It’s long been the case that literature, theatre and cinema have retold the stories of those who achieved great things. From Caesar to Boudicca, Lincoln and Gandhi, by the hand of William Shakespeare, Blind Harry or even their own autobiographies, their stories are brought to us to uplift and inspire, but why do we ever-increasingly romanticise the lives of historical individuals who were, in fact, more villain than hero? What is the purpose behind telling fairy-tales that gloss over acts of inhumane cruelty just to bolster the reputation of people long dead?
The film Braveheart (Mel Gibson 1995) is often held up as an example of Hollywood riding rough-shod over historical fact. Everything from the sequence of events to the costume and imagery has been picked apart as the story was written around number of real historical battles and events that were themselves brought forward or pushed back to serve Gibson’s story-telling purpose (between Braveheart and The Patriot, Gibson’s anti-British leaning taking a close second to his anti-semitic ones) but what about his portrayal of Wallace himself? The main source of information about the Scots revolutionary comes from a poem accredited to Blind Harry which, in itself, has probably been embellished in the telling. So the question remains, was Wallace a noble freedom fighter or, as is occasionally suggested, a cattle thief masquerading as a hero, like Robin Hood minus the ‘giving to the poor’? I can’t answer that myself but, there are more recent figures that I can comment on. For me, although it might be more or less historically accurate, if I want to watch a film about Scottish resistance to English despotism, I’ll watch Rob Roy, the Liam Neeson film directed by Michael Caton-Jones in the same year.
Great Leaders are often figures for dramatic representation. Despite its ongoing swing toward neo-fascism the US still (outwardly) hold Abraham Lincoln in high regard. The man lived and breathed freedom and the rights of the individual, regardless of colour or creed. Currently the show Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda 2013) is enjoying great acclaim for its fresh, modern style, employing rap and black actors and culture elements to take the audience through the events of the American war of independence from the view of the titular figure Alexander Hamilton. That being the case, George Washington is a key figure. A man who, in some of his own writings, professed to hold anti-slavery sentiments way before Lincoln, but who, in fact, owned in excess of one-hundred slaves as part of the Mount Vernon holdings. There is still discussion over whether Washington took sexual advantage of any of those slaves but it is known that, while he emancipated some of the Mount Vernon slaves (in his Will and conditional upon the death of his wife) he never challenged the legal precedent that held around half of those slaves as part of the Custis Estate, those owned by his wife’s family. They were bequeathed to her children upon her death.
Another supposed ‘Great Leader’ is Winston Churchill. Recently portrayed by Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (2017) and by John Lithgow in The Crown (2016), Churchill is regarded as a bombastic figure of iron-hard resolve, who replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in the face of the outbreak of World War II. He’s thought of as a hero, the right man in the right place at the right time. What’s less often discussed is his racism, misogyny and ableism as represented by his support of eugenics. Churchill seized foodstuffs from India to support the war effort leading to the deaths of anywhere between 2-3 million people from starvation. A hard choice in a hard time? Not for a man who described the Indian people as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”, views held from his time in-country during the Boer War. Churchill, for all his support of a united Europe, also supported the ‘improvement of the British breed’ by segregation, racial and social hierarchies, chemical and medical sterilisation of the ‘feeble-minded’ and eugenics. He stated that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph” and to my mind, as I delve deeper into the man and his character, seemed to be mostly distinguished from his most notable opponent (Hitler) only by his choice of ethnic target and the opportunity of his situation.
Stepping away from political figures, it’s time to call out a historical figure for whom I hold a deep-seated disdain. Known to the United States at large as ‘Uncle Walt’ and the founder of an entertainment juggernaut that holds a controlling share, not only in the industry at large, but over what we see and hear. A commercial monolith, influencing what we think and how we’re expected to act, pre-packaging our societal ideals to fall in line with their rampantly consumerism-driven business plan, my audience I bring you, Walt. Fucking. Disney.
It galls me that, in 2013, for the movie Saving Mr Banks (A story of the conflict between Disney and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers) Disney is depicted by an actor I hold in some esteem, Tom Hanks (I have similar feelings about both Gary Oldman and John Lithgow as Churchill and Robert Carlyle as Hitler in Rise of Evil). The fact that Hanks went on to star in the 2019 film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a biographical feature about entertainer ‘Mr’ Fred Rogers, proves that a single, talented performer can as easily portray a devil as an angel.
