Inaccurate

Historical films can be tricky for viewers – a fact I realized after watching the 1989 miniseries Cross of Fire, starring John Heard and Mel Harris, about the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer by D.C. Stephens, a prominent K.K.K. leader, in 1925. After viewing the film, my history teacher destroyed me by saying that the valiant lawyer in the film, Klell Henry (David Morse), did not actually exist. And thus, my frequently conflicted opinion on historical/biopic films was born.

I make sure, after viewing a historical drama or biopic, that I research the topic afterward to see what the film got wrong. Not because I want to nitpick the movie and rip it to shreds, but because I want to know the truth. At the very least, even inaccurate films can open the door to further interest and research in certain topics. But when adapting delicate subjects, films bear a lot of responsibility with what they portray… and many have fumbled that opportunity.

There is nothing worse for me, regarding historical dramas, than going on to research the true events of a film and finding out that important details have been manipulated, botched, ignored, or misrepresented, because it feels like being cheated out of what could have been an amazing story. Though, many films so deserve credit for introducing audiences to topics or events that they might not have cared about otherwise.

Of course, it is impossible to adapt any historical event into film with perfect accuracy. The very idea is ridiculous. But when you’re playing with real events, real people – especially people who have passed on, and cannot offer a voice themselves – and real world issues, there is a difference between taking creative liberties, and presenting what is essentially a revisionist history. I mean, don’t even get me started on Pocahontas. I thought that shit was true until like, eighth grade. The soundtrack is a banger, though.

Though I’ve always been a fan of Queen, I’d never purport myself as a massive, die-hard fan, so I went into Bohemian Rhapsody with a partial knowledge of both Freddie Mercury and the band’s history… but even with my limited scope, I was scratching my head at a few of the events shown in the film. For example, the first meeting between Mercury and his long-time partner Jim Hutton, and the band’s implosion due to Mercury’s intention to launch a solo career – among numerous other changes, as noted in the many scathing reviews I’ve since seen scattered about the internet.

Without spoiling anything major about the film, Bohemian Rhapsody – though buoyed by the (obviously) brilliant soundtrack and an electrifying, perhaps career-defining performance from lead actor Rami Malek – shoehorns truth and history and fudges timelines into a formulaic, painfully stereotypical portrayal of a band’s bumpy rise to triumph, and the turbulent life of its legendary front man while barely scratching at the surface of Queen’s revolutionary influence on the music industry, and Mercury’s enduring legacy as one of the most iconic voices of all time. It seeks to cover the rough edges with a glossy sheen, to be a Mercury biopic, a Queen documentary, and fictional drama all in one. As a result, the film never delves as deep as it should, especially into Mercury beyond the stage, into his personal life and personal struggles.

It’s a shame, really, that “based on true events” has been skewed by egregious insertions of “drama” that never happened in real life, often invented to make the film fit a standard “storyboard” format. You don’t need “dramatic effect” when the true story is already so compelling. You don’t need manufactured tension, fake squabbles, fictionalized personalities, and a standard “rising action, falling action, climax, resolution” plotline when you are relaying a story that is interesting enough to carry itself. Sure, the watered-down, sanitized portrayal with a near family-friendly PG-13 rating will probably garner more ticket sales, and get a few casuals more invested in the band’s music. But it makes the film, though perfectly serviceable entertainment-wise, disingenuous. It’s not the film that Mercury – or Queen – deserve. Though, again, Malek’s performance is extraordinary, and it was worth seeing the film for that alone. And it is entertaining, so I’m not trying to deter anyone from seeing it.

I’m not going to go into detail about the inaccuracies, because a ton of reviewers and articles have covered it much better than I could, so here’s ScreenRant’s comprehensive list. But beware of spoilers!

pocahontas_2.jpg
ALL LIES 

This is far from the first instance of this in cinematic history. As referenced before, Pocahontas (and the sequel, which I prefer to pretend never happened) is a big offender, because it creates a love story where there wasn’t one, and sugarcoats historical events in a disillusioning manner. Braveheart, too. And The Patriot. Now, that doesn’t mean they are bad movies, because they aren’t. I actually really love The Patriot and have seen it several times. But they are bad historical movies. And, ironically, all of them feature Mel Gibson…but that’s another story.

