Maryland Senator Ben Cardin joins us to talk about the youth movement against gun violence, Russian sanctions, and more. D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh shares her thoughts on relief for high water bills and news that D.C. Public Schools is taking over an all girls charter school.
It’s common for Americans to learn about history through Hollywood movies and literary works of fiction. But popular culture can distort our perceptions of historical events — merging what’s real with what’s dramatized, and causing problems with sensitive subjects such as slavery and the Civil War. A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian/journalist and award-winning film scholar/playwright join Kojo to explore what happens when pop culture collides with history.
- Murray Horwitz Film historian; author; and playwright
- Tony Horwitz Author, 'Midnight Rising:John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War' (Henry Holt)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. If you plan on celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg next week by making the trip there and running up Little Round Top to find the plaque marking the exact spot where Buster Kilrain defended the union position with the 20th Maine. You're in for a disappointment. Kilrain may be your favorite character from the novel, "The Killer Angels," but he didn't actually exist or fight at the battle.
MR. KOJO NNAMDI"Gone with the Wind" fans turned Civil War fanatics may find the same disappointment when they travel to Georgia searching for Tara, the fictional plantation that only exists in the beloved novel and film. But our perceptions of the actual historical events at the center of both those stories can be shaped just as strongly by fiction as they are by fact, especially in an era where entertainment serves as the gateway for so much of our education when it comes to history.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining me in studio to talk about this is Murray Horwitz. He is a film historian, playwright and author. He's currently the director of development for the Washington Performing Arts Society. He served formally as the director of the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center and is the vice president for Cultural Programming at NPR. Murray, good to see you again.
MR. MURRAY HORWITZGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Tony Horwitz, no relation to Murray, but he is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. His books includes "Confederates in the Attic" and "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War." Tony Horwitz, good to see you again.
MR. TONY HORWITZThanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation, calling us at 800-433-8850. What are some of your favorite films or books that spotlight a time or an event from history. Did these works spur you to look further into the historical facts around this time period? 800-433-8850. Tony, I'll start with you. Some time ago you wrote a book about how much our history shapes culture in the modern say South.
NNAMDIAnd in at least one place you explored in "Confederates in the Attic," you found that our popular culture has become so intricately interwoven with that history that it's hard for some people to detach fiction from real events. What did you discover when you went looking in Georgia for the Tara plantation from "Gone with the Wind"?
HORWITZI found a lot of Tara body shops, Tara wax your nails, Tara everything except Tara itself. But I think more broadly, "Gone with the Wind" has had more impact on our memory of the Civil War than the 100,000 or more books that have been written about the conflict. So, it really is our history of the Civil War, this sort of moonlight and magnolia vision of this, you know, doomed romantic South, you know, with benevolent masters and loyal slaves and the wicked Sherman and the Yankees.
HORWITZIt's very hard to shake those images from our consciousness, even though they're largely fiction. In fact, almost entirely fiction.
NNAMDIAnd the modern-day tourist industry in Georgia is keenly aware of this apparently. To what extent do you find that our fascination with entertainment, films like "Gone with the Wind," ends up being, well, kind of a gateway drug to actually learning more about history?
HORWITZYeah. I think in the best circumstance, you cited, for instance, "Killer Angels." And you're right, it's a fiction and the character you mentioned is fiction. But to me, that's the perfect gateway drug to turn young people onto history. My teenage son who doesn't share my passion for the Civil War and runs from the room when I talk about the Civil War or John Brown picked up "Killer Angels" a month or two ago and read it in one day and suddenly was asking me questions about the battle in the Civil War.
HORWITZSo I think in an ideal circumstance, fiction, whether it's film or literature, can be a wonderful way to hook people. The problem is so often it's misinformation or it takes, you know, so many liberties with the facts that it creates a false history in itself.
NNAMDIAnd then there's this, it's my understanding that you met a man who swore he had found the land that inspired Margaret Mitchell to create the fictional Tara in her head, only to find out that she deliberately avoided making it appear to look like a real-life location so she wouldn't offend real people.
HORWITZYeah. There is a whole cottage industry in greater Atlanta around "Gone with the Wind." I met a sort of professional Scarlet O'Hara who, you know, performs at events. She even subcontracts out Rhetts and Mammys. I mean, it goes on and on.
HORWITZAnd what Margaret Mitchell did is she sprinkled in some real places, Clayton County, Flint River, et cetera, just enough that you can locate the general area, but then she fictionalized everything else very intentionally because she didn't want anyone to think she was mentioning their family or saying something nasty about this or that person. So, in fact, there is no Tara, Twelve Oaks. It was all in her imagination.
NNAMDIMurray, we may be experiencing a boomlet of sorts with historical entertainment. The mini-series "Hatfields and McCoys" scored record ratings for the History Channel this spring. And on a lighter note, the film "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" made a decent amount of money at the box office this past weekend. What do you think is the basis of the appeal for entertainment that draws from history and occasionally the absurd?
