It’s hard to fathom even today that Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling 1936 fictional novel, Gone With the Wind, was practically an unwanted property in Hollywood. No studio head would get near a Civil War story, let alone adapt one for the silver screen.
For years Tinsel Town touted the widely-held belief (perpetuated by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s head of production, the “boy genius” Irving Thalberg) that “no Civil War picture ever made a nickel!” This was only partially true, of course: in its day, D.W. Griffith’s three-hour 1915 silent epic, The Birth of a Nation, not only set attendance records whenever and wherever it was shown, but revolutionized the way motion pictures would be marketed and made for all time.
Still, Thalberg’s boast would forever be put to rest when producer David O. Selznick, who was a son-in-law to Louis B. Mayer (one of the M’s in M-G-M), purchased the rights to Atlanta native Mitchell’s thousand-page tome. The result was a box-office juggernaut, the likes of which went on to break all-existing records for decades to come.
As heavy as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary but not nearly as densely worded, the book version of GWTW (as it is customarily abbreviated) can be described (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) as the American variant of Leo Tolstoy’s massive historical epic War and Peace, but without the Russian author’s literary acumen or extraordinarily philosophical insight into the human condition.
The comparison is not at all a stretch, for both works take place during intensely turbulent times of immensely significant change for their respective eras. For starters, Ms. Mitchell (who was known in her native Atlanta as Peggy Marsh, after marriage to her second husband) concentrated on the character of Katie Scarlett (originally Pansy) O’Hara.
A lively spitfire of a Southern belle, Scarlett uses large dollops of girlish allure, feminine guile, and willful behavior, along with a ruthless capacity for survival at any cost, to overcome any number of obstacles, both to her person and to her beloved Tara, the land her father, Irish plantation owner Gerald O’Hara, insisted was “the only thing worth fightin’ for, worth dyin’ for!”
But what relation does Scarlett O’Hara have to Natasha Rostova, the youthful heroine of Tolstoy’s massive novel? Quite a lot and more than meets the eye!
First of all, there are several pairs of individuals intimately detailed and observed in both works — Scarlett with Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes with his cousin, Melanie Hamilton, juxtaposed against Natasha and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, as well as Pierre Bezukhov and his wife, Helene Kuragina, among numerous others. It was as if GSTW’s author had merged the personalities of Natasha and her own cousin, the mild-mannered Sonya (a mirror image of the sweetness-and-light personified by Melanie), with that of Scarlett herself; then had her pine away for the cerebral Pierre (standing in for the poetic dreamer Ashley), while spending the bulk of the story’s plot on the sordid lives of the buxom Helene (another side of Scarlett’s capricious persona) and her dashing lover Dolokhov, who safely incorporates multiple facets of that lovable rogue, Rhett.
We may add another viable if all-too obvious connection: the invading Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte with that of Union general, William Tecumseh Sherman, whose physical presence is never shown but whose name is blazoned across the screen in one of those telling intertitles familiar to followers of silent cinema.
These contrasts may one day serve as the basis for a more extensive study along the same academic lines as I’ve outlined above. But for now, let it suffice that the three-hour-and forty-minute screen adaptation of Gone With the Wind is itself a masterpiece of narrative filmmaking. Overlooking the dramatic merits and deficits of its screenplay (credited to Sidney Howard, who died before the film was released) or the cavalier treatment of slavery, as well as its muddled political views and skirting of the larger racism issue, GWTW represents the highpoint of Hollywood storytelling at its starriest.
One major reason for the film’s popularity at the time of its release was the coincidental element of a country (the U.S., in this instance), on the brink of war, sending its men folk off to battle while the women stayed put, waging their own fight to keep home and hearth intact. Scarlett O’Hara epitomized that daily struggle in her gutsy determination to hold on to her memories of the past, along with what remained of her family and property.
That the women of 1930s America related to Scarlett’s predicament and saw themselves in her heroic defense of the home front rightly bolstered box-office receipts to unheard-of levels. They loved the fact that Scarlett was a smart, and sometimes cold-hearted, small-business owner: a real-life Rosie the Riveter in every respect that no man could tame.
And speaking of taming men, contrary to commonly held wisdom, wise-cracking Clark Gable, in the role of a lifetime, was not exactly a shoe-in for the rugged Rhett Butler. Also considered were such marquee items as Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, Basil Rathbone (author Mitchell’s personal choice), and Errol Flynn. Selznick knew that Gable was right for the part, but he was loath to haggle with his wily father-in-law over the star’s employment. Mayer drove a hard bargain in allowing Gable, then under contract to M-G-M, the opportunity to star in Selznick International’s mammoth production. A deal was finally struck between the two moguls whereby Selznick would secure Gable’s services in exchange for M-G-M’s obtaining the distribution rights — a win-win situation for both studios.
Replete with double entendres and humorous asides for all occasions, as the nefarious Captain Butler, Gable delivers his lines with easy affability and abundant charm and finesse, even though his Southern drawl comes and goes with equal ease. It’s one of the actor’s best roles and a shame the he didn’t win an Oscar for it (he lost out to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the sentimental favorite of that year).
With literally a cast of thousands at its disposal, some of the other key participants involved in GWTW were two British subjects, Leslie Howard as Ashley and Olivia de Havilland as Melanie, in addition to Laura Hope Crews as Aunt Pittypat, Hattie McDaniel (the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) as Mammy, Butterfly McQueen as whiny housemaid Prissy, Thomas Mitchell as Gerald O’Hara, Harry Davenport as Dr. Meade, Ona Munson as Belle Watling, and Victor Jory, Isabel Jewell, Rand Brooks, Carroll Nye, Oscar Polk, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Ward Bond, Paul Hurst, Cammie King Conlon, Ann Rutherford, Evelyn Keyes, Barbara O’Neil, George Reeves, Fred Crane, Everett Brown, Howard Hickman, Leona Roberts, Jane Darwell, J.M. Kerrigan, William Bakewell, Irving Bacon, Louis Jean Heydt, and many other walk-ons, cameos and bit parts, including stuntman Yakima Canutt.
