Movie protagonists and the past as a foreign country

I’ve taken as one of my creeds novelist L.P. Hartley’s oft-quoted statement: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  As I’ve said before, I love it when historical films manage to convey this “otherness” of the past.  The tricky part is that audiences are supposed to identify with a movie’s protagonists, and it seems like underscoring the differences between historical characters and moderns would only make that more difficult.  So how do you depict the “otherness” of a historical film’s protagonists without undermining an audience’s sympathy for them, especially when that otherness consists of attitudes and practices that are morally repugnant here in the twenty-first century?

The easiest approach is to cheat and eliminate the otherness altogether.  If your hero is a prominent landowner in eighteenth-century South Carolina, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that men of his stature, place, and time tended to be slaveholders.  The makers of The Patriot sliced through this Gordian knot by making Benjamin Martin a remarkably forward-thinking guy.

It’s a simple solution, but it also leaves a lot to be desired.  Whereas the movie shows the British dragoons tearing free blacks away from their homes, the reality was in many cases the reverse, with many slaves escaping their Patriot masters to make a bid for freedom behind British lines.  Ironically, Benjamin Martin’s fictional military exploits are similar to those of a real South Carolina officer named Thomas Sumter, who paid his recruits with slaves confiscated from Tories.

The makers of 300, by contrast, didn’t try to gloss over the unsavory aspects of their historical protagonists.  The Spartans leave weak infants to die of exposure, they savagely discipline their own children to turn them into hardened soldiers, they cherish the idea of death on the battlefield, and they slaughter their wounded enemies and desecrate their bodies.  And the audience is expected to accept the characters for what they are—even to celebrate them for it.

The movie not only gives us the Spartans in all their ruthlessness, but makes us empathize with them.  You probably wouldn’t want to live among them, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be a wounded Persian falling into their hands, but it’s fun to root for them for a couple of hours.  This solution seems more historically honest than the approach taken in The Patriot, and it works pretty well when you’re telling a story in which there are obvious good guys and bad guys.

Of course, 300 tells the story entirely from the Spartans’ perspective.  Can filmmakers tell the story of some historic event holistically—that is, from a variety of perspectives—while conveying the past’s “otherness” and still make audiences empathize with all the characters involved?  Can they do on film what David Hackett Fischer did in his book Paul Revere’s Ride, approaching “both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect” even though the main characters act in opposition to each other?  I think one movie that handles this really well is John Lee Hancock’s 2004 film The Alamo.

As this scene demonstrates, the movie presents the Alamo’s defenders as heroic.  Indeed, for some critics, they come across as too heroic.  A number of reviewers accused the filmmakers of whitewashing the story.  What struck me about the movie when I saw it, however, was its remarkable frankness about the protagonists’ shortcomings.  Early scenes establish that David Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis have all experienced some sort of disappointment or disgrace, and Texas represents a second chance for them.  A short but sympathetic side plot involves a very young solider marching in Santa Anna’s army.  Most notable, though, is how upfront the film is about the relationship between its heroes and their slaves—fittingly so, since the peculiar institution was one of the points of debate between the Texians and the Mexican government.

In one scene, Travis assigns two slaves named Sam and Joe the task of digging a well within the fort’s walls.  “Ain’t bad enough we got to fetch ‘em the water,” Sam complains, “now we got to find it for ‘em too.”  Later, Sam tells Joe that when the Mexicans storm the mission, he should worry about saving his own life and let his master to fend for himself.  (Travis did indeed own a young slave named Joe, who was wounded when the Alamo fell and escaped to freedom one year after San Jacinto.)    These scenes establish that the enslaved members of the garrison have their own interests at stake, interests at odds with those of the protagonists with whom we’re supposed to identify.  Contrast this with earlier depictions of black characters in Alamo movies, which tend to employ the familiar “faithful slave” narrative.

At the same time, though, the film’s revisionism doesn’t extend to demonizing the Alamo’s white defenders.  We sympathize with Sam and Joe’s predicament even as we admire the courageous last stand of the men holding them captive.  As prejudiced slaveholders of another time, Bowie and Travis seem foreign to us, but we also become invested in their confrontation with their own impending death.

As I said, the movie’s approach didn’t go over well with everybody.  The essay linked above, for example, notes that “the realistic portrayals of Joe and Sam may be to the credit of the filmmakers, but ultimately the film does little to question the ideological values inscribed onto the Alamo battle, which have gone largely unchallenged for the last 175 years, even if it does alter aspects of the story prevalent in its cinematic representations.”  In other words, the 2004 version is more frank about its main characters’ slaveholding, but it somehow manages to leave their bravery and heroism intact.  The movie leaves these contradictions unresolved.  It’s messy, complicated, and ambiguous, as history often turns out to be.  It didn’t work for many critics and historians, but from a purely historical standpoint, I was impressed.  Your mileage may vary.

Anyway, The Patriot and 300 grossed $113 million and $456 million respectively, but The Alamo flopped.  Maybe audiences prefer their historical heroes to be as straightforward as possible.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

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