When I was in grammar school I viewed history as something you read about in books. By the time I got into high school and then college I came to the realization that history was happening all around me. It just wasn’t always readily apparent. Unfortunately, a lot of these events are marked by less happy occasions. Future generations will be asking their parents the questions, “Where were you on September 11, 2001?” or “Do you remember the Boston Marathon bombing?” While we may recall where we were, how accurate will the retelling of these incidents be?
It’s long been said that history is written by the victors. There’s also a lot of unfortunate distortion going on by the writers. Back in college during my Spanish class we had to read a book about the history of Spain. The book was written in Spanish and published by that country. It gave an exacting history from medieval times up to the present, but one student, who was married to a Spanish national, mentioned that it completely omitted the 1898 war with the United States. (“Remember the Maine!”) Sure, it was an eminently forgettable event in the history of Spain. They lost quite handily, but should it have been left out like it never happened? How would future generations react if the scribes left out our disastrous experience in Viet Nam?
Certainly, historical events might be slanted a certain way to make them more palatable or more dramatic. I remember sitting through the movie Lincoln last year and marveling at the political maneuvering our sixteenth president had to accomplish to get the 13th Amendment passed. But apparently not everyone was enthralled. One Congressman from the state of Connecticut publicly criticized the movie as inaccurate, saying the four representatives from his state voted “Yay,” not “Nay” when the vote was taken. The movie changed their votes to increase the tension and make the build up to the final vote more dramatic. This was a bit before my time, so I didn’t weigh in on the controversy, but it brings up an interesting point. How accurate is our depiction of history in books, TV, and movies, and is it acceptable to distort things a bit under the guise of artistic license?
How about downright distortion of history? The Untouchables is one of my favorite movies and was based on historical events in Chicago in the 1930s. I thought Kevin Kostner made a great Elliott Ness, but remember the climatic scene where he pursues Frank Nitti, deftly played by Billy Drago, to the roof of the courthouse and tosses the villain over the edge? It was very dramatic, but Nitti didn’t really die in that manner. In fact, Nitti was convicted of tax evasion alongside his boss, Al Capone, for income tax evasion in 1931. He served 18 months in prison and subsequently took over the leadership of the gang after his release. In 1943 he committed suicide alongside some railroad tracks in North Riverside, Illinois.
This set me thinking. The movie obviously took great liberties with the actual historical facts, but got around this by calling the production a “dramatic retelling of history.” I guess that’s a euphemism for a good old fashioned “fish tale.” Think of the implications. A few years from now someone who’s channel surfing might come across this old movie and watch it, thinking, that’s the way it really happened. Only, it didn’t. History was deliberately distorted in the name of entertainment. Or should that be in the name of docudrama?
On the flip side, as a cop I learned that two people can actually witness the same event and have two varying opinions of what occurred. Often prejudices and distorted perception are to blame, which is why each witness statement has to be carefully evaluated. Of course, as we move toward a more constantly monitored society, with surveillance cameras on every corner, history is being recorded in a lot of cases. The recent terrorist act in Boston is an example of this. Future historians will hardly be able to distort that incident, although I’m sure some people are probably already trying. After all, look at the conspiracy loonies who claim that it was a military plane that flew into the World Trade Center, and not the hijacked airliner, despite the videos.
There’s an old adage that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes fact. And history is definitely “rewritten” to suit the current times. Comedians had a lot of fun with the old Soviet Union photos that would periodically delete pictures of political figures who had fallen from grace? I wonder if any of the updated photos ever make it to the gulags or unmarked graves where those people might have been sent? Sounds a lot like George Orwell’s 1984 and Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth, doesn’t it? Since Orwell’s novel was written in 1948, the Soviet’s photographic alterations sort of turned out to be a case of life mirroring art.
Writers who like to stretch the historical end of things have plenty of company. But is it ethical? Fiction is one thing, history is another. How we depict it in fiction is like walking a fine line, but I hope that there will be enough objective recorders of the truth around to record the actual sequence of events without embellishment. Sometimes I wonder if this is really possible. Perhaps it’s best summed up by the ending line of another of my favorite movies, Sunset, which depicts fictional meeting between real life characters Wyatt Earp (James Garner) and Tom Mix (Bruce Willis):
And that’s the way it really happened . . . Give or take a lie or two.