This phenomenon of inaccuracy in films makes it all the more baffling when films like Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan receive widespread acclaim for their historical accuracy regarding the events of World War II… because the characters in both films didn’t exist. I suppose that gives them more freedom, when they aren’t profiling the histories and lives of actual people, but it also makes their success more compelling, and perhaps allows them to focus more on the finer details. Grave of the Fireflies is also a highly-praised film for dealing with the effects of WWII on the Japanese – if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, though you’ll need tissues. And then, on the flip side, you get Pearl Harbor and Red Tails, which inject needless drama into real stories that were interesting enough without it.

It is, no doubt, challenging to achieve a credible level of accuracy in historical dramas, period dramas, or biopics. Not all stories fit a cinematic formula, so adapting them does require some creative liberties in order to appeal to audiences and critics alike. But it is not impossible to do so while also being respectful of those who lived through actual events being portrayed, knew of or are related to real people whose stories are being shown onscreen, and without eschewing truth in favor of drama. Audiences don’t need to be shielded from unpleasant truths, they don’t need to be shown a cookie-cutter plot, “based on a true story” should not be an afterthought, and entertainment does not need to smother historical accuracy.

Anyone else have a “Klell” moment, like I did? If so, which historical film or biopic is your biggest offender for ignoring the truth or creating a revisionist history?

 

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One and Done

In my experience as an avid movie watcher, I’ve seen several films that lack the rewatch-ability factor, which means (at least personally) they aren’t films that seem meant to be watched more than once. Of course, this varies by person, but here’s a list of films that I’ve only seen once and have 0% desire to see again, and my reasons why.

1.) Saving Private Ryan (1998)
This is a phenomenal film about the experience of WWII and a band of determined American soldiers who are attempting to find Private Ryan, the last remaining of four brothers, and send him home. This film is brilliant and was totally robbed of the Best Picture Oscar, but it isn’t an easy watch – the opening half-hour is especially gut-churning and difficult to watch for its graphic depiction of the events at Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion. I was too young to see this film in theaters and can’t imagine how hard it must have been for people to witness on the big screen, especially for veterans who were there during the actual events. The film is widely lauded as being accurate in its portrayal of violence and warfare, and though it is a memorable and marvelous work of film-making, and well-deserving of its enduring reputation, one viewing was enough for me.

2.) A Clockwork Orange (1971)
I was subjected to Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel in a film class. It is a dark exploration into the idea of “ultra-violence” with an utterly baffling sociopathic protagonist who is involved in a variety of horrendous crimes, and is later subjected to horrendous punishments. But just because a number of bad things are depicted by this film does not mean it is a bad film. For the record, this film – as a work of art – is great. The acting is astounding, the depiction of society is thought-provoking, the imagery is stunning, and there are countless shocking and horrid moments that linger in the mind long after the film is done. It deserves the notoriety it garnered and the controversy it kicked up and remains a powerful film so many years later. I am glad to have seen it. But it is not enjoyable. And a lot of horrible things happen in it that I never want to see again. But man, it is a spectacle. If you are easily upset by violence, DO NOT WATCH.

3.) Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Yeah… there’s a Kubrickian theme to this list. To be fair, he is one of my favorite directors, and there are many Kubrick films that I have seen/would see again, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Dr. Strangelove.  But Eyes Wide Shut, an erotic drama/thriller that features a sex cult, orgies, and young women being sold into prostitution was just too… bizarre, for me. Which is saying a lot, because I like weird films. It’s got great performances, and I have since enjoyed mocking the “I’M A DOCTOR!” line from Tom Cruise in my everyday life, but by the end of this film I was just… confused. I didn’t get what the film was trying to do, and, as a result, didn’t much like it or appreciate it, even though some critics lauded it as Kubrick’s best (to which I ask, have you ever seen 2001?). It’s one of Kubrick’s works that didn’t land for me, and I didn’t find that much to enjoy about it or glean from it. It didn’t help that I had to watch it in a class of my college peers, which was pretty uncomfortable (I’m fairly sure it was the uncut version, as well), and truth be told, though it has its merits, I am 100% happy to never watch this movie ever again, purely for the fact that I didn’t like it.

