How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History

Larry Holzwarth - December 26, 2019

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
Griffith’s film gave the Ku Klux Klan some of the tools of terror they used in the 20th century. Wikimedia

13. The Birth of a Nation changed the Ku Klux Klan

The real Ku Klux Klan which formed in the South during Reconstruction was formally organized, but lacked a central coordinating authority. It remained localized for the most part, led by former officers of the Confederacy. It was what would be in a later day called a terrorist organization. It practiced vigilantism, violence, threats of violence, and murder. In 1870 and again the following year, Congress enacted laws aimed directly at suppressing the Klan, and federal troops in the South were used to arrest Klansmen and end its reign of terror. The first iteration of the Klan was largely suppressed by 1874. It played a significant role in the film The Birth of a Nation, where it was depicted as heroic Southern resistance.

Griffith’s film was released in 1915, and has been cited as a reason for the nationwide resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, which peaked in the 1920s. In the film, Griffith depicted the Klansmen meeting secretly and burning a cross before embarking on a mission, something which the real Klan of Reconstruction did not do. Their 20th century successors did, taking the idea from the film. The white sheeted costumes adopted in the 20th century were also introduced by Griffith. The film also introduced Klansmen being mounted on robed horses. The 20th century Klansmen adopted what they believed their historical predecessors had done, which they had learned of from entertainment media, rather than from the study of history.

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
The Iron Horse (1924) purported to tell the history of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. YouTube

14. The western genre film mythologized the American West

The power of film took American audiences by storm. Before film, the dime novels and pulp magazines shaped America’s view of the West. The melodramatic tales held the reader’s interest, but the images behind them had to be formed in the reader’s own mind. Films changed that, and the viewer could effortlessly surrender to the director’s vision through the pictures on the screen. Film created the enduring myth of the American West, and its successor, television, embellished it. Manifest Destiny, one of most critical aspects of American history, vanished. It was replaced with a fictional west of cowboys and rustlers, cavalry and Indians, lawmen and outlaws.

One of the earliest films to create the American West myth was The Iron Horse, released in 1924. It purported to tell the story of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The film featured a competing businessman disguised as a Comanche warrior who attempted to prevent the railroad’s completion. It created the myth in American history regarding Indian attacks on the railroad as it went forward. Although scouting parties in advance of the construction gangs were occasionally attacked in the early days, the US Army increased patrols and the attacks ceased.

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
The bad guys try to escape the good guys in a scene from The Great Train Robbery. Wikimedia

15. Silent films presented the enduring image of the western lawman

Films reinforced the image of the strong, silent, incorruptible western lawman in the white hat, or riding a white horse, as symbols of his purity of heart. Later films added a bit of ambiguity to the image, but the idea of moral courage against impossible odds remained. The lines between crime, the law, and just punishment of transgressors were clearly established. The American west was presented as being ravaged with criminals, stage robbers, train robbers, bank robbers, rustlers, horse thieves, and worse, eventually brought to justice by a dauntless lawman, with the assistance of his deputies and a posse of townspeople.

In truth, in the American West, the lines between criminals and lawmen were often blurred. Men like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickock, and many others were often equally comfortable on either side of the law. Often, they were hired as town marshals or deputies during times of local crisis, only to find themselves forced to hasten out of town and the jurisdiction of local law after having committed some indiscretion or other. Scrupulous adherence to local law, especially as it applied to gun restrictions, was commonin the towns of the American west, though virtually ignored in entertainments based on its frontier days.

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
The 1939 premiere of the film Gone With the Wind in Atlanta. Wikimedia

16. Gone with the Wind changed the perception of the South

In 1936 Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, a novel supporting the concepts of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, was released. It was the most popular work of fiction in the United States for the next two years, and has sold over 30 million copies since. Its depiction of the history of the antebellum South and the Civil War, as well as Reconstruction, is a summation of the Lost Cause, using fiction to depict history. For many of its fans it changed how the institution of slavery was perceived. In the novel, the slaves owned by the families of the great plantations were invariably loyal, faithful, and proud of their positions within the plantation hierarchy.

The southern soldiers were knightly, their enemies beastly. Those who betrayed the Southern cause, or who profited from it (such as Rhett Butler) were scoundrels. Mitchell used the word scallawag (sic) to describe them, though scalawag was actually a term used for southerners who accepted Reconstruction after the war. According to one reviewer of a later edition of the book, Pat Conroy, Mitchell reduced the Ku Klux Klan to, “…a benign combination of the Elks Club and a men’s equestrian society”. Gone with the Wind distorted the history of the American Civil War both as a novel and in the subsequent film. It remains an example of the revision of history known as the Lost Cause, of which Mitchell was a product.

