U.S. History in Film

Prof. McClurken’s HIST 329 — Fall 2008

Archive for October, 2008

Matewan

Matewan is an interesting movie. From our study and discussion it is apparent that it is one of the most historically accurate of the films we have seen thus far. It does however revolve around two completely fictional characters, Joe and Danny. This is only somewhat disconcerting because they both represent well a certain view in labor history. Joe is a pacifist who embodies a true union supporter – wanting the union to accept blacks, immigrants, etc. so that they can work together to achieve their objectives. Danny (according to Professor McClurken) can be associated with those individuals who shared their first hand experiences of this massacre with director John Sayles. Many of them would have been around Danny’s age at the time of the event.

Overall there is much more to compliment about the film than there is to pick apart.

On the topic of whether or not the degree of historical accuracy of a film directly correlates to how “slow” or “boring” the film is… In a way I agree that there is a correlation. I immediately think documentary and cringe. But if you really think about it there are decent films (entertainment wise) that do portray a section of history very well. Matewan wasn’t my favorite movie, but it did fit into both categories – entertaining and historically accurate, so maybe it is one of the exceptions to our rule. AND maybe it is due to the lack of industry pressure that Sayles is able to create such a film… I like this explanation.

Matewan…yawn

For one of the first times this semester, I watched the film before the lecture on historical content. My impression? Matewan, as far as historical films go, was pretty acuarte to the events surrounding West Virginian coal miners unionizing in the 1920s, as well as to the Matewan Massacre. BUT….I haven’t been so bored by a movie in a long time. Even if a movie is historically acurate, it does nothing to alter public perception if it can’t even capture my attention – someone who enjoys historical films. I kept checking the time every 5 minutes, hoping it would be over soon, but alas, it continued to drone on. One thing that did not help the film’s case in my mind is that the actors seemed to mumble a lot. Maybe this was an unfortunate product of their attempts to acheive Appalachain accents, but it made the diaologue difficult to understand, and the dvd lacked subtitles.
Apparently this film was low budget. Even so, jewels have been known to emerge out of little money…well I would not call Matewan a jewel. I did enjoy the performance by the young preacher boy who I am not sure even existed historically. I always love watching James Earl Jones in movies, but even he could not save this one for me…his portrayal as Few Clothes Johnson was that of a noble Black man, but more like a follower of the union, rather than a leader – especially towards the end when he was picked to execute Joe. He seemed rather feable and naive when holding that gun.
Overall, even though this movie took less historical liberties than a lot of films we have seen this semester, its impact on me was not significant.

Clementine

This movie doesn’t really deserve to be talked about in great detail, at least not in a historical context. I agree with many peers’ references to Pocahontas. Wyatt and Pocahontas are much the same in that they are both historical characters whose stories have been completely mangled into myth from the perspective of ONE very wrong side of the story. Pocahontas was English-ized and turned into a classic tale of romance and the integrating of cultures. Wyatt was warped into some hero who was ‘just passin through’ when an unfortunate sequence of events happened to his brothers. The key to this story is that Wyatt and his brothers were the victims of the story, when in reality it doesn’t seem to be so. The real travesty for the story is the death of James – inspiring Wyatt to take the law into his own hands and avenge his lost cattle and dead brother. Sigh- not at all what happened. It does make for an interesting story (as did Pocahontas’s reworking), but it is certainly not something to dwell long on given that our purpose of viewing it was to find it’s historical-ness.

We did manage to find a few somewhat accurate portions – the thin line between female entertainer and prostitute (as demonstrated by Chihuahua (GREAT name by the way)), the landscape and garb seemed pretty accurate (they filmed in the desert and wore a lot of the same clothes as was common in that time – the one exception being Clementine), AND to me, most importantly there was a sense of taking the law into the hands of average citizens, which as demonstrated in numerous readings is pretty accurate.

Overall – not a very entertaining movie, and not at all a historically accurate one. At least it was pretty short.

If you liked it, what else could you want?