HORWITZWell, first of all, Kojo, I can't imagine that you said that "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is a lighter moment. I mean, the threat of vampires against the United States government is well known, going way back hundreds of years.
NNAMDII just didn't know it was the cause of the Civil War.
HORWITZBecause there's been a government cover-up.
HORWITZThat's right, there's been a cover up, which is a whole another cottage industry of film. It's a good question. What is the appeal? I mean, just saying "Hatfields and McCoys" I'm sure has a lot to do with the fact that the series was a hit because this is somehow in the American imagination.
NNAMDIIt's the lore, yes.
HORWITZRight, right, right. And so we know something about it, so we want to learn more about it. I think that movies have always used history. There's been a little bit of a -- well, they've used history in two ways. There's -- early on, the big attempt was to use history in order to make an entertaining film. So you had films like "Gone with the Wind" or "Calamity Jane," which didn't have anything to do with Calamity Jane really.
HORWITZYou know, even some of the greatest films. My -- like one of my two or three favorite films of all time, Buster Keaton's "The General" is based on a true incident in the Civil War, but it's fiction. So this idea of using historical episodes and characters to make an entertaining story is something that -- like, you know, the "Hatfields and McCoys," I'm sure people -- there are some appeal and cache just to the name.
HORWITZBut then the other thing is to, and more often we see it nowadays, the movies claim to tell history, although this has been going on for a long time. And there were many silents that came out in the wake of the Titanic disaster whose centennial we celebrate this year, don't we? So 100 years ago, there were a lot of movies that came out right away that purported to tell what exactly went on on Titanic, even though not many people really knew it did.
HORWITZAnd I think movies have gotten better at telling history from the days of the old Hollywood excesses. But now, generally, they use -- and this is where the idea of a conspiracy theory comes into play. Now often movies tell history, but in order to further an agenda. So speaking of conspiracy theories, there's Oliver Stone's "JFK" for whatever its virtues as a movie, it's absurd to some of the stuff that it puts out there as fact.
NNAMDIWell, when it comes to Hollywood and history, what do you think is the ultimate M.O., if you will, to get it right or to tell a good story or some combination of both?
HORWITZI think to get -- to make money. I mean, this is Hollywood we're talking about.
NNAMDII didn't touch it at all.
HORWITZIt's America. So it depends. I mean, I think this is not to say that filmmakers are immoral or amoral. I mean, there's good filmmakers and bad filmmakers. Good people make films, bad people make films, I guess. But I think that, in general, the best filmmakers really try hard to get it right. And there are all kinds of examples. I mean, look, there's occasional factual inaccuracy or inadequate portrayal.
HORWITZAnd there are anachronisms. But then there's flat-out lying and manipulation, you know. I out "JFK" in that. And sometimes even a documentary. One of the things I have against Michael Moore is that, you know, he will manipulate the -- he'll present something as fact which isn't really fact. And one of the subtext of what we've discussed already, Kojo, is that this is an enormously powerful medium.
HORWITZThe movie image is this huge medium. And if it even comes down to image versus text, and as Tony says, you know, image is going to win every time, you know.
NNAMDIWell, whether it's a film or literature, do you think it's possible to be faithful to the spirit of the past, if you will, even if you're distorting, fabricating, or sometimes working with a completely fictional story?
HORWITZYeah. I mean, the facts are messy. History is messy. And, of course, Hollywood is always looking for a nice tidy story with...
HORWITZ...good guys and bad guys that ends on a nice dramatic note. And this is part of the, you know, genius of "Hatfields and McCoys," it's got a one word pitch, feud. And I saw a few episodes, it's actually very faithful to the history and also good entertainment. So it can be done, but...
NNAMDIWell, I want to pursue your viewership of "Hatfields and McCoys" for a second because from an entertainment perspective, what was your impression? What's the appeal of backwards magic word, feud, to a modern-day television audience?
HORWITZOh, it's also got a Romeo and Juliet angle of the two families that hate each other but then there's a love story in there. It's in a beautiful landscape. Your intern Ally told me something interesting, which is West Virginia and Kentucky where this is set had been flooded with phone calls about people wanting to visit. It's actually filmed in Romania.
HORWITZSo they'll have to go to Transylvania or wherever it was. But, you know, that has -- it also a Western. This is the historic -- I preferred historic -- it's set in the Appalachians, but it's actually essentially a gun-slinging western. And that seems to be our default historical era. A lot of our so-called historical movies, if you really boil them down, are westerns in my view.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you mentioned that because the History Channel entered into new territory with this series instead of its typical documentary style. The "Hatfields and McCoys" is scripted with more of, as you pointed out, a western feel. But it was still branded as history.
HORWITZWell, by the way, there's a sequel, Hitler's going to appear in the sequel, I think it is.
HORWITZWith the vampires.
HORWITZNo, actually I'm not an expert on "Hatfields and McCoys" they've actually gone to some lengths. They get the dates right. They get the back story right. The get the names right. I actually think it's, as history, it's one of the better examples. It's not, unfortunately, a significant enough story. I think where this becomes a serious issue is when you take on a JFK assassination, the Civil War, you know, big stories.