Directed initially by George Cukor, who was fired and replaced by Victor Fleming (Captains Courageous, The Wizard of Oz), with some scenes, quite possibly, helmed by director Sam Wood and even Selznick himself, all focus and attention belong to Vivien Leigh as the feisty Miss Scarlett. The celebrated and well-publicized search for the elusive Scarlett is the stuff of movie legend, leading up to Selznick and his brother, Myron’s, unique choice of Ms. Leigh (born in Darjeeling, British-India) for the challenging assignment.
Among the vast field of contenders and aspirants vying for the coveted part were Bette Davis, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Miriam Hopkins, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennett, Lana Turner, Tallulah Bankhead, Alicia Rhett (who appeared in the picture as Ashley’s sister, India), and Lucille Ball (!). In hindsight, of those mentioned Leigh was the only actress who measured up to Mitchell’s vivid description of the green-eyed, sweet-faced, yet “lusty with life” protagonist, copping an Academy Award (the first of two for the unstable performer) as Best Actress for her extraordinary efforts. With few exceptions, from start to finish Scarlett is on-screen for roughly the entire length of the picture. And Leigh keeps her frivolous nature front and center throughout.
Puzzlingly, about the only thing that wasn’t transferred to the screen from the novel was the war itself. Look again at the restored Blu-ray/DVD editions of the movie: you will search in vain for any of the most famous battles being depicted. What there is involves the citizens of Atlanta running for their lives to escape the advancing Union Army. There’s plenty of shelling and noise, and runaway carriages with galloping horses and men, as well as pandemonium and voluntary evacuations (for example, the hustle and bustle of the flighty Aunt Pittypat); and, of course, that impressionable stomach-churning scene at the “hospital” where Scarlett witnesses a Confederate soldier’s leg being amputated.
Beyond that, about the only sequence where viewers actually experience the consequences of a war-ravaged South takes place near the Atlanta train depot, i.e., that spectacular crane shot of thousands upon thousands of the dead and dying, lying wounded and waiting for medical attention, while the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the tattered flag of Dixie flapping helplessly in the breeze — a visual metaphor for the movie’s title.
The score by Viennese-born composer Max Steiner, one of the longest to that time, is a certifiable classic among movie-music buffs. His instantly recognizable main Tara theme practically screams Hollywood to any and all corners. The production was designed by William Cameron Menzies, with art direction by Lyle Wheeler and costume designs by Walter Plunkett.
If this isn’t the greatest epic Hollywood’s Dream Factory has ever produced (in the final analysis, it’s all a matter of personal taste), then Gone With the Wind absolutely lives up to its reputation as a certifiable crowd-pleaser without equal.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
Which of the many movies John Ford directed throughout his life can be called his greatest? Some critics might say Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, or How Green Was My Valley, while others may cite the Cavalry trilogy or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as the best examples of the director’s work.
For my money, however, it has got to be The Searchers from 1956 (based on the book by Alan Le May, which itself was based on dozens of actual kidnapping cases by Comanches and Kiowa Indians), a grandiose statement of Shakespearean proportions in its use of language (sometimes stoic, sometimes overly descriptive), location (Monument Valley, Utah), comic relief to dissipate the rising tension (the loony bird Mose, the Jorgenson clan, the feud between Martin Pawley and Charlie McCorry for the affections of Laurie Jorgenson, the preacher-turned-Texas Ranger Captain Clayton), and, of course, supremely memorable characterizations, the finest of which is John Wayne’s.
Wayne gives a towering performance as Ethan Edwards, a man obsessed with rescuing his kidnapped niece, Debbie (Lana Wood as a child, big sister Natalie Wood as a teenager), from the arms of a Comanche chief named Scar (the ageless Henry Brandon) who raided his brother Aaron’s prairie-like abode. Failing to realize that he himself is scarred by his past — not just from battle but with the taint of racism, along with his fear and loathing of miscegenation — Ethan lives out his bigotry in a search for his lost soul. It seems that he and Chief Scar are equally motivated by feelings of revenge for the atrocities perpetrated on their family and loved ones.
Ethan’s adopted nephew, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter, in another indelible portrait) — one-eighth Cherokee in his words, but nothing but a half-breed according to Ethan — acts as his conscience and guide through this minefield of hate and vengeance, a Jiminy Cricket trying to keep his uncle honest about his motives in their five-year-long search for Debbie. There’s a poetic rhythm and unmistakable melancholy to their journey, which twists and turns in the manner of Homer’s The Odyssey.
Ford wisely keeps the dialogue to a minimum. For example, at the start we merely sense Ethan’s unspoken feelings for his brother’s wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan), a lost amour from his youth. Their fleeting looks and gestures say more than words can put together. The opening number, “What Makes a Man to Wander” (performed by the Sons of the Pioneers), states the story’s theme right from the outset — it reappears at the end, serving the same function as a Greek chorus in summarizing prior events:
What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
Ride away – ride away – ride away
Although the score is credited to the Austrian-born Max Steiner, the song was composed by Stan Jones, a sometime member of Ford’s stock company. But the true focus remains on Wayne’s character. After many privations and dead-ends, Ethan eventually finds and brings Debbie back to civilization, but he cannot partake of the happy homecoming. He stands outside the doorway, forever apart, forever searching for his soul — lost in his own contemplative world, as he walks slowly away. Ethan Edwards, as well as the viewer, instinctively knows the answer to the song’s query of what made this man turn his back on home: born a loner, he will live out the remainder of his life alone and away from so-called civilization.
