Awards season. A prominent director releases a movie that garners some Oscar nominations. Controversy arises among some, though. The movie is based on the life of a man many Americans think of as a hero, but who in his own time has proven to be somewhat controversial. It seems some have found the movie has taken a few liberties with past events, and since said past events are based on real, living people, this is a cause for concern among some people.
I am speaking, of course, of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie Lincoln.
You probably thought I meant American Sniper, didn’t you? Yeah, that was cruelly deliberate.
To recap, back in February of 2013, a Congressman from the state of Connecticut by the name of Joe Courtney noticed that a few of his Congressional predecessors from his home state had voted against the 13th Amendment, the one that outlawed slavery, when in reality these men had all voted in favor of the Amendment. Courtney raised a stink, and some folks had a problem with Spielberg and Co. altering history to make for a more suspenseful story. I know, since I was stupid enough to read online comments by people under an article discussing the controversy.
Never read online comments if you can help it, boys and girls.
Except, of course, for the fine commentary here at the Gabbing Geek blog!
Now, today, we have the American Sniper brouhaha. Clint Eastwood movie based on the memoir by the late Chris Kyle has certainly fired people up, even level-headed folks like Ryan and Watson. Now, Kyle’s own memoir has a few moments of historically questionable moments that a little light research can disprove rather easily. Jesse Ventura may not have time to bleed, but he apparently does have time to win a libel lawsuit against Kyle’s estate.
However, I am not here to speak of Chris Kyle, or even American Sniper, book or movie. I haven’t read one or seen the other yet. But American Sniper isn’t the only movie up for an Oscar this year that may not be the most historically accurate movie out there. Selma didn’t have permission to use some of Martin Luther King’s own words for the movie. The Imitation Game gives Alan Turing too much credit for cracking the Enigma code single-handedly. And I cannot for the life of me get a reservation for any Grand Hotels in Budapest.
But these are movies, and movies need to entertain. A movie based on the life of any one person needs to condense the entire life into a span of time ranging from 90 minutes to maybe three hours, and meet a narrative of some kind, where maybe the person learns a lesson and becomes a better person or achieves a lifelong dream of some kind, leading to the master accomplishment that is the movie’s focus, probably the most famous accomplishment of the subject’s life.
Wanna blame someone for this? Try this guy on for size: William Shakespeare.
Yes, the Bard of Avon, best known by the casual reader who didn’t do the assigned reading in high school for tragedies like Hamlet, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, wrote other things, such as comedies and histories. Many critics consider his best history play, a play based on actual English history, to be Henry IV, Part I. You know what that play has? Completely made-up characters used to advance the central plot and themes.
The play deals with, despite the title, the son of King Henry IV, Prince Hal, future Henry V, the greatest warrior king in English history, unless you count Richard the Lionhearted, and I don’t. Capturing one small city in the Holy Land doesn’t compare to beating a French army so bad in their own country said king secured for himself a French princess for a wife and the position of next in line for the French throne. Henry died six months before said French king so he never quite got that French kingship, but he also managed to die in his home country. Plus, Richard left his dipstick brother in charge, and he sucked so much the nobles made him sign the Magna Carta, a good thing for everyone but the kings. And there was that whole Robin Hood thing…bottom line, Henry trumps Richard.
Anyway, the historic Henry had some political disagreements with his father. Shakespeare symbolizes this by showing Prince Hal hanging out with a gang of, let’s say, ruffians at a local tavern. It’s like being in the palace, only with blackjack, and hookers! OK, forget the palace…and probably the blackjack. I really don’t know when that game was invented.
To best symbolize Hal’s growth as the future Great Warrior King, Shakespeare gives him a secondary father-figure in the form of Sir John Falstaff. Though originally named for a real figure, noted heretic Sir John Oldcastle, Falstaff is about as different as Oldcastle as night and day, or knight and day.
Thank yew, thank yew, I’ll be here all week. Be sure to tip your waitress.
Falstaff is an old, fat, liar, drunk, and thief. He’s a braggart who isn’t afraid to alter any story in the middle of said story to make himself look good. One famous example has him claiming he single-handedly fought off an increasingly large number of bandits during a robbery of his own, when in reality he’d turned tail and ran at the first sign of competition. Upon learning from Hal, who Falstaff believes wasn’t there, that Hal himself and only one other man were the bandit army, Falstaff immediately states that of course he knew that, and he never would have harmed a hair on the royal head, so of course he took a run for it.
Plus, on weekends, Falstaff fights with the other two thirds of the Warriors Three to defend Asgard alongside the mighty Thor!
Yes, he is basically Volstagg.
Falstaff proved popular. His role was expanded for Henry IV, Part II and he was promised to be in Henry V. He actually died off-stage in that last play, but legend has it Elizabeth I personally requested a play of Falstaff in love, which led to The Merry Wives of Windsor. And no one seems to mind that he’s completely fictional in a story that is purporting to be actual English history.
Symbolically, Falstaff is there as the figure Hal must ultimately reject to become the king he will eventually become. It doesn’t matter that he was ever real. He makes the story. Orson Welles did a movie version of Henry IV, Part I that focused almost entirely on the Falstaff scenes, The Chimes at Midnight. He was a character added to a work of history, and not even the only one (his whole gang is even more fictional than he is). The point wasn’t the accuracy; it was what he represented in the play. And that’s what probably mattered more to Clint Eastwood than anything else when he made American Sniper.
On a side note, Falstaff was among the characters brought to life recently by the BBC mini-series The Hollow Crown. That series was the entire four-part history cycle Shakespeare wrote. Yes, despite the title, Henry IV, Part I was actually the second part of the story after Richard II. Who was Prince Hal to Simon Russell Beale’s Flastaff? Why, Geek Favorite Tom Hiddleston of course! And mentioning his name couldn’t possibly be used to get page views.
The sequel series with another four of Shakespeare’s plays is coming soon, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III.