Clio at the Multiplex:
What Hollywood and Herodotus Have in Common (1998)

Simon Schama

Source: The New Yorker, Jan. 19, 1998, p. 38-43.


We have come to understand that who we are is who we were," says Anthony Hopkins, impersonating John Quincy Adams at the climactic moment of Steven Spielberg's "Amistad." He says this in front of a bust of his father, John Adams seen in soft focus. A muted trumpet sounds over the rhetoric, vaguely invoking patriotic sacrifice. Hearts around the theatre swell like popcorn. In reality, Adams's address to the bench on behalf of the abducted Africans of the Amistad took eight hours, spread over two days. Spielberg works on a broad canvas, but not that broad. His movie boils the speech down to a five-minute appeal to the Founding Fathers, and, in particular, a cheerful assertion of the compatibility of liberty and equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. When Jefferson duly appears (in bust form), we are evidently not meant to think of the unrepentant Virginia slaveholder. In fact, since the closing speech does little else but make that ringing appeal to ancestor worship, we're asked to believe that it was enough to sway the Justices (the majority of them slaveholders) into upholding the decision of the Connecticut court, thereby freeing the captives.

As a clinching argument about the legality of treating the Africans as born slaves or born free, this makes no sense, not least because the case turned neither on the morality nor on the legality of slavery in America but on the slave trade on the high seas. The Amistad Africans had been abducted from a British protectorate and shipped to a Spanish colony in clear violation of a treaty between the two kingdoms which prohibited the traffic. John Quincy Adams did end his great address with an appeal to the past, but it was an appeal to the independence of the Supreme Court, and invoked John Marshall and his colleagues, men apparently with too little name recognition for Hollywood. As for his peroration, "I can only ejaculate a fervent petition to Heaven that every member of [the Court] may go to his final account with as little of earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead," it, too, may not have the ring of the box office, but it was a masterpiece of psychological cunning. One of the most odiously adamant of the Southern Justices, Philip Barbour, died in his sleep between the beginning and the end of Adams's speech, thus presenting Adams with a perfect opportunity to remind the rest of the bench of an even Supremer Court waiting for them.

It's an opportunity that Spielberg passes up. Instead, he concocts the feel-good fantasy that J.Q.A.'s appeal to ancestry was borrowed from Cinque, the leader of the shipboard slave rising--that between the Mende wise man and the Massachusetts rationalist (the two never met) there existed the unspoken bond of warriors for freedom. Possibly the most important moment in the movie is also the most fabulously fictitious. Cinque, sitting in Adams's library (in those far-off days Presidential libraries were places where ex-Presidents actually read books), reassures his champion that they will not go into court alone. "No, no, we have right at our side," Adams says hurriedly. "No," Cinque gently admonishes the ex-President. "I meant my ancestors.... I will call into the past. . . and beg them to come.... And they must come, for at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all." Adams stares back at Cinque, mutely grateful for the insight. His eyes water with deferential illumination. Spielberg holds the shot and holds the shot, flagging its Significance.

You can't altogether blame Steven Spielberg for the piety. As a relatively recent convert to ancestor worship himself, he seems to have realized that in late-second-millennium America he has his work cut out for him, and he has applied his brilliance as a storyteller to getting it done. But lining up a row of busts of the Founding Fathers as a way of cuing up patriotic nostalgia only brings the difficulty of history-in-America into sharper focus. After all, those same patriarchs were in the business of repudiating, not venerating, the past -- of creating a nation that was conspicuously liberated from the weight of the past's authority. And at the same time that the film invokes the need to keep the memory of national history alive it has a lot of fun with America's invention of political modernity. Martin Van Buren, looking like an affable chipmunk in Nigel Hawthorne's enactment (the real Adams, dedicated to vigorous swims in the Potomac, called Van Buren "inordinately fat"), is gleefully depicted as the archetypal creature of the hustings, complete with baby-kissing and Nixonian full-arm salutes, a deliberate contrast with the flinty, philosophical J.Q.A. Yet Adams, after his own blighted Presidential tenure, showed himself to be a belated but adept convert to political populism, jumping into the muckiest popular campaign of his day -- anti-Masonry.