One of Duke Wayne’s greatest accomplishments on screen is the depth to which he was able to plummet to get at Ethan’s brooding demeanor, i.e., that of the rugged individualist wounded by society’s encroachment, who seeks redemption for his transgressions by doing that which most men refuse or are afraid to do; to face the hardships head-on, only to retreat into the background once their duty is done.
Oddly, Ethan knows an awful lot about the Comanche’s culture and lifestyle (“You speak good Comanche,” queries Chief Scar at one point. “Someone teach you?”), which opens up a whole series of issues as to how and where he gained such in-depth knowledge in the first place, or why he manifests such unmitigated hatred of the Indians.
Wayne also learned about single-mindedness from his own life experiences and in how fellow actor, Henry Fonda, treated the twisted martinet Lt. Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache (1948). In addition, he took aspects of his portrayals of Tom Dunson in Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) and Captain Nathan Brittles from Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to arrive at a composite of anti-hero Ethan Edwards. The miracle of his performance, then, is that Wayne manages to make a detestable bigot into a real personality — a warts-and-all portrait of a hateful man whose natural instincts for survival clash with his unconscious need for family.
Aided and abetted by his mentor “Pappy” Ford, Wayne dredged up the darkness that resided within his own psyche: Ethan is Lucifer after the fall, trying to regain a measure of his humanity; Odysseus after the wars, alone on the Western plains, pining for hearth and home; or Captain Ahab, driven to madness and obsession by his desire to even the score with those who annihilated his kinfolk. He drives others to the same level of madness by his unilateral actions — for example, the desperate Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carrey Jr.), who upon learning of his fiancé Lucy’s death at the hands of the Comanches rides unwittingly into their camp and to his death.
The other cast members, all of them good, contribute mightily to the ambience of this classic Western saga. They include Ward Bond, Hank Worden, Ken Curtis, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Vera Miles, Antonio Moreno, Pippa Scott, and Warren Coy. Wayne’s son Patrick makes a cameo appearance as a Union recruit. Fess Parker was originally tapped for the role of Martin, but the Disney Studios refused to allow his participation since Parker was tied up with promotional duties as Davy Crockett, a part that Wayne later played in the self-directed The Alamo.
With outstanding location photography by Winton C. Hoch, and a concise screenplay by Frank Nugent (The Quiet Man, Fort Apache), The Searchers influenced scores of motion pictures, among them David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, George Lucas’ Star Wars series, and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and to a limited extent Kevin Costner and Michael Blake’s Dances With Wolves.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes
Introduction to “Reel” Life
The fall 2013 issue of Cineaste includes a feature-length article by the magazine’s consulting editor, Dan Georgakas, of a ten-part documentary series entitled “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States: The Course of Empire.”
Known for his faux-biographical depictions of Presidents John F. Kennedy (JFK), Richard M. Nixon (Nixon) and George W. Bush (W), as well as imaginative recreations of events and personages in such films as Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, The Doors, Born on the Fourth of July and World Trade Center, screenwriter, producer, director and lecturer Oliver Stone has also coauthored a 750-page companion book of the documentary with professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, Peter Kuznick, who contributed to the series’ script.
In the book and documentary (to be issued on DVD in March 2014), ex-Vietnam veteran Mr. Stone attempts to correct our perceptions about the numerous inaccuracies that have been foisted upon Americans with regard to their own history. Among the themes associated with his five-year project is one where Stone maintains that we have been thoroughly misled about U. S. involvement in a variety of international conflicts, beginning with (but not limited to) the Second World War — ergo the Untold History aspect of the title.
From such seminal ideas as Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism to this country’s later foreign policy with respect to Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq and other trouble spots around the globe, the idea of a secret basis to, or “between the lines” reading of, American history is challenged and refuted by Mr. Georgakas. To begin with, he charges the narrative of Stone’s documentary with, among other things, “a penchant for interpreting historical decisions as dependent on personalities,” as if all it took to plunge America into all-out war were the bull-headed decisions of a few charismatic leaders with gutsy feelings in their bellies.
Georgakas then takes the director to task, mostly over his use of Hollywood fiction films (“A troubling and surprising aspect”), which serve as visual manifestations of many of the events discussed and analyzed in Stone’s multi-part series. When viewing these movie clips, Georgakas contends, viewers might mistake them for the unvarnished truth — or worse, as indisputable evidence of the validity of Stone’s claims. Further, he goes on to cite an intrinsic problem that exists in this country, in that many people tend to get their history (along with their facts) from movies, television and online news services — which as many of us know, aren’t always the most dependable and, more often than not, have agendas of their own to push.
This argument raises the whole issue, then, of whether anyone — be they American or German, British or Chinese, Russian or Lithuanian — has the temerity to portray history, or past historical events, in forms (that is to say, Hollywood films) that are fundamentally at odds with legitimate or traditionally-accepted means; thereby making said forms subject to re-interpretation by a single if not a whole host of individuals — in Stone’s case, by a radical filmmaker with his own agenda to pursue.
To my understanding, this defeats the purpose of having historians, i.e., persons trained and experienced in recognizing the differences between fiction and fact, act as custodians of the past. As we are keenly aware, it’s a widely held notion that “history is written by the victors.” What this statement ultimately reveals, however, is that events leading up to those victories possess a built-in degree of ambiguity. In other words, they are dependent exclusively on the writer’s limitations as an educator or historian, along with that individual’s choice of material from among a wealth or lack of available sources, as well as specific knowledge of events.
More to the point, an element of trust must exist between the reader and the writer in accepting this individual’s finished output. If that trust is broken or disturbed, or never existed in the first place, then the fault lies with the writer and his work. But if that trust can be established at the outset and kept intact throughout, only then can we be assured of a fairly objective and reliable reading of the past — given the nature and type of quantifiable evidence relied upon.
