Billy Wilder: American Film Realist (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 1, 2003
- pp. 79-80
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Book Reviews | Regular Feature material, another weighty group—professional historians—frequently voice their objections to Hollywood's tampering with facts, events, dates, and personages in hundreds of titles, often inventing dialogue and situations and employing such sweeping artistic license that a moving picture depicting a significant episode becomes just another soap opera reduced to falsehoods and platitudes . Look at Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, one academic suggests: here is an example offaulty researchbecause, among other items, the reports of the D-Day deaths of Private Ryan's brothers simply could not have reached the Pentagon in two days. Or how about the "FDR rising from the wheel chair scene" in Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor? But are distortion, fiction-as-fact, or prevarication necessarily negative traits? Can any value be garnered from a motion picture that, basically, examines a historical event and—in order to maintain audience interest—peppers the script with some harmless fabrication or benign composite? How much impairment is inflicted when the screenplay omits details that make the storyline easier to follow? According to film historian Robert Brent Toplin, perhaps viewers should take a more open-minded view ofHollywood screenplays and instead of niggling about inaccuracies, anachronisms, or falsehoods, study the ballpark implications regarding cinema's influence on understanding past events. This, essentially, represents the tone of his new book, Reel History: In Defense ofHollywood. As Dr. Toplin details, many of the complaints about cinematic history are unrealistic and irrelevant because of the challenges encountered when filmmakers labor to bring the past to life on the screen. While it is true, he asserts, that a book is vastly superior to a motion picture as a source of detailed information and analysis, a two-hour movie can arouse emotions, stir curiosity , and foster questions in a different and more enlightening format . Many times, a photodrama's distortion communicates a broader and deeper truth about an event that could easily go unnoticed by a casual reader. For example, after the popular television program Roots aired in 1977, public approval seemed unanimous except from university critics who attacked the miniseries for offering a simplistic view of historical events. Then producer David Wolper threw down his gauntlet asking detractors to write their own scenario about slavery to see what percentage of prime time audiences were interested in watching a purely factual account about the evils ofbondage. In the end, Wolper convinced his naysayers that a dramatic presentation would only appeal to spectators if the plot was compelling, not didactic. The same holds true for the CivilWar saga, Glory, where a BlackUnionArmy regiment gained fame for their Fort Wagner attack. While this screenplay contained numerous inaccuracies, it embodied—iftaken as a whole— many symbolic truths. Continuing his argument, Dr. Toplin has hand-picked numerous titles, including twelve Oscar-winning historical films, to illustrate his middle ground ideas that Hollywood motion pictures communicate important notions about the past even ifthese screenplays contain strong fictional elements. Check outMelville Shavelson's Ike: The War Years, Richard Attenborough's Shadowland, or Michael Curtiz's The Private Lives ofElizabeth and Essex. Does the conjectural romantic theme destroy the director's integrity? Can viewers walk away from a screening with a good idea about the Normandy Invasion, C. S. Lewis' modern belles-lettres contribution, or sixteenth-century Protestant England? Overall, ReelHistory contains many scrappy points and Dr. Toplin's provocative alternative movie watching approach is a refreshing idea in cinema studies. Once more (this is his eleventh book), he has completed a study that will keep the academic kettle boiling about the ongoing film and history debate, with his brisk arguments, unique perspectives, and novel standpoints. Robert Fyne Kean University RJFyne@aol.com Richard Armstrong. Billy Wilder: American Film Realist. McFarland, 2000. 164 pages; $32.00 hardcover. Craftsman and Commentator The blurb on the back cover of Richard Armstrong's Billy Wilder: American Film Realist offers a user (and indeed, a reviewer ) friendly introduction to the intended goal of the author's book project. It reads, "Born in Austria but named after Buffalo Bill, Billy Wilder arrived in Hollywood thoroughly versed in American culture—and promptly began turning out movies more 'American' in setting and sensibility than...