So when Hollywood history claims that in ancestor veneration lies our redemption from the culture of the short shelf life, it only sort of means it. "Amistad" is just the most recent, and most impressive, example of filmed history as costume civics, chronicles of latter-day saints and martyrs, right in line with "Glory," "Malcolm X," and "Michael Collins." If movie history is to get produced as box-office with a conscience, it must serve one of two purposes: explain the Origins of Us or act as Augury of What Is to Come. But this kind of history, whether designed as the genealogy of identity politics or as prudential political-investment service, seldom escapes the contemporary world that it claims to transcend. Even in a production as painstakingly researched as "Amistad," entrapment within the contemporary is suggested by a multiplicity of careless details, not enough in themselves for any except the most pedantically correct historian to get steamed over but cumulatively betraying a tin ear for the obstinate otherness of the past. While both the nocturnal shipboard musical party that sails past the newly liberated Amistad and the velocipede that rides past the astonished Africans who thought themselves home carry a certificate of impeccable research, the film's writers hardly notice (any more, I guess, than the audience does) utterances inconceivable in 1839. "Sure you do," Pete Postlethwaite says when Cinque denies knowing anything much about African domestic slavery. "Yesss!" the defense team cheers when it wins its verdict in court. "Is there anything as pathetic as an ex-President?" jeers a member of Van Buren's entourage, meaning John Quincy Adams. In 1839, that would have been an expression of sympathy, not of derision.

But perhaps the writers did notice all these details and intend them to narrow the distance between the past and the present, making history more user friendly. This would explain the relentless tide of tepidly inspirational chorales that washes over the action, much like the musical accompaniment to a Party Convention big-documentary eulogizing the nominee: Sigh here. Weep here. Chuckle here. A-men! here. Hence, too, some of the casting, which recycles familiar faces in the roles to which previous Hollywood productions have assigned them. Meet Morgan Freeman once again as the noble but uneasy intermediary between white and black culture. Say hello to Matthew McConaughey as the cutely presumptuous lawyer, whose courtroom savvy is belied by his rumpled but winsome demeanor. (The real Roger Baldwin was a distinguished advocate, a Yale man, and the grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.) Most peculiar of all, the urge for familiarity seems to involve the assumption that history, especially American history, calls for Brits in costume, Masterpiece thespians, thereby giving the unintended impression that the Revolution never actually happened.

Historians ought not to gripe too much about these anomalies. A recent and excellent anthology of their commentaries on historical movies, "Past Imperfect," edited by Mark Carnes, is a litany of complaint about distortion ("A Man for All Seasons"), naive lack of interpretation ("Gandhi"), and the passing off of conspiracy theory as documented evidence ("JFK"). But if "historical consultant" has generally come to mean a low-rent data bank for producers in a hurry, rather than any real conceptual or creative role in the shaping of a credible historical narrative, the academy must take at least some of the blame, for having largely abandoned, until recently, the importance of storytelling as the elementary condition of historical explanation. Storytelling (aside from its exacting formal demands) lies at the heart of historical teaching and ought to be as much a part of the training of young historians as the acquisition of analytical skills. When the historian Natalie Zemon Davis, for example, who is herself gifted at and sensitive to the subtleties of narrative, got involved in the making of Daniel Vigne's "The Return of Martin Guerre," that involvement was apparent in every frame, in the way the actors wore their village clothes -- not clothes fresh from the wardrobe department or soiled for the day but evidently lived-in, frayed, and patched hand-me-downs. Vigne and Davis reconstructed the texture of rural provincial life in sixteenth-century France, its rites of passage and its rough justice as remote from modern experience as if the story had been African, rather than European. As a result, the crucial trial scene, at the end of the movie, was a long way from being Perry Mason in doublet and hose, yet lost nothing of its dramatic power for being historically credible.

A true feeling for period, then, should never be confused with pedantically correct costume-and-decor detail. It's possible to get all the minutiae right and still get the dramatic core of a history wrong. And here's a trade secret. The right stuff, whether the historian is trawling through the archives or prowling the set, is to have a hunch for the illuminating power of the incidental detail. At the climax of the true Amistad history, Spielberg missed, somehow, an astounding story that ought to have been a director's dream. Just as John Quincy Adams, a few days before he was to argue the case before the Supreme Court, alighted from his carriage in front of the Capitol (still, incidentally, without its dome), a violent burst of gunfire made his horses bolt. The first demonstration of the Colt repeating rifle was being performed in the Capitol yard. Adams's coachman was thrown to the ground, and the following day he died of his injuries. For the devoutly religious statesman, there could have been no more shocking witness that Providence was watching over the unfolding drama. Colts, carriage horses, and Calvinism--the kind of historical collision undreamed of in scrip/writers' fiction.

