Fraser, George MacDonald. The Hollywood History of the World, from One Million B.C. to Apocalypse Now.

NY: Morrow, 1988.

Any book which undertakes to argue the author’s choice of the best or worst of anything has a good shot at being a lot of fun — and an even better shot when the author is a very knowledgeable, highly opinionated, and notably talented wordsmith. Fraser is best known for his “Flashman” comic-historical novels — highly regarded for their detailed accuracy — but he was also an experienced and professional playwright and screenplay writer. And in this volume he considers how history has been treated in the (mostly) English-language films of Hollywood and Britain.

You would expect such a book to automatically start arguments — but because it is now nearly a quarter-century old, and because Fraser tends to concentrate on the films of his own youth, it seems likely that most readers under forty will not have seen many of the movies under discussion and won’t even have heard of many of the actors. (Robert Morley? Norma Shearer? George Sanders? Paulette Goddard? Not to mention Lionel Atwill or Felix Aylmer.)

Fraser is careful to note that his concern is less with the quality of the drama than with the fidelity to history — or at least to its spirit, since art has its own requirements. The original Mutiny on the Bounty, for instance, with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, was, he thinks, marvelous drama — and terrible history. The second remake, with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson, was quite good history — but very limp drama. (The first remake, with Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando, is best forgotten from any standpoint, a judgment with which I entirely agree.) The author sometimes ignores his own strictures, however, in promoting his personal favorites. He believes, for example, that Quo Vadis? “may be one of the cinema’s most splendid views of the grandeur that was Rome.” Really? I’ve seen it several times (mostly on TV in the 1960s and ’70s) and its view of 1st century Rome is merely the usual squeaky-clean, well-fed version of the urbs romana Hollywood usually puts out — not to mention its whitewashing of early Christians. On the other hand, he believes Olivier’s rendition of Henry V is the greatest film ever made, both historically and dramatically, and that’s certainly a defensible position; it’s a marvelous piece of work, both as Shakespeare and as a visual portrayal of Agincourt.

Probably it won’t surprise Flashman fans that the author hits his stride with film versions of 19th century events. He thinks very highly of Zulu (the story of Roark’s Drift, and it really is a superior epic), but also Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which I can’t agree with. However, Fraser was himself a soldier in India, and he says the accuracy in this film is very high. However again, the author appears to have a high opinion of The Alamo. He says that in most ways, it’s “authentic.” No. It isn’t. Not even close. John Wayne was a travesty of Davy Crockett, Richard Widmark wasn’t much better as Bowie, there was no midnight cattle raid, and the defenders didn’t die to the last man within the church’s precincts. Faithful to the legend, maybe — but not to factual history.

I’ve said nothing about the chapters dealing with films on World War II, or the Old West, or pirate pictures, or the many films based on stories by Kipling, or Kirk Douglas as a viking, but then this review would be a dozen times longer. I’ll say only that if you love history and enjoy the cinema, and have strong opinions about both, you definitely should read this book. You won’t agree with all its judgments, maybe not even most of them, but you should read it. And perhaps work up an “I Must Watch This” list as you go.

And then there’s The Three Musketeers, filmed perhaps a dozen times (including a couple of more recent versions Fraser didn’t live to see). Dumas based his novel very carefully on real history and the 1973 version (plus its 1974 sequel, The Four Musketeers) was very close in character and style to Dumas. The two together are among my own favorites — and the screenplays for both films were written by George MacDonald Fraser.

Published in: on 17 May 2011 at 5:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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