History According to Hollywood

Article excerpt

Do movies distort our views of past events? Or do they do a service by arousing our curiosity to find out what really happened?

At the moment, it's hard to imagine Hollywood making a movie based on the events of Sept. 11. But the industry track record shows it is merely a matter of time. NBC has delayed the season debut of "West Wing" to insert a new episode in which a fictional president responds to a terrorist attack (airing Oct. 3, see page 16). For several months, CBS has been developing a miniseries based on Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombings.

Hollywood continues to mine history - recent or distant - and attract the inevitable controversy that follows its attempts to depict real people and events. A chorus of British voices, for example, continues to protest the negative image of British soldiers in Mel Gibson's Revolutionary War epic "The Patriot" (2000), while a wide range of American voices now question how much of a masterpiece D.W. Griffith's 1915 film"The Birth of a Nation" can be, with its heavily racist images of American history.

But as polls show that fewer and fewer people get their information about the world - past or present - from reading, questions about Hollywood's responsibility to re-create history accurately take on new urgency.

"Television and movies are [a] major source of information now," says historian Steven Gillon, dean of the Honors College at University of Oklahoma. "It's not books. It's not what they learn in the classroom. And I think what happens is our perception of ourselves and our understanding of the past, are being distorted for the purpose of reaching a large audience."

Despite criticism such as this, many filmmakers say they feel the burden of depicting history accurately. "There's two kinds of authenticity," says Tom Hanks, executive producer of HBO's "Band of Brothers," a series based on the experiences of real American paratroopers during World War II.

"There is one that says all the buttons are right, and all the ammunition is correct, and all the buildings look like they looked in the photograph. That's a relatively easy thing to accomplish," says Hanks, who developed his interest in World War II stories after starring in Steven Spielberg's epic 1998 movie "Saving Private Ryan."

"The thing that's much harder" to get right, Hanks says, "is literally the motivations and the nature of the interplay between the characters."

In developing the script for "Band of Brothers," which was based on Stephen Ambrose's book of the same title, Hanks says he tried to adhere to the kind of authenticity that he considered the most important. "We said, 'Look, if we can't be absolutely truthful to what they said and did at any given moment, we must as least be as authentic as possible, so that it still adheres to the framework of the reality of being there at that moment.' "

Spicing up history

Film also has dramatic requirements, which moviemakers can't ignore. While NBC's "West Wing" doesn't depict actual events, it does take place in the nation's symbolic heart, the White House. …