History lessons from Hollywood


For Hollywood, it seems, history is the new rock’n’roll. Anne
Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post recently on the spate
of films centered on historical events or historical characters puts it
down to the phenomenon of reality TV. She quotes Peter Morgan, who
wrote the script for The Queen – a movie focused on the
aftermath of the death of Princess Diana: “If people need to explain
what a film is about, the film stands very little chance of surviving.
Reality is a brand which people can sell,” he says.” Some of the biggest
films on release over the past year have been such – the story of the
Harvard student who invented Facebook, the story of a stuttering king – The
King’s Speech
, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, and a story for
which Applebaum was herself a historical consultant, The Way Back.

But Hollywood and history are strange and uneasy bedfellows and not
everyone is happy with the progeny they produce. Hollywood has played
fast and loose with historical truth on so many occasions that we
approach new movies based on history with not a little suspicion. But
they keep coming and the latest soon to appear on a screen near you will
be Roland Joffé’s new film, There Be Dragons – which some
anticipate will be a return to form for the director of two of the most
memorable films of the 1980s, The Mission and The Killing
both again based on real events.

Joffé’s film, starring Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott and
Olga Kurylenko, is set against the background of the horrors of the
Spanish Civil War and the life of a canonised saint, Josemaría Escrivá
(Cox), the founder of Opus Dei. The genre into which this movie
fits, however, has much more in common with the historical
novel than with films purporting to be a narrative account of historical
events. In this there is a very open mixture of fact and fiction and
without doubt the film-maker is setting out to show us what moves,
inspires and shapes lives rather than give us a dry factual account of
events. In every sense this is very much an auteur work since
Joffé not only directs but also conceived and wrote the screenplay.

Applebaum’s musing on history and cinema are in the context of The
Way Back
, the recently released Peter Weir film based on a “true
story” of prisoners escaping from Stalin’s gulag back in the 1940s. (See the trailer here.) The
original story came in the form of a book called The Long Walk
by Slavomir Rawicz, a Gulag survivor. It was a controversial book
because while it appeared to be a first-hand account of Rawicz’s own
story, it later transpired that it had been a story told to him by another

But Applebaum argues that the story, certainly as portrayed in the
film, is “true” in every way that matters. “Many of the camp scenes are
taken directly from Soviet archives and memoirs. The starving men
scrambling for garbage; the tattooed criminals, playing cards for the
clothes of other prisoners; the narrow barracks; the logging camp; the
vicious Siberian storms. Among the very plausible characters are an
American who went to work on the Moscow subway and fell victim to the
Great Terror of 1937, a Polish officer arrested after the Soviet Union’s
1939 invasion of Poland and a Latvian priest whose church was destroyed
by the Bolsheviks.”

Joffé argues for the same kind of truth in his There Be Dragons,
a truth built into the fictional story of London-based investigative
journalist Robert Torres (Scott) who tries to unravel a deadly mystery
nearly 70 years old that links his father to the founder of a Catholic
organization called Opus Dei, only to discover that the
shocking truth is far more than he bargained for.

Roland Joffé describes his experience of bringing the story to the
screen in the following terms: “There Be Dragons was a
wonderful experience that paralleled the one I had making The
It is an intimate story of love and forgiveness set during
one of the most bitter wars of the 20th century. Yet the themes of the
film are as relevant today as ever, and I am hopeful that audiences will
embrace them in that spirit.”

The film, made for US$35 million, is being distributed in the US by
Samuel Goldwyn Films and is being released there on May 6. According to
Meyer Gottlieb, president of the company: “We feel privileged to be
working with such an acclaimed film-maker in Roland Joffé and look
forward to bringing There Be Dragons to audiences everywhere.
This beautifully mounted and executed film based on true events is
moving and inspirational, and it will make moviegoers cheer and

The film has been made in English but rather unusually is having its
dubbed Spanish language version released first. Its Spanish distributors
have pushed and succeeded in getting it released there on screens
across the country from 25 March. The release in Spain is timely because
2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. During this
brutal conflict half a million people may have died and thousands of priests and nuns were
murdered. How a still-divided Spanish society will react to this
retelling of those events is something which will be watched with great

The film’s themes are already resonating with people of all faiths
who must make daily choices to “conquer the dragons” – the allusion of
the title – they encounter by avoiding conflict in favor of embracing
opportunities for forgiveness. Previewers of the movie have described it
as “a deeply moving depiction of the triumph of love and forgiveness”.

Motive Entertainment, the company that championed films like Mel
Gibson’s The Passion and Disney’s Chronicles of Narnia, have
been contracted to promote the film across the US and further afield in
the Anglophone world.

Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin.  He
blogs at Garvan Hill.


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