History and the Movies: The Last Emperor (1987)

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To view The Last Emperor click here.

In 1987, Bernardo Bertolucci directed The Last Emperor, a movie about the life of Puyi, sometimes spelled as Pu Yi, who was the last emperor of China before it became a republic in 1911. The film was notable for having obtained permission from the Chinese government to film inside the Forbidden City, the storied site of the Imperial Palace. And possibly starting there, the movie began its clash with history, not so much by altering historical outcomes in the life of Puyi, but by leaving out information that might make the viewer less empathetic to those outcomes. Was this because Bertolucci was trying to placate the Chinese government and make sure he retained their permission to film? Possibly. Judging by how much of the real history is left in, though, it’s more likely that Bertolucci was trying to make a film about a child put into an impossible situation and leaving out disturbing facts that might make the audience a little less inclined to feel sorry for the small boy. For instance…

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Filling in for History: Gary Cooper and The Pride of the Yankees (’42)

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To view The Pride of the Yankees click here.

Lou, what else can I say, except that it was a sad day in the life of everybody who knew you when you came into my hotel room that day in Detroit and told me you were quitting as a ballplayer because you felt yourself a hindrance to the team. My God, man, you were never that.Joe McCarthy, New York Yankees’ manager, 1939

In June of 1939, New York Yankees’ beloved first baseman, Lou Gehrig, announced his retirement from baseball. The idea that the Yankees would lose Gehrig, affectionately nicknamed “The Iron Horse,” a moniker honoring his unwavering dedication to his team, fans and the sport, was unfathomable. In many ways, Gehrig was the heart and soul of the team, and by extension all of baseball. By all accounts, he was an all-around decent, upstanding guy, and a damn good ballplayer, too. Over the course of his fourteen years with the Yankees, Gehrig appeared in 2,130 consecutive games, breaking the previous record set by famed shortstop Everett Scott (1,307 games), in 1933. (This record would stand until 1995 when Cal Ripken Jr., the current record holder, surpassed Gehrig’s impressive feat.) And throughout those games, Gehrig played through broken bones and concussions, aching muscles and fevers. Nothing stopped him. He was the ideal baseball player, and every manager’s dream, with a perfect combination of talent, strength and humility. Quitting was not in this man’s vocabulary, and his perseverance was an inspiration. Even with a “slump,” beginning during the 1938 season, an inevitability in even the best baseball player’s career, Gehrig pushed himself even harder. And despite growing fatigue and a noticeable change in his legendary strong, left-handed swing, Gehrig maintained his poise and leadership on the team, while his teammates and fans remained hopeful of a triumphant return to form for The Iron Horse. But Gehrig’s strength and work ethic were no match for the deadly disease which was silently, but quickly destroying his body.

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History and the Movies: Michael Collins (1996)

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To view Michael Collins click here.

“If the price of freedom, if the price of peace, is the blackening of my name, I will gladly pay it.”

Those are the words of Michael Collins as spoken by Liam Neeson. Actually, to put it more accurately, those are the words of Neil Jordan, writer and director of Michael Collins(1996), as spoken by Liam Neeson portraying Michael Collins. It’s the kind of thing Michael Collins may have said but didn’t. And maybe that’s all that matters. History and the movies have always been uncomfortable bedfellows and I have long argued that I don’t care if the history is correct in the movie as long as A) the movie works and B) the history is broadly accurate in spirit. As I wrote here years ago, I’m watching the movie for the entertainment, not the history lesson. If I want to learn the history, I can read about it whenever I want. So when a filmmaker changes certain aspects of history to further dramatize the story, I don’t usually mind as long as no one’s character is being irreparably smeared (see First Officer Murdoch in James Cameron’s Titanic). And, indeed, Jordan does change certain things in his effort to make the fight for Ireland’s independence more accessible to a wider audience without completely rewriting history. He does pick on Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman) just a little bit by portraying him as a self-centered and jealous leader, a president of the Republic of Ireland who would rather start a civil war than agree to favorable terms he didn’t negotiate (the Anglo-Irish Treaty). In actuality, he believed the terms weren’t favorable and refused to cave on his principles. Michael Collins, on the other hand, both historically and in the movie, felt the treaty, which insured a certain measure of independence for Ireland, was a necessary first step. But does any of this make for a good movie?

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Strokes of Genius: Moulin Rouge (1952)

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Biopics can be predictable and formulaic affairs. They often rely on a checklist of theatrical high points and low points, which restrict the scope of the drama and transform the rich panorama of life into a cheap paint by numbers routine. John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952) is an exception to that tired rule thanks to some innovative directing choices that challenged standard Hollywood tropes at the time it was made. In turn, this stirring dramatization of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s brief life is a brooding contemplation of the artistic process and a celebration of nineteenth-century bohemian Paris.

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A Queen Too Many

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Mary of Scotland (1936), released by RKO, is an interesting historical drama with a touch of romance directed by John Ford. In 1936, Ford was hardly a novice; he had directed over eighty productions, including Academy Award nominated films Arrowsmith (1931), The Lost Patrol (1934) and The Informer (1935). Although he had success in some of his early films, Ford had yet to hit his creative stride, which arguably didn’t begin until the 1939 masterpiece, Stagecoach. In Mary of Scotland, we only catch but a glimpse of Ford’s genius.