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
Gone with the Wind was unabashedly supportive of the Lost Cause. Wikimedia

17. Distorting history in film was an effective means of advancing an agenda

In the United States even the worst performing films at the box office were viewed by large audiences, especially after home video made them accessible in the 1970s. When history was depicted in film, the distortions were accepted as part of the story. Many are deemed necessary by the filmmaker, in order to condense the story into the length of the film, though many are not. What is seen and heard in film carries an emotional element not present in the classroom. Film delivers a greater impact. The distortions of history delivered by film are retained, and likely to be defended. Propagandists have used film to deliver their messages for decades for that reason.

During the Second World War films were prepared by nearly every country with a film industry, displayed in theaters to inspire patriotism and support for the war effort. Following the war, the films were revived by the new and rapidly expanding medium of television. They were shown alongside newly produced programs, many of which were based on American history or historical events. Many of them were skewed by the politics of their creators, with the Red Scare and the Cold War shaping their views. Impressionable minds were shaped, in part, by the depiction of history to which they were exposed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
Hugh O’Brian portrayed a highly fictionalized Wyatt Earp for television. Wikimedia

18. The heroes of the dime novels returned on early television

Early television series based on American history and historical figures returned to the tried and true subjects which had been successful in the past in print media. Wyatt Earp and Jim Bowie. Buffalo Bill and Kit Carson. Wild Bill Hickok. The US Cavalry riding to the rescue across the plains. Wagon trains of settlers plodding west. There were fictional characters in their own universes and fictional characters interacting with real-life Americans of the past. There was little way to tell which was which. There was also little way to tell what was history and what was fiction, but in the programs featuring historical characters it was all presented as history.

Television put a coonskin cap on the head of Daniel Boone and it has remained there ever since, though in real life he seldom if ever wore won. It gave Wyatt Earp the Buntline Special, a long-barreled revolver made especially for him. In life he never used one. It thoroughly fictionalized Dodge City, Kansas in the long-running series Gunsmoke, and did the same for the boomtown of Virginia City during the Washoe silver boom in Bonanza. Jesse James became a Robin Hood-like character on television. The westerns produced for television revisited the clichés of the American frontier created by the dime novels which preceded them, and through them the clichés became accepted as history.

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
Actor Ray Massey portrayed Abraham Lincoln several times in his career. Wikimedia

19. Abraham Lincoln’s legacy was distorted in entertainment for over a century

In part due to his murder just as victory was achieved in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s legacy was distorted for over a century by the entertainment industry. He was often presented in films as a poor and struggling country lawyer before entering Congress. In truth, he was highly successful in his legal career, representing railroads among his clients. He carefully cultivated an image as a man of the people, of simple tastes, and of judicious temperament. Honest Abe was a moniker applied to him by political opponents, a sarcastic commentary on his considerable political skills. Film long ignored those qualities.

Instead Lincoln was dehumanized and elevated to the pantheon of the demigods. He was presented as possessing the wisdom of Solomon, the leadership of Moses, and the patience of Job. Strangely, in the Lost Cause film The Birth of the Nation he was treated sympathetically, the only Northerner to receive such treatment. For generations Lincoln was regarded as one of the President’s closest to the people, though nearly all of what the people knew of him was distorted through the lens of entertainment, which used him for other dramatic purposes.

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
The legend of the Trojan horse was an early example of distortion of history for entertainment purposes. Wikimedia

20. Using warfare as entertainment

The use of war as the backdrop for entertainment is a device which dates to ancient times, with the Odyssey and the Iliad two early examples of the genre. It has never lost popularity. While there have been some attempts to depict warfare accurately, for the most part it has always been distorted. Film was especially guilty of distorting warfare history. In films of the American Revolutionary War for example, brave patriots marched off to fight the British whistling Yankee Doodle; in reality less than one third of American men supported the Revolution, and fewer than that fought in the war.

The same pattern is found in the movies made in Great Britain during the Second World War, where the stiff upper lip of the British citizenry is second only to the gallantry of the men and women in uniform. In both the United States and Great Britain extensive black markets developed and operated throughout the war, dealing in rationed goods. Neither has been covered in films, other than an aside as a plot device. In the United States, organized crime figures were recruited to help secure the docks in New York and New Jersey. Such didn’t jibe with the patriotic feeling of the time, and it remained unnoticed by the film industry, which focused on crime of another type.

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
The entertainment industry did much to mythologize the Texas revolution and the Alamo. Wikimedia

21. The Texas Revolution and the Alamo

Films about the stand of the defenders at the Alamo have been produced since the days of silent movies (With Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo, 1926). They have starred John Wayne, Fess Parker, and Billy Bob Thornton in the role of Crockett, as well as others. All of them have depicted the battle as a heroic stand of the Americans against the tyranny of the Mexican dictator, Santa Anna. None of them have ever presented the true nature of the Texas Revolution. The Mexican government had abolished slavery. The revolutionaries wanted slavery to remain legal in Texas. It was just one grievance which led to the revolution, but it was an important one.

Most of the Americans in Texas, including Crockett, had arrived there lured by the promise of land for the taking, hoping to establish estates in their new country. They had abandoned America for new opportunities in what was then a state in Mexico. Desirous of retaining slavery, and opposing Catholic rule, they rose in revolt. Crockett arrived in Texas when he thought the fighting was over. Instead, the Mexican army was on the way to put down the revolt. The stand at the Alamo was no less heroic, but it wasn’t the gallant stand against tyranny depicted so often in film, on television, and in books, comic books, and periodicals.

