Monday, April 18, 2005


I'm always amazed when people say they hate the study of history. The frequent complaint is that history is "boring" and has no applicability to the present time, which must be SO much more interesting. My response to that is that history can indeed be quite boring when it is told by boring people or written up by folks who cannot tell it properly and, by the looks of things, it is pretty evident that there are a LOT of those types to go around.

My view is that in this attention-deficit afflicted generation of ours, trained by television to watch stories in six to ten minute slabs between a number of thirty to sixty second commercials, made worse now by the invention of the remote control and, heavens to betsy, the split-screen feature on newer TVs, most of us don't have the paitence to follow a good story. This probably explains why most television programs these days are schlock and why PBS is barely hanging in there with its schedule of intelligent programming. History, well-told and researched, is not much different from reading a good novel, the difference being that what's in it is true as opposed to fiction.

Of course, history depends on the perception of the writer. One man's heroic struggle for freedom is another man's fanatic terrorist. We haven't quite gotten to the episode recounted in 1984 where the protagonist, who works for the ill-named Ministry of Truth, spends his days revising their newspaper records depending on which ally has recently become their enemy and vice-versa and which hero of the people has fallen out of favor with Big Brother and become an enemy of the State. We do have folks in our society these days who think we should devote a month to a particular group and devotees of such an idea who talk about "their" history, ignoring the fact that history doesn't belong to a particular group or nation; history is simply events rushing by us, minute by minute, second by second, that sometimes is recorded, sometimes not. Whether I as an individual like another group's "history" is immaterial; one second past the event IS history, recorded or not, and we ignore it to our peril.

My biggest problem with history is the way it is usually portrayed in movies and television shows. I realize that with the constraints of time and to tell a story that screenwriters will edit events, compress time, establish "consolidated" characters (so as to be able to follow one person instead of ten) and make some things more dramatic than perhaps they really were, but too often something that was supposed to be "historic" is more fiction than reality and the real history is lost altogether. "Battle of the Bulge", a big budget movie from the Sixties with all sorts of stars reliving the events of the winter of 1944 in the Ardennes Forest, is a good example of schlock. There's a scene where the Americans decide to throw all their pitiful Sherman tanks against the tanks of the Third Reich, the mighty King Tigers; you move immediately from the snowy forests of the "Ardennes" (I've forgotten where they really filmed the scenes) to this desert with no trees for miles in any direction! Apparently the tank battle (which, by the way, never happened) was filmed in Spain. Of course, I suppose the idea was to give the audience the "feel" of the sacrifice of the American Army during the battle, working with equipment that was sometimes inferior to that of the Germans, but it just looks dumb.

Whenever I try to argue this point with my family, I'm usually shouted down because of the way ALL movies from novels, like the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, were also changed from the originals. Try as I might to take some moral high ground by pointing out that history REALLY happened, as opposed to fictional characters wielding magic rings and wands, it doesn't seem to matter much; those damn writers and directors have ruined it all.

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