HORWITZ"The Patriot," the favorite or least favorite example, you take, you know, the American Revolution and you totally flip the history and you put out a tremendously false view of an important episode. I mean, if "Hatfields and McCoys" was completely made up, the damage done would be, you know, minor. But when you have a birth of the nation, that causes enduring problems with historical memory.
NNAMDIWell, "Hatfields and McCoys" is an example of a series where producers and writers obviously had to craft dialogue based on their own imagination. Murray, how do you think those details tend to color our perspective of historical characters and events? And what kind of challenge does dialogue specifically pose to accuracy?
HORWITZWell, I think it's enormous. Again, I think pictures are probably, you know, worth 999, if not a thousand words, discounted nowadays. But, you know, for years, I remember when I was growing up in the '50s, anytime Don Ameche, the actor Don Ameche, whom our audience would probably know best from "Cocoon," was best known for portraying Alexander Graham Bell in a biopic. And anytime he'd appear on a quiz show or talk show or anywhere, people would make jokes about the telephone because that was how he was identified.
HORWITZAnd I'm sure most people -- believe me, he didn't use a Scottish accent. And Alexander Graham Bell was Scottish. So, the dialogue is one of the pieces that filmmakers manipulate in order to tell the story, which is why we go to see the movies to begin with. And the danger, as Tony said, is in showing a film that has some important inaccuracies.
HORWITZI mean, here's a film about which I'm not at all ambivalent, I think it's a terrific film. Teachers use it all the time to teach and that's Ed Zwick's film "Glory." But "Glory" has been taken to task by many historians for its inaccuracies and portrayals of African Americans and in other inaccuracies showing too much hand-to-hand combat that wasn't around the Civil War. But that is for a teacher a teachable moment.
HORWITZAnd I spoke with Matt Boratenski who ran and still runs the educational screenings program at the AFI Silver Theater here in Silver Spring. And he said, you know, if you open up the closet in a history teacher's classroom you will find a pile of DVDs. And he says it represents a big improvement 'cause it used to be VHSes and they took up too much room. And they use downloads. They put video up on the SmartBoards, et cetera. And he said it's a great way to get kids into history. The danger is when you don't correct the misimpressions and correct the misstatements of fact.
HORWITZWell, here's something -- if I can pipe in...
HORWITZ...I will stand up for "Glory." I mean, I know, for instance...
HORWITZNo, I love "Glory." It's good.
HORWITZ...there are, in my view, minor inaccuracies...
NNAMDIPlus, Russell Williams might be listening. You know, he teaches at American University and he won the Academy Award for the sound for "Glory."
NNAMDISo Russell, don't burst into the studio.
HORWITZWell, I mean, one inaccuracy I noticed, he makes it seem like there are a lot of fugitive slaves in the 54th Massachusetts -- fine. They were mostly freed men from Massachusetts, including Frederick Douglas' sons. In my view, minor inaccuracies and the value of that is again getting back to the gateway drug. When I was researching "Confederates in the Attic" I spent a lot of time at reenactments. And I repeatedly met African Americans reenacting the 54th mass who had previously never taken an interest in the Civil War...
NNAMDI...until they saw "Glory."
HORWITZ...who said quite explicitly that "Glory" got them interested, got them researching their forbearers who had fought in various units. It sent them to the books.
HORWITZAnd I think that -- so I actually think if they've got -- teachers have movies in their closet, I hope "Glory" is one of them. And I can think of a lot worse ones.
HORWITZOh, you can do a lot worse. I don't even -- I'm even farther to the left I think because I think, you know, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" -- and don't forget there also came out last month a movie called "Abraham Lincoln Versus the Zombies." I haven't seen that one pop up at my neighborhood cinema but how many kids who wouldn't otherwise have a clue who Napoleon was have been introduced to him by "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure?" So, you know, and that's just like, you know, crazy teen comedy with very little substance to it although there's some funny stuff in it. But now, some kids know who Napoleon is. Maybe they'll look further.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunt," so I can't resist. We have to go there.
NNAMDIMurray's head is exploding.
HORWITZAll men are created equal. Some just have longer teeth than others.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with -- about history as entertainment. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. Do you enjoy taking historical tours? Have you ever seen a fictitious figure or place within historical tours? You can also send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing history as entertainment in books and movies and television shows with Tony Horwitz. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. His books include "Confederates in the Attic" and "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War." Joining him in studio is Murray Horwitz. He's a film historian, playwright and author. He's currently the director of development for the Washington Performing Arts Society, formerly servicing as the director of the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center and the vice-president for cultural programming at NPR.
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Let's go to Emily in Alexandria, Va. Emily, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EMILYHi, thanks. I'm an avid reader of historical fiction and was wondering if your panelists could give me some ideas of where to go for checking the accuracy of certain authors when I'm looking for a new book to read.