In response to the other blogs and people who detest this movie’s historical inaccuracy, I don’t care terribly much about it. For one, I don’t even think it’s that great of a film, even for all its fabrications. The film does the same job other Westerns do of perpetuating the myth of the old west as, well, we already discussed it to be. It had a lot of stereotypes (don’t all westerns/most movies of the era?) and a good, believable setting. The only difference is that it implied that this was truth. If people like the popular image of the Old West, who among them really cares (excepting we historians) to find out it if this likeable legendary man is fact or fiction, and risk spoiling their image of him? I mean, really, how many of us cared that much about Wyatt Earp and tried to analyze the movies before this week? This character so marginalized in history that few people know the realities of his life?

After all, as Dr. M. told us, when John Ford was confronted about the film’s historical inaccuracies, he asked something akin to, “Well, did you like it?” [man said it was his favorite] What else could you want?”

The difference between this film and Pocahontas is that this does not mislead people of all ages, all around the country, about some very significant events in our nation’s history and the relations that had such a strong influence on the actions of the earliest settlers. But that’s a whole other story, 8 weeks old. I won’t dwell on it.

I was asked to spell out the sounds (accompanied by gestures) that I used to help articulate a point I made in class discussion…. Clementine’s role was just to be someone to make Doc be like “eehhh,” and for Chihuahua to be all “rrrrgh!” about….

Also, I have a question. So, there’s a town in the middle of the desert. Dr. M. talked about how people were dirty and didn’t bathe often, and that makes a lot of sense especially in the desert, without much water for bathing. But there’s enough water for a town, nonetheless (although perhaps not as much as the alcohol there). Were there a lot of wells? An underground reservoir that a silver strike chanced to be near? And the very night the Earps arrive in town chances to be one with a rainstorm.

Similarly, did anyone notice how there were always clouds in the sky? Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t there very few clouds in the desert? The clouds depicted were obviously immobile, by the way. What’s wrong with having no clouds? Was that too much to ask, or were the filmmakers covering something up?

Whitney

She might’ve been YOUR darling Clementine, but she wasn’t MINE…

I hated this movie. I am going to try and be objective in this blog-post about it, but really, John Ford tanked hardcore with My Darling Clementine. It wasn’t even the love story being 90 percent of the film’s plot. It wasn’t the blatant racism, although that was on the level of Gone With The Wind in its shock value. No, it was the fact that Ford, one of the more esteemed directors in the western genre, completely disregarded the facts behind the Gunfight at the OK Corral and instead decided to turn it into a sappy love story between a falsified Wyatt Earp and that Clementine chick.

Now, it must be said, I was raised on High Noon and Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy. I have an idea of what westerns “are supposed to be,” and was very disappointed when Clementine didn’t fit that mold.

My disdain for this flick could have come from the fact that the love story seemed like a b-story pushed to the forefront. It could have been that the gunfight sequences made up, from what I could gather, about 10-15 total minutes of the movie, despite (at least according to Netflix), the movie being about the Gunfight at the OK Corral! But really, I think it was the grand trifecta of a needless love story, blatant ignorance of the facts, and eyebrow-raising comments regarding the minorities in the film. Strike one, John Ford. Strike one.

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

I really have been enjoying researching Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Stanley Kubrick is a film genius and Dr. Strangelove is definitely one of his best films. It has everything: comedy, political satire, war, nuclear weapons, and the great Peter Sellers playing 3 very different roles. Since this is my first blog I’m not going to delve too much into the movie but I would like to point out that is one of my favorite scenes from the film. I think it perfectly captures the massiveness as well as the severity of the situation at hand.

P.S I also love the irony of the quote that I put in the title spot, but more on that in a later post.

Clementine: Beautiful Scenery, Inaccurate Storyline

I found My Darling Clementine to be very entertaining although highly historically inaccurate. The scenery, especially in the beginning in the movie while the brothers are herding cattle in the prairie, is exceptionally breathtaking. It is portrayed exactly how I picture the Old West to look. One of the first inaccuracies that jumped out at me was the fact that we learned in class that James was married and lived with his wife, he wasn’t continuously traveling with his brothers (although I could be wrong); I also wasn’t under the impression that he was only 18 years old. Despite it’s flaws, the movie is a great representation of the great Old West full of opportunities and excitement for new settlers, gun-slinging included.

I would like to add that I would have loved to have watched Tombstone. It was one of my favorite movies growing up; I loved Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. I haven’t seen it in ages, although I imagine it is probably just as inaccurate as My Darling Clementine, but entertaining nonetheless.

