Based on a True Story – (In other words, I made up the whole thing!)

Grain of SaltA long time ago, I recall a friend telling me she learned more about the Vietnam War from Danielle Steel than she had in school. It makes the mind reel, doesn’t it? It certainly seemed plausible though. There can be no argument that Danielle Steel is a much easier read than the average high school textbook. It’s also true that a history textbook might, among all the topics it’s expected to cover, spend no more than ten pages on a war that lingered for well over a decade (depending on what event you think marked the beginning) and continues to linger in the collective American psyche.

More recently, it seems we’re getting our historical education from movies. While this may be enjoyable, the problem is that we often leave the theater and store the information under the heading of “FACT”. It’s a disturbing trend, one that takes advantage of our increasingly addled, overloaded brains. We often have too many other distractions and interests to round out the information we receive at the movies. Saw “Schindler’s List”? That’s the Holocaust sorted. Watched “Selma”? Civil Rights understood! Rented “Born on the Fourth of July”? Check off the Vietnam War.

I remember a friend asking me if I had seen “The Monuments Men”, and I quipped that I hadn’t because I was tired of getting all my history from Hollywood. I eventually caved and saw the film. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to follow up by reading the book. Big mistake. Huge. I spent the first fifty or so pages just trying to figure out who the hell everyone was – which film character represented each real life person. But I couldn’t do it. I had too many characters and too few people. I eventually abandoned that quest in hopes of just enjoying the (presumably more factual) book. I kept waiting for Rose Valland to show romantic interest in Rorimer. I kept trying to make sense of the story surrounding Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges. I was incensed in a way that I hadn’t been before when faced with similar cinematic dupes. My mistake was two-fold: reading the book too close to the time of seeing the movie, and more importantly, assuming that there was any relevant meaning to the words “Based on a True Story”.  In my opinion, the movie was a complete re-imagining of the information presented in the book.

Well, of course it was, right??

While there are certainly indisputable facts in history, the discipline is largely interpretative analysis with a point of view. Historians can’t explain eras of history without interpretation. And Hollywood’s attempts to recreate any snapshot in history is yet another point of view. More cinematic than factual. More calculated drama and good lighting than reality. This is by design, which is what I failed to remember. We can’t expect two to three hours in the theater to constitute an education on any topic, but it can be a worthwhile introduction. Let those wonderful movie moments inspire you to read and research more about a topic. Don’t use it to check off the topic in your mind, assuming you now know the untold story.