HORWITZWell, that's an interesting question. My wife Geraldine Brooks is a historical novelist so I have this debate every day. You know, I'm telling the truth and she's making stuff up. She's gone to the dark side. But I don't think historical novelists -- I don't think it's incumbent on them to be accurate. It's fiction. On the other hand, what she does and other authors that I think is very valuable, is she always has an afterword where she explains to you then what I've just told you these are the parts that are fact, where I've used a real character. This is what we actually know and this is where it's my imagination. So I don't think it's necessary to sort of fact check historical fiction. But I like it when an author gives us an assist if we want to, you know, delve into that further.
HORWITZYeah, that's really valuable. I agree. I think that depending on the liberties the author takes with historical fact, it's more or less important to have some kind of disclaimer or some kind of note of amplification afterwards. It makes a lot of sense. You don't want to do it before. But the other thing I'd say is look at the author and look at the reputation of the author. For example, I'm sure that there were liberties taken with -- by E. L. Doctorow in "The March" about Sherman's March.
HORWITZNonetheless, it's a great novel. I mean, I wouldn't have had him change a word of it. And so, you know, how -- I mean, you know it's E. L. Doctorow so you know it's -- he's not -- he's got certain integrity. And I should say, speaking of great authors, probably the person who took the most liberties of anybody was Shakespeare. I mean, this has been going on for a long time, you know. But we think there was something called the Trojan War because of (word?) and the Greek drama and the Iliad and the Odyssey. There probably never was a Trojan War.
HORWITZBut, you know, the British were a lot more brutal at the Battle of Agincourt than you'd know from Henry V, you know.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Emily, and good luck to you. Here is Michael in Towson, Md. Michael, your turn.
MICHAELGood afternoon. It's good to hear you all. I was responding to your recent discussion of film videos and degree of accuracy. I would point out that you should take printed matter with the same kind of salt, whether they are textbooks or whether they are just a historic account. They're all interpretation. If you're dealing with history, they're probably not even eyewitness interpretations. They're fourth, fifth, sixth hand, even good stuff. And...
NNAMDIWell, are you suggesting that we should take all history with a pinch of salt?
MICHAELI'm saying that accounts of history should be. They are interpretations. You can read competent honest historians on the -- different ones on the same topic and they will -- their interpretations will vary. They look at how people responded after an event to help them understand an event. They'll look at reports of it. I have read three or four different works about revolutionary battles in New Jersey and -- Revolutionary War battles. And each one was a historical work. It was not a work of fiction and there are variations in...
NNAMDITony Horwitz, how does one make an intelligent distinction between what's fact and what's fiction and...
HORWITZYeah, oh no. Well, I mean, the caller is right. We need to be skeptical readers. The -- I guess what distresses me is you're talking on the one hand about scholars who have devoted years to a topic and they differ on it. And here we're handing the history over to a Hollywood producer who, A, may or may not know anything...
HORWITZ...but, B, doesn't care. I'll give you my favorite example. "The Patriot," which on many levels is a complete fiction about the Revolutionary War, the biggest one being that somehow these South Carolinians were fighting for freedom, including that of blacks, while they were huge slave owners. In fact, because they don't want to make them evil slave owners, they have Mel Gibson hiring free blacks on a plantation in South Carolina in the 1700s. And a very distinguished historian David Hackett Fischer said that "The Patriot" is to history as "Godzilla" was to biology.
HORWITZSo I think you're right but there's a distinction between historians arguing among themselves and people just producing outright fictions for the screen.
HORWITZYeah, I'd agree. I mean, I think that there's a myth -- and Tony can confirm or deny -- that there is a 100 percent accurate account of something somewhere. I mean, in a sense it's -- history's not a noun in a way. It's like it's an -- well, it's a noun but it's not -- it's an activity. And that's why people keep writing books about the Battle of Gettysburg or keep writing -- 'cause new facts come to light. Things that seemed really plausible suddenly aren't plausible anymore or vice versa.
HORWITZThe difference is, as Tony said, it's when you sacrifice real history to entertainment that you can start to get into trouble.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you brought up "The Patriot" because you both seem to agree that that -- and since we've been talking a lot about the Civil War -- that there's a time period that fascinates Americans more than any other time period, the Civil War. And there are period of American history that from an entertainment perspective seem to be less fascinating to us. And one of them has to be the American Revolution. Why is that, do you think?
HORWITZWell, I don't -- maybe it's them wigs, I don't know. It's like -- no, but seriously the Revolutionary War and the colonial period used to be not unpopular at all in the 1930s. In the first, you know, decade of sound there were movies about the Revolutionary War as well as the French Revolution, a lot of 18th century, early 19th century stuff. And I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we wanted to show people costume dramas. We wanted to show them splendor. And that's given way to a kind of grittier reality.
HORWITZI mean, the difference between the James Fenimore Cooper pictures that were made in the '30s and '40s and -- which one was it? Was it "The Last of the Mohicans" with Daniel Day-Lewis which was...
HORWITZThe last one was splendid.
HORWITZ...yeah, and you know, it...
