Historical Accuracy and Authenticity & When They Apply

A look at the interplay of historical accuracy and authenticity with the realities of today.

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I’m in one of those moods ever since I saw Wonder Woman last week and did two posts on it, so we might as well talk about historicity in films again while I’m on a role.

When it comes to film making (and art in general), historical accuracy is often fighting an uphill battle against the workings of the narrative. I’m actually quite glad that I have degrees in both History and English as historical films often fight an inner battle over my enjoyment of the craft and the implications of sacrificing truth on the alter of the three-act structure.

I admit that I have muddled the terms in the past, especially when talking to people without getting my thoughts sorted at first, but historical accuracy and historical authenticity are really two different things that apply in different situations. Getting them right might help both critics looking at these films and general audiences in what to look for in a film. Pretentious to think this will have any influence on anything, sure, but self-deprecation aside:

Historical accuracy is a term that I prefer to use, when I remember to order my thoughts first of course, on films that are directly based on a true story or depict historical events. In a film that generally means that the story is presented as it happened, that the people behave correctly, and so on. Something that is very much fact based and can be proven by historical records. If your movie (or any form of media in that regard) gets this wrong, you immediately fail because you are perpetuating lies or spreading them. Portraying “the truth” is a tricky business as well, as there really is no such thing as a singular truth, only different narratives of which a majority of people agree in their interpretation and framing of. In regards to how far you can bend the truth to service the bigger picture and narrative cohesion in service of, I’m more forgiving of this than others, I often find (shocking, I know) because I believe this applies to the big picture much more than the small one. Tora! Tora! Tora! is a good example of a film so accurate to history that it becomes a slog to sit through for a casual audience. It’s a great piece of art, but I can see where it may overreach for a general audience. Of course, in the case of the small picture this can often lead to a snowballing effect where the historicity suffers a death of a thousand cuts. Best is to let reality speak for itself and make minimal changes.   Depending on the story you wish to tell, I will often prefer to fictionalize the story as is. This perfectly leads into:

Historical authenticity is something that will go hand-in-hand with historical accuracy when you are portraying the actual history on film and are trying to be as faithful to the truth as you can. When working with a fictionalized story, it is of the utmost importance to at least get the framing right. This is something that makes, for instance, The Last Samurai very interesting to look at. Based on real events, it does fail to portray the actual history, but at the same time manages to immerse you in the world and the end of an era that the samurai represent when the last of them die out. This is not accurate to actual history, but will at least convey the feelings and values of the era. Had the film fictionalized more events and tightened its focus a bit more, I believe there would be less to criticize. Authenticity can range from portraying the values of the era, to general politics and events happening in the background which inform the actual events. It’s what differentiates history from historical fiction.  Continue reading “Historical Accuracy and Authenticity & When They Apply”

How To Fix The Wonder Woman Script

A script rewrite for the new Woman Woman movie adding historical credibility and grey morality.

Spent a good long afternoon this week critiquing Wonder Woman and pointing out historical inaccuracies. Now it’s time to fix the movie without becoming “too dark” for all the precious comic fans and general audiences who can’t stand a war movie about trenches and poison gas to be too dark. With that said, let’s begin.

In this version we will keep the main story as is, because it actually works. We will, however, change some of the elements: Wonder Woman goes to Europe to fight Ares. Let’s go from there.

Act 1:
Pretty much as is in the movie. With the character being as unknown in much of the world in terms of actual characterization rather than brand recognition we need to set up the Amazons.

Once Trevor moves into the story, things change. Since the German Navy, as portrayed in the movie, cannot be the ones that hunted Trevor across the Mediterranean and Atlantic (the fleet was boxed in after Jutland in its native harbors and the foreign squadrons were destroyed) we will have to change the location of Themiskyra into the Mediterranean and change the ships used to either Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian. Same difference since both were part of the Middle/Central Powers. This immediately broadens the conflict and makes the villains of the piece much more diverse than simply being the Germans.

The main villain of the piece is also changed from Erich Ludendorff to Hans von Hammer, aka Enemy Ace. An anti-hero in the comics, he serves an army colonel in this version responsible for weapons development. If you need Ludendorff in this have him be von Hammer’s superior/benefactor. He can still work with Doctor Poison, but it places some distance between real historical characters and superhero antics.

