Duke University’s John Herd Thompson explores how academic historians always lose when taking on filmmakers and their depiction of the past.
Film and history were proposed as partners at the instant of cinema’s late-nineteenth-century beginnings. The first known would-be matchmaker was a cameraman who worked with pioneering cineastes the Lumière Brothers. In 1898, Boleslas Matuszewski argued that “historical cinematography will quickly evolve…to an agreeable method of studying the past, answering perplexing questions and saving floods of useless ink.” His demeaning reference to scholarly historians pouring out “floods of useless ink” suggests why the partnership between filmic and written history has never evolved as smoothly as he and other filmmakers envisioned. The subsequent century saw three broad cinematic approaches to doing history: the historical feature, the historical documentary, and what has come to be known as the “docudrama.” In none of these has forms has a close creative relationship developed between historians and filmmakers.
Filmmakers have created (literally) thousands of historical feature films since D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation launched the genre in 1915. Although no contemporary historian would pretend that Birth of a Nation accurately represents its historical subject, the U.S. Civil War and the period of Reconstruction that followed it established the conventions that continue to define the historical feature: an oversimplified dramatic narrative based on recreations of real historical actors interspersed with invented characters. Griffith (of course) had no actual archival footage to use, but he cinematically recreated the “look” of Matthew Brady’s well-known Civil War photographs. For Griffith, an obsessive attention to costumes and detail equated to “authenticity;” he called on West Point engineers for advice about artillery, but asked no historian to advise him on dialogue or interpretation.
The film’s publicist screened Birth of a Nation at the White House for U.S. president Woodrow Wilson – a former Princeton history professor. The publicist asserted that the president had pronounced the film to be better history than the monographs of his academic colleagues; Wilson was alleged to have said that it was “like writing history with lightning.” The president immediately claimed he had been misquoted; his disclaimer described Birth of a Nation as “an unfortunate production.” Thus was the enduring battle between academic and cinematic history symbolically joined. Significantly, historian Wilson lost. Academic historians always lose when they take on filmmakers. Birth of a Nation grossed $10 million, an unprecedented box office success for the period. The canard that Wilson described it as “writing history with lightning” lives on as truth in histories of film.
Academic historians have (mostly deservedly) condemned cinematic history ever since. Feature film history merits one backhand compliment, however: it has been equal opportunity. For example, filmmakers have mangled the history of every nation-state that they have depicted on the screen, including Canada. The Genie Award for the most egregious misinterpretation of the Canadian past goes to director Cecil B. DeMille’s North West Mounted Police[1940.] In the DeMille version of the North-West Rebellion, Texas Ranger Gary Cooper helps Mountie Preston Foster suppress Métis resistance led not by Louis Riel but by actor George Bancroft playing a “half-breed” whisky trader named Jacques Corbeau. The film’s most fact-defying scene depicts Corbeau mowing down Mounties with a Gatling gun – an exact reversal of what academic historians using archival sources tell us took place in 1885.
Historian Dominique Brégent-Heald perceptively explores the making of North West Mounted Police in “The Red Coat and the Ranger: Screening Bilateral Friendship in Cecil B. DeMille’s North West Mounted Police,” (American Review of Canadian Studies, Spring 2008.) Brégent-Heald offers a depressing tale of history in the hands of Hollywood. She demonstrates that, far from being cavalier about research, DeMille’s “Research Secretary” assembled a massive 300-item bibliography that included the then-standard academic history, George Stanley’s The Birth of Western Canada: a History of the Riel Rebellions (1936.) DeMille’s researcher also obtained a confidential Saskatchewan provincial government “Memorandum on the Metis [sic] question,” which suggested that Métis grievances had merit. But despite considerable evidence that “DeMille seemed sensitive to the historical plight of the Métis,” and “despite the time and money invested in the quest for historical detail,” Brégent-Heald concludes that his “historical” feature film was like others of the genre: “authentic” only in details such as “the type of sleighs and handcuffs used by the Mounted Police in 1885.”
North West Mounted Police nonetheless won large audiences and wide critical acclaim. John Grierson, the celebrated documentary filmmaker who founded the National Film Board of Canada, described it as “the finest picture I have seen.” There is no little irony in this comment, given that filmmakers who learned their craft in Grierson’s NFB became international leaders in the conception of the historical documentary, the closest cinematic equivalent to history as practiced by academic historians. The twenty-eight minutes of The Days of Whisky Gap (1961), directed by Colin Low and produced by Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroiter, offer a much more substantive historical discussion of the North-West Mounted Police than the 128 minutes of Cecil B. DeMille’s version. By and large, earnest historical documentaries earn the grudging acquiescence of academic historians, even though very few of us participate in their creation. And the success of director Ken Burns and of the History Channel in its U.S. and Canadian variants suggests that a history-watching public avidly consumes documentaries. But Québécois director Denys Arcand describes their limitation succinctly: “Historical documentaries must inevitably be deathly boring because they contradict the very nature of cinema by reducing its function to that of illustration.”
