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Onscreen: History according to Hollywood

Classic Hollywood movies took viewers from the Confederate States of America to the shores of the Nile and the royal palace of Siam.

Hollywood can do terrible things to history. A Hollywood version of events tends to rewrite things for the sake of drama, to attribute words and actions to the wrong people, to whitewash.

Nowadays, there are many studios and filmmakers trying to do right by history, to highlight stories that haven’t been told before, to recognize those whose names were omitted from textbooks and awards. A lot of these writers, producers, and directors make sure to cast people of the right ethnicity and to respect language and culture.

There are also a lot of movements, online and in real life, that talk about little known persons and events. Blogs like A Mighty Girl and IFL Science do a lot to increase awareness, often about women and persons of color.

Still, Hollywood movies have an impact that social media can’t quite match.

Many of us learned our history from movies, and classic Hollywood movies were productions of impeccable scale and extravagance: breathtaking set design and intricate costumes, hair and makeup transforming the most Caucasian actors into the most exotic characters (think John Wayne as Genghis Khan, and Natalie Wood as Maria in West Side Story).

Classic Hollywood movies took viewers from the French countryside to the Confederate States of America, from the shores of the Nile to the royal palace of Siam. These movies, for all their inaccuracies, showed peoples and lives beyond imagining, cultures and traditions that had been passed down from one generation to another, belief systems clashing, and nations rising and falling.

Perhaps it’s best to think of history according to Hollywood as a starting point, rather than an accurate depiction of events. Here are a couple of Hollywood classics that sparked our interest in history.

Gone With the Wind (1939)

History may be written by the victors, but the Confederates had much to say even if they lost the American Civil War. One of the most unforgettable recollections of the Civil War was Gone With the Wind, written by Margaret Mitchell and published in 1936.

Though Mitchell was born in 1900, her novel so vividly depicted the life of a wealthy Southern family. Mitchell grew up in Georgia, where the novel and the film were set. Throughout her childhood, she listened to stories of the war from relatives, many of whom were aging Confederate soldiers, and her own mother and her grandmother. While the novel was a close look at life during the Civil War, it was also a coming-of-age story, that of protagonist Scarlett O’Hara.

The novel was a bestseller, and it still appears on lists of favorite books among American readers. Then, as now, bestselling novels soon found their way to Hollywood, and an original screenplay was written by Sidney Howard.

Production was in development limbo for two years because producer David O. Selznick was determined to cast dashing actor Clark Gable in the role of Rhett Butler. Casting for Scarlett also took some time, with over 1,400 women auditioning for the part. But as early as 1937, British actress Vivien Leigh was determined to play Scarlett, and it was director George Cukor who finally cast her.

Aside from casting woes, production was problematic as well. The film went through four directors, and there were disputes between the actors and the directors. Leigh did not get along with co-star Leslie Howard, who played her onscreen love interest Ashley Wilkes.

Despite the hiccups, the film was a critical and commercial success, winning ten out of thirteen Oscar nominations.

Perhaps true success is the fact that, eighty years later, Gone With the Wind is still an enduring presence in pop culture. Who can forget the dress made out of those green curtains, and how many an angry youth has retorted, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” before storming off?

The King And I (1956)

Talk about adaptations and interpretations of adaptations and interpretations.

This one started with Anna Leonowens, a British traveler and writer. Leonowens was teacher to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the 1860s, and she wrote about her experiences in her memoirs, The English Governess at the Siamese Court. Writer Margaret Landon wrote a novel based on the memoirs, titled Anna and the King of Siam in 1944. That led to a 1946 film of the same title, starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne.

It was in 1950 when Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were approached with the idea of turning the 1946 film into a musical. The King and I premiered on March 29, 1951, at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, and was an immediate hit, catapulting a young Yul Brynner—who was of Russian descent, not Asian—to stardom. The film, also starring Brynner alongside Deborah Kerr and Rita Moreno, was released in 1956. It was a critical and commercial success, and was nominated for nine Oscars. It won five, including Best Actor for Brynner.

For all its accolades, the film—and all other adaptations of Anna and The King—was banned in Thailand for its depiction of King Mongkut of Siam. There were also questions about the accuracy of Leonowens’ memoirs, alongside the fact that, well, here’s Asian history being told, yet again, from a Western perspective. It certainly made some viewers think about whose version of history they had read.

Still, there’s no arguing with the memorable songs like “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance,” or the gorgeous costume design by Irene Sharaff. And there’s no denying the awesome power that is Brynner’s performance, or the quiet strength and dignity of Kerr’s Anna, or the sublime sorrow Moreno brings to Tuptim. Never mind that Moreno is Puerto Rican and not Siamese. 

Cleopatra (1963)

For all her glamor and beauty, there was simply no way Elizabeth Taylor could possibly have looked anything like Egypt’s most famous pharaoh, Cleopatra. But in every other way, Taylor was about as royal as you could get. Besides Taylor’s star power, the film had a powerhouse cast: Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowall, and Martin Landau.

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film’s screenplay was adapted from the book The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Carlo Maria Franzero, and from histories by classic historians Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian. If you had any sort of idea of what Cleopatra looked like, what Roman generals and senators looked like, and how pharaohs partied, it probably came from this movie.

Yes, this was where Taylor met Burton. (Liz and Dick, as the media called them, were married in 1964.) Aside from the scandal of their affair, the film was also known for its remarkable production costs. Taylor was paid a then-unheard-of US$ 1 million to play the role. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made. Costs added up due to production problems and marketing expenses. It almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox.

Still, Cleopatra received nine nominations at the 36th Academy Awards and won four, including Best Production Design (Color), Best Visual Effects, and Best Costume Design (Color).

Most people still envision Elizabeth Taylor when they think about Cleopatra. We also wonder, how many people wanted a career in Egyptology after watching this movie?