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Return of the biopic

History is fashionable again at the cinema

Artillery Row

I have never known movies so heavily promoted as this year. There are the usual trailers on small and large screens, posters and arresting teasers on social media — no doubt a reaction to the Covid years, to lure us back into hard-hit cinemas. My viewing this year has included the feasts of both Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. The biographical picture (biopic) is back in force, if it was ever out of fashion.

Some of the first motion pictures were biopics, initially silent. In portraying a high-minded individual, historical or contemporary, who has influenced our lives in some way, cinema’s hope is that some of the character’s prestige will rub off into the film. Both sides of the Atlantic have seen countless examples, because the genre is traditionally presented as culturally above a thriller, western or a musical. Its offer is an invitation to see history. Let us take Oppenheimer or Napoleon, with Cillian Murphy and Joachim Phoenix in the title roles. Viewers are attracted by the concept of a true story, be it the designer of the first atomic bomb, or the little emperor who dominated Europe. They may know little or a lot about the subject, even if only hazy knowledge from distant schooldays, but they start with more base knowledge than any other genre.

Gifted directors, in this case Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott, with their cast hold our hands and walk us into an historical context, hinting at grandeur or importance. We are led into a panorama of life that’s now seen as great or significant. Whether you’re glued to a small screen nightly, or whether you go to the cinema only once or twice a year, the biopic demands attention as “education”, in a way a thriller, horror or romcom flick does not. We are sold the idea that reel history (which can never be real history) somehow merits our valuable time, more than mere “entertainment”.

Napoleon first burst onto the screen in 1927 with a silent-era masterpiece directed by Abel Gance. Far ahead of its time, the final scenes were shot by three parallel cameras, designed to be projected simultaneously onto triple screens, arrayed in a horizontal row called a Triptych, the process labelled “Polyvision” by Gance. It widened the cinematic aspect to a field of vision unknown then or since. The director tried to film the whole in his Polyvision, but found it too technical and expensive. When released, only the centre screen of footage was shown, to a specially composed score. Designed as one episode of several to tell the emperor’s life, which we would today label a franchise, the 1927 extravaganza came in at 5.5 hours, necessitating three intermissions, including one for dinner. Gance had interpreted his biopic as a grand opera. It has been much trimmed and revisited by other directors, including Francis Ford Coppola in the 1980s, and restoration of lost footage is still ongoing. I saw the 5.5-hour version in the Royal Festival Hall in 2000, with a score by Carl Davies (of World at War fame). For a film emerging from the Stone Age of cinematography, its excitingly modern ambition was worth my bum ache. I could see what all the fuss was about.

Curiously, the real value of Gance’s Napoléon was in technique rather than content. If you think of the silent era, it’s mostly the comics who come to mind, playing out their dramas in front of a single static camera. Gance seized this new medium, first embraced in December 1895 by the Parisian Lumière Brothers, and turned it on its head. Napoléon featured not just the Triptych experiment, but many other innovative techniques commonplace today. These included fast cutting between scenes of alternating dialogue, extensive close-ups, a wide variety of hand-held camera shots, location shooting, multiple-camera setups and film tinting (colouring), so altering cinematography for ever.

This brings a collision between historical truth and celluloid story-making

Although Rod Steiger gave us a different take on Napoleon in Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo of 1970, with its leading actors of the day and massive cast of extras, comprising much of a Soviet army division in period costume and filmed behind the old Iron Curtain, Ridley Scott’s new Napoleon is clearly paying homage to the Gance Napoléon in ambition and length. Scott pretty much picks up the story where Gance left off, and he is able to deploy technology of which Gance could only dream. However, with both films, screenwriter, director and actors are at a disadvantage common to all biopics of having to work against the viewers’ check-list of facts they know, or expect to see included. Thus Scott, like Gance, relies on spectacular technique over storyline. This brings viewers, especially my fellow fuming historians, into a collision between historical truth and the possibilities of celluloid story-making.