All history is a negotiation between familiarity and strangeness. No one put it better than Thomas Babington Macaulay when, in 1828, at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, in a famous book review (which the om-nivorous John Quincy Adams is likely to have read in The Edinburgh Review), he presumed to define history as divided between reason and imagination: "a compound of poetry and philosophy." What Macaulay yearned for was a perfect marriage between those two contrasting modes of apprehending the past. But he was not optimistic about seeing that ambition realized, even in his own dazzling and exuberant prose. Instead, he viewed history as a relentlessly contested battleground between regiments of analysts and storytellers, with him stuck in a no man's land as the polemical bullets whistled over his head. In the meantime, he lamented, the best stories were being told to the biggest audiences by historical novelists, the auteurs of their day, and none of them more accomplished than Sir Walter Scott, the Spielberg of the Tweed Valley, whom most academic historians disdained but whom Macaulay deeply envied and admired. In a beautiful aside, Macaulay compared Scott to the apprentice of a medieval master of stained-glass windows working in Lincoln Cathedral. The spurned apprentice went about collecting the shards and fragments discarded as worthless by his master, and assembled them in a window of such blazing splendor that the master not only acknowledged the superior genius of his pupil but killed himself out of humbled mortification. Scott, Macaulay says, is the inspired opportunist who understands how to use the materials despised as trivially anecdotal by the philosophical historians. And, while Macaulay yielded to no Cambridge don in his insistence on the indispensability of reasoned interpretation, he saw the fate of history in popular culture as conditional on its self-appointed masters being prepared to reacquaint themselves with the imaginative skills of the storyteller.

Macaulay knew that both treatments of history -- "map" and "painted landscape," as he characterized them -- were hallowed by venerable pedigrees. He acknowledged Thucydides, for all his powerful narrative art, to be the founding father of history as the political science of the past, unapologetically engaged in explaining the great crisis of his age: the Peloponnesian War. Like Spielberg's writers, Thucydides had no hesitation in putting in the mouths of protagonists such as Pericles the sentiments he thought they would have uttered, even if there was no record of their speeches, or any recollection on his part of what had been said. Neither for Macaulay nor for Thucydides was there the slightest anxiety that the record of the past might be fatally distorted by the enthusiasms and preoccupations of the present, or that the primary mission of history was indeed to explain and recount the Origins of Us.

But Macaulay knew that there was another kind of history -- a history that emphasized, poetically, the otherness of the past, its obstinate unfamiliarity, the integrity of its remoteness. Indeed, he knew that the great exemplar of this kind of history, with its naive sense of wonder and its promiscuous muddling of myth and ritual, report and document, was Herodotus, the figure whom Thucydides acidly criticized as forfeiting credibility through an indiscriminate use of sources, and whom Macaulay, neatly standing the title of patriarch on its head, adroitly characterized as a "delightful child." Most historical writers, both inside and outside the academy, will, I think, own up to both styles -- the rational and the poetic -- and perhaps even acknowledge that the original attraction was as much romantic as analytical. For some of us, it's the byways, rather than the highways, that unexpectedly turn out to be the more profound routes of illumination. And those of us who are prepared to surrender to the informing detour cherish history, as the late Dame Veronica Wedgwood confessed, for its "delightful undermining of certainty."

If American culture is suspicious of candid confessions of uncertainty, Hollywood's historymakers, by and large, have wanted nothing to do with it. Who needs story lines that don't know where they're going, a cast of characters in which the nice and the nasty seem disconcertingly indistinguishable, and where the business at hand seems to have nothing to say to the issues of the day? Outside Hollywood, though, there have been powerful history movies, created in the poetic, not the instructional, mode. These are the films that have respected the strangeness of the past, and have accepted that the historical illumination of the human condition is not necessarily going to be an edifying exercise -- that memory is not always identical with consolation. These are also films that embrace history for its power to complicate, rather than clarify, and warn the time traveller that he is entering a place where he may well lose the thread rather than get the gist. Worse yet, the decor of the poetic history movies, while rich in authenticity, is often bleak and raw in aspect, resistant to the glossy patina of its antique furniture.

