History and the movies: How to avoid telling lies and getting it wrong

I have long held a fascination with the complex and chaotic relationship that cinema has with the representation of history. Since the earliest beginnings of humanity’s attempts at iconographic representation, we have endeavoured to tear the past from the vague and intangible clutches of memory and thrust it into the living present moment. Despite these efforts, which will not cease as long as people live and breathe, we are also acutely aware that such a process must ultimately end in failure. The past is the past and cannot be resurrected. All that we can do is assemble the artefacts and documents that time has left standing, and attempt to piece them together in the most accurate fashion that we possibly can.

Of course, no book or film detailing the events of history is without erroneous details (many facts are inevitably lost to us) or misrepresentations of individual’s personalities and intentions (which can never truly be known). Nor can any book or film ever escape the trap of narrative – the process of distorting the infinitely complex real world into an unrealistic binary universe of cause/effect driven storytelling. This is not so much a fault as it is an inescapable truth of our relationship with the world.

It is also inevitable that the creator of a historical film or book will pass their own thoughts and ideologies into their work. One need only take a look at two films that deal with the same slice of history to observe the beginnings of ideological discrepancy. Consider the representation of the American Civil War in D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece/outrage The Birth of a Nation (1915) compared to the more contemporary and sentimental Glory (1989). One is a racist attack on the abolishment of slavery, and the other is an attack on racism and slavery itself.

If we take the above points as an accepted fact in all films that deal with the past in one way or another (which I do), and accept them not as accurate representations of history but as inevitably tainted reconstructions of a lost past, then the films that come out on top are those that tackle this issue of lostness. In other words, films that acknowledge what they cannot know.

One of the most impressive Hollywood directors to tackle this problem of historical representation is the New Zealand born Andrew Dominik. Dominik has thus far directed only three films in his career with a fourth on the way. The first is the Australian biopic, Chopper (2000), a brilliant film that details a portion of the life of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, the Australian crime figure most famous for cutting off his own ears and a proclaimed love of torture. The second is the underrated biopic epic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), a brilliant look at the distorting mythology of celebrity and its discordance with the real world. The third is a crime thriller, Killing Them Softly (2012). And the fourth is to be perhaps his most ambitious production of all, Blonde, a biopic on the life and times of Marilyn Monroe. Here, I’d like to focus on the first of the historical works that Dominik completed, Chopper (without ruining it for those who have not yet had the opportunity to view it).

Dominik’s Chopper is an incredibly concise film, its narrative consisting predominantly of vignettes from various points in the life of a man who needs no introduction to Australian culture. Chopper has attained a level of celebrity in Australia akin to that of a contemporary Bonnie & Clyde, predominantly due to his self-declared love for blackmailing, torturing and killing drug dealers. First coming into the public eye in the mid-seventies when he took a courtroom hostage to force the release of a close friend, he now has a series of best-selling autobiographical books that detail his rather heinous career in graphic detail. Since Australia has laws prohibiting criminals from profiting from their crimes, he claims to only detail the events and acts that he has not been prosecuted for. Most people agree that the main reason he has not been prosecuted for these crimes is that they did not occur. But as Chopper is fond of saying, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Combine this with the reality that the man has dealt with severe mental health issues his entire life and it quickly becomes apparent that getting to the core of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read is no simple task.

And yet Dominik has chosen to undertake the difficult task of sifting through Chopper’s stories, police records and any source he could find to uncover the real Chopper. The result is a masterful film, shaped around the endless half-lies, lies, paranoid delusions and truths-made-to-look-like-lies that make the subject so inaccessible. Dominik demonstrates the difficulty of obtaining the truth of his character by having the viewer sit at a distance from the action, never quite able to ascertain the character’s thought process, or to fully comprehend what is or is not a lie. Indeed, Dominik presents the very real possibility that not even Chopper himself understands who he is or what he is doing. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the film is that the character does not come off looking two dimensional or entirely unsympathetic. Instead he is presented as an unknowable, loveable beast – as much a monster as a human being.

The film’s incongruent scenes cover a large time-period in his life, often sitting chronologically distant from each other (at least in the first half) to avoid the viewer developing a solid narrative relationship with the character. This also serves the purpose of avoiding the aforementioned process of ‘distorting the infinitely complex real world into an unrealistic binary universe of cause/effect driven storytelling’. Many of the most famous moments of the character’s life are fleetingly referred to, and the characters in the film are often amalgamations of several individuals from the real world, highlighting the fact that this is not an accurate account of history, but an experimental grappling with the psychology of a significant Australian figure. The open titles indicate as much: “This film is a dramatization in which narrative liberties have been taken. It is not a biography.”

