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Hollywood films tend to get it wrong when it comes to history

Hollywood films tend to get it wrong when it comes to history


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With movies like "Milk" and "Frost/Nixon" getting a lot of attention in Hollywood, it's evident Tinsel Town loves a good historical film. But many times these movies are based on an idea that's not true.

Historians at the University of Utah say more Americans are learning their history through movies and television. Yes, they're concerned.

"There's so much information out there that's just wrong, and yet, often, people act politically and in other ways on the basis of that information," history associate professor Ray Gunn said.

Sure, movie directors can take certain liberties with the historical events they base their movies on. They can tweak the chronology, and they can add characters that weren't really there.

But Gunn (he's heard all the sci-fi jokes) says some directors completely give the wrong impression on those events. Take, for example, "Gone with the Wind." "The entire depiction of Reconstruction, which is the old traditional mythology of Reconstruction, which historians don't accept anymore," Gunn said.

Matter of fact, our entire perception of the Old West may be wrong because of movies like "The Searchers" and "3:10 to Yuma."

"One of the popular perceptions about the West that Hollywood sort of portrays is simply vast desert expanses, and it's very much a rural society. But, in fact, from the 1880 census to the present, the West has been the most urban area in the nation," said Paul Reeve, associate chair of the University of Utah's history department.

Reeve says those one-on-one gunfights in the streets we'd see on film were pretty rare. He says violence in the Old West was usually done by collective vigilantes.

Another period of American history distorted by Hollywood is the Revolutionary War, especially from the movie "The Patriot" and its concept of the evil Brit and the innocent American.

"The good guys, the side that, A, won and, B, should have won also committed acts of terrorism, particularly in the Carolinas," explained University of Utah lecturer John Reed.

Reed also says Tom Hanks' character in the WWII film "Saving Private Ryan" interacted with his troops more like how a Vietnam veteran would. "A lot of veterans that I've known of WWII say, ‘Well, the Tom Hanks character was a wonderful guy, but I never hand an officer remotely like that,'" he said.

Reed, Reeve and Gunn all agree on one thing: The movie "JFK" was way off, and there is no evidence to back up the theories in that film. Other history professors say they have to correct a lot of students who believe that film depicted what really happened.

E-mail: pnelson@ksl.com

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Paul Nelson

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