by John Aquino on 01/27/18
I have written a book and articles on the legal issues surrounding fictionalization in fact-based films. And the topic continues to be of interest. In a Jan. 19, 2018 review of the second season of the British tv series The Crown, which is based on the life of Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Power Sayeed wrote in the (London) Times Literary Supplement of how the queen and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke on the phone about how to frame a response to the death of Princess Diana. Only the most general information about the call had been reported. In writing the screenplay for the 2006 film The Queen, Peter Morgan had to imagine what had been said. Morgan noted that in later interviews Blair described what he and the queen had said and quoted verbatim from Morgan's screenplay. Having seen the movie, Blair probably subconsciously adopted Morgan's language, which was presumably more memorable than what was actually said. Sayeed suggested that future historians describing the incident would actually be quoting Morgan. And so, fact became fiction which became history.
It's an interesting variation on the newspaper editor's maxim in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. But it also addresses the question I sometimes get in presentations I've given on this topic: doesn't everybody know that it's a movie and they make things up? I usually answer by asking, what if the only knowledge you have of the person portrayed in the movie is the movie. When you hear his name, won't you say, "Ah yes, he's the one who betrayed his regiment!" Or I give the example of a client who in a book manuscript she asked me to review discussed the Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925, saying that he had been arrested in his classroom for teaching evolution. That scene was invented for the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind and never actually happened. And here, with the movie The Queen, former Prime Minister Tony Blair evidently believed that he had said what a screenwriter imagined he said. It has something to do with the meaning of truth.
The legal issues continue. Olivia De Haviland, who is now 102, has sued the makers of the tv miniseries Feud, which recounted the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford that blossomed during the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). De Haviland claims that the portrayal of her in the miniseries was false, noting that she did not say the things the series shows her as saying. The judge refused to dismiss the case, but recently a number of groups have come forward supporting the filmmakers. ( https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/mpaa-netflix-support-fxs-defense-olivia-de-havilland-1078617 ).
The complaint of people like De Haviland dates back at least to the time of Queen Elizabeth I who had the historian Sir John Hayward hauled before the Star Chamber for putting words in the mouths of her ancestors. Perhaps the court will rule in De Haviland's favor. Perhaps not. If it does, and the decision is upheld on appeal, it will change the practice of courts to grant filmmakers some flexibility in compressing time, creating events that may not have actually happened but are true to the spirit of what happened, and to create composite characters.
The practice of filmmakers when dealing with historical facts is generally to compress and composite. They also strive to find dramatic tension. The 2012 movie Argo was based on the CIA's attempt to rescue a smaller group of Americans hiding in the Canadian Embassy in Iran during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Agent Tony Mendez employed a plan to create a fake Canadian science fiction film, convince the Iranian revolutionaries that he was seeking permission to shoot the film in Iran, and then blend in the six Americans hiding in the Canadian Embassy with Mendez's supposed crew. Up to the end, the film was relatively faithful to the facts. The problem for the filmmakers was that Mendez's plan worked perfectly. Mendez and the six Americans simply got on the plane and left Iran. Not very dramatic. And so the filmmakers had the revolutionaries discover the CIA plot at the last minute and chase the plane in jeeps, shooting at the plane as it took off. Something that you imagine would have been noticed by the other passengers.
Other films address the issue of fictionalization with variations on the Argo model. The 2017 film The Darkest Hour portrays the first month of Winston Churchill's prime ministry in 1940 with the Nazis poised to cross the English channel and conquer England as it had most other countries in Europe. The film begins with members of Parliament denouncing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain for his attempts to appease Hitler and forcing him to resign in favor of Churchill, who is magnificently played by Gary Oldman. To create tension, the film shows Churchill as the lone voice in his war cabinet, which includes Chamberlain and his protege Lord Halifax who are pushing for a negotiated peace with Nazi Germany. Churchill begins to doubt himself until he goes on a subway train and talks to the people. The passengers resist the idea of seeking a peace with Nazi Germany. Emboldened, Churchill seeks the support of his sub-cabinet, which reacts as the passengers did. Further emboldened, Churchill tells his war cabinet he will not approve peace negotiations with Germany, and even Chamberlain supports him. England stands alone and fights the Nazis for a year until the U.S. joins the war in December 1941.
The tension in the war cabinet is at odds with the opening scene in which the Parliament forces Chamberlain, seen as the appeaser, from power. There was discussion in the war cabinet of inquiring about peace terms with the Nazis, but Churchill prevailed. Churchill did go and meet with people on the streets on occasion, but the subway ride never happened. He did seek the support of his sub-cabinet, but it was a strategy prompted by Churchill's strength and confidence, not out of desperation.
Another Churchill film, this one titled Churchill and starring Brian Cox, also distorted facts to create dramatic tension. Unlike The Darkest Hour, it was not even true to the spirit of what happened. It shows Churchill opposing the Normandy invasion because he is afraid it will fail and openly confronting General Eisenhower until he has an epiphany at the end of the film. According to the filmmakers, the movie was based by a sentence in the diary of Churchill's wife in which she wrote that he worried about the thousands of men who would be killed. But in actuality, Churchill was the invasion's prime mover., advocating it almost two years before it happened. All of the scenes are completely made up because nothing close to them ever happened.
Yet another film related to Churchill, although he is not shown and Germany is not mentioned, is Dunkirk, which graphically recreates the terror of being under attack and the risks the private boat owners took. However, virtually every character is a composite or completely fictitious.
Two older films, both titled The Gathering Storm, one starring Richard Burton and made in 1974 and the other starring Albert Finney and made in 2002, cover the period just before that of The Darkest Hour, and are more straightforward in their presentation of fact.
A final word on The Darkest Hour. The disclaimer at the end of the film is simpler than those of many fact-based films. It states, "Although based on fact, some of the characters and events are fictitious." It also has Dunkirk as part of the plot, but it seems to happen as an afterthought and not as part of the British people's support of the war--just as the fictitious people on the train support Churchill.
Copyright 2018 by John T. Aquino