The problem with reading history in books is that there are never enough dancing girls.
We can sit in silence with our Gibbon, Prescott or Tacitus and turn pages like a hermit, one after the other, but nothing makes history come alive like Hollywood. No footnotes, no pesky scholarship, no long sentences and paragraphs, no boring analyses: Hollywood gives us the battles, the orgies, the casts of thousands, the costumes and the lack thereof.
It gives us Victor Mature, Gene Tierney, Yul Brynner and all-time champ Charlton Heston.
It gives us Cleopatras, Caesars, Delilahs, Mata Haris, Lucretia Borgias and Genghis Khans.
They wear togas, tunics, buckskins, goat-skins and mastodon skins. They bring with them plagues, wars, dynasties, lust and ambition. They speak in a language with no contractions and in ponderous formalities and utter such memorable lines as ”Harness my zebras, gift of the Nubian King!,” and ”War, war! That’s all you think about, Dick Plantagenet.”
Or ”Take a letter. Mark Antony, The Senate, Rome . . .”
Or ”This Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, ‘Take her!’ ”
Yes, Hollywood has a certain way with history. When director Alex Korda was told he needed six demurely dressed vestal virgins, he snapped back, ”I want 60, and I want them naked!”
Or, as James Thurber once remarked after seeing Cecil B. De Mille’s Ten Commandments, ”It makes you realize what God could have done if he’d had the money.”
History continues to inspire Hollywood execs, from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. We even get a history lesson from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Brad Pitt’s Troy (2004). Not to forget the forgettable Gladiator (200), with Russell Crowe killing the Roman emperor, Commodus in the somewhat historically questionable coliseum.
But the heyday of historical dramas came with the studios, and the sword and sandal epics, with their “cast of thousands” before CGI made such a claim unnecessary.
This all comes up because that megaturkey epic, Cleopatra (1963), with Liz and Dick, has been issued on Blu-Ray. All 243 bloated minutes of it. Stilted dialog, purple eye shadow, togas out the wazoo, to say nothing of barges on the Nile. And Rex Harrison as Caesar.
Hollywood is always historically accurate, at least in so far as there actually was a Caesar. After the establishment of that fact, all bets are off. Hollywood has made many Cleopatras, but I wouldn’t try to look for any fact larger than a mouse in any of them.
But accuracy is overrated in history. Some of the greatest artistic successes make for questionable history, such as Shakespeare’s Richard III or Oliver Stone’s Nixon.
The facts may be in question, but you nevertheless feel this is the way it should have been.
It’s like the dictum from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: ”When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
And if there’s not a legend, let the publicity department invent one.
What’s the point of reading all those scholarly books if, once you put them down, you can’t remember anything in them? On the other hand, who can forget Claudette Colbert as Nero’s wife in The Sign of the Cross, bathing in asses’ milk?
So, Hollywood provides us with a history that sticks to the brain like used chewing gum.
Think of your video store as a university.
It begins with prehistory.
Your main problem will be in choosing which movies to watch from the riches available: Do you want Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. (1966) , Darryl Hannah in Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) or Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire (1981)?
I always go for the last. I tell people it is because of the clever artificial language created by linguist and novelist Anthony Burgess, but it is really because Chong takes her clothes off. Several times.
When it comes to pharaohs and Caesars, the film world is immense. There must be thousands of movies featuring Romans, from 1908’s silent Julius Caesar to 1980’s Caligula, by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, which wouldn’t shut up.
It is interesting: Hollywood loves Ancient Rome, but it ignores Ancient Greece. As I look down the long list of history, I can’t help but notice that every time civilization reaches an apex of intelligence and literacy, Hollywood grows mum. We have lots of gladiators, but few philosophers onscreen.
The pattern holds up in later history, too. It’s hard to find a good movie that takes on the Enlightenment or the Reformation. But give us revolution, debauchery or intrigue, and the cameras start spinning.
You’d think there would be something to film in the 18th century: Perhaps Hollywood has not yet discovered the Duc de Richelieu, who invented mayonnaise in 1756 and was notorious for holding nude dinner parties. I’m sure the two things must be related in a way Hollywood can use.
But there is something about knee-britches that puts Hollywood off. For all the films on the Civil War, there are darn few on the Revolution. Lincoln shows up over and over, but George Washington might as well never have lived. I guess Hollywood thinks he looks too foppish in that satin and wig.
To do their patriotic duty, Hollywood has managed two films on the Revolution. It tried to tart it up once in 1776 (1972) by turning the war into a musical; the next time, it thought it could make Al Pacino sound like an 18th-century Bostonian in Revolution (1985). Both films are predictably awful.
An entire history curriculum could be devised from Hollywood films, matching titles with history’s centuries and movements.
As with any course of study, there are crib notes for those who cannot take the time for the whole thing.
You can get an overview of history from these three films:
1. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.
2. The Story of Mankind, with the Marx Brothers.
3. Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part One — ”It’s good to be da king.”
I can’t give you a diploma for completing this curriculum, but I can promise that you’ll have as good a grasp on history as the average American student.