HORWITZThat's the exception. I would say John Adams from that era is a great exception. I agree with Murray. I think a lot of it we don't want to think of our forbearers in funny wigs and sort of crotch-squeezing britches. It's not a good look in stockings.
HORWITZAnd, you know, there are -- I think it's an interesting question though. There are certain eras, not just in our history. How many good sandal sagas are there? I mean, beginning with prehistory. I mean, "Quest for Fire" or something? Other then maybe "Ben-Hur" or "Spartacus" a long time ago, Biblical era antiquity generally, it's hard for people in our era to realistically portray that and sort of stretch our imaginations.
HORWITZThere is "Monty Python and the Life of Brian."
HORWITZOh yes, you're right. A classic.
NNAMDIHere is Michael in Falls Church, Va. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHello. Hello again, Murray. This is Michael Chek.
HORWITZOh hi, Mike Chek. This is one of the great film authorities in the world talking to us now and used to be a programmer at the AFI Silver Theater.
NNAMDIMichael, thank you so much for calling.
MICHAELYeah, curiously now I teach film at George Mason. One of my courses is war on international screens. So man, you're plugging into my zone here. And for what it's worth, just in passing, boy do I agree on "Glory." That's my favorite Civil War picture, although the moment I saw it I said, gee, the ocean's on the wrong side.
MICHAELAnd it's nice to hear you, Murray. We never talked about it agreeing with me so strongly on "JFK." What a bunch of piffle that is, but great filmmaking.
HORWITZWell, and it's funny. I heard at least one history -- I'm glad to hear you say that 'cause it means a lot coming from you, Mike. But also I heard -- I read at least one professor who said, you would be astonished at the number of kids in his classes -- this was a guy writing in the late 1990s -- who think that that's the way it really happened that, you know -- in fact, one production detail I saw online was that when there's a puff of smoke from the other shooter, the grassy knoll Alverstone could not find a rifle that actually made a puff of smoke that big. So he just had somebody with powder and a little puff ball go like that to make it look like it was a rifle.
MICHAELSmokeless powder came in about 1900. Yeah, so I just -- one useful rule of thumb that I often use -- oh, just one other thing in passing about antiquities. You're talking about in recent years, of course, spear and sandal stuff was what Italy made for a decade or longer way back when. One could argue about authenticity. Some professors -- my colleague Martin Winkler thinks some of them are very authentic indeed. But I have a little rule of thumb, I guess, is if the fiction is duller than the facts, which is true 90 percent of the time, then the hell with it.
MICHAELEvery now and then, for instance in "Glory," Matthew Broderick, a.k.a. Colonel Shaw, did not die quite that way. But gee whiz, how can you beat that for sheer tragic drama?
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your...
HORWITZThanks, Mike. Good to hear from you.
NNAMDI...for your call, Michael. And now on to Phil in Silver Spring, Md. Phil, your turn.
PHILHello, how are you?
PHILAll right. Well, first I'd like to thank Tony Horwitz for writing "Confederates in the Attic." I've read it twice.
HORWITZAnd the South still loses every time, yeah.
PHILI would also like to say that he and Sarah Vowell are my two favorite historians.
HORWITZOh, thank you.
PHILAnd I would also like to say hi to Murray Horwitz. I don't know if he's recognized my voice or not yet, but this is Phil Fox and we used to work together.
HORWITZOh my gosh, Phil. Good to see you. One of the great stage managers of all times, among other things.
NNAMDIEverybody in this town knows everybody else. Phil, any question for either Murray or Tony?
NNAMDIAny question for either Murray or Tony?
PHILWell, my phone's breaking up. I'm sorry to do that. Here, let me switch the speaker off.
NNAMDIOkay. Switch the speaker off and I know you have a question for...
PHILYes, I do have a question and I first want to agree with those who find it chilling that people are using Oliver Stone as a source in historical writing. I have heard kids ask if the Titanic was really real and I kind of wonder about the responsibility of filmmakers to history. But my question is for both guys. What do you think are historically responsible films? Not necessarily accurate, because there can always be an interpretation issue. But who are the people who have made films and what are they that have historic perspective of responsibility to history rather than to the dollar or the entertainment industry?
NNAMDIMurray and Tony say, how much time do you have?
HORWITZYeah right. That's a great question, Phil, and thank you for it. I mean, we've all mentioned "Glory" which is not accurate or has inaccuracies in it but is a responsible film and a good film. "All the President's Men," the -- I guess "Schindler's List" is an example of what I would consider a responsible movie that might err on the side of sentimentalizing certain aspects of the Holocaust. But basically is a well motivated responsible -- historically responsible film.
HORWITZAnd other things. Ed Zwick's real good at this. He did "The Last Samurai." He did a bunch of films that use historical subjects and I think he acquits himself well.
HORWITZI don't know. I don't think when I watch a historical movie as it being responsible. I want it to be reasonably accurate. I really am not bothered that the ocean is on the wrong side or whatever the minor detail is. And I want it to be good entertainment. Otherwise what's the point? So some that come to mind for me are "Patton," a very powerful movie that I think was -- you know, got the gist of it. I don't know how accurate it was in the details. "Amistad" wasn't a great movie, but I think it turned people on to a little known important story.