The result of Dominik’s approach (and I am limited in what I can say by my unwillingness to spoil the film for future viewers) is a biographical study of a significant Australian figure that distances itself from the tainted obligations of biography and history in general. Dominik’s film is about the process of understanding and grappling with the past, without ever having the ability to truly know it.

To finish off, here is one of the few scenes I could find online that didn’t compromise the film for those who hadn’t seen it. Enjoy…

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

17 thoughts on “History and the movies: How to avoid telling lies and getting it wrong

  1. ‘This could have been a great film if it were not so long. After a while the journey starts to flag, and the early promise is lost. However, on the plus side, the cinematography is sumptuous, and the period feel never lacks authenticity. If anything, Brad Pitt is not at his best in this film, the most satisfying performances coming from the supporting actors. Not really in the Cowboy genre, the film conveys a time of change for the Old West, and it does that well.’ (3 stars)

    The above is a copy of my short review of ‘ The Assassination of Jesse James…etc’ from the Amazon website. As you can see, like many of its detractors, I thought the film too protracted for its own good. I agree about ‘Chopper’, though I always have a slight problem, with the possibility of a violent thug achieving celebrity status as a ‘film star’, albeit portrayed by an actor. As always, your piece is well-considered, cleverly researched, and thoughtful. The comment about you doing your ‘Honours Thesis’ explains a lot! I agree with the appraisal of Heavenly Creatures’ by another commentator, and I was delighted to see a mention of ‘Walker’, from you, a sure sign of your pedigree. I fail to understand why so much is said about ‘The Social Network’ though. I cannot think of another film that I would go out of my way to avoid, at all costs.
    Regards as ever, Pete, Norfolk.

  2. You should read some of Robert Rosenstones texts on history on film.

    Personally I really love Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” that is based on a New Zeeland murder case from the 50s. Really recommend it.

    On history I agree. Film can’t recreate history. Nothing can. The accuracy that would be needed to be a truly historical reenactment can only happen if one actually lived the event. However, interpretations of history is a whole other deal.

  3. You are absolutely right, but myths are a concept used for millenia to describe larger concepts that cannot be explained factually. Religions and cultures do it all the time. And yes, I do prefer for films to question rather than answer, that is why I enjoyed Prometheus so much.

    In the case of The Social Network, it is a merger of a variety of different perspectives of the site’s birth, thus we get differing opinions, making it a very interesting story, film, and, well, myth.

    • Absolutely true, although i suppose ancient myths aren’t directly related to historical events (usually).

      I agree with you, but when a filmmaker is deliberately stepping away from historical accuracy to make a larger point, I think the text should address this in some way.

      A great (and extreme) example is Alex Cox’s ‘Walker’. He uses this film to contrast William Walker’s attempts to conquer Nicaragua in the 19th century with contemporary American “imperialism”. his technique involves having 20th century artifacts populate his 19th century vision. The most radical moment has Walker being rescued from death by a Vietnam era chopper. As I said, extreme, but it illustrates that there are ways to tackle both issues at once.

      As for ‘The Social Network’ this is a film I should definitely have seen by now! I suspect I’d totally agree with you!

  4. Great write-up. My feelings about films that do not exactly get it right is not that they are representing history, but that they are creating a mythical attitude. The Social Network is not entirely factual, but attitude of the characters represent the company’s infamous ownership and culture.

    • Myth is absolutely the right word. But this is problematic in of itself. Mythologizing is an emotive process of simplifying things down to pure archetypes that induce feelings rather than thoughts. This is the core process called upon to produce idealogical propaganda – rendering a film shallower and less intelligent. I’m wary of films that have answers rather than questions

      It inevitably happens to some extent in all films, but it’s definitely something to be cautious of.

      Haven’t actually seen ‘The Social Network’ though…

  5. I very much enjoyed this article and have been a longtime fan of Chopper. I think The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford got in it’s own way. I think even the best artists need to be reeled in a little now and then.

    • Thanks!

      I know a few people feel that way about ‘Jesse James’ but for me it is pitch-perfect. Certainly not a commercial film but a very stunning and insightful one.

  6. I haven’t seen Chopper, but I have seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. If all of Dominik’s films are as masterful as that one, Chopper is on my “soon to see” list.

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