"Through ear and eye, we are both defined and manipulated fictions of such potency that they are able to replace our own experience, often becoming our sole experience of a reality."
.$--Gore Vidal in "Screening History"
Marie Antoinette was a kind and gracious lady who, under certain circumstances, could become a real party animal. Jim Garrison was a salt-of-the-earth guy whose instincts about a far-reaching conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy were largely accurate. And Christopher Columbus was stout-hearted visionary who didn't mean to cause anybody harm.
Such, at least, is history according to Hollywood.
As played by Norma Shearer in 1938's "Marie Antoinette," the frivolous French monarch did indeed fit the above description. In "JFK," the complex New Orleans politician was streamlined into a Frank Capra-type idealist, the perfect fit for Oliver Stone's perspective and Kevin Costner's persona. And Gerard Depardieu, who has specialized in complex characterizations, had one of his simplest assignments in this year's "1492: Conquest of Paradise," which presented the controversial explorer as a conventional action hero.
"Some people -- probably more than we realize -- know history only from popular culture," says Dr. Francis Swietek, associate professor of history at the University of Dallas.
Spike Lee's vision of "Malcolm X," will be, for many viewers, the salient memory of the black leader. For young audiences, Oliver Stone's view of the Kennedy assassination in "JFK" may be as implacable as if it had indeed been carved in stone. And to the vast majority of filmgoers, Michael Mann's "The Last of the Mohicans" may represent the final word on the French and Indian Wars. Had either of the two recent versions of the Christopher Columbus saga been widely seen, their impact could have been greater than any historical text.
Perhaps as a result of the popularity of "Dances With Wolves," interest in historical subjects has heightened, and filmmakers are capitalizing on it. After the release of "Hoffa," will it be possible to think of the missing union leader without also thinking of Jack Nicholson, who portrays him in the drama -- and who also has expressed a desire to play Napoleon in a future film?
Also coming up are the end-of-the-year release of "Chaplin," with Robert Downey Jr. portraying 50 years in the life of Charlie Chaplin, and the tentatively titled "Somersby," the Americanized version of the French romantic tragedy "The Return of Martin Guerre." The spring release stars Jodie Foster and Richard Gere.
History teachers understandably take a mixed view of Hollywood's refusal to let the history books speak for themselves.
"Most historians believe film has the potential for many benefits," Mr. Swietek says. "But we live in a non-verbal age," he cautions -- and that means historical films may have greater impact than ever before.
However, John Lewis, an English professor at Southern Methodist University who also teaches a Western civilization course, believes that "Hollywood is not much a cause as a symptom [of the casual attitude toward history].
"Students tend to invent mythical versions of events even before the movies get around to it," Mr. Lewis says. "No distortion that Hollywood could come up with could be weirder than what students already think. They believe in political rhetoric. They think Ronald Reagan got the hostages back from Iran whereas Jimmy Cartercouldn't."
He emphasizes that "the students are not really at fault. . . . As a nation, we tend to play fast and loose with history -- and unlike the Russians, our approach doesn't have a conscious plan."
Like most history professors, Mr. Lewis has sympathy for the screenwriter. "A film has to turn historical happenings into a story with a linear series of events, including crucial occurrences that everyone in the movie recognizes as great moments in time. There's no allowance for the gradualness of history, for the fact that some of the greatest forces in history were invisible at the time."