PAST IMPERFECT by Mark C. Carnes


History According to the Movies
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 A boffo collection of 60 brief essays detailing the historical accuracy of popular movies from Jurassic Park to Gone With the Wind to All the President's Men. To complement these classics, editor Carnes (History/Barnard) has assembled a virtual ``Who's Who'' of modern historians, including Antonia Fraser, Simon Schama, Frances FitzGerald, Peter Gay, and William Manchester. In their essays these historians repeatedly demonstrate that, in the words of William E. Leuchtenberg, ``a film can be accurate without being true.'' For in Hollywood, history is usually only a starting point. And whether it be The Scarlet Empress or Reds, moviemakers have tended not to let something as petty as the truth stand in the way of a good story. As John Ford put it in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ``When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.'' So Wyatt Earp is transformed from a corrupt gambler and con man into an avatar of justice. In Oliver Stone's hands, JFK becomes a victim of a military-industrial complex, the Vietnam War's holiest martyr. As several authors grimly note, these Hollywood histrionics come to be regarded as fact by many viewers. The irony is that while the plots might be confections, the details, costumes, and decor are painstakingly and expensively correct. The Last of the Mohicans may bear little factual relation to its supposed subject, the French and Indian War, but at least everyone's moccasins look impeccably authentic. While the essays are almost uniformly shrewd, insightful, and provocative, they are ill-served by the book's awkward layout, which haphazardly scatters photographs and clumps of text about the margins. But this is a minor quibble, especially in the face of such an invaluable and entertaining corrective to all the bombast and blather that pass for Hollywood history. A remarkable resource. (400 b&w photos, not seen) (Book-of-the-Month Club/Quality Paperback Book Club selections; History Book Club main selection)

Pub Date: Sept. 11th, 1995
ISBN: 0-8050-3759-4
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1995