2. Both before and after Shakespeare, entertainment trumped historical accuracy
In nearly all of his historical dramas, Shakespeare’s main objective was to produce a play which would entertain and be accepted by his audience. In his historical plays, timelines were compressed. Events were presented out of order or omitted entirely. Almost solely from Shakespeare comes King Richard III’s reputation as a twisted, evil tyrant, a dramatic license he took with the character. In the play of that name the title character is thoroughly corrupt, evil to his core. He is also remembered for being severely deformed, another device used by Shakespeare so that his physical appearance on stage was as vile as his character.
Throughout the succeeding centuries Richard III had his share of both detractors and defenders. Several noted British scholars supported the Shakespearian view, while others argued that his character, and his deformity, had been exaggerated by his detractors. He remains a divisive character of British history, but more recent scholars and historians have revised their judgments of his life and reign. “Like most men, he was conditioned by the standards of his age”, wrote historian Charles Ross in a 1981 biography. The discovery and analysis of Richard’s skeletal remains in the 21st century revealed that he did suffer from scoliosis, with one shoulder noticeable higher than the other, but he was not the gnarled humpback as depicted in Shakespeare’s play.
3. Mason Locke “Parson” Weems and the myths of George Washington
Parson Weems wrote the first biography of George Washington, publishing it in 1800, less than one year following Washington’s death at Mount Vernon. It did not contain a story of the boy Washington chopping down one of his father’s treasured cherry trees. Nor did the second edition, nor even the third and fourth. With the fifth edition, revised by the author, the story of the cherry tree appeared when it was published in 1810. The story was included in the McGuffey Reader in the mid-18th century, and could still be found in that widely used primary school textbook well into the 20th century. Generations of American children learned the story in history and reading classes.
Though the story is false, an exaggeration of Washington’s character, its influence on American history is much greater than generally realized. The story had a profound effect on Abraham Lincoln during a time when it was accepted as true. As President elect, Lincoln addressed the New Jersey assembly where he referenced Weems’ stories of Washington. Weems applied his hyperbolic style to other figures of American history, including Benjamin Franklin (the grossly exaggerated story of the kite, the key, and the thunderstorm), and Frances Marion. His stories of the latter did much to create the legend of the Swamp Fox in the American South.
In January, 1861, the popular magazine The Atlantic Monthly brought in the new year with a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was entitled Paul Revere’s Ride. Other than in New England, by the time of the poem’s publication Revere’s ride on the night of April 18-19 1775, was all but forgotten. Longfellow made it nationally famous at a time when the nation was teetering toward secession and civil war. The poem also fictionalized several elements of the ride and Revere’s actions, many of them deliberately. It was so widely read in the Northern states that the fictions became part of history, despite their inaccuracy.
Other riders who were on the Massachusetts roads that night, spreading the word of the British movement, were forgotten, with Revere alone appearing in history books used by schoolchildren. The fact the Revere only successfully completed half of his mission (other riders warned Concord) was also forgotten. Revere was captured by the British and held until his captors heard the sounds of alarm bells and militia drums. He was released, though the British kept his horse and his boots. The poem altered the way American history was taught and retained for over a century, and in the public mind Paul Revere became synonymous with spreading the alarm.
5. The myth of Columbus proving the earth is round
For most of American history, primary school textbooks told the story of Columbus’s first voyage incorporating many myths. Some remain, often as a convenience for teachers of young minds. For example, the complex financing of the voyage is beyond the comprehension of even some adult minds. The utterly false story of Queen Isabella pawning her jewels to fund the voyage remains in many texts. Another part of the story, that of the widespread belief at the time that the world was flat, and that the ships would sail over the edge if they ventured too far westward, was added by an historical novel, written to entertain readers, in 1828.
A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, written by Washington Irving, combined biography and history in the form of an early historical novel. In it, in order to create tension among the crews of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, Irving described them as believing, with the sole exception of Columbus, that the world was flat. Nearly all persons of any level of education at the time accepted the world was round. Irving’s fictional device was the basis for perpetuating the myth that all people believed the earth was flat until Columbus proved otherwise. Some still believe the fallacy today. Columbus, and the funders of his voyage, knew the world was a globe, Irving’s fiction nothwithstanding.
In January, 1901, New York publisher Frank Tousey began publishing a weekly magazine for boys featuring stories of the American Revolution. According to Tousey’s own description of the series, “These stories are based on actual facts and give a faithful account of the exciting adventures of a brave band of American youths who were already ready and willing to imperil their lives”. The Magazine was priced at nickel, and ran until May, 1925, though Tousey was eventually replaced by another publisher, Harry Wolff. The stories were about the adventures of boys only slightly older than the target demographic for the magazine.
Despite the claims of the publisher, there was very little factual history regarding the American Revolution. The revolution was used as a backdrop instead for the predicaments in which the boys found themselves. Many of the legends and myths of the Revolutionary War, including the story of Molly Pitcher, were emphasized in the magazine. It was popular with American boys for two decades, with its contents perpetuating the adventures of the boys to the detriment of the true historical record. Copies of the magazine became collector’s items, a status they retain in the 21st century.
Following the American Civil War, and lasting until the beginning of the 20th century, a new form of American entertainment became popular with men, women, and children. It was the dime novel, and those exploiting the American West became known as westerns. Tens of millions of such books were produced. The railroad boom gave those traveling time to read. Those at home had few other entertainments of an evening. The western stories created a genre which has remained for over 150 years. They also created a fictional version of the American West which also remains, having being reinforced by later forms of entertainment.