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
Roots, presented as factual, was in truth a fictional historical novel. ABC Television

22. Film often distorts its own history as well as that of others

The film industry in particular uses the medium to present its own history in a manner which is meant to be entertaining and informative, though not necessarily factual. Motion pictures which focus on the history of the industry are necessarily self-serving. Films about the lives of famous stars, such as Chaplin, Fields, Chaney, or filmmakers such as Howard Hughes and Alfred Hitchcock, had no obligation to be historically accurate, though labeling them as biographical implied that they were. Such films are for entertainment, rather than education, though the use of such films in formal education became commonplace in the 1980s at the secondary, and sometimes at the primary level.

The use of other types of films to teach history expanded in the late 20th century, with recognition of film’s superior capability to make a lasting impression. For example, the film version of Alex Haley’s Roots was used in classrooms across the United States. Roots was widely believed to be a factual representation of the author’s family history, though it was a novel, and large portions of the work lacked evidence supported by historical fact. After Haley’s death, his friend Henry Gates Jr, an historian, wrote in the Boston Globe, “Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship. It was an important event because it captured everyone’s imagination”.

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
Several portrayals of William Bligh have distorted history and besmirched his character. Wikimedia

23. Distortions of history are often undisputed

In three major motion pictures, and in the trilogy of novels on which two of them were based, British naval officer William Bligh was depicted as a tyrannical, sadistic, and almost incompetent ship’s captain. The depiction was accepted to the point that other works of fiction, and some of non-fiction, used his name as an example of cruelty. Captain Bligh became a simile for brutality. It was completely untrue. The logs of the ships he commanded throughout his long and distinguished career (he achieved the rank of Vice-Admiral) indicate he was actually lenient in his punishments in comparison with most commanders of his time.

He was also a superb cartographer and navigator, deeply concerned with the health and welfare of the men under his command, and commended for his leadership in battle by Lord Nelson. The entertainment industry used him as the foil for the romantic presentation of the story of the Bounty beginning in the 1930s, and the reputation assigned to him in fiction has remained ever since. The true story of the Bounty is not the romantic legend of rebellion against tyranny, as the movies and books covering the subject have long presented. But the legend created by the entertainment industry remains intact, a complete distortion of history.

How the Entertainment Industry Distorts History
An Allentown, Pennsylvania advertisement for the film Mrs. Miniver. Wikimedia

24. Distortions of history are more likely to be encountered in films than historical facts

The film industry in the United States relies on a simple belief. History is a little-known discipline among their general audiences, and what is known is already largely incorrect. This allows liberties to be taken with historical characters. Thanks to the film Amadeus, Mozart became known as a vulgar and dissipated lout. The historical record says otherwise. U-571 depicted Americans capturing an Enigma machine during World War II. It never happened. The British broke the Enigma codes, using captured materials and information provided by Polish Intelligence.

Several educational sites recommend movies to be shown in high school history classes, even while noting that the films are often historically inaccurate. Among them are Mrs. Miniver, which was made as a piece of British war propaganda; A Man for All Seasons, which presents Thomas More in a wholly inaccurate manner; and Casablanca, which is completely fictional from beginning to end. Too often, distortions of history which began in the minds of filmmakers are reinforced in history classes, becoming the history which is known by the public.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Richard III” Charles Ross. 1981

“Parson Weems” Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“The Real Story of Revere’s Ride”. Article, The Paul Revere House. Online

“The Liberty Boys of ‘76”. Online Book Page, University of Pennsylvania. Online

“The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book”. Randolph J. Cox. 2000

“The Great Train Robbery”. Article, AMC Filmsite. Online

“The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History”. Gary W. Gallagher, Alan T. Nolan. 2000

“The Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s”. Article, The American Experience. PBS.org. Online

“The final frontier”. Jonathan Jones, The Guardian. June 17, 2002

“Yes, Gone with the Wind is another Neo-Confederate Monument”. Ed Kilgore, New York Intelligencer. August 30, 2017

“Can Movies Teach History?” Richard Bernstein, The New York Times. November 26, 1989

“Television Westerns: Six Decades of Sagebrush Sheriffs, Scalawags, and Sidewinders. Alvin H. Marill. 2011

“Lincoln at the Movies”. Louis P. Masur, The Chronicle of Higher Education. November 26, 2012

“Greed, slavery, and Davy Crockett: The truth about Texas history”. Staff, Dallas Morning News. May 17, 2012

“Roots of the problem: the controversial history of Alex Haley’s book”. John Dugdale, The Guardian. February 9, 2017

“Blighs vs Christians, the 209-year feud”. Tim Minogue, The Independent. October 23, 2011

“Film can have a leading role in education”. Harriet Swain, The Guardian. November 19, 2013

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