Hollywood’s licence to lie must be revoked
Vancouver Courier
July 9, 2000

In the upper left-hand corner of every New York Times front page is the famous motto: “All the news that’s fit to print.”

Even if the Times occasionally fails to live up to this ideal, as Noam Chomsky can attest, the motto reassures readers that the paper prizes accurate reporting over ideology, a boast the National Post certainly cannot make. If people don’t trust what you print, they won’t buy it, and if people don’t buy the paper, it won’t be around for long. Forthrightness is good economics, at least in the real world.

In the realm of unreality—for example, the movies—accuracy is often an afterthought, if it’s thought of at all. Here, the commodity for sale is entertainment, not information, so success depends on how well a movie can manipulate people’s emotions. Unlike good journalism, accuracy and credibility can’t be allowed to get in the way of telling a good story. Hollywood’s unofficial motto could be: “All the history that’s fit to distort.”

From Birth of a Nation (1915) with its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, to this year’s The Patriot, which grossly misrepresents people and events during the American Revolution, the movie industry shows that it’s always ready to mug the historical record. There are countless examples, but three will suffice.

In the Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Burt Lancaster gives a standout performance as Robert Stroud, a gentle killer who became famous for keeping birds in his prison cell in the solitary confinement wing—No. 40 to be precise. Problem is, the film’s a lie.

Sure, Stroud did serve time on Alcatraz, and he did keep birds, but not at the same time. He earned his reputation while an inmate at Leavenworth prison in Kansas, and he was nothing like the saint Lancaster made him out to be. Stroud was a nasty piece of work. Why do you think he was confined to a cell 24 hours a day?

I’ve always wondered why nobody thought to make the “Birdman of Leavenworth.” Is the real story so uninteresting that it has to be falsified?

Brian De Palma’s 1987 movie The Untouchables is another piece of revisionist nonsense. Kevin Costner portrays famous treasury agent Eliot Ness as a sensitive family man who leads the campaign to nail Al Capone on income tax evasion.

The film owes much to the spirit of the TV series of the same name, starring Robert Stack. It was based on the book The Untouchables, which Ness wrote with professional writer Oscar Fraley in 1956-57. However, the tales of crimebusting heroics are self-serving exaggerations that never happened.

Truth is, Ness had little to do with amassing the evidence that convicted Capone, and Ness’s life, though interesting, was fraught with misery and depression and ended in suicide.

As a final insult to the historical record, De Palma has Ness push Capone’s enforcer Frank Nitti to his death off the roof of the courthouse. In fact, Nitti outlived Capone and ran the Chicago mob while Capone was in prison. Despite its tenuous connection to reality, the film was a critical and popular hit, and earned Sean Connery an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

If you’re someone who only goes to a movie for a couple of hours of harmless diversion, you probably don’t sweat accuracy. Movies are supposed to present their subjects a little larger than life, after all. Then again, maybe you never knew that you were being deceived.

But what if you do care, and go to a movie expecting (gasp!) to learn something? In our attention-span-deprived age, many people’s knowledge of history comes not from books but from movies and “edutainment” TV. If a newspaper reporter made up facts, committed libel, or passed off fictionalized interpretations of events as real, he’d be fired and his paper sued. Yet a movie producer can expect to commit wholesale historical fraud with impunity.

In The Patriot, a film that purports to be about people and events during the American Revolution, historical fraud reaches a new, disturbing depth.

The British press and historians have expressed outrage at the way the film portrays British soldiers as Nazi-like sadists. Especially galling is the character of the British colonel, based on Banastre Tarleton, a soldier described by the London Times as “a dashing officer loved by his soldiers.”

In a long analytical article, New York Post film critic Jonathan Foreman notes that the British are made out to be as evil as Nazis: “In one scene in The Patriot, the British regulars murder wounded American PoWs. In another, they order the execution of an American soldier captured in uniform. Both were common occurrences on the Eastern Front of the Second World War, but such war crimes by regular troops never happened in the Revolutionary War, says American Heritage magazine editor Richard Snow.”

The worst outrage, said Foreman, was the anachronistic depiction of British soldiers massacring an entire village, because the scene bore a disturbing similarity to the Waffen SS massacre of the French village of Oradour sur Glane on June 10, 1944. This invention was so gratuitous and malicious that Foreman rightly wonders about the filmmakers’ motives.

It is ironic that Birth of a Nation, though great in its day, is now condemned as racist, yet in this enlightened age, we can make The Patriot—a racist, libelous polemic against the British.