Actor Gary Oldman (L) and Director Joe Wright (R) at National Churchill Library and Centre on 3 November 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Focus Features and Comcast/NBC Universal)

The history twisters

Nigel Jones warns that cinematic portrayals of historical events and figures could alter how we understand the past

Artillery Row

“The past…” opined the American writer William Faulkner in his novel Requiem for A Nun “…is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past”. Faulkner’s dictum is certainly being followed by today’s writers for television and cinema where a decent interval is no longer allowed before great historical events and figures are instantly translated into – often inaccurate – portrayals on the silver screen.

Given that our society is an increasingly visual rather than a literary one, it is likely that these versions of history purveyed on our screens will be seen in the future as what really happened. History will no longer be based on the conclusions of learned historians in books written after years of research in dusty libraries and archives. The present is catching up with, and even overtaking, the past, and as is obliterating it in the process.

It is likely that these versions of history on our screens will be interpreted as what really happened

The huge success of the Netflix series The Crown is perhaps the most blatant example of wholly fictional events dreamed up by the creators of the drama being blurred into “real” ones. There have been many others – such as Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Dominic Cummings in the 2019 Channel 4 series Brexit: The Uncivil War. This limited series doubtless played a part in creating a demonic fictional figure – let’s call him “Cummingbatch” – who became the Remainers’ favourite hate object but was some distance from the cerebral reality of the PM’s fallen special adviser. The process of putting actual history into a blender where the ingredients and dishes are dictated by the writers, directors and producers who cook them up is helped by the (often brilliant) performances of the actors playing these roles.

As the luvvie community who make such shows are universally left wing, it is probable that it is their one-sided interpretations that will go down in the historical record as the truth. Take, for example, the announcement this week that Kenneth Branagh is to play Boris Johnson in a new Sky TV drama about the prime minister’s handling of the Covid crisis titled This Sceptred Isle. You do not have to be a Conservative or a hardened cynic to guess that the result is unlikely to portray the PM in a wholly favourable or even fairly balanced light.

The “Sceptred Isle” phrase is of course borrowed from Shakespeare, and many would see the Bard as an early practitioner of the luvvie take on history. His presentation of Henry V – once played on screen by Branagh – as a dauntless hero; and his equally convincing depiction of Richard III as a one-dimensional villain – superbly portrayed in our age by Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellan – are the pictures of the two monarchs we have come to accept and believe, however much boring old historians may object.

The screen depictions of the great heroes and villains of history first reached a mass audience in the interwar period. One of the last great masterpieces of the silent screen was the French director Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). The film’s revolutionary cinematography, coupled with Albert Dieudonne’s masterly depiction of the young Bonaparte, established a romantically heroic image of the “Corsican ogre” that, however it may differ from the messy historical truth, persists to this day.

The advent of the talkies allowed the superstar Charlie Chaplin to satirise Hitler at the height of his power in The Great Dictator (1940) as a ranting but ultimately ludicrous demagogue – a performance that, while not so far removed from the Fuhrer’s appearances before the cameras, merely mocked a figure that had to be fought and destroyed. The real Hitler in his full ranting mode was shown in the brilliant but warped Triumph of The Will (1935) by his favoured director, Leni Riefenstahl. So malignly influential was Riefenstahl that it took seven decades before Germany produced its own definitive screen version of the Nazi dictator, as the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz raved his way through Downfall (2005): father of a thousand parodies and cementing our image of a ridiculous yet sinister icon of evil.

More recent political leaders have also had their images defined by the actors who played them

Hitler’s polar opposite and nemesis Winston Churchill has also been portrayed numerous times on British television and the big screen by stars as distinguished as Richard Burton, Albert Finney and, more recently, Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning turn in Darkest Hour (2018). For me, however, the best Winston (freely available on YouTube) was the late Robert Hardy’s stunning portrayal of the great man at one of the lowest points of his career in the 1981 ITV series The Wilderness Years. Superbly supported by a star-studded cast including Eric Porter (Neville Chamberlain); Peter Barkworth (Stanley Baldwin); Edward Woodward (Sam Hoare), Sian Phillips (Clemmie Churchill) and a youthful Nigel Havers and Tim Piggot-Smith (Randolph Churchill and Brendan Bracken respectively), this is British TV political drama at its classic best – and it is sad that it is impossible to imagine it being made today.

Such stunningly simplistic performances have frozen both Hitler and Churchill in cinematic amber, without nuance or contradiction: good and bad, black and white, sol y sombre. The camera and celluloid (or its digital equivalent) have decreed how the two men will go down in history. More recent political leaders have also had their images defined by the actors who played them. Michael Sheen’s lookalike Tony Blair in The Queen (2006), ably balanced by Helen Mirren as Her Majesty, reflected an indulgent view of pre-Iraq New Labour, while the great Meryl Streep surely delivered a definitive (and surprisingly sympathetic) Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2012).

George Orwell suggested a bleaker view of the past than William Faulkner in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The novel’s hero Winston Smith is employed by the party to twist and kill the past by dropping it into the memory hole. Orwell confessed that the idea that history can be consigned to oblivion in this way frightened him more than any of the other pessimistic predictions in that terrifying book. But with the depiction of history in the hands of those with their own agendas to push, and the power to distort it in doing so, however entertainingly, can we be completely confident that the novel’s nightmare vision is not becoming our reality?

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