HORWITZI didn't know about it.
HORWITZI thought J. Edgar was -- citing a recent example -- wasn't a great movie I thought, but I thought it was a great introduction to that story. Sent me to the books. You know, I wanted to know more. Those are just some -- "Gallipoli." I think we were talking earlier about war movies, or one of the callers. It's not entirely accurate but I think a wonderful again introduction to an unbelievable historical story. So, I mean, we could go on and on but those are...
NNAMDIPhil, thank you very much for your call. Tony, it's my understanding that you feel that, well, to a certain degree we Americans are historically illiterate. Why do you think that is? Do you think people in other countries or cultures are better at connecting to their own pasts, and how is that reflected in the entertainment that they consume?
HORWITZWell, I think this is why what we're talking about today is important, because I think it is fair to say that as Americans we're not renowned for our historical memory. You know, the past is kind of a blur for a lot of us, and that's why these movies can have such an impact, good or bad, because we're not well grounded in our history. I think it would be hard for Brits to watch a movie in Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth that was wildly inaccurate in the way that say "JFK" is.
HORWITZAnd not sort of whatever, laugh at it.
HORWITZLaugh at it is right.
HORWITZSo I think it is an issue. Part of it is healthy. We're a forward-looking culture. We tend to leave our history behind, but it does make us, yes, somewhat historically illiterate, and that's why, you know, again, I think this conversation is important. And we've ceded again, to me, what distresses me is we've ceded this role of history telling to a great degree to Hollywood.
HORWITZYeah. That's right. And there's one other thing, and I don't know if this is good or bad, I'll just observe that I think it's true, and that is, there's been a shift. My -- all four of my grandparents came over to this country in the period between 1890 and 1909. Nonetheless, when I was growing up in Dayton, Ohio in the '50s, and I saw, you know, "Davy Crockett" on TV, it was really clear. The tone of that was, this is your history, Murray, you know.
HORWITZThis is -- and when you'd go to see a movie like "Gone with the Wind," you'd say, okay, this is part of my history because I'm an American, even though my people didn't come over for a long time, and as far as I know never even had the chance to buy slaves, you know. But the point is that now I think we're a little bit more insistent on everybody discovering his or her own roots, and look, if you grew up in Bavaria, right, chances are that you're family has been in Bavaria for years and years and years and years.
HORWITZIf you grew up in West Africa, chances are that, you know, that colonial history is part of your history because it really was your family, but I've got this whole almost -- not invented, but inherited history if you will, of the pilgrims and the revolution and the Civil War and all that, that predates my people coming over here.
NNAMDIBut it is your history.
HORWITZBut it is my history. So it's a little complicated for Americans.
HORWITZWell, we're still -- we're still defining ourselves...
HORWITZ...in a way that for instance the British are not.
HORWITZAnd movies have a very powerful part in that and, you know, they've helped shaped our memory.
NNAMDITalk about technology and what it's had to do with that, but first we've got to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. If the lines are busy, go to our website, send us -- join the conversation there, or send us an email to email@example.com, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking history as entertainment with Murray Horwitz. He's a film historian, playwright, and author. Currently the director of development for the Washington Performing Arts Society. Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author whose book include "Confederates in the Attic," and "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War." Murray, let's go back to film for another minute. How has technology transformed our way of conveying past events?
NNAMDIAs advances in cinematic technology have made for more detailed depictions of war, for instance, how would -- let me see what our war movies -- how would "Pork Chop Hill"...
NNAMDI...compare with "Saving Private Ryan"?
HORWITZWell, the biggest to me, and you've just -- perfect examples, because you've touched on something that I think is important. One's in black and white, and one's in color.
HORWITZAnd I think that's a big difference. Now, "Pork Chop Hill" I think is Korea, isn't it?
NNAMDIYeah, I think so. It might be.
NNAMDIHow about "Sergeant York"?
HORWITZRight. That's -- I mean, somehow we think of everything before World War II, and most of World War II is having happened in black and white. I mean, it looks for distant to us I think, and it looks different to us because of the black and white film. You remember what -- in fact, this has just happened in recent years when they came out with these home movies that were in color that have been shot by major leaguers in the 1930s and then there's -- I think on the history channel they did this whole series of films, very, very successful, big selling DVD's about World War II in color.
HORWITZAnd now you can see the slaughter in color, wow, you know. But it takes on a whole different cast and becomes a little bit more vivid when it's in color, and, you know, and Tony, you've written about how those -- the difference between the old (word?) types and posed Civil War and pre-Civil War pictures were compared to Matthew Brady's battlefield images.
HORWITZAnd they're striking. They're just -- they're so much more vivid, and I think technology has a big deal to do with the impression.