Most of us have a mental picture of the character we are invited to watch, which constrains actors and their make-up teams, who have to imitate particular people, with all the wigs, prosthetics and accents that entails. Yet, to view the biopic as a piece of history is to miss the point of the motion picture industry. Pick up a screenplay, and you will be surprised at how few pages it comprises, how few words on each page. None read like a literary biography. With only 90–120 minutes in a typical movie, there is not enough time to cover a character’s full life — not even that of Napoleon in 5.5 hours. Instead, the challenge for the writing-directing team is to extract snippets of a life to demonstrate the evolution of character.

It has to be this way, but that makes the stakes higher than with other genres. As modern audiences will generally see through a hagiography, the best treatments expose a flaw or two. In First of the Few (1942), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Young Winston (1972), Amadeus (1984), In Love and War (1996) and Ray (2004), we encounter Spitfire designer R.J. Mitchell battling with failing health, T.E. Lawrence stumbling to cope with celebrity status, the young Churchill’s impetuosity, Mozart’s frivolity, Ernest Hemingway in a failing love affair, and Ray Charles struggling with drug addiction. Other biopics use an individual to explore a recent era or theme. Here, where the story is greater than the events portrayed on screen, the pressure is even greater, for the cinema-going audience may recall the drama in terms of their own history or historical knowledge. Thus, the cinematic details have to be accurate.

Wide ranging examples include The Killing Fields (1984, following journalists in the Cambodia of the murderous Khmer Rouge); Good Morning Vietnam (1987, featuring the radio DJ Adrian Cronauer in the Saigon of 1965); Schindler’s List (1993, depicting a German industrialist saving his Jewish workforce during the Holocaust); Apollo 13 (1995, a real space drama about America’s fifth mission to the Moon, disrupted by an on-board explosion); Mrs Brown (1997, the story of a widowed Queen Victoria and her Scottish servant); Good Night, and Good Luck (2005, concerning the conflict between journalist Ed Murrow and the anti-Communist, witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy); The Last King of Scotland (2006, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, as seen through the eyes of a Scottish doctor); Invictus (2009, about sport unifying Nelson Mandela’s South Africa), and Mr Turner (2014, Timothy Spall’s portrayal of one of Britain’s best-loved painters).

With a biopic, we already know much of the plot, which cannot be altered or fudged. Instead, the successful motion picture can only explore a facet of life that opens the door slightly, but not fully. In this respect, film portrayals are closer to plays than literary non-fiction. Take the ten history plays of Shakespeare. Not even the Bard would claim they were historically accurate, rather than works of historical entertainment. At best they might be labelled, “based on historical events, edited for dramatic purposes”. Shakespeare’s works were also political. To be even able to stage his historical works, he had to show they legitimised the Tudor bloodline of the monarchs under whose rule he lived, chiefly Queen Elizabeth I. Her 1558–1603 reign largely overlapped with Shakespeare’s 1564–1616 lifespan. Similarly, biopic directors are often telling the story of their own era, or making a political point, rather than merely narrating events.

In Shakespeare’s case, his Richard III (written c.1592–94) portrays an evil, scheming ruler. It has become the standard interpretation, though it conflicts with what little we know of him. As Richard’s death at Bosworth in 1485 put Henry VII (Elizabeth’s grandfather) on the English throne, one purpose of the drama was to gain and keep favour at court. Similarly, the interpretation of Elizabeth’s illustrious great-great-great-uncle, Henry V, was flattering guesswork. Shakespeare’s Henry V was doubly propagandistic, for the first of its three film versions, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, arrived in November 1944 as the allies were about to invade Germany. The Bard’s stirring speeches and battle scenes at Harfleur and Agincourt, which bookend the original, were used as patriotic rallying calls at a time of great public nervousness, with anticipation of heavy casualties and possible defeat.