An excellent example of this can be found in Miranda Carter’s richly detailed book, George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I, wherein extensive correspondence between the three titular heads of state, their personal recollections and individual diaries and memoirs, in addition to historical records, documentation, memoranda, obscure notations, newspaper accounts, period writings, and other primary-source material helped to elucidate the topic in a thoroughly satisfying manner.
This is where reader, writer and editor Mr. Georgakas, and screenwriter, director and lecturer Mr. Stone, part company, in that the main bone of contention is the latter’s use of Hollywood fiction films as stand-ins for the requisite evidential source-work; or, to put it brusquely, the introduction and incorporation of non-traditional (read: illegitimate) forms that are hardly the last word in authenticity or accuracy.
By that reckoning, Stone’s past record of cinematic accomplishments is not exactly what Georgakas, or anybody else for that matter, would term a fitting background for this kind of “complex social, economic, and political” endeavor, thus squelching the needed trust factor from the start.
When in the “Course” of Human Events
I have always been fascinated by history. I did, in fact, major in the subject at Fordham University, while I continue to espouse a thoughtful and constantly evolving interest in Hollywood films with stories about individuals, personalities and themes related to the past (Lawrence of Arabia, Lincoln, Saving Private Ryan, Glory, Patton, The Aviator, The King’s Speech, El Cid, and numerous others). This is what attracted me to Cineaste’s piece and director Stone’s prospective thesis.
The magazine itself has even devoted whole issues to the subject. In fact, their spring 2004 edition included a “Film and History Supplement” that was published with “special support provided by the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” The editors of Cineaste, as well as this author, concur with and categorically accept the notion that film can bring clarity and purpose to historical subject matter in more entertaining ways than traditional methodologies can.
When I was a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Brazil, I developed a course entitled “American History and Culture through Film.” The course’s aim was to chart the path the country took to become an independent nation and world power, by linking this objective to various Hollywood films that dealt with the same concerns. Commentaries from historians and movie critics, in conjunction with film reviews, critiques, pictures and clips would be shown in support of the assigned reading material.
The text that was used, An Illustrated History of the USA by Bryn O’Callaghan (published by Addison Wesley Longman, Ltd., 1990), explored the “development of the United States from its origins as a land inhabited by scattered Amerindian tribes to the culturally diverse but united country that we see today.”
Reflecting back on my course as it relates to Georgakas’ article, I realized, to my surprise, that perhaps I had been performing the same function back in my pedagogical days that Stone was attempting to perform today — and via similar methodology. The difference being, however, that back then I claimed no right to historical accuracy in my use of Hollywood fiction films. By providing, where needed, the appropriate explanations and clarifications to what my students were viewing, the readings on culture and history assigned them worked hand-in-hand with the images I intended to show. Still, numerous questions came to mind as I was planning and preparing my course for presentation.
As an indication of this thought process — and, to be perfectly honest, the thought processes of my students — I have listed many of the questions below. The answers to these questions have been provided where feasible, although for the most part they remain open-ended, which, for all curious and supportive teachers everywhere, is as it should be.
To begin with, what is history? What is the difference between what we call “history” and a simple “story” — a word derived from the same Latin and Greek roots? Why do we study history? How is history different from, say, myth and legend? For one thing, history is the study of past events, or events known to have occurred in the past. We may also define it as a search for the truth. The reason we study it is self-evident: to understand how and why these events occurred and, if possible, avoid a repetition of those mistakes that led to their occurrence.
Discounting the influences of religion, how is history conveyed and preserved? One of the ways that history can be conveyed is by oral means, which is not the most practical or reliable. One of the ways it can be preserved is by the written word, which turns out to be quite practical, but can also become unreliable. Other methods of conveying and preserving history are visual, i.e., through pictures, photographs, film, TV, video, and digital, electronic or hard-copy formats.
If we look at one of these methods — film — we can see that film is a combination of many forms of preservation. We know that film is a visual record of an event (for example, Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm footage of the Kennedy assassination). The event can be current or one that took place in the past.
A documentary, then, is a real-life record of an event or occurrence, either currently or in the past. We also have fictional records of an event, which can be defined as a recreation of the past, albeit one where the narrative is subject to embellishment so as to incorporate a specific story line or plot. Representations of future events, or events yet to have occurred, are labeled science fiction. To this we add a level of speculation about the future and what that future might hold.
When filmmakers decide to recreate the past on screen, it’s instructive to ask how one can transform an event that has already taken place into one that has yet to occur. To put it another way, when we see a cinematic representation of a past historical event, do we ever wonder how the past could suddenly have become the present? Upon completion of our viewing of a film, how often do we notice that the present has now become the past? Why is that important? What influence does the past have on current events? How about on future events?
As we ponder the range of possibilities implicit in the above queries, keep in mind George Orwell’s famous warning from his novel 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” The implication here is that by controlling the past one can also control both the present and the future.
Film, as far as we know, is the end-product of a vision of many people, a collective vision of a talented and diverse group of individual mind-sets. Among the individuals involved with that collective vision are the film’s director, producer and screenwriter, the production designer and art director, the costume designer and cinematographer, the soundtrack and Foley artists, the composer and special-effects artists, and dozens upon dozens more. How do we bring all these disparate elements together into a coherent whole in order to tell a viable story? For that matter, what story do we want to tell? How does one choose a story from the past from among so many stories available to us?
Here’s a little exercise you can do in the privacy of one’s home or apartment. Take an incident from your childhood, say, your first day at school. Now think about the main characters involved in that incident.