The third and most promising cinematic vehicle for history is the docudrama, which melds the techniques of the historical feature film with those of the historical documentary. Actors recreate historical figures, but screenwriters adapt direct quotations into their scripts, and directors situate archival images and footage on screen amid their recreations. Canadian filmmakers have made significant contributions to this hybrid genre, most notably director Donald Brittain and producer Adam Symansky of the NFB, who created Canada’s Sweetheart: the Saga of Hal C. Banks and The King Chronicle. Telecast on the CBC in 1985 and 1988 respectively, Banks drew respectable audiences and King a then-record number of viewers. For The King Chronicle Brittain and Symansky drew extensively and effectively from University of Toronto historian C.P. Stacey’s academic accounts of the life and contexts of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Although Brittain liked to brag that he and Symansky had made up “about three-quarters” of The King Chronicle, an enthusiastic reviewer for the Canadian Historical Review (me) concluded that the only factual errors in the docudrama were the cinematic equivalents of a typo, and that all of Brittain’s interpretations of Mackenzie King could find scholarly champions to defend them.
The most successful Canadian docudramatic venture in terms of attracting viewers has been the thirty-two hour Canada: a People’s History, a co-production of the CBC and la Société Radio-Canada that was broadcast by each network to record audiences in 2000 and 2001. Executive producers Mark Starowicz and Claude Saint-Laurent assigned Gene Allen, an academically-trained historian with a University of Toronto Ph.D. as senior producer and director of research. Two distinguished academic historians, Ramsay Cook and Jean-Claude Robert – both past presidents of the Canadian Historical Association – joined the project as “advisers.” But academic historians’ reviews of Canada: a People’s History ranged from unenthusiastic to unfriendly.
No historian charged that the episodes were inaccurate as to historical detail; to the contrary they commended the “meticulous reconstruction of costume and place,” the extensive use of archival images and film footage, and the incorporation of dialogue from primary historical sources. Academic reviewers instead lamented the broad fissure between the interpretive structure of Canada: a People’s History and the ways in which contemporary scholarly historians understand Canada’s past. Scholars at the end of the twentieth century emphasize the complexity and contingency of the histories of the diverse peoples who have been incorporated into what became Canada; the makers of Canada: a People’s History had instead created a teleological television textbook with Canadian nation-state building as its unifying theme. “No one in 1800 even contemplated the idea of a northern nation called Canada,” protested Jane Errington in the Canadian Historical Review. The imposed nationalist narrative, academic reviewers protested, ignored the innovations of contemporary scholarly history, stripped Canadian history of controversy, and silenced – again in Errington’s words – “the cacophony of diverse voices” of the past.
In 1940, Cecil B. DeMille could have satisfied academic historians had he simply put the Gatling gun into the hands of the Canadian militia instead of the Métis insurgents, and placed Louis Riel at the head of the insurgency rather than the fictional Jacques Corbeau. Now academic historians have raised the interpretive bar much higher – to the frustration of the filmmakers who had hoped for their approval. Before assembled historians at the Learned Societies, Gene Allen insisted on the indispensability of a narrative structure for the success of Canada: a People’s History. Without a master narrative, he argued, “the attempt to reach a broader argument will probably fail.” Allen’s hypothesis is untestable: no academic historian will ever find financial backers with deep enough pockets to allow her/him to make an historical film.
But I sympathize with Gene Allen, and with Ramsay Cook and Jean-Claude Robert, the historical advisers whose academic imprimatur was supposed to render Canada: a People’s History bullet-proof from our colleagues’ condemnation. I think back to my experience as the English-language historical consultant for the CRB [Charles R. Bronfman] Foundation’s Heritage Minutes / Les Reflets du patrimoine, an experience that Jean-Claude Robert shared as my French-language counterpart. The Heritage Minutes are the closest thing to a universal Canadian historical experience that exists. They’ve been shown in cinemas, on television, and in classrooms since 1988; they’re sufficiently well known that they’ve been satirized by comedians and received the highest of Canadian honors — imitation in a television beer commercial.
Executive producer Patrick Watson and a series of gifted directors taught me many things about the possibilities and the constraints of historical cinema. I acquired particular respect for costumers and art directors, the people in charge of the set and the props. I had imagined that I’d have to watch closely to make certain that they were guilty of no historical anachronisms, but quickly realized that these knowledgeable professionals knew more about the details of the costumes, technology, and artifacts of the past than I did. The tradition of getting the details exact in cinematic history, after all, dates back to Birth of a Nation. I learned, however, that there were ways in which the scholarly standards of an academic historian were difficult to square with the dramatic needs of filmmakers. But I also learned that we academics might do well to appropriate some of their narrative techniques. Three of the “Heritage Minutes” provide examples.
