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Monday, August 18, 2003
Lighten up! It's only a movie
The Killing of History?
Hollywood may be dominated by non-religious Jewish males with Eastern European roots, and thus reflects their worldviews, interests and concerns, but it also has a soft spot for the Irish. Hollywood loves the Irish. Heck, Americans love the Irish. It comes as perhaps no surprise that a significant proportion of the financial backing for the IRA came from American sympathisers. Hollywood has always embraced Irishness; the kindly, warm-hearted and jovial Catholic parish priest has long been a staple of Hollywood's family fare. The Irish are the salt of the earth and can do no wrong. Even Irish villains and rogues are always somehow appealing - just ordinary, decent criminals.
Hollywood's attitude to the English has always been much more ambivalent. In its earlier days Englishness, English themes and English accents were all the fashion in Hollywood films. More recently however English actors find steady employment playing various "Boo! Hiss!" evil masterminds, vicious terrorists, meglomaniacs, serial killers and fascists. In fact the English as an "ethnic group" are much more likely to find themselves portrayed as the baddies in the contemporary Hollywood movie.
While the Brits have a near monopoly on evil villain roles, American actors have just about cornered the market in portraying Irishmen. it is just about impossible to identify any well-known American actor who hasn't got at least one role in his CV in which he or she adopts an Irish brogue - or makes a quaint film in the Emerald Isle.
Of course, the fact is that an awful lot of Americans come from Irish stock. In my own country, Australia, a significant percentage of the population also has Irish roots - several of the branches of my own family tree are Irish. The first of my ancestors to arrive downunder was a 1798 rebel, condemned to death but granted a "reprieve" by accepting permanent exile to the ends of the earth.
All of which leads me to Martin Scorsese's "The Gangs of New York", which I saw recently on DVD. The production design, with its recreation of New York circa the Civil War, was superb, the attention to details of dress, weapons, even language was first-rate. It was visually stunning and Martin Scorsese is without doubt, a great director. The problem was that, like just about every other historical drama that Hollywood puts out, it was both historically inaccurate and historically revisionist. Considering the amount of effort put into getting so many of the production design details right, I have to conclude that its historical inaccuracies were deliberate. History according to Hollywood is usually a caricature of history as it was actually experienced. And so it was with "The Gangs of New York".
"Lighten up!"you may respond."Its only a movie."
True. Movies are not books. By their nature they have to be more abbreviated and circumspect in what they can focus upon. Movies are supremely a visual medium; their power lies in their images, not in the nuances and intracacies so inherent in real life historical situations. These are best captured in the written word.
But why do movies have to be so dumbed-down? And why is history so frequently re-written in order to conform to the way liberals want it to be rather than the way it really was?? For the sad truth is that Hollywood history is distorted to reflect the politically correct prejudices and biases of the ruling elite - among whom its celebrity royalty have a privileged place.
"The Gangs of New York" is neither the first or the worst example of the way Hollywood distorts reality, especially historical reality, and the way that screenwriters and directors often play fast and loose (or is that fast and furious) with the facts. “Dramatic licence” is a useful rubric under which to hide a multitude of historiographical sins.
It may be generally true that a picture is worth a thousand words but in a revisionist movie a picture may be worthless as a means of understanding the past and the people who lived there. I will assume that mature, sophisticated and well-read adults with a good general knowledge of history are able to take what they see in a movie with a grain of salt. And if they see something that piques their curiosity, that they are able to use a library to get a book in order to read in more depth about the events depicted. But reading history books is a minority past-time in the modern world.
Hollywood is many things but at its base it is "the industry", it is a business which aims to produce entertainment in order to make money, and hopefully lots of it. It is the ultimate capitalistic dream machine which might explain why the majority of its denizens are shallow-thinking leftists and liberals. Perhaps they are secretly ashamed and guilty of enjoying the privileges and lifestyle afforded by their close involvement in the movie industry. And so they like to rake in the big bucks, but they also salve their consciences, by making PC "statements" in their movies and giving their support to every inane liberal "cause" that comes along.
My concern, as a former history teacher, is about the increasing lack of interest in the study of history among young people. History as an academic subject in high school has fallen on hard times, to be replaced with the apparently more "socially relevant" (i.e. politically-correct) absorption on "contemporary issues" education - with a distinctive left-wing bent. That this is accompanied by a general disdain for the written word further compounds a situation in which may moderns are now historical orphans, unable to identify their place in the stream of history. For many younger people there is no sense of context to their lives. Each individual merely appears in the ahistorical present with no connections, no roots, to previous generations and previous traditions. Televison and movies become the chief informers and shapers of values, attitudes and “knowledge”. Truth, is the first casualty.
“It’s only a movie” is fine for the well informed, but it is mind-warping for the ill-informed.
“The Gangs of New York” makes a number of deliberate and significant alterations to the historical reality of the events it portrays: One can pursue these errors via sites on the Net such as The Gangs of New York: The Errors. There one can discover the facts about the Five Points districts, nineteenth-century gangs, politics, the Civil War in New York, the Draft Riots, and Irish immigration, that one does not get from viewing the movie.
Let me summarise a few of the more blatant errors:
a) The Five Points was built upon a swamp; there was no extensive series of underground tunnels complete with caches of skulls (of whom?) and hiding places as shown in the movie.
b) Racism was indeed rampant in the New York of the era. But it was the Irish immigrants themselves, not Nativists as implied in the film, who were most racist towards the Negroes. Against this background, the likelihood of the Irish hero and his Irish gang, having a Black man as a comrade in arms seems most disingenuous.
c) The token black man among the “good guys”. Does Hollywood have some sort of code that requires there be a good black man in every movie? Hero Leo Di Caprio has a black friend as per the dictates of contemporary political correctness - in spite of it being an anachronism.
d) The extent of the violence portrayed in the movie is completely over the top. Very few people were actually killed in gang wars.
e) No candles were placed in windows to show support for the Draft Riots.
f) There were very few Chinese living in New York at this particular time. In the movie the Chinese are almost ubiquitous. There were virtually no Chinese women at all, despite the fact that the movie frequently parades them as prostitutes.
g) The Draft Riots were not started by Nativists, but by the Irish. Most Nativists were not opponents of the cause of the North during the Civil War nor were they advocates of slavery. The Nativists were a largely middle class movement led by luminaries such as Samuel Morse.
h) American naval forces did not fire cannons upon civilians from ships in the harbour to quell the riots.
i) Federal troops did not march into the crowds in a re-run of the Odessa Steps segment from “Battleship Potemkin” firing indiscriminately on civilians in the crowd.
j) The Republicans, like President Lincoln, who opposed slavery are noticeable by their absence, their being instead numerous veiled references to the ruling classes and their oppression of the salt of the earth Irish and the Negroes.
k) There were no mass graves for unidentified victims of the Draft Riots. Indeed there were minimal deaths as a result of the rioting...
Movies can bring the past alive, but they can also, just as frequently, kill the truth. George Santayana's famous saying that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" bears reflecting upon especially in an era when an increasing number of moderns actually do have no memory of a past. The moving image is a powerful tool of manipulation and propaganda in the hands of ideologues and people who do not have any memory are easy prey for the "Killing of History".
As you can see, my post was not really about the Irish, at all...