I learned it in the movies

August 9, 2009



The Times of London, on its web site, presents its candidates for the ten most historically inaccurate movies. The bad news is that all but two were made before 1999, which — if one were to take this seriously — would suggest a fearsome and precipitous trend.

The earlier of the two monstrosities that were made before ’99 was “Amadeus,” the 1984 hatchet job on Antonio Salieri in which Tom Hulce played Mozart. The second was “Braveheart,” which I understand is a significantly inaccurate account of the life of a 13th century Scottish hero, Sir William Wallace. I don’t know anything about Wallace, which is to the point: If I had overlooked the fact that Mel Gibson starred in this film and had gone to see it, I might have accepted the account as roughly correct.



Why The Times focused its attention mostly on the past decade I am not aware; maybe it reflects the level of confidence the editors have in their audience. Of course, inaccurate historical films have a proud history that extends back to decades before “Amadeus” appeared. Virtually every film based on the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, for example, tries to outdo the original writers — even one of my favorites of that genre, Franco Zefferilli’s “Jesus of Nazareth,” made for television in 1977. Zef famously took pains to place the events of the gospels in their proper historical context, but he couldn’t restrain the tinkering hand. Like all dramatists, he had to portray poor Mary Magdalene, played by Anne Bancroft, as a prostitute — indeed, show her in a scene with one of her clients — even though there is no support for that idea. In Zefferelli’s tale, Barabbas — encouraged by a well-meaning Judas Iscariot — personally invites Jesus to support an armed rebellion against the Roman occupation of Palestine.



And as long ago as 1942, the year I was born, Van Heflin starred in the mercifully long-forgotten “Tennessee Johnson,” which purported to be a biography of Andrew Johnson, 17th president of these United States and a particular obsession of mine. The film had a pretty good cast, including Ruth Hussey, Lionel Barrymore, and Noah Beery, but the title itself set the tone for the movie as history: Nobody ever called the man “Tennessee Johnson.” The climactic scene in which Johnson goes to the floor of the Senate to defend himself against charges of impeachment was wholly fabricated. In fact, Johnson’s counsel — recalling how he came to be impeached in the first place — would not hear of him appearing at the trial for fear of what he might say. Sort of the Joe Biden of his day, in that respect.

At any rate, decide for yourself on the The Times’ choices, available at this link:



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