It’s interesting that, as much as the kindly persona of ‘Uncle Walt’ persists, the view of him as a despotic monster still gains traction. The Guardian article The cruel reality of Disney’s world by Paul Harris sits at complete odds with Disney’s biographical Wikipedia page that states; “Disney was a shy, self-deprecating and insecure man in private but adopted a warm and outgoing public persona.” Nevertheless, Walter Elias Disney is documented as being a tyrant to both his family and his staff. A man of near fundamentalist right-wing views against Communists in the days when they were being persecuted by Hitler, before Stalin corrupted Lenin’s vision, and a reputed anti-semitic, it’s commented that, as well as being unable to even draw his ‘most beloved creation’ Mickey Mouse, Disney wasn’t even responsible for his company’s meteoric financial success. That acclaim ought to fall to his brother and co-founder of the Disney animation studio, Roy O. Disney, a man whom Walt regularly berated in public. I recall an account, the source of which I cannot recall but I have found references to, of a couple of Disney’s animators becoming so embittered with Walt that they made a short porno of Mickey and Mini, sneaking it into the ‘for approval’ stack of the studio’s latest cartoons for Walt to view in the on-site showroom or ‘sweatbox’. The story I heard goes that, rather than become enraged, Walt professed delight, praising the work and ingenuity of the animators. He encouraged the artists to step forward and take credit, promising recognition, etc,etc. The story loses some credibility as the animators *do* step forward and, of course, Disney fires them on the spot and has them essentially run out of town on a rail. It’s not so much the persistence of these kind of stories but the stubborn insistence from some corners that nothing of the kind was true that, when held alongside the corporation’s rampant profiteering (there’s a reason Robin Williams didn’t voice the Genie in ‘Return of Jafar’) that lend these stories some credence.
Personally I see theatre and movies as such a viable source for disseminating factual history, that the very idea of bastardising or corrupting it in the name of ‘Drama’ seems wrong. U-571 (2000) might be a more exciting account of the allies’ breakthrough with the Enigma code than The Imitation Game (2014) but it is also flagrantly manufactured, no more real than Overlord (2018). But when that untruth goes beyond the events, into the people and makes fairy tales out of monsters and heroes out of villains, then isn’t it doing us, the audience, a greater disservice? I want more shows about Boudicca, Shaka Zulu. I want The Insider (1999) but I want to see these people as real, flawed and relatable. Into the Spider-verse (2018) carried the message ‘anyone can wear the mask, anyone can be the hero’, but surely some people, despite what they are perceived to have achieved, don’t deserve that recognition.
Move over Walt, Mr Rogers is coming through.
Addendum – In my effervescent rage to get to Disney I neglected possibly the fuzziest fairytale of the modern age. It’s a modern musical drama smash that, by all rights, ought to have started life on Broadway before hitting the silver screen but, while a stage show is being touted, Covid has gotten in the way. I’d say it’s an act of historical fantacism worthy of his countryman Mel Gibson, but Mel was born in New York unlike Hugh Jackman who was *actually* born in Sydney, Australia. Yes it’s Greatest Showman (2017) and it’s another travesty. Far from being a hero who ‘uplifted’ people seen as outcast, as different, P.T. Barnum was a trickster, conman and a huckster. Indeed his first foray into show business was to buy the ‘lease’ on an aged black woman, Joice Heth, who was being displayed and touted as George Washington’s former nurse (which would, incidentally, have made her 161 years old at the time). Let me repeat that, he bought a lease on a human being, the right to display and earn profit at her expense, despite slavery being illegal in the state of Pennsylvania at that time. If that wasn’t enough he made anonymous, false reports of the woman being a ‘cunningly constructed automaton’ and, upon her death, hosted a pay-per-view autopsy of her remains. Barnum made a living displaying fraudulent exhibits like the Fiji Mermaid (half a mummified monkey stitched to a fish) alongside those people whom he took abject advantage of, those people he dubbed ‘curiosities’ and ‘freaks’. Barnums shows straddled the American Civil War and and attempt at a political career in its wake. He tried to drum up support by showing contrition for the slaves he owned and whipped before the war and the story of Heth began to change a little at a time. All this predates the Barnum and Bailey circus about which ‘Greatest Showman‘ claims to tell the tale but Barnums business model, extorting money from the masses by exploiting a number of individuals society didn’t care about, want or understand, stayed the same. The very idea of portraying the man as a ‘champion’ of those people is not just an act of pulling the wool over the audiences eyes worthy of Barnum himself but a great disservice to the people he exploited during his career although, in light of what’s going on in America, in light of the rise of awareness of the Tulsa massacre and the ongoing racial divisions of ‘The Land of the Free and Home of the Brave’, it is, at the least, fitting.