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Panning for Gold with Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka

Eureka 1 I have a real soft spot for that strange period after the ‘70s when all the British filmmaking enfants terribles tried to wedge their styles into a movie landscape that had radically changed in front of them. Ken Russell tore into the American cinematic arena with Altered States (1980) and Crimes of Passion (1984); Lindsay Anderson veered from satirical outrage with Britannia Hospital (1982) to genteel drama with The Whales of August (1987); John Boorman went phantasmagorical with Excalibur (1981) and primitive with The Emerald Forest (1985); Derek Jarman dispensed with narrative entirely for The Angelic Conversation (1985) and The Last of England (1988). Then there’s the strange case of Nicolas Roeg, who was riding high after the triple punch of Walkabout (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Needless to say, the early ‘80s took him in some very surprising directions, first with the very ill-received Bad Timing (1980), which is now regarded as a transgressive classic, and what remains one of his most neglected and misunderstood films, Eureka (1983), airing on TCM in the appropriately wee hours of Friday. [...MORE]

Star-pics: Biopics of the Stars

Tomorrow, TCM devotes its daytime programming to biopics, or biographical pictures. Fans of this genre know not to expect an accurate chronicle of the life of a famous person; instead, biopics (or, “bi-opics” as a former coworker used to insist on calling them) offer the mythic version of that life. In other words, biopics use the lives of the famous to depict a universal truth, to offer a life lesson, or to represent a value we can all relate to. TCM has selected several film biographies that focus on prominent leaders throughout history, including Alexander the Great, Marie Antoinette, and Gandhi. Expect stirring stories of individual self-sacrifice for the greater good of the people.

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Personally, my favorite biopics are those about show business figures, especially movie stars. Biopics are almost as old as the medium of cinema itself (The Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1908), but star-pics did not emerge until the postwar era. By that time, the first generation of popular movie stars had evolved into legendary icons as reflected in The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), Valentino (1951), and The Story of Will Rogers (1952). Also during the postwar era, the studios lost vertical control of the industry, meaning they were forced to loosen that vice-like grip on production, distribution, and exhibition. The systems and practices that had led Hollywood to become the most successful film industry in the world began to break down. Not coincidentally, the industry released a spate of movies that looked back on its history, warts and all (Sunset Blvd., The Bad and the Beautiful). In contrast, the star-pics of the 1950s are affectionate re-creations of early Hollywood—nostalgic valentines to past legends and industry high points.

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The Men Who Would Be King

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Last week, I talked about the new indie film Elvis & Nixon, which is loosely based on the time that Elvis Presley made an impromptu visit to Washington D.C., to drop in on President Richard Nixon. The event resulted in the most widely requested photo in the National Archives.

Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey star as the King and the President respectively. Shannon tackles the impossible task of playing Presley and does so with sincerity and sympathy. Thankfully, he was able to suggest the King’s Southern accent and vocal characteristics without resorting to impersonator-like tricks and gimmicks. Thin and gangly, with a kind of scarecrow look, Shannon does not remotely look like Elvis, which is distracting. But, he was compelling to watch. Elvis & Nixon reminded me of other films about Elvis Presley in which actors portray the King. Their interpretations range from the credible to the ridiculous.

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Elvis & Nixon: A Match Made in Pop Culture Heaven

blogopenerElvis & Nixon opened over the weekend with little fanfare but with a barrage of unconstructive, ineffectual reviews. Liza Johnson directed this slice-of-Elvis-lore, which chronicles the time that Presley flew to Washington, D.C., on the spur of the moment to meet President Richard Nixon. Their meeting resulted in a famous photo of the two iconic figures shaking hands, which is the most requested image from the National Archives. Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey star as Presley and Nixon.

The movie prompted me to go back to my collection of Presley bios and resources to reexamine the incident. I checked in All Shook Up: Elvis Day by Day, 1954-1977, which is my favorite reference because it objectively and succinctly chronicles Presley’s actions on a day by day basis. I also reread parts of Peter Guralnik’s definitive, two-volume biography. I offer a pared down version of the event here, not to accuse the film of inaccuracy but to provide a proper backstory. On December 19, 1970, after an argument with his family about overspending for Christmas, Elvis boarded a commercial flight in Memphis bound for Washington, D.C. He checked into the Washington Hotel as Jon Burrows, one of his aliases. That night, he boarded a flight to Los Angeles, arriving well after midnight. Jerry Schilling, a former member of Elvis’s Memphis Mafia, met him at the plane with a limo. After dropping off at least two stewardesses, whom Elvis had promised a ride, he and Schilling arrived at Presley’s house on Hillcrest Drive. The following morning, December 20, the pair flew to Washington, D.C., with Elvis using the alias Dr. John Carpenter (his character’s name in his last film, Change of Habit).

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Lust for Life: “You Look Too Fast”

blogopenerEach Monday evening during the month of March, TCM celebrates “Art and Artists” by airing 18 movies about painters and sculptors. The most diverse films are those based on fictional artists or paintings, including everything from the horror classic The Mystery of the Wax Museum (March 21, 1:15am EST) to the comedy The Art of Love (March 28, 8:00pm EST). The series also spotlights dramatic biopics based on real-life artists, including tonight’s selection: Lust for Life, El Greco, Rembrandt, and Andrei Rublev.

With a background in art history, I am an unabashed fan of artist biopics, even though most of them are not really about the art. Directed by Alexander Korda in 1936, Rembrandt is an exercise in “good taste” as typified by big-budget British productions of that era. Charles Laughton as Rembrandt is given numerous opportunities to show off his gifts at dramatic recitation in a story that is mostly about enduring personal loss. El Greco, a TCM premiere, is a little-known Italian production with international star Mel Ferrer in the title role. The film posits El Greco as the outsider artist who butts heads with the closed minds of the Inquisition. The contributions of composer Ennio Morricone and set decorator Dante Ferretti, who would later team with Martin Scorsese, make this film worthwhile viewing. Of the four, Andrei Rublev by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is the most unconventional and the most cinematic. Tarkovsky eschewed a linear, cause-and-effect biographical structure in favor of experimental black-and-white imagery and a stripped down narrative in which little is explained but much is felt.

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