Novels and movies, it doesn’t matter: when they tell history, the important part is that they entertain. Even when they proclaim to be historically accurate, or are centered on historical events, the important thing is to entertain. The novel The Killer Angels, which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize, and was turned into the 1993 film Gettysburg is a perfect example. The novel centered on command decisions made from June 30, 1863 – July 3, 1863. The only fictional character that appears is Buster Kilrain, meant to portray the everyman. Then there is Herman Wouk’s World War II saga, Winds of War and War and Remembrance which the historical figures take a backseat. The Henry and Jastrow Families are the main figures, with General Armin Von Roon’s treatise on the war serve as the historical background. In Wouk’s saga, there are many errors, some of which can be explained away by the research material he was using at the time. One such item is having Adolf Eichmann as a full Colonel instead of a Lieutenant Colonel.
But what about the movies that “based on a true story” or don’t even advertise it? Did you know that the musical Chicago is based on the murders of Walter Law and Harry Kalstedt. The Clint Eastwood classic Escape from Alcatraz is based on the legend of Frank Morris. The film Delta Force with Chuck Norris is based on the TWA 847 hijacking. Saving Private Ryan is loosely based on the Niland Brothers. The Exorcism of Emily Roseis based on the actual case of Anneliese Michel. For the movie 300, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller, believe it or not, there really were 300 Spartans who went to war against Persia. Every four years, I’m sure I’m not the only one who looks for the Jamaican Bobsledding team. All of these are entertaining.
Certainly in the movie industry (in books, there is more leeway for sticking to facts), there is a desire to entertain. How do we separate the fact from the fiction? Especially when movies begin to espouse the claim “Based on a true story”, even when it is not. The two movies that come immediately to mind are The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Fargo. Both use the claim, but neither is true. Then the pseudo-documentary styles of films like The Blair Witch Project which fooled many people.
Movies and novels are to entertain us. Even if they tell history a false history, as long as we can lose ourselves, that’s all that really matters.
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