The best movies in this mode -- Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard" (1963), Miklos Jancso's "The Round-Up" (1965), Roberto Rossellini's "The Rise of Louis XIV" (1966), Andrei Tarkovsky's "Andrei Rublev" (1966), Werner Herzog's "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" (1972), and Yves Angelo's 1994 "Le Colonel Chabert" -- not only are dedicated to reconstructing vanished worlds, in all their unruly completeness, but challenge the truisms of linear history, where the order of events is progressive in both a temporal and a moral sense. In curmudgeonly fashion, they hint that later is not necessarily better. Equally, though, such films accept the unavoidability of the past, the thinness of the soil in which our forebears lie buried. They don't so much reach out and grab the past in the name of the present as perform miracles in the opposite direction: have the present waylaid by the past. Rossellini's film used amateur actors in its faithfully ritualized tableaux of court life at Versailles, so that the "performance" of Jean-Marie Patte as Louis XIV eating alone on his dais with the public watching was utterly remote from a star turn, something that seems unlikely when, any day now, Leonardo DiCaprio does the Sun King at your multiplex. It was the genius of Visconti to cast Burt Lancaster against type, as the fatalistic Sicilian aristocrat in "The Leopard," so that his previous screen personae simply disappeared without a trace into the world of nineteenth century Risorgimento Italy. Those are the kinds of movie history that enjoy confounding expectations, roughing up the neatness of our contemporary self-satisfaction. And, as often as not, they have something to say about what is at the back of every historian's mind: the relationship between the living and the dead.

The most eloquent of recent films to have done all this is Yves Angelo's tour de force "Le Colonel Chabert," based on a novella by Balzac. Angelo was the cinematographer for another remarkably faithful historical reconstruction- "Tous les Matins du Monde," the story of the seventeenth-century bass violist and composer Marin Marais -- and is blessed with perfect historical pitch. Like "The Return of Martin Guerre," "Le Colonel Chabert" concerns a figure who, having been presumed dead on the battlefield of Eylau, in 1807, returns a decade later and attempts to have his survival acknowledged in law and in society. Unlike the sixteenth century peasant, though, Chabert (played, again, by Gerard Depardieu, who must have worn the clothes of every generation after the Black Death) is repudiated by his wife. She has survived the debacle of the Napoleonic Empire and has made her peace with the Restoration by marrying an ambitious aristocrat with a squandered fortune but an ancient pedigree. She wants nothing to do with the tattered phantom of her past, a social embarrassment and a po-litical peril.

No one knows a historical establishing shot like Yves Angelo. The first frames of "Le Colonel Chabert" transport the viewer directly and shockingly into a vanished world (while also announcing the story's theme: the battle between entombment and endurance), and they do so by annihilating a cliche of cinema history: the gorgeousness of Napoleonic military spectacle. Grimy fingers, seen in closeup, scrabble through uniforms encrusted with mud and blood, ripping the frogging, hunting the valuables. It is Eylau, the day after. A piano plays an adagio from a chamber piece. Mutilated horses are thrown on bonfires. Boots, satires, helmets, and cuirasses pile up in tarnished hecatombs. The camera knowingly quotes from the period's own representations of disaster -- the Napoleonic hagiography of Baron Gros, Gericault's severed limbs and heads, Goya's puddles of blood and sightless eyes -- but without any preciousness or pedantry. Eventually, the camera tracks back to a panorama of death, almost casually observed, peasants busily scavenging the corpses amid the dirty snow, surviving officers dragging bodies to communal burial pits.

In the greatest ten minutes of Depardieu's career, Chabert tells his story to the lawyer he wants to recruit to his cause. Left for dead, he was buried in a mass grave. His mind flickers back and forth between the Napoleonic glory days and the squalid nightmare of their eclipse, and he speaks of the horror of being taken for mad, of incarceration in German asylums. Angelo has no need to picture these on camera, but he must provide convincing reconstructions of two historical milieus: the world Chabert has left, and the world in which he now finds himself marooned -- that of Restoration France, in which the first condition of legitimacy is selective forgetfulness. That world, pitilessly cynical, and governed by an ex-emigre culture that is grossly venal and preposterously snobbish, is sketched with a fidelity both to Balzac and to historical truth. Mme. Chabert, now a countess, adjusts an earring of gray jasper decorated with a Greek revival figure, revealing a taste more of the Empire than of the Restoration. The destitute children of Army officers killed on the battlefield are taught sabre slashes with wooden sticks by an unrepentant and impoverished Bonapartist who befriends Chabert. An entire world is conjured up on the narrow fault line between victory and ca-lamity, between recall and oblivion. There are no heroes, no tear-pricking diapasons of grandiose music. When Napoleonic military brass sounds, its metallic bravura has the jangling noise of history's black jokes.

Is it possible for an American moviemaker to produce anything remotely like "Le Colonel Chabert"? Is anyone at DreamWorks up for, say, "The War of 1812," where British and American governments compete in a meaningless carnival of folly and hubris while the White House burns and men's lives are sacrificed for no reason at all?