“Governor Frontenac,” one of the first “Minutes” to be produced, depicts Frontenac’s 1690 repulse of an English expedition against Quebec under the command of Sir William Phips. The dialogue concludes with a more-or-less accurate quotation of Frontenac’s famous riposte to Phips’s ultimatum for surrender: “I will reply from the mouths of my cannon.” But the action in “Governor Frontenac” centers on a completely made-up Hollywood sword fight in the streets of Quebec between a French courtier and the English emissary who delivers the ultimatum. The script that I, the putative historical expert, had signed off on had no sword fight; it was invented on the set by the director. When I protested after the filming that documents describing the encounter proved that no such mêlée had taken place, the director assured me that “1690 is a long time ago – no one will remember!” The subsequent embarrassment when colleagues derided “Frontenac” taught me that an historical consultant must be not only vigilant and forceful, but also present on the set to be certain that filmmakers don’t tell a story that existing and easily-available documentation can show to be empirically false. The continued popularity of the Minute, alas, bears out the director’s assurance.
In “Nitro,” a Chinese worker risks his life to blast a tunnel for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The nitroglycerine detonates prematurely, but the young man survives the explosion, despite my “historical expert” protests that his survival would have been impossible. But although I was historically correct, I was cinematically wide of the mark. Fortunately for “Nitro,” I lost the argument. The final scene of version that we released takes place in “Vancouver 50 years later.” A much older man recounts his harrowing railway-building experiences to his granddaughters. He tells the girls that “I lost many friends. They say there is one dead Chinese man for every mile of that track.” Had I prevailed over the filmmakers, that final dramatic line would have been delivered as a voice-over from Patrick Watson. “Nitro” taught me that an historian working on film must sometimes fictionalize a detail to tell a larger historical truth.
The political fate of “Peacekeeping,” an excellent minute from the first series, taught me a third and particularly painful lesson. Intended to reflect the nationalist trope that Canada’s military have been about “peacekeeping, not policing,” the black and white Minute depicted a Canadian U.N. peacekeeper averting violence between a Greek and a Turkish Cypriot. It concluded with a voice-over about Lester Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize for conceiving the U.N. Peace Force. To the astonishment of all of us who worked on the Minute, it drew immediate protest from the Turkish ambassador. My response to the protest pointed out that the script had been crafted so that neither the Greek nor the Turkish Cypriot had been portrayed as the aggressor. From the Turkish perspective, however, that was precisely the problem: “everyone” knew that the Greeks bore the blame for the crisis in Cyprus. The CRB Foundation withdrew the Minute from broadcast circulation. The original “Peacekeeping” has thus been erased from the official historical memory of the project, replaced on the Historica website by a Minute with the same title set during the Congolese Civil War. I thus counsel both scholarly and filmic historians never to underestimate the censorial ability of viewers with interpretive axes to grind. Just as cinematic histories attract larger audiences, they attract more vocal critics.
My advice comes too late for the creators of “Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story,” the docudrama broadcast by the CBC in March 2006 to 1.7 million viewers – a huge audience for a CBC drama. “Prairie Giant” immediately aroused national controversy in newspaper columns, on talk shows, in blogs, in the Saskatchewan Legislature, and in both House of Parliament. In June 2006, the CBC apologized for “the historical fallacies” in “Prairie Giant,” and promised not to re-broadcast it without correcting them. The controversy and the apology prompted a session at the 2007 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Saskatoon.
Had the creators of “Prairie Giant” asked, I’d have averted their problems by explaining the inviolable law of cinematic history that I learned from the “Governor Frontenac” Heritage Minute: never tell a story that existing and easily-available documentation can show to be empirically false. “Frontenac” happens in 1690; the director’s prediction that “nobody will remember” turned out to be (mostly) accurate. “Prairie Giant” stretches from the 1920s to the 1980s; some people remembered. But all but one of the “historical fallacies” of “Prairie Giant” – invented characters, imagined conversations, and altered chronologies — would have passed without notice from anyone except academic historians. What sank “Prairie Giant” was the creative decision to re-invent a real historical character in ways that critics could easily show to be empirically false. Saskatchewan Liberal premier and federal cabinet minister James G. Gardiner became Tommy Douglas’s dramatic foil. This depiction held considerable historical truth – the two men were bitter political opponents. But the creators of “Prairie Giant” overplayed their narrative strategy. First, they represented Gardiner, who attracted many votes from non-English-speaking immigrants, as a nasty xenophobe. Alone, even that distortion might have passed muster. Their fatal blunder was to portray Gardiner, an ascetic teetotaler, as a boozy ward boss with an ever-present glass of whisky or snifter of cognac. “Prairie Giant” was doomed by its creators’ dramatic excess.
The blissful partnership of film and history predicted at the birth of cinema won’t happen anytime soon. Film histories won’t stop being made because most academic historians disapprove of them. But filmmakers would do well not just to ask but to listen to academic historians, and not use us simply as a credential for their productions. Scholarly historians would do well to do set aside their academic condescension, and acquaint historical filmmakers with their ever-evolving discipline.
John Herd Thompson is a Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at Duke University. An earlier version of this article was presented to a Canadian Historical Association session of the 2007 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.