History Kinda Repeats Itself

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," exhorts a character in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It's advice that makers of historically and biographically based movies seem to have taken to heart. After all, why let a few pesky facts get in the way of a good story?

Numerous movies based on "real" people were released in 2004. While few, if any, of them choose the straight mythological route, just about all of them omitted, condensed, or modified facts. Among the epics and biopics were Alexander, Kinsey, Ray, Beyond the Sea, (about Bobby Darin), Finding Neverland (Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie), The Motorcycle Diaries (prerevolutionary Che Guevara), The Aviator (eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes), and De-Lovely (songwriter Cole Porter). Even King Arthur played around with the truth, although that's easier to do when nobody quite knows what the truth was.

John Logan, who wrote the screenplay for The Aviator, speaks for many writers when he says that he considers himself a dramatist, not an historian. But he is drawn to stories about real people and events, and is not cavalier about messing with the historical record. The very fact that a writer chooses to concentrate on a particular period of a person's life -- in the case of The Aviator, Hughes's love of flight -- means that he is "editing" that life.

Because a two- or even three-hour movie could never cover all the bases of a person's life, events are condensed or eliminated altogether, and several supporting characters are rolled into one. At other times, the truth is a mere inconvenience, and is therefore softened in the belief that if the subject's true personality were disclosed, nobody would want to see a movie about him.

Neither Ray nor Kinsey hesitates to reveal their heroes' less than admirable qualities, though both films do soft-pedal the negative. Kinsey (Liam Neeson) admits at one point that he has become addicted to barbiturates. His alleged real-life drug intake was far greater than that simple line suggests, as was his level of promiscuity. But given that cultural conservatives campaigned against the film before it even started shooting, omitting some of the more sordid details was probably a wise decision.


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