Next, take the main events of your story and telescope them by mapping out a timeline of events. Narrow the focus down to the essential ingredients; try concentrating on one specific event at a time, one major highlight of your tale that will help tell the story visually. What events do you use? Which characters do you include? Which ones do you reject?
Think about the time-lapse of events, what we call foreshortening, as a way of telling your story. Do you want a visual representation of these events (“plain vanilla”), or a verbal and visual one (“mixed bag”)? How would you present them and in what order?
The next part is more thought provoking. From the above mental exercise, determine if your final product will be a “true” representation of the past or a fictionalized account. Could actors really take the place of real people in your story? Who would you hire to play the major roles? Who would be the lead? Who would direct the film version? Who would write the script? Compose the score? Shoot the footage? Decorate the set? So much to think about, so little time to spare. This is the dilemma of all those professional story-tellers out there we call filmmakers — welcome to the club!
Revisionist History and the Distance Problem
What do we mean by revisionist history? Theoretically, revisionist history (also known as historical revisionism) is the process of finding inaccuracies or fallacies in the historical narrative or record and making corrections to it. Hand-in-hand with correcting the narrative is the added difficulty of having to challenge people’s long-held views of the past and their inability, as we perceive it, to concede to their revision.
Is this what is meant by a “modern interpretation” of past events, for example, the aforementioned Kennedy assassination and the supposed “lone gunman” theory (JFK)? What about the plot to kill Adolf Hitler (Valkyrie), or the Watergate scandal (All the President’s Men), or Iran-Contra (Clear and Present Danger), or the hunt for Bin Laden (Zero Dark Thirty), or any number of past occurrences?
As a prospective movie-maker, a potential Oliver Stone in the making, can you get away with revising the past — and to what degree? What’s to be gained by doing so, and is it right to engage in revisionism for artistic purposes, the so-called “art for art’s sake” excuse? How can we escape the dangers of historical revisionism? Shouldn’t we present these events as they really were? That’s the province of investigative journalism, isn’t it, of the kind that figured prominently in the movie, All the President’s Men.
Let’s take the stories of individuals from the past. Some recent film subjects include King George VI, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Nelson Mandela. These are all famous subjects who made their lasting mark in the past. Distance from a subject can bring with it a kind of physical as well as mental distortion.
Try this experiment: take a small object — your smart phone, for instance — and place it in front of you. You can still read the phone’s contents, can’t you? Now place the phone farther and farther away from you. It becomes progressively more difficult to read the contents, doesn’t it? Bring it closer to you, and it becomes clear again.
Let’s look at a postcard, any postcard, of your favorite haunt or vacation spot. Postcards have a sharper focus “close up” than they have when held at a distance from one’s prying eyes. One can’t read the inscription on the back when the postcard is away from your field of vision. One must rely on one’s memory of what the inscription actually says. But memory is a fragile thing, as we know, and many times the memory of what was said or written fades into obscurity. Now you can understand and appreciate what distance can do to history. This is what we call the distance problem.
This experiment can be applied to politics as well as to history. Do politicians really believe that their constituents will remember what they promised to do for them once they get elected? With the invention of the Internet and YouTube and other electronic devices and means of preservation, we now have the ability to instantly fact-check what those same politicians have promised and thus correct the historical narrative, i.e., those inaccuracies and fallacies, not to mention distortions, of the recent past that were once taken for granted. It’s a dream come true for historians.
To Film or Not to Film
Which films can be used to describe the historical narrative? While my course was basically concerned with films on or about American history, any halfway decent representation of the past can be utilized as long as one prefaces their use and content with the following caveat: “This is only a fictional reenactment of the events or persons depicted” — that is, “It ain’t necessarily so, folks.”
Some subjects have an enormous quantity of available footage to select from (Westerns, Lincoln, the Civil War, and Vietnam). Others have a very limited field from which to choose (the American Revolution, FDR, and Nixon). While most of the films can be about actual historical events or situations in the past, some are purely fictional representations (Gone with the Wind, The Manchurian Candidate) with factual aspects thrown in. Nevertheless, I attempted to highlight as much of American history and culture as possible in my choice of movies, without boring the students. Since I was dealing with a Brazilian mind-set, I chose popular films about subjects and personalities that Brazilians had a general knowledge and curiosity about.
Along the same lines, what is a film genre? Why do we classify movies by subject? Is it easier or more difficult to place a film story in a genre? What are the conventions of a genre? Let’s have a look at a typical American genre, the Western. What are the conventions of a Western? Well, there’s a good guy, a bad guy, the chase or pursuit of one party after the other, the posse (the ones who do the pursuing), and the conflict. There’s also the resolution of the conflict, known as the duel or shootout; the scenery, the horses, the Indians, the girl, and the reward.
Most people would be surprised to learn that most of the above conventions never took place, or if they did occur it was not in the manner represented on film. An illustration of this point is the story of Wyatt Earp.
Before 1900, Earp was almost a totally unknown figure. Then, a story teller took his tale and transformed it into a dime-store dreadful called Frontier Marshal, which made Earp’s name a legend. Afterward, the legend became myth and the myth became one of the most famous Wild West stories of all time. This bred other tall tales, including those of Jesse and Frank James, Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill and a myriad of others.
There are numerous examples of films that discuss how fictitious events become fact. The “facts,” such as they are, get converted and distorted into legend, which later become myth. John Ford’s Fort Apache, and especially The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, bring this facet of myth-making to practical and disturbing life. A modern interpretation of this phenomenon is present in Clint Eastwood’s unforgettable film, Unforgiven, in which the lead character, William Munny, is faced with having to live down his murderous reputation, while simultaneously being challenged to live up to that same reputation in order to collect a monetary reward at the end.