Wonder Woman and Trevor still make their way to London and the story continues as is, but in London we meet more members of the Entente, with possible cameos by Lord Kitchener, Prime Minister Lloyd George, and maybe General Blackjack Pershing as Trevor’s superiors.
Trevor delivers the plans, but many see no reason to continue the mission. The war is almost won after all, there is a rebellion in Germany. Social-democrats and sailors are mutinying. There are talks of abdication of the Kaiser and the proclamation of a German republic as per the insistance of President Woodrow Wilson that the Entente would only open peace talks with a German democracy. (In real life all of these actions took days so there is some wiggle room to fit in the story of the film as it takes place over the course of half a week tops). Queue talks about hypocracy for democracy being a necessity when half the Entente are empires and kingdoms.

While in London we see the effects war has had on the public and the returning veterans. The movie as is was a bit too studio-backlot-y in its depiction. Too few amputees and maimed victims running around. Wonder Woman and Trevor still put together their team and move on.

Act 2:
Enemy Ace and Doctor Poison get the stand-down order from General Ludendorff who has recommended an armistice to the government and currently he and Field Marshall von Hindenburg are waiting for the response from Wilhelm II in regards to abdication and the future of the country. They are pretty much resigned and as much as they want to win, it is pretty much impossible now. No supplies, no men, no time, a rebellion behind the lines, the end of the empire has come. Enemy Ace and Doctor Poison, fervent imperialists and patriots in this version, believe otherwise and manage to create the new version of the gas, going “rogue”. The quotation marks are necessary in this case because even while the armistice is hammered out, the fighting does continue. Both sides want to be in an advantageous bargaining position. Ludendorff and von Hindenburg don’t encourage their actions but also don’t condone them. After all, all they need is a demonstration to dangle over the enemy.

Wonder Woman and team continue their mission through France on their way to the border and after von Hammer and Doctor Poison. They see the horrors of the war as in the movie, but we also see the conditions of the troops in the trenches much more detailed, rather than a simple line of “been here for a year”. We see Brits, ANZAC, French, American, and especially colonial troops from Africa, India and around the globe. They are all fighting over centimeters on the ground.
It would, of course, be more poignant to show longer periods in the war, but for the sake of that precious PG-13 and the general audience we must remain with the Disneyland version. Still, we make it as graphic and as hopeless as we can get away with. The rest of the act continues unchanged even until we come to the castle.

In the castle, the changes made include the interaction Wonder Woman has with Ludendorff, in this version Enemy Ace. Hans von Hammer is less of a jerk than Danny Huston’s caricature of Ludendorff, an aristocrat who sees his country disappearing in-front of him. A former fighter ace, he saw dozens of comrades shot down, the glory disappear from the battlefield. For good measure he talks about the glory of the war of old and laments that he was too young to witness it himself. Wonder Woman now has little doubts that he is Ares, the God of War.

The gas rounds are fired into the freed village as Entente troops are moving on, obviously wanting to move onto the nearby castle where von Hammer, Doctor Poison, and a bunch of German VIPs are still hanging out. So the order is giving to shell the area. A few civilian casualties don’t really matter after all. The reaction from Wonder Woman is still the same after, in this version, she managed to actually save a few dozen people, though hardly all or even a majority between the town’s population and an entire battalion of troops. She is pissed that Trevor stopped her from killing von Hammer and Doctor Poison. In this version though, Trevor is actually able to somewhat seduce Doctor Poison, getting his hands on the new gas formula. He doesn’t like the idea of this new gas or other super weapon Poison has been dreaming up, but better both sides have it than simply one. Wonder Woman is disgusted from finding this out and after seeing the hundreds of dead in the village. even though she managed to save a few dozen, going after von Hammer and Doctor Poison.

Act 3:
The scene on the airfield. Wonder Woman is thoroughly pissed and curb-stomps von Hammer in his signature plane and also kills Doctor Poison for good measure. They are mass murderers, they don’t deserve better. If you really want, you can give them a motif rant, but at this point it’s pretty clear where they stand. They consider themselves soldiers in a war to defend their fatherland. And yet, the empire they tried to save is gone because it didn’t deserve to live at all after all the killing and maiming that’s been going on. Wonder Woman is shocked that the fighting in the distance continues as the two main villains lay dying. Not Ares after all.
Trevor still sacrifices himself to stop the bomber in this version, he needs to redeem himself. For good measure he takes the formula he stole from Doctor Poison with him. It’s a bittersweet situation. (Making it von Hammer also allows for some parallels in this act with him and Trevor as opposites: flying aces and patriots with questionable morals stuck in a bad situation). In the last moment Wonder Woman can save him though.

We cut to Versailles a bit of a year later. Germany, defeated, signs the treaty ending the war with the Entente. Wonder Woman sees it a bit clearer now for all the talk of Ares. She looks around and sees the faces of the people on both sides. No one is really happy with it. Some say its too lenient, like Ferdinand Foch. Some say its too hard, like John Maynard Keynes. This is no peace. This is an armistice for twenty years.
In the end, her mother had been right. Ares was dead. And yet he lived on in the hearts of everyone. If anything, the bloodshed of the 20th century that had happened and was still to come might as well lead to a new god of war coming along from all the sacrifices made in his name.
Wonder Woman retires from the world, but there are changes for the good. Civilians have lived, Trevor lives and is a better man for it, as is the team. A superhero cannot change a world that hasn’t learned its lesson yet. But a few good men and women remain. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed.

Superhero Hyperbole: If All Are Great, None Are

Just a short little post because, frankly, even I can churn this into a full-blown essay. Just a small observation I have made.

I was doing nothing serious today, just lazily reading a couple of articles and I stumbled upon this “gem” reporting on Mark Hamill’s very reasonable wish for better storytelling in superhero movies. Having just finished railing against Wonder Woman’s lack of history cred, I happen to agree. Until I came tot his little passage by the “reporter”:

Though there have been a lot of pretty great comic book movies this year,

Okay, that’s the second sentence, but that goes to show you the monumental nonsense at work here. To be fair, it is not just the author of this piece, but superhero fandom in general. Have you noticed how every film is the greatest ever? I mean outside of BvS, Suicide Squad, and Fant4stic, but those are the exceptions that proof the rule. Every single time a movie comes out it immediately gets placed on the top 10 list, it’s the new greatest hit, the best example of the genre yet.

And while I thought for a while that it was just an example of the youth of the genre, with five to eight movies every year being superhero-themed and the genre having been the mainstream blockbuster for a good decade and longer, it is time to stop and be more discerning in regards to what we consider good, great, bad, and every other element of the quality spectrum. We have good and bad figured out in regards to superheroes, but now it is time to stop with the hyperbole regarding the quality of these movies. If we want the genre to be taken serious, we need to treat the films in a serious way as well. That means being honest with the quality. Continue reading “Superhero Hyperbole: If All Are Great, None Are”

Wonder Woman: Review – The Historian’s Perspective

Wonder Woman is a great superhero film battling with a terrible disservice to the First World War

I spent a good hour after I came out of Wonder Woman thinking about how I would begin this review. As a history grad student with focus on the first world war and as a fan of comic book superheroes, this is probably the hardest film to process my thoughts on since Captain America: The First Avenger. I wanted to like this film a lot, partially because I didn’t want to waste more money on a mediocre or bad superhero film, and partially because I didn’t want the first serious effort behind a female superhero film to become another bomb. Much was riding on this film. Did they pull it off?

Cautious yes.

In many ways my thoughts mirror those about The First Avenger. But where Captain America faltered to merge superheroes and World War 2, Wonder Woman surpassed my expectations. Yet both are terribly distorted views on their respective world wars. And yet this managed to pull it off.  Continue reading “Wonder Woman: Review – The Historian’s Perspective”

Alien Covenant Review – The David Series Part 2

It is closing in on 2 am as I write this, I just came home from the cinema, and I am in a mood to talk about Alien: Covenant. Consider this a review of sorts. Spoiler-free, because that’s what the internet likes and I’m predictable.

Ever since Prometheus came out five years ago, I have gone back and forth on what I should think of the film. It really didn’t work as an Alien prequel, the characters were way too dumb and unlikable, and many questions about the Alien mythology which we didn’t need were either answered or raised. And yet there was one half of the movie which worked, the story of David and the story of creation and creator. It was an incredibly strong story, but sadly remained a story beat between all the horror cliches and padding. Alien Covenant is part two of that exact same story.  Continue reading “Alien Covenant Review – The David Series Part 2”

Christopher Nolan: The Karl Marx of Superheroes

People who blame Christopher Nolan for dark and gritty superhero films are bad and should feel bad.

Obligatory statement about how my new novel is coming along very well and I’m hopeful to have the reworked version of the serialized novella up in a month or so aside, let’s talk about superheroes for a change.

Watching and reading reviews about an up-and-coming superhero film, you cannot help but think that you are experiencing deja vu in regards to every one of these that isn’t Marvel Studios related or R-rated. The connecting thread? An overwhelming criticism of the film being too dark and too gritty, aka the name for the Fast and Furious reboot I’ll produce one day. Ever since The Dark Knight came around in 2008 all superhero films by DC, as well as numerous tv shows, and some other properties not DC related, have followed a similar style in which they have a similar color scheme to The Dark Knight, a similar cinematography, subject matter, brooding acting style, and a general sense of violence that is considering unsuitable to the way superhero films are supposed to be. I consider myself a detractor of Marvel Studios properties and their habit of veering too far the other direction of playing down darkness.

But I asked myself earlier when I was watching RedLetterMedia’s review of the new Power Rangers movie, if their, and other peoples, use of “Christopher Nolan-y” as a negative description of these types of superhero films that take themselves too seriously. And at that point it hit me: Christopher Nolan is the Karl Marx of superhero films. Both men have created seminal and important works, much greater than the limited field in which they have been intended for. Nolan made what is still my favorite superhero film of all time. It wasn’t despite being dark and gritty and brooding, but good because it’s story could only be told in such a way. His way of film making does, however, not have universal applicability when it comes to other characters. And while Marx observed society and had his own ideas on how capital and society operated which are still worthwhile to check out theories even if you disagree with them, both men suffer from being compared with their imitators and those who have used to apply their work in their own way without their intellect… okay, this is where the comparison is breaking down because comparing Lenin or Stalin with Zack Snyder is too edgy and dumb even for me, but I’m trying to create clickbait here people, so give me a break… Continue reading “Christopher Nolan: The Karl Marx of Superheroes”

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

NON SPOILER REVIEW

Ah, Rogue One. I’m all prepared. Read Rogue One Catalyst, the prequel book, rewatched A New Hope, stayed away from spoilers. Here we go:

Well, that was… something. I just saw the 6th best Star Wars film.

Rogue One, like its protagonist, is a movie seriously in need of a purpose. It’s a film that wants to be the first anthology film and tell a new story in the Star Wars universe, yet beats you over the head with cameos and characters from A New Hope we didn’t need to see, while completely ignoring its new characters and failing to give them any sort of meaningful depth. It’s almost amazing.

People complained at the “war movie stuff” was the problem, but I thought the war movie stuff wasn’t a problem at all, the real issue is that the movie wasted my time until about 80 minutes in when the actual plot started. It does some stuff to fill plot holes for A New Hope, but then it meanders around in so much unnecessary fluff. The only bits that got a rise out of me where the cameos, callbacks, and the last five minutes of the film, again: ironic for an anthology. But the part where I was bored until the third act is my main problem. It did establish mood in a way, but didn’t earn it. I was hoping for moments of oppression, a reason for these people to make sacrifices for freedom, but it was the same old, same old. Maybe it also didn’t help that I read the book, because they wasted both Krennic and Galen Erso, it’s almost incredible. They spend so much time on the set-up that the pay off comes too abrupt.

Maybe my assessment of it being the 6th best was a bit harsh. With all the problems I had with Force Awakens, and Revenge of the Sith, I was always engaged and the plot was moving forward. I don’t except much from a SW movie outside of being entertained. This wasn’t interesting to me.
And before someone said that it’s because I know too much: I saw it with Mr Casual fan number 1 aka my dad: he turned to me when the credits rolled and said, translated from German: “What was that supposed to be? I already knew all of this.”
There is pathos in the movie, but its all the third act. The trailer was good because it cut out the first 80 minutes or so.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s main problem is that it isn’t a Star Wars story, it’s THE Star Wars story, it’s A New Hope’s prequel, with all that would make this exciting excised to the end. As the servant of two masters it eventually succumbed under its own weight.