4.) Borat (2006)
I was actually forced to watch this film as a final for my Documentary film class in college, and I hated every single second of it. I do like Sacha Baron Cohen as an actor, but some of his roles are simply not my brand of humor. I’m sure some folks could watch Borat’s exploits in his green mankini and his generally offensive, occasionally racist, and always inappropriate humor over and over again and always find it funny, but I am not one of those folks, so Borat was definitely a one and done for me.

5.) The Revenant (2015)
I loved this movie when I saw it in theaters, and consider this unconventional western about survival and vengeance in an unexplored frontier one of the most impressive films in recent memory. The cinematography is stunning, the cast is amazing (Tom Hardy is so immersed he’s unrecognizable, and Leo got his long-deserved Oscar for his role) and the plot is engrossing, but it is a slog. The film feels as exhausting and grueling to the viewer as Hugh Glass’s journey through the wilderness is portrayed, from the bear attack to the self-soldering to the final showdown in the snow. That’s not a bad thing – if anything, it’s only more indicative of brilliant film-making – but it is not a film I have any desire to see again, because, as the title implies, the film remains with the viewer long after the credits have rolled, and I don’t need to see it again to remember how much of an impact it had on me. I can still recall the opening shot – that long, continuous take – fairly vividly, proof of just how powerful the film is and how it sticks in your memory.

6.) Grave of the Fireflies (1998)
UGH, the tears. I watched this film on a portable DVD player in the car on a 6 hour road trip, and I started ugly-crying in an Arby’s drive-thru when I got to the end. Easily one of the most powerful war-themed movies I’ve ever seen, and one of Studio Ghibli’s finest, Grave of the Fireflies shows the impact of WWII on a pair of young Japanese children, Seita and Setsuko. This movie is not for the faint of heart; the animation is beautiful, the story is equal parts moving and haunting, it wrenches the heartstrings in uncomfortable, yet important ways, and it shows a perspective of war that is far different from films that focus on valor and victory and rising against the odds to defeat the “bad guy.”  It’s difficult to imagine, after seeing both, that another film on this list (Saving Private Ryan) and this film technically take place during the same war. I highly recommend this film to anyone who is interested in the various perspectives on war and WWII in particular, but it’s definitely not one that I intend to watch over and over again.

7.) Un Chien Andalou (Andalusian Dog) (1929)
Look, an obscure title! I am a snob!
Anyway, I probably would watch this surrealist film again, but not in its entirety. As in, I never, ever want to see the eyeball cutting scene ever again. Ever. It is one of the worst things I have ever seen onscreen. The rest of it is worth examining again, though, because it’s really f*cking weird and it provokes a lot of thought. There’s a ton of artistic imagery and unique ideas presented in this film that are very cool and wonderfully bizarre, like a trip into some twisted version of the Twilight Zone. But if I ever do see it again, I am skipping the eyeball scene. Just trust me on this – if you are squeamish, DO NOT WATCH THIS FILM.

8.) Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts) (1949)
Look! Another obscure film!
This film, which is an artistic exploration into the contrast between idyllic Parisian life and what happens within the walls of slaughterhouses is the main impetus behind my decision to convert to pescatarianism in 2013. I am no longer a pescatarian for health reasons, but the image of a cow being killed is forever imprinted in my brain thanks to this film. It’s a unique, 20-minute long juxtaposition of surrealist and realist imagery and seeing it left a profound impact on me. I’m glad I saw it, but never, ever want to see it again.

 

 

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