HORWITZYeah. I mean, the production values have gotten so high. I mean, as you said earlier, you know, a picture is worth a thousand words. It's so much more vivid, this sense that you can be there, and now that -- what struck me with "Saving Private Ryan," I used to be a war correspondent in an earlier life, was the sound. The sound of those bullets pinging off the landing crafts and the sound of warfare I found very accurate. And, you know, you can do that sort of thing where in these older movies -- but I think in their time they were just as powerful.
HORWITZYou know, it's just that our expectations change.
HORWITZIt's hard to imagine nowadays the enormous impact that "The Birth of a Nation" had on the United States.
HORWITZI mean, it was -- there was a special screening in White House for President Wilson, who, you'll forgive me, was from Virginia and thought it was great.
HORWITZAnd, you know, to your point, Kojo, we can just be very thankful that it wasn't in 3D.
HORWITZWell, to the point where this is -- I mean, "Birth of a Nation" is fascinating because it's an instance where life imitated art. The second clan...
HORWITZ...was essentially born in the wake of "Birth of Nation" which was originally called "The Klansmen." The whole white robes and burning crosses...
HORWITZAll that stuff.
HORWITZ...that actually comes from "Birth of a Nation."
HORWITZIt predated the resurgent Klan, so it had a huge impact.
HORWITZIt was. It's a good point, and I'm glad you made it, because as I recall, you confirm or deny, the Klan was kind of kind of this like splinter group, it was these -- but then in the 1920s there were hundreds of thousands.
HORWITZA resurgence. North and south.
HORWITZNo. It had sort of died after it...
HORWITZSo March on Washington (unintelligible)
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is Tom in Laurel, Md. Tom, your turn.
TOMHey, this is great. First of all, my experience, I spent like about 27 years in Guard in active duty, and I can tell you that unit histories are agreed upon lies. It's not until somebody like Cornelius Ryan gets in there and goes in and you fellows would know this better than I, you know, gets accurate accounts. I guess the recorded accounts by certain members of the unit that you really filtered us out.
TOMBut some of the bridges I think that can help you, when I -- "Killer Angels," I went to a great bookstore that's no longer there, Graystones in Gettysburg, and I got "Heart of a Lion," the story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and he's a much more human and fascinating character, you know, when you read about it. And equally as heroic, and I guess the other thing that I got from (word?) was that he -- "Killer Angels" he saw as a Shakespearean drama between the north and the south, and that was sort of, I guess for any of the re-enactors that suddenly will pull apart any inaccuracies.
TOMBut also, the History Channel, I saw the Audie Murphy movie, and then they had a psychologist on to explain that Murphy had an abused childhood. The only family he really had was the family he got in the military, and the reason he fought so ferociously is that when any of these guys were killed, they were like his uncles or mentors, or -- and that gave me a -- that part of the History Channel when they had that kind of critique, it gave me a tremendous insight into that. So I'll just stand back and let you guys comment or...
HORWITZYeah. I think what you're saying is, you know, a great example of how good literature or film can lead you back to the actual history, and that's when I think it's great. I saw a movie not long ago, and unfortunately not a great movie, but what a great historical story, "Windtalkers."
HORWITZAbout how they used Native American language as code in World War II. Well, I didn't know that story. What a remarkable episode that I wouldn't have known about without seeing the movie. So I think anytime it drives you back to the books or Google or whatever, that's great.
HORWITZYeah. I agree. And the other thing is, one of our callers, and I think it might have been Mike Jeck who's a great film authority, had said that sometimes the fiction is duller than the facts.
HORWITZWell, that's how I felt with "Windtalkers."
HORWITZYeah. I mean, I had a writing partner in the musical theater, Richard (word?) , Jr., and Richard used to say, authenticity it always inherently interesting. And much of the time, I think the difference between a good film -- historical film, and a not so good historical film is when they think they're hipper than the facts. And somebody put the facts in and figure out a way to knit them together, and it becomes very, very compelling.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Tom. We move onto Josh in Washington D.C. Josh, your turn.
JOSHOkay. Actually, in the interest of fully disclosure, I'm Tony Horwitz's brother. But...
NNAMDIThat Josh, okay.
JOSH...up talking late...
HORWITZYou didn't fight each other in the Civil War or anything, did you?
JOSHNo. No. No. No. Anyway, this is unrelated, but it occurred to me listening to your show that I was wondering from either Tony or Murray whether movies that featured journalists, they were based on journalist accounts, I'm thinking of the "The Killing Fields," which I personally love, or "All the President's Men," or "Frost Nixon," or "In Cold Blood." We as viewers, you know, assume those are more accurate because a journalist is kind of involved. Do you guys feel that they are in the end, you know, do those tend to be more accurate, or is it just a device?
HORWITZGolly, I mean, actually I know one of the journalists involved in one of those stories, Jim Reston who appears as a character in "Frost Nixon," and I'm trying to remember now exactly what Jim said. I mean, the sense that I have is, I don't -- I mean, just because it's based on a journalistic account doesn't mean it's necessarily more accurate. You can -- because first of all, it's -- and Tony as a distinguished Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist can talk to this better than I, but any journalist is filtering a story through his skills and his -- not imagination, but his way of putting things down, and so assuming that the journalistic account is reasonably accurate to begin with, then the filmmaker can do the same thing with that account that he can do, or she can do, with any historical account.