The valiant effort that is Glory

After watching Glory, my first impression was that this was one of the first films I have seen for this class that actually takes into account primary source documents – the personal correspondence of Colonel Shaw. Not only does the film cite the letters as its source for the depiction of historical events, but goes further to provide narration from the letters to further the plot. I have to give props to the filmmakers of Glory for a valiant effort, for their depiction of history actually comes from a man who lived it. Although Gone with the Wind will always have a special place in my heart, with its sweeping epic nature and the romantic saga between Rhett and Scarlet, Glory is many steps above the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s romance novel of the Old South, in terms of historical accuracy, for sure. Not only was the history major part of me appeased by the filmmakers’s efforts to make the movie as accurately as possible, but the obsessive movie goer side of me was also quite entertained. The story of the 54th was a moving, one that tugged at my heartstrings till the very end when Matthew Broderick was thrown in a pit with 45 of his men, face down in the sand. I appreciated the performances by all the famous black actors of the 1990s, including Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, as well those by Matthew Broderick and Carey Ellwis, who will always be Westley(Princess Bride) or Robin(Robin Hood: Men in Tights) in my heart. I am glad that Hollywood chose not to make the heroic story of the men of the Massachusetts 54th into a sappy love story with a happy, dramatic ending. In all the respects mentioned in the above rant, Glory was glorious.

Glory

I believe Glory has to fail as a “historical film”.  It is clear the movie sets out to become a historical drama, but it falls short and becomes a drama set in history instead.

The positive aspects of the Glory’s accuracy demonstrate the producer’s interest in making a historical film.  The subject initially seems more dedicated to the story of the 54th, rather than a story about men in the unit.  The film’s portrayal of daily life seems accurate.  Camp life as portrayed in the movie is very similar to that portrayed in our readings.  The film’s action sequences do a fair job of putting viewers in the war experience.  I have read that Glory’s battle of Antietam was the gold standard of its time for portraying a Civil War era battle, and deservingly so.

These things aside, Glory fails as a historical film because it falls into the trap of drama.  It is evident that the producers felt compelled to bend the truth for the sake of a story.  The movie’s own box description calls it “Loosely based on the letters of Col. Robert G. Shaw, this Academy Award-winning war film follows the first group of African-Americans to serve in cobat during the Civil War.”  We know the Massachussetts 54th was not the first African-American group formed, we know it was not the first to see combat.  It was simply the group most enamering to the press.  The film therefore, grabbed hold of a drama witha  certain degree of truth to it.  As I stated in the class wiki, it is also problematic that the film created Thomas’ character.  He was not needed to demonstrate the experience of an educated black man in the unit.  Real historical figures could have done that.  Thomas is simply there to create a character relationship between Shaw and one of his soldiers.  I strongly believe that this demonstrates the film producer’s dedication to entertainment over fact.

Glory

I believe Glory has to fail as a “historical film”.  It is clear the movie sets out to become a historical drama, but it falls short and becomes a drama set in history instead.

The positive aspects of the Glory’s accuracy demonstrate the producer’s interest in making a historical film.  The subject initially seems more dedicated to the story of the 54th, rather than a story about men in the unit.  The film’s portrayal of daily life seems accurate.  Camp life as portrayed in the movie is very similar to that portrayed in our readings.  The film’s action sequences do a fair job of putting viewers in the war experience.  I have read that Glory’s battle of Antietam was the gold standard of its time for portraying a Civil War era battle, and deservingly so.

These things aside, Glory fails as a historical film because it falls into the trap of drama.  It is evident that the producers felt compelled to bend the truth for the sake of a story.  The movie’s own box description calls it “Loosely based on the letters of Col. Robert G. Shaw, this Academy Award-winning war film follows the first group of African-Americans to serve in cobat during the Civil War.”  We know the Massachussetts 54th was not the first African-American group formed, we know it was not the first to see combat.  It was simply the group most enamering to the press.  The film therefore, grabbed hold of a drama witha  certain degree of truth to it.  As I stated in the class wiki, it is also problematic that the film created Thomas’ character.  He was not needed to demonstrate the experience of an educated black man in the unit.  Real historical figures could have done that.  Thomas is simply there to create a character relationship between Shaw and one of his soldiers.  I strongly believe that this demonstrates the film producer’s dedication to entertainment over fact.

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