Two of my passions are historical fiction and movies. When you combine those, you can bet that I’ll be buying a ticket. Over the holidays, I saw two movies with World War II settings. I’m always eager to view this kind of movie because I recognize that recreating a period in time presents a filmmaker with challenges—challenges even greater than those facing a writer. A writer doesn’t have to fill the screen with a thousand details like a film maker does. A writer can enlist the reader’s imagination as an ally in recreating time and place. A historical reference here and another over there allow the reader to fill the gaps in between. The movie maker, on the other hand, has to show the historically accurate setting in order to coax the viewer to follow along.
Allied, starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, played in our neighborhood in early December. Here’s a period piece with great stars and an accomplished director in Robert Zemeckis, I thought. The movie opens with Pitt, a British (actually Canadian) agent named Max, parachuting into occupied French North Africa in 1942. He makes his way to exotic Casablanca where he meets his contact, Marianne, a French agent who is posing as his wife. Their mission is to assassinate a Nazi official. Against his better judgment, Max falls in love with Marianne. It’s an exciting story, well-acted with period sets and costumes that made me feel like I was in North Africa.
Following their escape from Africa, Max and Marianne make their separate ways to wartime London. Again the sets felt realistic. But back in what should have been safer territory, the story bumped into a couple of distractions. First, two characters are openly lesbian. No, this isn’t about sexual preference—it’s about historical accuracy. While one can be sympathetic with the filmmaker’s desire to represent differing lifestyles in an open, accepting way, portraying these characters as “just another couple” is unrealistic. We’re not so far removed from a time when gay people were considered deviant. The portrayal is further complicated by the fact that one of the characters is working in an intelligence section. Such a lifestyle would have rendered one ripe for blackmail, therefore a security risk and therefore ineligible for service in a sensitive field like intelligence. Lesbians and homosexuals no doubt served honorably, but not openly. It wouldn’t have happened that way—and to present it that way, even with good intentions, diminishes the struggles that people with different sexual identities have actually had to endure.
The second obstacle arises from a plot twist which features a network of Nazi agents operating in the city. The British were amazingly successful in identifying and capturing German agents. Those who refused to be turned were executed. I won’t say more about this distraction as it is key to the resolution of the plot.
For a history nerd like me, Allied is still enjoyable, if imperfect.
Hacksaw Ridge, unlike Allied, is billed as “A True Story.” It mostly is. This film, directed by Mel Gibson, has been nominated for Golden Globe awards and tells the story of World War II hero Desmond Doss. Doss, well-portrayed by Andrew Garfield, was a conscientious objector who nonetheless served in World War II and who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as a combat medic on Okinawa. Although I was unfamiliar with Doss, the Okinawa battle was featured in my latest book, so I was eager to see how Gibson and his colleagues presented the story.
Doss, his commitment to his religious beliefs and his heroic actions on the battlefield are accurately portrayed. Even so, the movie folks still take liberties with the “True Story.” They include a court martial of Doss which didn’t happen. Why? “If you’re a slave to the complete facts, then you’re not making a movie that is compelling,” producer Bill Mechanic told People magazine. Here’s a guy, a conscientious objector, a man who refused to carry a weapon, yet insisted on serving in combat of the fiercest nature; a man who single-handedly saved seventy-five of his fellow soldiers while under nearly continuous enemy fire for twelve hours. Not compelling? Ironically, director Gibson, in an interview with Kathie Lee Gifford on the Today show admitted that he left out part of the story. After Doss was finally wounded when he kicked a live grenade away from fellow soldiers, he was being evacuated on a stretcher. As the stretcher bearers made their way toward the rear, Doss stopped them and rolled off the litter to attend to a man more badly wounded than he was. “I couldn’t even put it in a film because it was so unbelievable,” Gibson said.
Hacksaw Ridge is a terrific movie that spares the viewer none of the carnage and misery of the battlefield. Doss’s story is inspiring and I’m glad Gibson and company brought it to life.
Making movies is no doubt a tough business. With the huge budgets involved, filmmakers have to take risks not only on the stories they choose to tell, but on how they choose to tell them. My hope is that they will see history as part of what makes the story “compelling” in the first place and that they will take greater pains to present things as they actually were.