This brings us back to the essential problem of history and the historical film, which can be encapsulated in the famous line spoken by one of the reporters covering the funeral of the John Wayne character, Tom Doniphon, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. After listening to the real version of events surrounding the shooting of the notorious killer, Liberty Valance, by former governor of the state and U.S. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), the newspaper man unhesitatingly burns his notes and declares to Stoddard, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” which is exactly what many historical films do.
And no history remains “untold” for very long, as we will see in Part Two.
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Two) – The Best is Yet to Come!
Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?
From my previous post, whereby I discussed actor Johnny Depp’s earliest forays into the cinematic realm (see link:https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/07/14/whats-eating-johnny-depp-the-actor-at-age-50-a-mid-career-retrospective/), one might have gathered from the evidence at hand that the recently turned half-century-old movie star enjoys playing nothing but lunatics, locos, kooks, oddballs, and all-around nut-jobs – and not necessarily in that order.
Far from it! A mere cursory look at his bulging filmography from the 1990s to the 2000s shows that decade to have been a most fertile period for the maturing Mr. Depp, one filled with challenging acting assignments and first-rate opportunities. But more significantly for his many admirers, it featured a welcome diversity and abundance of offbeat characterizations rarely encountered in the portfolio of lesser acting talents.
Take, for example, his pairing with movie veterans Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway in the quirky romantic comedy Don Juan DeMarco (1995), about a handsome young man who believes he is the reincarnation of the notorious Latin lover, Don Juan. Depp’s traversal of the delusional but amorously-inspired Señor DeMarco caused a virtual stampede at the box office, compared to his previous efforts.
His spot-on Spanish accent (quite charming, I must say), Zorro-like mask, and broad-brimmed hat – not to mention that elegantly placed earring of his – add flavor and spice and everything very, very nice to Johnny’s performance. No doubt his seductive voice played a huge role in creating a convincing character, one capable of sweeping women viewers off their feet. Depp also got to show off his burgeoning swordsmanship, a skill that would come in handy on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean a few years hence.
Incidentally, the oft-repeated line, “Have you ever really loved a woman,” is echoed in the theme song by the same name, sung by Bryan Adams (and co-written with Michael Kamen and Robert John “Mutt” Lange) over the closing credits and played several times throughout the picture.
On a side note, Depp’s sessions with portly shrink Brando, wherein one of them has Marlon holding a cup of coffee in his hands while simultaneously reciting his lines to a seemingly attentive Don Juan – with the lines deliberately pasted onto the cup – are just one of that film’s highlights. The other is seeing two over-the-hill screen stars, Brando and Dunaway, play off one another so beautifully (and dance so vibrantly, too). They actually seem to be having the time of their lives, as they waltz in time to the movie’s theme.
What Johnny must have thought of all this remains an unspoken secret between him and the late Mr. Brando! It was another example of Depp’s eschewing of mainstream material for more (how shall we put it?) audacious and unconventional film fare.
Time is Not on His Side
Speaking of the audacious and unconventional… Depp chose as his next project the time-sensitive thriller, Nick of Time. Also from 1995, the film was steered by action-movie director John Badham (Blue Thunder, WarGames, Point of No Return). Here, Johnny gets to play a mild-mannered accountant (we know he’s mild-mannered because of his wire-rimmed glasses – otherwise, how would you know it, right?), recently widowed and toting his young daughter along to a modern-day Amtrak station in modern-day L.A.
Depp meets up with two unsavory plotters, a Mr. “Smith” (vicious and no-nonsense Christopher Walken) and a Ms. “Jones” (humorless cohort Roma Maffia). The duo “enlists” him in an elaborate scheme wherein Depp is forced to comply with their plan to assassinate the state’s Governor (Marsha Mason), or else risk getting his daughter killed in exactly one hour and a half. Why that specific time frame? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out!
Despite the tight deadline (and preposterous twists and turns of the plot), Johnny manages to convince a reluctant shoeshine guy, played by a crotchety and supposedly deaf Charles S. Dutton, to “aid” him in his quest at thwarting the thugs. This one boasts a reasonably high “incredibility” quotient (or, if you prefer, “What the f—–k was that?”), but with Depp in charge, all turns out well in the end. Would it be otherwise?
As farfetched as these types of convoluted story lines tend to be, Johnny played it straight throughout, sweating profusely as he watches the clock tick down to the appointed hour. So what’s the gimmick? It was all shot in “real time,” which neither audiences nor critics bought. The result: a big-time money-loser for all concerned.
Dead Men Tell No Tales
Johnny’s next challenge (and another bomb at the box-office, I’m sorry to say) was to headline a Western — a revisionist Western of all things, by cult director Jim Jarmusch. The film, Dead Man (1995), was not the type of picture most audience members liked or even cared for, but it did draw some positive reviews from critics, including the suitably impressed A.O. Scott of the New York Times, who insisted on calling it “one of the very best movies of the 1990s.” Uh, okay…
Shot in purposefully artsy-fartsy black and white, and with an earsplitting, wholly improvised electric-guitar score by rocker Neil Young, Johnny at least got to work with the independently financed Jarmusch, who in addition to his directing credits could add screenwriting, producing, acting, editing, and composing to his many and diverse accomplishments.
The picture featured a flock of celebrity participants, all of whom were working for Actor’s Equity wages it would seem (the budget was a mere $9 million). Among his fellow thespians were the likes of Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover (his face blackened by coal), Gary Farmer, Lance Henricksen, Michael Wincott, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avital, Alfred Molina, and (yikes!) the scandalous Iggy Pop.
Depp plays another of those passive/aggressive accountant types (with the requisite wire-rimmed glasses, no less) who, thanks to bogus advertising, heeds the ad’s bad advice by going west, young man – all the way from Cleveland, Ohio! Upon his arrival in the dingy western town of Machine, he’s told the accounting job has been filled and to be on his way, or else. Whereupon, Depp immediately gets into trouble by shooting the local gambler (Byrne), who happens to be the son of the owner (Mitchum) of the company that just showed him the door.