Rules against blatant hagiography were ignored when the leads played themselves

It was no accident that 1939–45 saw many morale-boosting biopics released when attendance at cinemas (if not bombed) was almost a daily affair, and most towns across Europe and the United States boasted picture houses. In many ways, still a stumbling, hesitant industry, the war gave film-making a vital shot of adrenalin, a place subsequently taken by television. British films such as That Hamilton Woman, about Nelson (1944) or the American Wilson (also 1944, about the former president), They Died With Their Boots On (featuring Custer) and Sergeant York (each 1941) are all examples of this genre of digging into a glorious past to sustain the awful present. In Russia, The Defense of Tsaritsyn, (1942, a drama set in what was by then Stalingrad, but during the Russian Civil War), Kutuzov (1943, the Soviet view of the campaign against Napoleon in 1812) and Ivan the Terrible (1944, one of Sergei Eisenstein’s greatest films) echoed the same formula.

Occasionally the rules against blatant hagiography were ignored when the leads played themselves, such as Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back (1955) or M.E. Clifton-James in I Was Monty’s Double (1958). Both were World War II dramas, depicting America’s most decorated soldier and a British intelligence decoy for the famous general. With the developed maturity of film-watchers neither would be made today, but motion picture-making during and immediately after the Second World War suspended many rules. Although They Died With Their Boots On, a 1941 swashbuckling epic starring Erol Flynn, caught Custer’s transition from immature youth to aggressive leader, my colleague Alex von Tunzelmann captured its failings with her observation in the Guardian: “More errors riddle this biopic than bullets flew at the Battle of Little Bighorn.”

Reach for the Sky (1956, the story of British fighter ace “Tin legs” Douglas Bader) and PT-109 (1963, about the wartime exploits of the soon-to-be-assassinated President Kennedy) were similarly unsatisfactory. Both were made when their subjects were still alive. Whilst PT-109 was seen as sycophantic and withdrawn on JFK’s death, Reach for the Sky, starring Kenneth More, was based on a biography of the same name, further constraining the script writers. Bader himself was irked to be saddled with the “quiet and amiable” personality of More. In real life the ace was known for his prolific bad language and ruthlessness towards his fellow pilots, both in the cockpit and later in captivity.

Over in Nazi Germany, Leni Riefenstahl pushed the boundaries of filmmaking as much as Abel Gance had done, in her experimental use of slow motion, underwater shots, high and low shooting angles, panoramic aerial views, and tracking shots (where the camera follows or precedes the subject on an out-of-shot rail). Previously, film-makers had employed moving background panels; Riefenstahl moved the camera. She was best-known for her trio of pre-war propaganda movies, Sieg des Glaubens (1933, Victory of Faith), Triumph des Willens (1935, Triumph of the Will) and Olympia (1938, about the Berlin Olympics of 1936). All were documentaries made for the Third Reich, cinematically innovative, full of energy, symbology and essentially biopics reflecting Germany’s charismatic leader, made by a dedicated Nazi.

Hitler cast a malevolent shadow over much 20th century cinema, from Charlie Chaplin’s thinly-disguised Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator (1940, a satirical biopic) to Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back, another satire of 2015, where Hitler wakes in the Berlin of 2011 and through TV shows re-enters politics). However, it is the last weeks of the Führer’s life that have fascinated movie-makers. Biopics often succeed when they manage to portray repulsive subjects as complex and confused human characters. This is when sheer acting ability, rather the set design or special effects, comes to the fore. Bruno Ganz memorably achieved this with Der Untergang (2004, Downfall). The actor later divulged how he felt Hitler “was somehow fragile. I rather pitied him”. Ganz’s performance was in the best biopic tradition, an in-depth study of character over a brief period, but telling the wider story of the criminal Reich.

In 1973, Alec Guinness strutted around the Führerbunker in Hitler: The Last Ten Days, followed in 1981 by Anthony Hopkins putting on a toothbrush moustache for The Bunker. Eight years later it was Ian McKellen’s turn to portray the Führer in Countdown to War (1989, on the days leading to World War Two). It helped that all three, as outstanding Shakespearian actors, had earlier portrayed evil leaders in their acting careers.