HORWITZI think the one thing that always strikes me about journalists and movies having been one, they make it look much more romantic and a sexier job than it is. Any journalist will tell you it's mostly sitting at a keyboard and going through piles of documents. It's rarely all that exciting, and that's fine. I want the -- I'm delighted people think it's all Woodward and Bernstein or "Killing Fields," but that's the exception to the rule.
NNAMDIAnd I guess the only difference is that journalists actually record history while it's occurring, as opposed to necessarily looking back on it from a distance.
HORWITZWe should say, by the way with Tony's brother on the phone, that you get a lot of credit, Kojo, because there's a famous recording of a broadcast in the 1930s where H.G. Wells and Orson Wells appear on the same show, and you have Tony Horwitz and Murray Horwitz.
NNAMDIYeah. It's absolutely amazing. And then I looked up...
NNAMDIIt's historic to have two Horwitzes on the show at the same time. Amazing. And now we have Josh on the phone also.
HORWITZI know, it's a really small world.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Josh. We go onto Carol in Silver Spring, Md. Carol, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROLHello. As a descendant of a member of the 54th Massachusetts and a retired teacher, I was wondering if Hollywood could -- could it be legislated that Hollywood give a disclaimer at the beginning of these films about the fact that some of this is not true. Has that ever been done?
NNAMDIHas that ever been done in film? I think I seem to remember at the end of some film or another, I've seen some kind of disclaimer.
HORWITZYeah. At the end you'll see this -- yeah. They'll say some things -- some characters have been conflated, some events have been glossed over. I've seen those disclaimers at the end.
HORWITZWell, it seems to be an area where the Web would be useful where, you know, a Web address -- I agree, and this is again why I like -- and historical fiction writers often do this in an afterward, and I think it would be great if Hollywood would do the same. If only on a website that you could go to afterwards and find out, oh, well, that character was invented and this part was taken from the known facts.
NNAMDIBecause Carol, your concern is that the fictionalization of these characters is what people accept as the fact?
CAROLYes. And I've had students come to me and ask me, is this true, is this not true? They really are not -- and with giving that a lot of students don't have the historical background and knowledge, they don't know what is fact. Now, I'd bet ten to one there will be kids that will think that there were vampires at the time of Abraham Lincoln, believe me.
HORWITZRight. Please tell your students that Pocahontas and John Smith did not have an affair.
HORWITZShe was ten at the time. This is another one that drives me nuts, that movies...
HORWITZ...keep portraying her as this teenaged hottie. She was ten. If there was anything between them, we don't want to know about it.
NNAMDICarol, thank you very much for your call. We got a comment on our website from Victoria who says, "I think it's important to also consider video games as a gateway drug to history along with films and novels. Games such as "Assassin's Creed," a series set during the third crusade, the renaissance and the American Civil War, or "Civilization," a series that starts in 4,000 BC and continues into the present day are a great way for people to start to learn and get interested in different, possibly lesser known moments in history."
HORWITZI, as a video game know nothing. I can't speak to that. I'm a little old school here. I think Risk and Diplomacy, good old board games...
HORWITZRight. Right. Right.
HORWITZ...even Stratego are good ways to turn kids onto that.
HORWITZYeah. I mean, here's what I'd say. Here's what I'd say. I think that in the cultural education of a child or a young adult, the more things you put them in contact with, the better off you are, because you never know what's going to take. You never know what they're going to pick up on later on life. And that's true of different kinds of art, that's true of different subjects in school, it's true of certainly movies and books. I would have to say that from my own experience, having owned several children when I -- before they grew up and left, is, you know, some -- yeah.
HORWITZFor every one or two kids that says, hmm, Charlemagne, I wonder who he was, you're gonna find another like probably 500 who just don't care and they just want to kill him.
NNAMDIMurray Horwitz. He's a film historian, playwright, and author. Currently the director of development for the Washington Performing Arts Society, formerly serving as the Director of the American Film Institute's Silver Theater and Cultural Center, and is the vice president for cultural programming at NPR. Murray, thank you for joining us.
HORWITZThank you, Kojo. What a pleasure.
NNAMDITony Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. His books include "Confederates in the Attic," and "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War." Tony, good to see you again.
HORWITZThank you. Murray and I are gonna go talk about Uncle Mort now.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Facing Calls For Dismissal, Prince George’s Schools CEO Kevin Maxwell Attends To Crisis Of Confidence
An investigation into Prince George's County Public Schools last fall found inflated graduation rates, too many excused absences and overly lax grading. How will the county fix its school's problems?
We check in with D.C.'s police chief to discuss his first year of policing the nation's capital.
80 degree days, windstorms, floods, droughts and bomb cyclones. We're all coping with a changing climate, but what happens when your livelihood depends on the weather?