As you can tell, complications ensue, one of them being the accountant’s name: William Blake. The other is a tag-along, wiseacre of a Native American named Nobody (a droll Gary Farmer), in an obvious homage to those Italian-made spaghetti Westerns starring Terence Hill. Nobody is enamored with Depp’s moniker (hint: he thinks he’s that William Blake, the poet and painter). You can imagine the put-ons, puns, and wordplay these two engage in! Farmer gets the biggest laugh of all, when he calls Johnny a “stupid fucking white man!” This is in addition to the frequently uttered “Have you got any tobacco?” line, which is an all-too prevalent query, to the point of annoyance.
In mirroring its title, the atmosphere throughout Dead Man is deadpan, while the humor (or what passes for humor) is decidedly dark and low-key. Depp, however, is always worth watching. He has a real connection to this production via his own Native American roots, or so it’s been claimed. There’s a spiritual side to the story, too, as well as a touch of poetry and elegance. But what’s the point? The settings are stark and the skies are gray – for atmosphere, one would guess. However, the ever-present violence and one-too-many stomach-churning episodes (including throat-slashing and a head being crushed underfoot by one of the hired guns) may turn more viewers off than on.
Depp’s passive/aggressive mannerisms, however – that is, of a flailing fish out of water, a character so out of touch with his surroundings, yet who somehow manages to extricate himself from his difficulties, while at the same time getting involved in situations he’d be better off not getting involved in – would be repeated innumerable times in the films to come.
(End of Part Two – To be continued…)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
What is it that we humans want out of life? Is it a nice job with a big, fat raise? A new car, a new home? Gold? Jewelry? Home theater? Do we only want material things, or is there a hint of the spiritual in what we’re seeking, something to quench our never-ending thirst for knowledge? Don’t we all want to be happy in the long run, to lead healthy, productive lives? To have everything our hearts desire?
Of course we do. It’s only natural and human to want those things. But have we ever stopped long enough to think about what’s really important in our lives, and then — acting on those thoughts — stopped whatever we were doing and gone full-steam ahead in pursuit of exactly the things we most wanted?
To be honest, not many of us could — or would — stop long enough to do what we dream of doing, not even for a moment. We’re all too busy with our own lives to give these matters much thought. Unless, of course, we find ourselves lying on a hospital bed, or incapacitated by ill-health or an impending operation.
One man, however, did pause long enough to think about his life. Lieutenant John J. Dunbar thought his existence was meaningless. Born and raised in the Northeast, at a time when the United States were anything but united, life for him had lost its purpose. He was a Union soldier, fighting an incomprehensible war against his peers. His commanding officers were incompetent fools who couldn’t make a reliable decision if their lives depended on it.
Alone and frustrated around these men, he felt powerless to change them or his own life. Until, finding himself in a field hospital among the dead and dying, Dunbar decided, by sheer force of will (if not desperation), to save what little remained of his self-esteem, his military career – and his wounded leg – and take a chance at life. He risked it all in what he knew was a suicide attempt to rally his troops into battle with Southern Confederates.
That he succeeded and lived is remarkable enough. What is even more remarkable was how successful Dunbar became at finding exactly that which he had been looking for all his life: a reason and a purpose to his meaningless existence.
Directed by, and starring, Kevin Costner as Lieutenant Dunbar, and based on the novel by Michael Blake, who also wrote the screenplay, Dances With Wolves (1990) takes the viewer on a trip to self-discovery we can only dream of doing, but rarely have the courage to make. Like most such adventurers, Dunbar is brave, independent, self-sufficient, and not afraid to be alone. There are many scenes in this unforgettable film that highlight these key attributes, but the most fascinating involve his quest for meaning in his life. This pursuit takes him, at his own request and as a reward for his having helped his troops to victory, to the outermost part of South Dakota, to an abandoned post named Fort Sedgewick, deep within Indian territory and far enough away from any white man.
White men are the villains here. For years, filmmakers have portrayed Native Americans as bad guys in countless sagebrush sagas. Dances With Wolves is one of the few modern Westerns that attempts to show Native Americans from their vantage point. And the character of Dunbar appears to be one of the few white men in movies with the heart, the foresight, and the courage to face down decades of prejudice and hate, by approaching the Indians on their own terms – more out of amity than enmity.
A few years later, the Disney studios copied the same formula in Pocahontas (1995), another attempt to humanize the early Native American. In that animated opus one of the lead characters, John Smith, also approaches the Indians out of friendship, but his motives had more to do with his getting to know the lovely young princess Pocahontas than out of pure altruism on his part.
In order to get to know and understand the Indians better in Dances With Wolves, Dunbar arms himself not with weapons of war but with an enormous amount of curiosity and empathy: curiosity about his nearest neighbors, the Lakota Sioux, and their cooperative way of life; curiosity about his empty outpost and the mystery surrounding its abandonment; empathy towards his unfamiliar terrain, the majestic Northern plains of the Dakotas; and empathy towards his animal companions, i.e., his faithful horse Cisco and a scrawny wolf he names Two Socks.
Empathy is what saves, and ultimately destroys, Dunbar and the Indians. At one point in the story, after the Sioux have taunted him by attempting to steal his horse, Dunbar rides off to confront them in true military fashion: with buttons shined, boots polished, and flag held high. On the way to their village, he stops to give aid to an Indian woman who sits under a tree, bleeding from a self-inflicted wound. In helping this woman, Dunbar brings himself into closer contact with his Indian neighbors. In reality, he is paving the way for their eventual extinction.