Of course, the Bard’s words had to create not only his personalities, but panoramas. The entire prologue of Henry V (written c. 1599) amounts to an apology that the playwright was conjuring up history, just as a latter-day movie director hatches a biopic.

… But pardon, and gentles all
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden “O” the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
… Let us, ciphers to this great account
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies
… Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings
Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times
Turning th’ accomplishment of many years
Into an hourglass …

In cinematography, such 16th century descriptors are superfluous, as the job is done by cameras and, increasingly, special effects. As a biographer myself, I know that history’s primary sources mostly record activities, only rarely noting human emotion and gesture. In silent movies, facial expressions were paramount. As these are the meat of motion pictures, we give actors their leave to summon up dramatic skill and breathe life into their characters. This is the actor’s art, what we pay them for, but it is not history.

Although purists are inclined to compete with a film’s continuity team and watch for period details and physiognomic aspects like weight gain and hair loss, these are rabbit holes. George C. Scott’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Patton (1970) discarded the general’s high-pitched squeaky voice of real life for one of gravelly resolve. The Darkest Hour (2017) was criticised for the scene in which Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) travels by underground train and is heartened by its passengers, something he never did in real life. Conversely, actor Ben Kingsley took the trouble to diet extensively to portray the title role in Gandhi (1982). Yet each won enduring critical acclaim, with Gandhi taking eight Academy Awards, seven going to Patton, and two to Darkest Hour. Each star won Best Actor.

Thus, we come full-circle to the hullabaloo over Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. Whilst several critics have applauded its ambition and scale, many of my fellow historians, including Zack White, who felt the movie reflected contemporary propaganda of denigrating the emperor as a mere Corsican ruffian, complained that numerous period details were wrong. It is unlikely that as a trained artillery officer, Napoleon (spoiler alert) ever led a cavalry charge. He did not fire at the pyramids, or witness the execution of Marie Antoinette. His imaginary interview with Wellington is patently absurd. More generally, as my friend Andrew Roberts noted in the Sunday Times, partly as a result of Hitler’s much-photographed visit to Napoleon’s Parisian tomb in 1940, Scott, “an 85-year-old, whose mindset was formed by the Second World War … has gone for the stereotype of a dictator who goes mad with hubris, a kind of proto-Hitler, with no reference to the great world force of the Enlightenment, who ended the French Revolution and dragged country after country out of ancient regime torpor and into the vibrant 19th century”. Roberts has a valid observation, but at 157 minutes, Scott’s biopic task was always going to be uphill.

Film-making in the post-Covid world presents another challenge to contemporary high budget directors. Social media chatter and online critics are beginning to play a dominant role in praising or damning a movie. Having spent the huge sum of $200 million, even Sir Ridley Scott, great director that he is, must tread more carefully than of old. His recent comment, that “f***ing historians don’t know what happened in Napoleonic times because they weren’t there” doesn’t help his cause. He needs every column-inch of applause, cinema seat and online subscription he can get to bring his investors a profit.

Scott’s reunion with Joaquin Phoenix after Gladiator (was it as long ago as 2000?) was an inspired pick. The pair via six major battle sequences and some rich location shots (spread between Lincoln Cathedral, Malta, Morocco and a selection of fine country houses including Stowe, Blenheim Palace, and the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich) have given us a Napoleon, but, I feel, not the Napoleon. Perhaps this misses the point of cinematography, which encourages us to settle for mood, character development and visual effects.

Critics of Napoleon’s run time of 157 minutes of your life should consider that Oppenheimer chimed in at 181 minutes, which if nothing else, is value for money. Yet Scott has a point, if clumsily put, that — even with contemporary events — we can never know the full story. As a professional historian, and occasional advisor to movie-makers, I am often asked, “Which is the most accurate war film?” My retort is always, “Watch a documentary, not a feature film.” Thus, when I sat down to watch Napoleon, I expected spectacular entertainment, not history. True to form, that is exactly what Ridley Scott and Joachim Phoenix delivered.

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