Now that LGBT History Month has drawn to a close, Polari Facts, ever the mischievous tyke, has decided to ask the age-old question, “What is history?” It is altogether fitting that Facts now takes a quick peek at history’s unmentionables. It may seem unlikely, but Hollywood movies teach you everything you need to know about how history is made, and invariably serves it up with This Year’s Eye-Candy. But that’s jumping ahead. Let’s start from the top.
History does not mean his story. The etymology, from the Ancient Greek, ἱστορία – hístōr – means inquiry, knowledge from inquiry, or judge. Ok, let’s just move on now, shall we?
Somewhere around the 5th century BC, history started to be written down. Before that, history belonged to the poet, and had been passed down through the oral tradition. And then along came a man called Herodotus, whose writings favoured his native Greece and reinterpreted the history of its enemy, the Persian empire, which was then in its death throes. He is known both as the Father of History and the Father of Lies. The victors, after all, write history, which is wrenched from a sea of conflicting facts, half-truths and straight-up fiction.
It is a disturbing fact that Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey have launched a thousand Hollywood movies, probably lived around the 12th century BC, but the written texts were not fixed until sometime in the 6th century BC. There is simply no way to know what Eric Bana – or Hector, rather – was like in Homer’s time. And this describes the historical process to a T. As the wily American author Gore Vidal observed, “all we have is a mass of more or less agreed-upon facts about the illustrious dead, and each generation tends to rearrange those facts according to what the times require”. The Iliad, and the Hollywood film Troy (2004), are in essence about the reasons that countries go to war, and the justifications used to make that process less bloody, and more honourable.
Take the case of Pearl Harbor (2001). The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the reason for the US declaring war on the Axis powers in 1941 and it justified that declaration. In the mid-1990s thousands of documents pertaining to the Pearl Harbor attack were declassified, and in a book called Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor (2000) Robert B. Stinnett explained how the American government had spent a year provoking the Japanese to attack, knew that the attack was coming, and then let it happen. Historians may bicker about the details of when the US broke Japanese codes but the book confirms what the historian Charles Beard had guessed at in the late 1940s. The film Pearl Harbor shored up the myth that FDR created.
Hollywood is all about the man on the street – but not for ideological or moral reasons. As Colin Shindler wrote in Hollywood in Crisis: Cinema and American Society 1929-1939, “it sympathised with ‘the little man’ only to the extent that the industry depended on his and his family’s cash admissions”. In times of crisis, Hollywood uses history as metaphor. The gung-ho militaristic Patton (1970) glorified American involvement in WWII at a time when the war in Vietnam was changing the country altogether. Star Wars (1977), written when the war was winding down, can easily be seen as a criticism of the American empire ruled by an executive office that answered less and less to the people. The war in Vietnam, after all, was never declared by Congress, and like the war in Korea in 1950, was exercised through the office of the President – what Truman called a “police action”, not a war. Then, in the American consciousness it is always 1776, and the American people are always the Rebellion and never the Empire. Hollywood: it’s legacy.
That is why the history of Rome has always been so popular in Hollywood. In Roman Scandals (1933), the character of Eddie Cantor is knocked on the head and leaves Depression era America to return to Rome. The roots of the American republic, so drawn from the ideas of the Roman one, are linked, and an historical timeline is established.
There is not much verifiable history in Gladiator (2000) but the struggle of one man against the system is eternal, and it’s easier to handle here than in the dreadful and completely ahistorical Braveheart (1995). But oddly, the bloody TV series, the 300 (2006) style Spartacus (2010 – 2012), which seems far more unreal than these movies – in part due to the antipodean accents, I suspect – remains historically true to the path of Spartacus and slave uprising against the Roman Republic. US television is thankfully leaving Hollywood behind.
So where does that leave us? Do not take anything as read. The history of today is tomorrow’s fiction.