Justifying the decisions behind Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel is possibly the most useless thing I could be doing with my time. Since I’ll be ending this thing doing exactly that, let’s get there by examining something else that the internet got all angry about recently: historical revisionism. I promise that I’m not going to make this about the Civil War.
I *am* going to reference it at one point, and if the world was fair, I’d’ve mentioned that before the “show more” break. You’ll get over it; now let’s talk about movies!
Part 1: Movies!
Contrary to what Michael Bay’s entire body of work might lead you to believe, filmmaking is really hard work. Appealing to the widest possible audience (or, more accurately, “pandering to idiots”) is the only way to guarantee they’ll make back the insane cost of shooting the damn things in the first place. This is ostensibly why Mr. Bay’s movies have simply replaced silly things like “story”, “character development”, and “not being horribly racist” with VFX spectacles: an innovative plotline and realistic characters might really hit home with the minority of American citizens who’ve chosen to skip their monthly lobotomies, but explosions are the same in every language and for every level of intelligence, and that’s why his movies make infinity dollars.
Another issue, which you’d learn in any screenwriting class, is that all movies follow a certain rhythm. If the “point-of-no-return” scene arrives 62 minutes in instead of 60, theatregoers get antsy. Watching Captain America struggle to adapt to life in the 2010s might be compelling, but if that scene keeps Cap from squaring off against King Nazi until 70 minutes into the movie’s runtime, the villagers around you will have already burned down the theatre in a boredom-induced rage.
And in case you’re wondering why every movie being released these days is the reboot of a reboot of something everyone loved back in the day, it’s so they can rely on our existing knowledge of the Gummi Bears franchise to fill in the blanks while they just tell the damn story.
“High adventure” indeed, Disney.
Needless to say, name recognition is important.
On that note: unless you’re this guy, it’s safe to say that you’ve heard of Achilles. If you haven’t, go watch the movie Troy. Don’t come back until you have an appreciation for all the hard work Brad Pitt’s abs did in bringing the 2700-year-old uber-warrior to life.
With near-universal name recognition, you’d think that making the movie would be pretty simple: just rely on VFX spectacles to keep the less knowledgeable viewers entertained, and otherwise adhere as closely as possible to the source material.
If only they’d done that.
I don’t want to get into a discussion of everything that was changed for the sake of the movie, primarily because I have a tendency to go off on tangents about The Iliad that would be meaningless to anyone who hasn’t read it recently, but also because it’s been years since I’ve seen Troy and I’ll be damned if I get suckered into watching that bullshit a second time. However, I seem to remember a sub-plot where Brad’s abs saved Rose Byrne from being brutally raped, beginning a love story that I really didn’t give a shit about because it was shoehorned in with all of the grace and subtlety of a gun. Achilles did take Briseis (Byrne’s character) as his wife in the original poem, but the truth is that everything about this so-called “romance” was invented for the film.
In the book preceding The Iliad, the Greeks had won a fairly large battle which (as usual) couldn’t have been done without the help of their all-star violencer, Achilles. Normally the first pick of the spoils go to the highest ranking officer, but to show his immense gratitude, Agamemnon (the general of the Greek army) allowed Achilles to take his share first. Achilles chose Briseis as a part of his share. Agamemnon picked next, and he took Chryseis – who just so happened to be the daughter of one of Apollo’s priests – as a part of his.
Apollo himself took offense to Agamemnon’s choice (but only because her father the priest was pretty miffed about it) and used his godly power to make life miserable for the Greeks. After the loss of innumerable lives, Agamemnon’s most decorated warriors eventually convinced him to return Chryseis to her father. Angry at having lost his newest sex slave, Agamemnon stole Briseis from Achilles, who quit the battlefield in protest (and took his city’s soldiers with him). This didn’t go over well with the other troops, who were once again dying in droves, so Agamemnon begrudgingly sought to reconcile with his star player by returning her.
