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June 28, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Hollywood exudes glitz, glam and anything that makes a statement at the box office, but sometimes its films fail to adhere to historical accuracy. After discussing films that faithfully depict American history, associate professor Jeff Pasley from MU’s history department picked five movies he believes don’t properly portray the past.
This movie captures the white-supremacist attitude of filmmakers during the 1910s. Instead of sharing an account of Reconstruction, the film distorts history and was used as propaganda in the early 20th century to portray KKK members as great heroes of the American South. “It’s this story about the triumph of white supremacy that was taken to the extreme,” Pasley says. “It was as mainstream as can be. You won’t learn much about Reconstruction in there, but you’ll learn about where the country was in terms of racial views.”
Errol Flynn stars as the infamous Gen. George Custer. The picture follows Custer from his time at West Point Military Academy until his death, via mostly fictitious accounts. Although much of the depiction of Custer’s attitude is correct, Pasley says the roles Custer had in the events he supposedly participated in were fictional. For example, Custer never became a soldier decorated with medals as the film leads the audience to believe. In one scene, Custer leads troops at the First Battle of Bull Run when, in fact, he really was only a messenger. “It’s all made up,” Pasley says. “He really would have tried to be an Errol Flynn figure. He would have starred in movies about himself if movies had existed. He would have enjoyed making up his story just as they did there.”
Once again, Disney rewrote a legend in this overly romanticized version of John Smith and Pocahontas’ story. For starters, the real Powhatan princess was a mere 10 years old when Smith and friends arrived. Their romance seems more magical than historically accurate when Pocahontas talks with trees and animals while the colonist becomes culturally appreciative. “The white man that immediately snags himself an Indian princess — that’s the oldest tale in colonial literature,” Pasley says. “Having him become the good European and see the beauty of their culture, that’s just such a misguided approach to someone like John Smith, who was more like a pirate.”
The Revolutionary War in the South was partly a war centered on issues of race and slavery. It was declared that any slave willing to fight for the British would be deemed free, and this caused uproar among white farmers. The Patriot makes that hard to believe. Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a plantation owner in South Carolina, doesn’t demand control over his workers but instead is their respected friend. On top of glamorizing Gibson’s character, Pasley says the producers made the British, or anyone who was a villain, out to be as cruel and harsh as Nazis. “The Patriot is so egregiously terrible,” Pasley says. “It takes this hero and makes him so ridiculously Hollywood that it almost reverses the meaning of a lot of it.”
Hitler’s downfall is well documented in history books. It’s not hard for most to recognize when one major detail in this movie isn’t true: Brad Pitt and a masquerading group of guerilla soldiers didn’t kill Hitler and his cohorts in an exploding movie theater during World War II, as Quentin Tarantino shows. Aldo Raine (Pitt) and pals produce great, and sometimes graphic, action and humor, but they don’t even come close to depicting how Hitler really died. In reality, he committed suicide. “(Inglourious Basterds) is very up front about how ridiculous it is,” Pasley says. However, he adds that the absurdity is nice and “in some ways it was kind of refreshing that it wasn’t trying to convince you.”