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Lights, Camera, Action... and Damned Lies
Published on Wednesday, May 3, 2000 in The Times of London
Lights, Camera, Action...
and Damned Lies
by Simon Jenkins
I have an idea for a new war movie. It has Kenneth Branagh, Hugh Grant and Anthony Hopkins as SAS officers caked in mud aboard a gunboat during the Vietnam War. Advancing up the Gulf of Tonkin, they run the gauntlet of savage Vietcong machinegunners and cannibals. They blow up Haiphong harbour, make their way to Hanoi and free an entire company of American GIs. These are reunited with their tear-stained mothers beneath a Union Jack in Hong Kong. The story will, of course, be "true". The prequels will include The Scots Guards at The Alamo, With Wellington at Wounded Knee and How Monty took Iwo Jima. As for the true story of the RAF bombing of Hiroshima, it was credited to the Americans only after a US general bursts into tears. You think not? Watch the movie.

We must get our own back on the deluge of historical hokum coming out of Hollywood. The film company Miramax is to remake the Colditz Story with the Americans Tom Cruise and Matt Damon as heroic escapists. This is in the tradition of Steve McQueen leading the "American" breakout from Stalag Luft III. After Saving Private Ryan, I doubt if any young American is aware that Britain fought in the Second World War. Another film to open in London this summer, U-571, claims that the US Navy captured the Enigma codes from German ships during that war. (It was the Royal Navy.) To a Hollywood exhausted of good scripts, truth sells better than fiction. But even better than truth is a rewrite from the marketing department. In the movie business, "true" is American for "false".

No American soldier escaped from Colditz, indeed there were only eight Americans there at the very end of the war. Depicting Americans in this context, says the Colditz Association, would be "laughable". I sympathise. But Colditz veterans have been well-served by years of pro-British war movies, many of saccharine chauvinism. I have more sympathy with the unsung heroes whose memory is desecrated in U-571, some of them still alive. In what will, for most, become the standard version of the Enigma saga, the British are simply written out of the plot.

We can shrug our shoulders and say, who cares? The war was long ago. We should forgive and forget, or at least be content to remember selectively. History is always written by the victors. The medieval Plantagenets are still viewed through the distorting lens of that propagandist for the House of Tudor, William Shakespeare. As a result, centuries of scholarship have been unable to salvage the reputation of Richard III. As long as "beauty is truth, truth beauty", the facts can go hang.

One of the ludicrous features of Soviet Stalinism was the rewriting of history to show the Russians inventing everything first. They discovered evolution, penicillin and atomic energy. At one point I vaguely recall that they wrote Dickens. Westerners used to deride such liberties taken with history. It showed how insecure the Russians were, how in need of a boost to their national morale.

Is Hollywood doing the same with its war movies? On the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam War, America's military esteem seems to need a shot of cinematic steroid. Thus with D-Day, Enigma and Colditz. Will we soon endure Desert Storm, in which Americans GIs fight the Iraqis hand-to-hand while the British and French skulk in their tents? In Kosovo: the Revenge, will Apache helicopters scream into Pristina airport while General Mike Jackson sips claret somewhere in Macedonia? What a brave army needs nowadays is not a victory, just a well-financed film industry and no respect for the truth.

This may help us to understand yesterday's announcement of a the new British Film Council. If you want serious subsidy in Britain these days, you make films, not cars. Motor cars are boring 20th-century products, which can easily be imported from Germany. Movies are different. British film-making is in excellent shape. British actors, directors, writers and technicians are in demand worldwide. British studios are crowded. The sequel to Saving Private Ryan is being shot in Britain.

The only unhappy people are British producers, who keep losing their money because they back dud films. Like every true British entrepreneur, they ask for government help and, being glamorous, they get it. As a result, the Arts Council has spent £100 million since 1996, backing 200 movies that the market would not support. Barely a half ever reached a cinema. The latest subsidy, of £2 million to Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is not even to a film that can realistically be called British. It stars Johnny Depp and will be made in Spain. How this can be termed a proper use of public money is a mystery. Most movies are nowadays a melange of nationalities.

Now more money, £50 million a year, is to be blown on films that the market does not want to make. The Film Council chairman and king of the producer mafia, Alan Parker, yesterday revealed his tactic to recoup some of this cash. He says that he will make good films instead of bad ones. This brilliant idea had allegedly not occurred to the Arts Council. Mr Parker says he will concentrate his £50 million on rewriting scripts, again apparently a new idea. His first will presumably be Tony and Cherie: the Apotheosis Years.

State subsidy has long been a gift from susceptible ministers to whatever corner of the British Establishment is currently in favour. For the Tories it was traditionally farmers, for Labour it was manufacturing unions. Today's car workers and coalminers are out. They have been replaced at the "cutting edge" of subsidy by information technologists and film-makers. These lucky industries do not need money. They have a booming private sector in which the losers deserve to lose. Yet somehow they have won the Government's ear.

The public might plead that, if it must subsidise films, it might at least subsidise some corrective truth about British history. If Messrs Cruise and Hanks are to escape from Colditz, could the Department of Culture not pay Miramax to have them wear British uniforms and speak in English accents? As for other photogenic military incidents, I hope we shall not have to wait for Harvey Keitel and the American Marine Corps to drive the Argies off the Falklands or the Serbs out of Kosovo. If public money has any purpose in film-making, it is surely to restore some dignity to documentary history. Because the Americans won the Cold War does not entitle them to claim the 20th century as all their own work.

I have a better idea, and it costs nothing. Most describers of history make some effort to ensure that what they say is true. What newspapers print may be imperfect, but they at least struggle to be accurate. They have legal and professional disciplines to help them. The same goes for broadcasting, photography, biography and historical scholarship - as David Irving recently found to his cost. There are procedures against falsity. Film is an art form so powerful and arrogant as to claim exemption from such discipline. Most films are fiction, which is no problem. An increasing number are "true stories", telling not the truth but what writers and directors know to be false. Whether the story is the life of Jacqueline du Pré or the death of John F. Kennedy seems not to matter. Any old distortion will do to sell a picture.

The reputations of public figures may have their recourse. History can doubtless look after itself. But I do hold an old-fashioned watching brief on the word "true". If it ceases to mean anything beyond "sellable", then anarchy is surely loosed upon the world. How can we protest at the fallacies of racists and dictators if we cannot tell what is true from what is merely exciting or sellable? If one man presents the truth as "faction" or "docudrama", then another can likewise present a lie.

I am against public censorship. I am even against censoring lies. But liars should not get away scot-free. Films distributed in Britain are still certified by the amount of sex and violence considered appropriate for differing age groups. Where they claim to reconstruct history or tell a true story, they should also be subject to some test of accuracy. Where plainly untrue, they should carry an "L" certificate. "L" is for lies.

Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd


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