(Loosely) based on a true story

Jeffrey Richards has had his fill of Hollywood's recasting of world history with exclusively American players.

Hollywood is at it again - rewriting history. This time, it is the second world war that is emerging cinematically as an exclusively American affair.

There were protests from veterans when Saving Private Ryan avoided all mention of British and Canadian involvement in D-Day. Now we have U571, in which an American submarine crew captures the "Enigma" code machine from the Germans, something that was actually accomplished by the Royal Navy. Next we are promised a remake of The Colditz Story with a cast of US escapers from the high-security German prisoner-of-war establishment, where historically there were no American prisoners.

There are few historical subjects so sensitive as the second world war. For those who fought in it, it touches the deepest feelings of identity, grief and pride. Many who participated in that war are still alive and they rightly demand recognition when the war is dramatised.

It was ever thus. In 1945, the Warner Brothers film Objective Burma was released in Britain. It became infamous as the film in which Errol Flynn, as an American army captain, "won the war in Burma single-handed". It was in fact an exciting behind-the-lines secret-mission film, but it signally failed to acknowledge the crucial role of the British army in Burma. Veterans were outraged and the furore was so great that the film was withdrawn from British cinemas for seven years.

When in 1951, 20th Century Fox produced an admiring biopic of Rommel, The Desert Fox, protests from Allied veterans led the company to make amends by producing the following year The Desert Rats, a tribute to the Australian forces in North Africa.

Hollywood appeared to have learned its lesson, but that lesson now seems to have been forgotten.

It is not just national pride that is at stake. History in films has never been accurate. It is mythology rather than history that Hollywood dispenses. In its films, complex issues are simplified and events telescoped. History is recast to emphasise modern attitudes and preoccupations. In the recent blockbuster Gladiator, the Roman empire is evidently an analogue for Bill Clinton's America, just as the Roman empire in Quo Vadis represented the totalitarian Soviet Union.

The British Empire was largely depicted by 1930s Hollywood as benevolent, wise and well-intentioned. It is seen today as racist, snobbish, cruel and exploitative. And when in need of a sneering, supercilious and sadistic villain, Hollywood turns largely to British, particularly English, actors. This is in sharp contrast to Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, when British stars such as David Niven and Greer Garson enjoyed long careers as heroes and heroines.

Why does Hollywood happily ignore or misrepresent the British and British history? One reason is economic. Britain used to be the biggest foreign market for US films and Hollywood produced admiring films about British history to keep British audiences happy. But Britain is no longer the lucrative market it was, so Hollywood cares less about what British audiences think or feel.

The second reason is cultural and relates to globalisation. The US is now the only superpower and its culture is exported worldwide. Hollywood has colonised the imagination of the world. With no other country to challenge the US, Hollywood sees the world from an exclusively American perspective. History is not just simplified and embellished, but turned on its head, as other countries' histories are subsumed into America's.

When the generation who fought the war has gone, there will be no one to reclaim its events. The second world war will increasingly be remembered as having lasted from 1941 to 1945 and having been an exclusively American affair. But perhaps by then it will not matter. For if the Macdonaldisation of the world continues at its present pace, we will all be Americans by then. Gee-whiz.

Jeffrey Richards is professor of cultural history at the University of Lancaster.

Already registered?

Sign in now if you are already registered or a current subscriber. Or subscribe for unrestricted access to our digital editions and iPad and iPhone app.

Register to continue  

You've enjoyed reading five THE articles this month. Register now to get five more, or subscribe for unrestricted access.

Most Commented

  • Elly Walton illustration (16 July 2015)

Whether in jest or not, sexist language shows an insensitivity to gender issues at odds with academic values, argues Dorothy Bishop

  • Two men looking surprised in an office

Report says projects fail when scholars obsessed with “shiny things” ignore business needs

  • Tony Little, Eton College headmaster, 2007

Tony Little points to ‘increasing gap’ between teaching standards at sixth form and university

  • AC Grayling, writer and academic

A. C. Grayling’s ‘Oxbridge-style’ private college strikes agreement with post-92 institution