If what we saw in the movie was accurate, and it absolutely was not, this should have been the end of their feud. In truth, Agamemnon never tried using Briseis to placate a pack of rape-happy soldiers, and Achilles refused to take his so-called “wife” back until Agamemnon swore that Briseis was “undamaged”. It was literally the furthest you can get from being a chivalric gesture. In fact, calling Briseis his “wife” was little more than a political ploy to make Achilles look like less of an asshole (and/or coward) for letting his own army die. The Greek army’s entire motivation for sieging Troy was to see Helen reunited with her husband Menelaus, who was Agamemnon’s brother: stealing another man’s wife after going to war over his brother’s would have been seen as an unforgivable hypocrisy.
It’s worth noting that, even after she was returned, Achilles refused to personally participate in the battle until his passive-aggressive pacifism ended up causing the death of his best friend. My point is that whatever feelings Achilles may, might, or could have had are entirely irrelevant: based on his actions in The Iliad, Briseis was little more than a war trophy. Anything more is just baseless conjecturing.
Troy isn’t the only movie with implausibly enlightened protagonists: after watching 300, it’d be totally forgivable for someone to forget that actual Sparta was a brutal military dictatorship through and through. The movie would have you believe that our bearded band of gritty Greeks was a collection of time-displaced Marines with a hard-on for freedom, but an accurate portrayal would have shown a teenaged Leonidas sneaking around a slumbering Sparta to murder one of their many slaves as part of a coming of age ritual, and while we’re on the subject of 300, having Spartans make fun of the Athenians for being “boy-lovers” is little more than some hot pot-on-kettle action. Similarly, if Mel Gibson’s character in The Patriot had period-appropriate attitudes on race, he’d be indistinguishable from actual, modern-day Mel Gibson.
As much as people who actually know their history want to bitch and moan that Hollywood intentionally gets these details wrong, here’s what we lose sight of: historically accurate versions of those stories would be a terrible idea. Yes, Hollywood does have the unfortunate tendency of forcing modern perspectives on history like they’re Bill Cosby in a sorority house, but in this case, that’s not necessarily bad. A movie’s job is to entertain us, but reality is goddamn horrifying – a protagonist like real-life Achilles, Leonidas, or Mel only alienates the audience. Changing them so that they fit our image of the “enlightened modern man” gives us an access point that allows us to explore the world around them but without the discomfort of being forced to adopt their era’s distasteful views in order to do so.
While I hate admitting it, this inaccuracy can be a good thing. French filmmaker François Truffaut once noted that anti-war movies simply can’t exist. Anything that looks cool is implicitly glamorized, and there’s no way to film the horrors of war that doesn’t look cool on screen. If you need proof, here’s an entire tvtropes page full of examples. More to our point, a character might be an unrepentant racist bastard, but unless they’re challenged by someone who *isn’t*, it would imply that being an unrepentant racist bastard is okay. The shitty second half of American History X is forgivable simply because the entire first half of the film follows a neo-Nazi as he goes around acting confident and powerful, and while I wish that his redemptive arc was a little less saccharine, it curb stomps the shit out of accidentally making Ed Norton’s character look like some kind of badass. By giving Gibson’s character in The Patriot anachronistic views on pretty much everything, it makes everyone around him look like assholes by comparison. In one viewing we get to see how far we’ve come, why we don’t want to go back, and we get to feel good about ourselves for thinking the right things. If there’s a choice between reinforcing good behavior and reintroducing bad ones, it would be downright irresponsible to pick the latter. It’s totally masturbatory and wildly inaccurate, but it *is* a force for good.
While I still have to protest this on the grounds that it’s factually inaccurate, the good news is that Hollywood is right to say that their products are meant purely as entertainment. There’s no way that someone might grow up in a culture influenced by Gone With the Wind and think that the Civil War was caused by anything other than slavery.
Check out Part 2, where I’ll explain why every history teacher you’ve ever had was a lying turd!