The question of what befalls a history movie that nonetheless hews more to the poetic than to the instructional mode of historical narration is raised by the case of "Kundun," Martin Scorsese's undersung masterpiece. "Kundun" may have begun its life being as much of a good-cause movie as "Amistad." Its central figure, after all, is the unquestionably heroic, Nobelized figure of the Dalai Lama. And even though we're unlikely to see Michael Eisner in saffron any time soon, the atmosphere of Buddhist worthiness circulating in Hollywood can hardly have hurt its chances of being taken on by Disney.

But what Scorsese has accomplished is a work that has absolutely nothing to do with its ostensible billing as "epic." Like all great movies made in the poetic mode, it approaches its subject indirectly, backing into history rather than declaiming the theme. Its real story is about the abrupt arrival of history, both in the life of a small child and in the life of the culture he is supposed to personify. These linked narratives turn on the loss of innocence and the loss of freedom, not themes calculated to ingratiate themselves with the American moviegoer.

Like Angelo, Scorsese has invented a disconcerting visual language that flows naturally from his subject and does the necessary work of shaking the audience loose from habitual expectations of what a history movie is. The film is painted in the brilliant colors of the sand mandala, an ideogram of Buddhist contemplation, with Nirvana at its center. The reconstitution and dissolution of the mandala, part of the Buddhist belief in the chain of existence, at the movie's poignant end becomes a metaphor for the fate of traditional Tibet itself. There is a dreamlike, ritualized quality to Roger Deakin's cinematography, and the non-actors who speak Melissa Mathison's deceptively simple lines do so with an integrity that takes the film out of the realm of produced enactment and into that of orally transmitted chronicle -- the beginning of history itself. "Tell me," the two-year-old future Kundun says, insisting on hearing yet again the story of his birth, and Scorsese, as much as the child's family, obliges.

Like Angelo, Scorsese can't resist quoting history, but in his case it's the history he lives in: the archive of the cinema. There are elements of Satyajit Ray in the infant's-eye view of the world at the beginning; clattering footage from a Melies fantasy to punctuate the growing up; the brutal Agincourt scene from Olivier's "Henry V" playing as the walls of history press in on the young man; a tragic variation on the Atlanta crane shot from "Gone with the Wind" as the Dalai Lama dreams of slaughtered monks. While Tibet is pulled inexorably, as a captive, into the modern world of war and propaganda, the camera angle adjusts to modern necessities but still halts on the far side of movie conventions. The sympathetically embarrassed Chinese general attempts to converse with the Dalai Lama but is met with impassive silence. The debris of the modern world now gets mixed with the wreckage of tradition. Newspapers are read, but a living oracle, shrieking and hissing in prophetic convulsions, indicates the route of escape.

Throughout the movie, there are shots of startlingly compressed eloquence: a child Dalai Lama is literally framed against a high window of the Potala palace, simultaneously eminence and prisoner; a rat lapping at the water during a ceremony is allowed under Buddhist principles to continue his business undisturbed while the priests go about theirs; the Dalai Lama in his robes, summoned from a Peking bathroom to an audience with Chairman Mao, wipes his spectacles (inherited from the previous incarnation) before patiently attending to the wisdoms of the Great Helmsman, delivered from a well-upholstered couch. These are the pictures from which history is constructed, with the kind of intuitive delicacy that only a natural narrator understands.

The most enduring historians have always valued the necessary alliance between picture-making and argument. Sometimes they have relied on actual illustrations, like the unknown maker of the Bayeux Tapestry, and the propaganda genius who in 1803, eight hundred years later, decided to exhibit the tapestry as part of Napoleon's attempt to represent himself as the latter coming of William the Conqueror in the planned invasion of perfidious Albion. As often as not, though, historians have been content to shoot their scenes and paint their pictures in their writing. These were the histories that imprinted themselves on my mind when I began to get the history bug. Sometimes such auteurs worked in improbable places. The Venerable Bede, in his monastery at Jarrow, tells the seventh-century story of the West Saxon assassin sent to kill the virtuous King Edwin of Northumbria. To make sure the contract is done right, the hit man paints his double-edged dagger with poison. But at the last instant, faster than you can say "Secret Service," a loyal thane throws himself in the way of the killer. The dagger passes right through the body of the retainer and pierces the King, who nonetheless survives to become a Christian convert.

To option this story, please contact Bedeworks@Clio.edu. Yes, that's right, edu.


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