The woman turns out to be an orphaned white girl, played by Mary McDonnell (Independence Day), who as a child lost her entire family after some renegade Pawnee raided her home. Brought up by the holy man, Kicking Bird (poker-faced Graham Greene), the woman is now more Lakota Sioux than white. Later on, she serves as a reluctant interpreter to both Dunbar and Kicking Bird, who struggle to have their first in-depth conversation: “No, not Dumb Bear. Dunbar,” Costner insists, as Kicking Bird continues to mangle his surname.
The white woman, who calls herself Stands With A Fist, is filled with an overpowering emotion as she tries to find the correct English words that will help bring these two curious men closer together — and, in the process, reassert her identity, which had long been dormant inside her. It’s an extraordinarily moving moment, helped in large measure by the superbly restrained music of composer John Barry (Somewhere in Time, Out of Africa) and the subtle acting lessons given by the three leads.
In most classic Westerns where white settlers encountered Native Americans, curiosity was not uppermost on their minds – witness such staples of the genre as Drums Along the Mohawk, They Died With Their Boots On, Fort Apache, and especially The Searchers. Although treating the Indians with a modicum of respect, these films rarely went beyond portraying them as ungovernable, unruly, wild, and warlike. Dances With Wolves reverses those notions: it is the white man who is ungovernable, unruly, wild, and warlike. The Indians of the Great Plains are depicted as a wise and wonderful, easygoing and playful people, warlike only when provoked, and in general displaying a harmony with each other quite unlike anything ever seen on the screen.
Some revisionist Westerns have even gone out of their way to explain the Indian philosophy (Little Big Man, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo: An American Legend), but only succeeded in alienating part of the audience with their excessively romantic ideas of Indian life. Like the fictional Tarzan, the Native American has been depicted as an idealized noble savage, unaffected and uncorrupted by so-called “progress.” Progress can be read here as the taming of the land and those who lived on it. Historically, this progress led to the systematic destruction of the buffalo, the subjugation of the Plains Indians and their horse culture, the bringing of civilization to these remote areas, and the settling of the frontier territories. All too soon, these were to become the dominant themes of the next wave of pioneers after the end of the Civil War.
As the story takes place at around this time, it is Dunbar’s wish to see the frontier before it disappears. His unconscious desire is to be in control of his life and environment. But even more than that, he wants to meet fellow human beings who can be as decent to him as he believes he can be to them. He only wants to be part of a family, but not just any family. Dunbar wants to be an active community member, a full participant in the daily activities of this community and its life-and-death struggles for survival.
In one of the film’s most revealing episodes, Dunbar helps his Sioux neighbors repel an attack by the vicious Pawnee. As he says in the voiceover afterwards, “This was not a battle with a dark political agenda nor was it a battle over territory; it was a battle to save the winter food supplies and the lives of women, children and old people.”
When he was a soldier, Dunbar’s only purpose was to obey his commanding officers’ orders, even if those orders made little sense. But now, he was obeying Kicking Bird’s orders to stay in the village and defend it against approaching invaders. The Pawnee do invade and kill, but lose the one-sided battle only because Dunbar has supplied his Indian allies with firearms to fight with. Civilization in the form of advanced weaponry can be used for good purposes it seems, if indeed those purposes were to defend one’s home and food supply from marauding raiders.
From this moment on, he realizes he is no longer John Dunbar but Dances With Wolves, the name the Sioux gave him when he was found one day playing with Two Socks. He is, as one of the Sioux elders explains, a special white man, someone they had never known before.
Dances With Wolves had finally found his purpose in life and the community he had so long wanted to participate in. He eventually “marries” Stands With A Fist and completes the cycle. He now has a family of his own to feed and care for. But does he find true peace and contentment at the end of his journey?
In a way, he does. But in an ironic twist of fate he must abandon his Sioux friends to return to the white man’s world and face charges of desertion and murder in the brutal slaying of Union soldiers. He must stand trial in the white man’s court for his crimes. If he does not, he will show disrespect for the very institutions he once believed in and abandoned, in favor of living with the Sioux. His choices are limited, however, and he is once again powerless to control his life. If he does not return, he will be hunted down and killed along with any Sioux who try to protect him; if he does return, he will most likely be confronted with hardened hearts over his arguable actions.
A dejected Dances With Wolves must now leave the Indians he has grown to love and respect. He reluctantly goes back with his bride to civilization. In a poignant sendoff, a message scrolls across the screen indicating that within 30 years the Sioux way of life would all but fade from the Great Plains. It’s a sad epitaph to the tale, but Dances With Wolves’ vision was correct from the start: he only wanted to see the frontier before it vanished. He not only saw it, he actually lived the life of a respected Lakota Sioux as a member in full standing, with all the rights and privileges of membership thereunto, in a harmonious and well-run society. In returning to the “civilized” world, he reaffirms his rights and privileges as a member of civilized white society, with the hope, in turn, that those rights and privileges would continue to be respected and affirmed.
What will happen now to Dances With Wolves’ quest for meaning in his life? Perhaps he has already found it. Late in the film, Kicking Bird remarks to him that of all the trails in this life the one that matters most is the trail of a true human being — and that Dances With Wolves was on it. It is often the most difficult road to take, but Dances With Wolves took it and found himself in the process.
The search for his true self had ended — and we are all the more enriched by it. ¤
Dances With Wolves (1990)
Produced by Jim Wilson; directed by Kevin Costner; screenplay by Michael Blake, from his book Dances With Wolves; cinematography by Dean Semler; production design by Jeffrey Beecroft; art direction by William Ladd Skinner; edited by William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Stephen Potter, and Neil Travis; music by John Barry; starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman, Tantoo Cardinal, Robert Pastorelli, Jimmy Herman, Doris Leader Charge, and Wes Studi. Color, 236 min. (Director’s cut) Tig Productions, distributed by Orion Pictures.
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes