Monday, 6 June 2016

Patton, Sergeant York, All the President's Men - three films that actually changed history?

Lots of films have changed American and British society, for good or ill. For instance, it isn't hard to argue that the adulatory portrait of the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan in D.W. Griffiths' Birth of a Nation played a role in the formation of the second version of the Klan in 1915, the year of the film's release (albeit the second Klan was most active in the West and Midwest, and the main targets of its hatred were Jews, Catholics and recent immigrants). But did it ultimately retard or accelerate the civil rights cause in the States? After all, there was such a backlash against Griffiths' depiction of the Klan as a noble organisation that he tried to make amends with his next film, Intolerance.

It's also reasonable to argue that Bonnie & Clyde (1967), with its idealised, sentimentalised, utterly immoral portrait of what were in reality a couple of ugly, inadequate, incredibly vicious psychopathic killers, paved the way for the subsequent liberalisation of America's criminal justice system, which in turn led to a 25-year crime wave. But, while the film's moral relativism undoubtedly played a part in allowing a whole generation of criminals to prey on the innocent, I'm not sure it changed history in any meaningful way (apart, of course, from the personal history of the criminals and their many victims).

I've just read History by Hollywood, a 1996 work by a history professor, Robert Brent Toplin, which looks at the historical accuracy of eight popular American films. In his account of Patton: Lust for Glory (1970) - which gets relatively high marks for accuracy, apart from its shoddy treatment of the British Army in general and Field Marshall Montgomery in particular - the author plausibly suggests that it may directly have affected the course of the Vietnam War. Admirers of the film (of whom I'm one) will know that possibly the most extraordinary thing about it (apart from George C. Scott's towering central performance) is that it tends to reinforce whichever prejudices viewers bring to it. If you were a peacenik when you started watching it, you probably concluded that it was an anti-war film: Patton was exactly the sort of bloodthirsty nutcase who should be rooted out of the military for all our sakes. If you were a hawk at the start, you emerged afterwards surprised that anyone had got away with producing such a rabidly pro-war film in the same year as the release of Woodstock. (Okay, I'm slightly over-stating the case, but if Patton hadn't been a nuanced, ambiguous film, I doubt if the left-wing Hollywood community would have awarded it the Best Picture Oscar that year.)

Like most hawks, the film increased my admiration for Patton, the man - despite his numerous faults. Yes, I'm perfectly aware that shell shock is not a sign of cowardice, and that generals slapping soldiers - Patton actually did it on two separate occasions - is to be discouraged (especially as the soldier featured in the film was later discovered to be in the grip of malaria). But the film brilliantly sets up the scene in such a way that we can be appalled by Patton's action while understanding exactly what drove him to it: it's a very deft movie.

Another hawk who found himself in sympathy with "Old Blood & Guts" ("our blood, his guts" as one of the soldiers in the film remarks), was Richard Nixon, who watched it on 4th April, 1970, and liked it so much he had it screened again exactly three weeks' later:
"A few days after his second viewing... Nixon gave the order to send U.S. and South Vietnamese troops into Cambodia. In tough language, the president told a television audience, 'we will not be humiliated, we will not be defeated.' With Patton-like pride he declared that when the chips are down 'the world's most powerful nation' should not 'act like a pitiful, helpless giant.' He said that he would rather be a one-term president than have two terms at the 'cost of seeing America become a second-rate power and to see this nation accept the first defeat in its proud 190-year history.'"
Nixon's Pattonesque, gung-ho attitude soon evaporated in the face of mass protests against what was seen as an expansion of the war, and, according to his top assistant, Bob Haldeman, the president "now gave more enthusiastic encouragement to secret activities, including a programme of domestic surveillance." One wonders whether Watergate was a result of Nixon watching the wrong film at the wrong time.

All the President's Men was another of the truly great American films of the 1970s. Professor Toplin gives it a decent score for accuracy, while pointing out that it conveys the wholly false impression that the Washington Post reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, were solely responsible for exposing the Watergate scandal. (The scriptwriter was the brilliant William Goldman, and I was amused to learn that Carl Bernstein produced a rival script in which he depicted himself as a cool superstud, while portraying his journalistic partner Bob Woodward as a staid simpleton.)

By the time the film was released in the spring of 1976, the Watergate scandal was beginning to lose its grip on the American imagination: in fact, Americans were tired of hearing about it. But the film was so good and so powerful that it brought all the memories flooding back - right in the middle of Nixon's successor Gerald Ford's fight to retain the presidency:
"Any reminders about the nation's embarrassment under recent Republican leadership had the potential of hurting Ford's campaign. The incumbent president was already in trouble with voters for pardoning Nixon... Ford needed to keep the public's thoughts about Watergate to a minimum. The arrival of All the President's Men made that task difficult."
It's possible that the film paved the way for Jimmy Carter's election victory - which gave America the worst president in the country's history (until Obama happened along). Then again, if Ford had beaten the peanut farmer from Georgia, America would never have enjoyed the considerable blessings of Ronald Reagan's glorious two-term presidency - but Iran might not have fallen into the hands of fascistic religious fanatics, and the Middle East might, as a result, be a slightly more peaceful region. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.

The 1942 Oscar-winning film, Mrs. Miniver, had helped pave the way for America's military involvement in World War II. The tale of plucky Brits resisting the might of Nazi Germany certainly helped rally American support for Britain. But the film which did the most to convince Americans to reject isolationism was Sergeant York, released in July 1941. In it, Gary Cooper plays a genuine American hero - a Tennessee Hill Country farmer who overcame his strong religious doubts about killing to become a WWI army sharpshooter. In one engagement Alvin York killed 25 German machine-gunners, captured 132 enemy prisoners, and became a national hero as a result.

York resisted proposals to make a film of his life until Warners Brothers approached him (he needed money for a pet project). The deal he made with the studio included close involvement with decisions affecting his onscreen portrayal, which allowed him to stop scriptwriters from sensationalising his feats (they were, after all, sufficiently sensational). The result was a hit film which did much to soften public support for isolationism. Senators determined to keep America out of the war in Europe this time around were convinced that those pesky Jews who ran the film studios were bamboozling ordinary Americans with anti-Nazi, pro-war propaganda. Well, they were a bit - but Hollywood was also stuffed with communists who supported the Nazi-Soviet pact and who resisted attempts to drag America into the war against Uncle Joe - until Hitler invaded Russia, when, of course, they began militating for America to come to the aid of plucky little Britain. The senators even summoned studio mogul Harry Warner in front of a committee to explain exactly what the hell Warner Brothers thought it was up to dragging Uncle Sam into a war that was none of his business. Warner told them that Sergeant York was "a factual portrait of the the life of one of the great heroes of the last war... If that is propaganda, we plead guilty."

It Happened One Night practically destroyed America's vest industry after Clark Gable took his shirt off to reveal that he wasn't wearing one, and Saturday Night Fever helped fuel the Disco boom - but I'm not sure either had quite such a big impact on human affairs as the other films I've mentioned.

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