(If you want to cut straight to my 3 favourite war films of all time, scroll straight to the bottom).
Where Eagles Dare versus War Horse: why does historical inaccuracy in movies/TV sometimes not faze me at all, and sometimes drives me crazy? How is that I can sit, equably sipping my tea, while Clint Eastwood mows down unfeasibly large numbers of Germans using a Schmeisser with a seemingly bottomless (well, almost) magazine and a barrel which never melts? Yet the mere thought of a horse running up a trench fills me with dread or rage?
I’m an academic historian of the two world wars, which means I get paid (not very much, mind) for raising pedantry to levels of hair-splitting unseen since the heyday of medieval monasteries. For example, I must be one of the last essay markers in the world to pull students up for using a split infinitive. It matters to me that my students get their facts and chronology straight. (To be honest, maybe some of these don’t matter as much as we professionally think; but some of them REALLY do, so it’s worth getting in the habit of getting them right. For instance, in the big scheme of history, it doesn’t matter too much if a student knows the exact date of the Battle of Jutland; but it matters A LOT that he knows it happened before Germany ordered a reversion to unrestricted submarine warfare and the USA entered the war.)
I mused on this phemonenon on Twitter and had some helpful responses.
Julian Hall directed me to his blog http://julianmhall.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/history-v-entertainment.html where he argues that literature is better at this than movies/TV because writers take more care with their research. Maybe: they certainly have a big stake in the project: that’s why they’re called the author! But I’ve seen the geniuses toiling away in the London Library every day for years writing the novel that will re-cast the world: they have all the passion, but they cannot match the budget a Production Company could (if it wanted) throw at getting historical details right.
Phil Weir made a great point:
@JonathanBoff Probably to do with the emotional response to Where Eagles Dare as a significant movie from your youth.
— Dr Phil Weir (@navalhistorian) April 6, 2014
Stephen Barker said something similar:
@JonathanBoff modern v post modern periods, maturation and a current professional view point?
— Stephen Barker (@dStephenB) April 6, 2014
There’s probably something in this age business… I was born in 1966 so was brought up on all the classics of the war movie canon that boys of my generation will remember. However, it doesn’t always work: for instance, I remember being moved to tears as a teenager by Gallipoli (as I never was – sober- even by the wounded airborne soldiers singing ‘Abide with Me’ at the end of A Bridge Too Far. Yet now I look at it, see the facile inaccuracies, and have to breathe deeply through the nose for a count of ten. Equally, a film like Saving Private Ryan, to which I came much later in life (of course), I can watch without tying myself in knots about the obvious lacunae. And I’m far from convinced about the professional aspect, as hinted above. I actually (believe it or not) care far less overall about the minutiae than many ‘amateurs’ and regularly turn down ‘invitations’ from TV companies to advise on their costumes. (Largely because I choose what to remember, and cap badges are not included on my list).
Nor do I think it’s about which war is being represented. Zulu is an example from another war altogether: laughable history in places, but rarely out of my personal top 3 war films.
At the margin, if I think very hard about this, I do perhaps think it matters a bit less that we get the SWW right because it offers a clear moral resolution – evil defeated by good – in a way which is much harder to perceive in the FWW case. But that doesn’t explain the depths of my contempt for War Horse and Birdsong on the one hand, and heights of reverence for Where Eagles Dare and A Bridge Too Far on the other.
I think the difference lies in Effort and Art. The latter try very hard to do what they set out to do, and succeed brilliantly. They are fine works of art (by their own lights, I’m not trying to claim either is Citizen Kane). Hence we are willing to suspend belief. But the former two, IMO, fail first and foremost because they fail as works of art. Part of that failure lies in a lazy refusal to do what any good writer – or historian, for that matter – must do, to try and think themselves back into the minds of the ‘historical’ characters. Instead, 21st century people are plonked down in a 1916 setting and wander around taking about ‘feeling your pain.’ Audiences pick up on dissonances of that nature, feel the writers’/producers’ lack of respect for them and refuse to suspend their disbelief. No number of accurate cap badges can recover from that.
I know I’m not saying anything more interesting than ‘respect your audience’ and I’ve gone on longer than I’d hoped, but shorter than this topic properly needs. Sorry for the ramble and for not managing to squeeze in some Brechtian alienation analysis, etc.
Oh, and the rest of my Top 3 all-time war films: Zulu, Das Boot and A Bridge Too Far. Not necessarily in that order!