunning aerial shots, long focus lenses, thrilling music and exemplary editing of the Nazi leaders’ speeches create a spectacle of raw power. Those watching at the time would have found it difficult to dismiss the Nazi message of a return to German greatness. It remains the finest propaganda film ever made and, despite its overt support of the Nazis, was not dismissed as such.

One of many awe-inspiring stills from Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will

Any attempts today to present a similar message through film struggles to succeed. For a start, Riefenstahl’s success offers a stark reminder of the detrimental role film can play on one’s emotions and reasoning. People have become more wary of such presentiments. Additionally, despite its overt nature, The Triumph of the Will still possessed a subtlety in its message. It let the footage speak for itself. No need for a voiceover or dramatic reconstructions by actors; just a powerful message from a powerful party in an arena of mass jubilation. When looking at Sanping Han’s recent propaganda efforts for the CCP, they pale in comparison. Overly-explicit dialogue, coupled with blatant historical revisionism, means the films possess none of the subtlety of the earlier propaganda cinema. Rather, they offer a rather embarrassing spectacle that serves to diminish the CCP’s reputation rather than enhance it.

That is not to say that effective propaganda films do not still exist. Michael Moore’s documentaries are a fine example. For instance, his Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) presented a completely prejudiced account of the Bush administration’s response to the Twin Tower attacks, using cleverly-scripted voiceovers to give an impression of gross incompetence on the Republican government’s part. Yet, the politicians targeted were given no opportunity to expand on their decisions through interview. The film being released shortly before the 2004 US Presidential Election was surely no coincidence, as campaigns to remove Bush began in earnest in democratic circles. Moore’s “ultra-liberalism” is therefore as potentially dangerous to the historical record of events and people as any other propaganda film message. This did not stop Moore from being showered with awards for his clearly biased portrayal of a watershed event in global history.

Moore's much-heralded film was a sinister propaganda piece

The history of film is thus infused with propaganda pieces, ranging widely in their effectiveness and subtlety. The best films of this nature are invariably those made by pioneering directors who used cinematic techniques to sidetrack the audience from the more radical elements of a particular message. When Riefenstahl portrayed Hitler at Nuremburg people got the impression of a man of great power and leadership, rather than concerning themselves with what he was actually saying. Whether we are historians or not, we should always be wary of overt propaganda pieces in film. They may often appear phoney and unbelievable, but their appeal to emotion is a powerful mass weapon.

Historical Inaccuracies in Film

In contrast to overt propaganda movies, which willingly distort the truth for political effect, other history films alter fact in the name of fiction. This may seem a harmless enough procedure given that the purpose of movies is to entertain. However, when depicting real events and real people, one must be careful not to portray their fictitious versions as a definitive characterisation of the original. Too often history films claiming to be based on archival research and academic advice fall somewhat short of scholarly accuracy, making them just as misleading, if not as politically potent, as deliberate propaganda films.

A recent example of this historical perversion in film comes from The King’s Speech (2010) by Tom Hooper. Focusing on King George VI’s difficulties in overcoming a debilitating stutter with the help of an Australian speech therapist, the film suggests “Bertie” struggled for years to overcome his problem. It is even shown in the film that the impediment had not been brought under control by the time World War Two began, seven years after George VI acceded to the throne. In reality, Bertie’s stammer had been overcome in the space of a few months in the 1920s, before he was king. It also offers a rather debatable characterisation of King Edward VIII, who abdicated in favour of Bertie, and the royal family’s political involvement in general. Such changes for the sake of drama may seem trivial to the average movie-goer. Yet they irk historians. In a profession keen to improve its engagement with the public at large, such movies play a detrimental role in historical education. As with the propaganda films, the power of cinema makes the events being viewed seem believable, meaning more people are likely to take their historical cues from a film rather than a well-researched book. When politicians and social theorists continue to emphasise the importance of having an appreciation for one’s national history, such films hamper the process of awareness.

Colin Firth as King George VI - The King's Speech was entertaining but historically misleading

Biographical dramas are particularly vulnerable to historical alteration. Making a movie about a boring, unpleasant or uninteresting individual is hardly going to have people flocking to the cinema. Therefore, mythologizing becomes a reality of these films. Take Amadeus (1984) by Milos Forman for instance. Yes, it was based on the play of the same name by Peter Schaffer, thus hinting at its fictionalised nature. Yet the film still claimed to be based on real events. Which parts are real are naturally not elaborated upon. Therefore, with Tom Hulce portraying Mozart as a childish buffoon whose demise is brought about by the scheming of F. Murray Abraham’s insanely-jealous Antonio Salieri, we have a film whose only historical accuracy is the names used. How such seemingly innocent historical misinterpretations come to be taken as fact by so many is brilliantly highlighted by an episode of The Simpsons. In “Margical History Tour”, Marge Simpson takes the liberty of enlightening her children about the life and works of Mozart. However, as Lisa quickly points out, Marge’s “history lesson” is based on the movie Amadeus rather than real historical events, to which Marge acts dismissively. Therefore, though it is unlikely that Forman wanted to mislead people over Mozart’s history, it is surprising how easily popular culture is taken at face value, particularly when a film begins with the fated words “based on true events”. From King Arthur to William Wallace, Michael Collins to J. Edgar Hoover, people from history are “dressed-up” for a wider audience. Though directors quickly point out after the film that they never intended their works to be completely historically accurate, they are happy enough for you to believe that they are while you are watching them.

Tom Hulce clowning around as Mozart in Amadeus

This may seem like a petty attack on a popular medium which provides entertainment to many and spruces up the dull aspects of history. Yet the fact remains that, whether it is desirable or not, history is often far less glamorous than it is portrayed on screen. Such portrayals lead to misunderstandings, inaccurate nationalist convictions, and a devaluing of proper historical research. They may not be as blatant as the overt propaganda films of the Nazis or the Chinese government flunkies but in their own way contribute to the misrepresentation of history and reality in the public domain.