There was nearly always a damsel in distress, threatened by an evil villain, in the form of an outlaw wanted by authorities. Hostile Indians, and occasionally friendly natives, were standard pieces of the story. At its center was a strong, silent, hero, handy with a gun, who saved the day (and the damsel). The novels presented an enduring image of the west which never really existed, and as names of western personalities became known in the east they appeared in the stories. Frank and Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill Cody, Billy the Kid, and many others were featured in completely fictional tales, which were devoured as true history.
8. The dime novels fictionalized the lives of past American heroes
In the early dime novels, Daniel Boone became indelibly linked with Kentucky, despite the real Boone spending a greater portion of his life in Missouri than in the former state. Boone became a great hunter and Indian fighter, as well as a hero of the American Revolution, a friend of George Washington, and the greatest marksman in America. He also became a friend and sometime companion of Davy Crockett, another great hunter and Indian fighter. Inexplicably, he was also the greatest marksman in America. Crockett’s and Boone’s real lives and contributions were buried under the fictionalized accounts in the dime novels and serials.
Crockett was often portrayed as a hero of the Texas Revolution, engaged in several battles with Santa Anna and the Mexican Army besides the only one in which he was truly involved at the Alamo. Dime novels, and the myths they created and spread, remained popular until a new form of entertainment emerged in the 20th century. Eventually their stories influenced the writers of other forms of westerns, such as Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, though both of those writers also fictionalized American history repeatedly. By the beginning of the 20th century, most of what Americans knew of their own history was sensationalized fiction.
9. Distorting historic events was not limited to the United States
In England and in Europe, novels, short stories and other forms of entertainment emerged which altered the historical record, particularly the Napoleonic era and the growth of the great European empires. Napoleon, who had twice left France in exile, had his body returned to France in 1840. It was received with public enthusiasm, the stories of the sufferings his reign had imposed in France (and Europe) replaced with those recalling the glories of his era. Paintings of the battles and celebrities of his time predominated in the drawing rooms of the gentry throughout Europe. Operas presented a revised look at European history, and were popular throughout the continent.
Rudyard Kipling’s works presented a sanitized and excused version of British Imperialism, in poems, short stories, newspaper articles, and novels. Nearly all forms of popular entertainment in Great Britain followed suit. As both Great Britain and the United States entered the Industrial age, their forms of entertainment reflected their beliefs in their national and international destinies. And a new form of entertainment was about to emerge, at first little more than flickering images which were seen with amusement. Shortly the power of film to tell the stories of history was revealed, and it changed the way the history was absorbed by the audience.
In the early days of film in the United States, sources for stories were abundant. The popularity of the western dime novels and magazine serials provided a ripe source for stories, and an audience ready-made to watch them. Historical facts were immaterial, and often inconvenient. Entertainment was what mattered. Ironically the first film based on the American West was made in Britain (Blackburn) in 1899. It had a running time of under ninety seconds and was titled Kidnapping by Indians. The first American made film of the genre which became known as westerns followed four years later.
11. The entertainment media championed the Lost Cause of the Confederacy
Following Reconstruction, the former enemies of the North and South still regarded each other with distrust. Especially in the defeated South, resentment festered. The way of life which had preceded the war was destroyed. So was Southern pride. Reconciliation, especially with the advent of Jim Crow laws, was difficult. Around the turn of the century a new movement arose in the former Confederacy, which sought to address the causes of the war as centering on the issues of state’s rights and the preservation of the antebellum South. An almost mythical South arose, which was presented first in books, plays, and short stories.
Thomas Dixon Jr. was born in North Carolina, raised there during Reconstruction, and educated at a Baptist school which later became Wake Forest University. A failed actor, he became an ordained Baptist Minister. Long a white supremacist he viewed the new South with disdain, supported Jim Crow laws, and lectured extensively on the subject. In 1902 he wrote a trilogy of novels covering the antebellum period, the Civil War and Reconstruction. He compared the poor condition of blacks in the latter period to their happy existence in the antebellum period in the third and first books respectively. In the middle volume, The Clansman (1905), he wrote of the South’s attempts to resist the “wrongs” of Reconstruction. All three books were bestsellers, especially in the South.
12. The antebellum South was glorified in an early feature length film made in America
One of the readers who enjoyed Dixon’s books was a fledgling film director named David Wark (D.W.) Griffith. Griffith wrote a screenplay based on The Clansman, hired Lillian Gish to portray a Southern belle, and created what was at the time the most sophisticated motion picture ever made. It depicted the assassination of Lincoln and told the story of Reconstruction from the viewpoint of a Southern family, as well as the changes in the north through a Northern family. In the film, the Ku Klux Klan arose in the South to protect Southern womanhood from the depredations of free blacks and ravaging Northern carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags. They were an extension of the knightly Southern cavaliers of the Civil War.
The film, The Birth of a Nation, was the first ever to be shown at the White House, screened for President Woodrow Wilson and invited guests. It was one of the first films to depict slavery. It depicted caring and gentle slave owners, happy slaves faithful to their masters, and freedman brutally exploited by Northern intruders. It was entirely supportive of the Lost Cause, a movement which belied slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and promoted the nobility of the antebellum South. It was wildly popular, though frequently controversial in the North. It changed the perception of the pre-war South and the Confederacy for many of its audience, and its precepts were followed in succeeding films, books and plays.
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.
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.
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.
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, “â¦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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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