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  • Truth and Reality in Screening Sports’ Pasts: Sports Films, Public History, and Truthfulness
  • Malcolm MacLean

sports film, film grammar, public history, narrative analysis, audience analysis

Truthfulness in details may very well not constitute the truthfulness of the whole, however. The elements of dress and the jewels, viewed separately, are factual, but their arrangement on the model fails to produce an impression of veracity. The accumulation of all of these accessories upon a single individual creates a saturated effect that is detrimental to verisimilitude. It looks as if the photographer had at his disposal a large and varied stock of jewellery and apparel and could not stop himself from having the model wear it all at once.

Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem

Malek Alloula’s distinction between forms of truthfulness in colonial era photographs of the harem1 points to the challenge of distinguishing verity in the texts and sources of historical analysis, cultural meaning, and political depiction. His position provides a useful counterpoint to the identification of truth in these three discussions of filmic sports history, and some of the key tensions, contradictions, and debates we must continue to grapple with and work through if we are to make effective use of film of any form or genre in academic work in sports history. Rather than venture into any close evaluation [End Page 47] of the papers, this contribution explores some related issues with which practitioners of social or cultural history, including sports history, need to contend in making effective use of these media.

It is often hard to ignore the debates that dominate the film-and-history discourses, especially those seen in repeated outrage at inaccuracies. Consider, for instance, the 2000 movie U-571 (directed by Jonathon Mostow) starring Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, and Jon Bon Jovi as members of a team of U.S. servicemen who capture the eponymous U-boat in an effort to steal its Enigma machine. 2 Outraged military historians fumed—it wasn’t U-571, but U-570 they pointed out; they weren’t U.S. troops but British—an even greater source of trans-Atlantic anger. What is more, the German crew destroyed most of the secret material, and it played little role in the eventual breaking of the Enigma code. The most notable thing about U-570 is that it was, as far as I know, the only submarine to see service during WWII as both a German and British vessel. The issue here is one of verisimilitude and therefore claims to truthfulness. The problem of U-571 and films like it, according to these critics, is not that they are bad movies (this kind of cinematic assessment is seldom made) but that they misrepresent the past. As an aside, there is a small set of movies that actively engage with this “misrepresentation”—consider Peter Richardson’s 2004 Churchill: The Hollywood Years starring Christian Slater as Winston Churchill and Neve Campbell as Princess Elizabeth. 3

Our debates, claims, and views as historians have a disturbing tendency to conflate verisimilitude and realism, when the conflation should be verisimilitude and claims to reality as something quite different from anything that resembles a realist film discourse and grammar. A strong case can be made that commercially successful cinema relies on a conflation of verisimilitude and cinematic realism but only because commercial success tends to rely on believability (although the success of science fiction as a genre tells us that this is not necessarily believable-in-the-current-world). Looking to mainstream, commercial cinema, in both Girlfight (2000) and Blue Crush (2002) the actor Michelle Rodriguez highlights cinematic grammatical complexity.4 She is neither a boxer nor a surfer, but she is clearly much more at home in the ring than on the wave. Through these contrasts Rodriguez problematizes much of the praxis of filmed sporting performance in contemporary feature films, often seen as a tension between actors who are athletes and athletes who can act. An alternative dramaturgy does not necessarily present this problem because audiences are not asked to believe in the same way that the actor-on-screen is really a boxer or...


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