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History lessons from Hollywood

February 25, 2011

Tags: There be Dragons
Two films reimagining history -- one about the Gulag, the other about a saint - how how much good Hollywood could do.

For Hollywood, it seems, history is the new rock’n’roll. Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post recently on the spate of films centered on historical events or historical characters puts it down to the phenomenon of reality TV. She quotes Peter Morgan, who wrote the script for The Queen – a movie focused on the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana: “If people need to explain what a film is about, the film stands very little chance of surviving. Reality is a brand which people can sell,” he says.” Some of the biggest films on release over the past year have been such – the story of the Harvard student who invented Facebook, the story of a stuttering king – The King’s Speech, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, and a story for which Applebaum was herself a historical consultant, The Way Back.

But Hollywood and history are strange and uneasy bedfellows and not everyone is happy with the progeny they produce. Hollywood has played fast and loose with historical truth on so many occasions that we approach new movies based on history with not a little suspicion. But they keep coming and the latest soon to appear on a screen near you will be Roland Joffé’s new film, There Be Dragons – which some anticipate will be a return to form for the director of two of the most memorable films of the 1980s, The Mission and The Killing Fields, both again based on real events.

Joffé’s film, starring Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott and Olga Kurylenko, is set against the background of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the life of a canonised saint, Josemaría Escrivá (Cox), the founder of Opus Dei. The genre into which this movie fits, however, has much more in common with the historical novel than with films purporting to be a narrative account of historical events. In this there is a very open mixture of fact and fiction and without doubt the film-maker is setting out to show us what moves, inspires and shapes lives rather than give us a dry factual account of events. In every sense this is very much an auteur work since Joffé not only directs but also conceived and wrote the screenplay.

Applebaum’s musing on history and cinema are in the context of The Way Back, the recently released Peter Weir film based on a “true story” of prisoners escaping from Stalin’s gulag back in the 1940s. The original story came in the form of a book called The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, a Gulag survivor. It was a controversial book because while it appeared to be a first-hand account of Rawicz’s own story, it later transpired that it had been a story told to him by another escapee.

But Applebaum argues that the story, certainly as portrayed in the film, is “true” in every way that matters. “Many of the camp scenes are taken directly from Soviet archives and memoirs. The starving men scrambling for garbage; the tattooed criminals, playing cards for the clothes of other prisoners; the narrow barracks; the logging camp; the vicious Siberian storms. Among the very plausible characters are an American who went to work on the Moscow subway and fell victim to the Great Terror of 1937, a Polish officer arrested after the Soviet Union’s 1939 invasion of Poland and a Latvian priest whose church was destroyed by the Bolsheviks.”

Joffé argues for the same kind of truth in his There Be Dragons, a truth built into the fictional story of London-based investigative journalist Robert Torres (Scott) who tries to unravel a deadly mystery nearly 70 years old that links his father to the founder of a Catholic organization called Opus Dei, only to discover that the shocking truth is far more than he bargained for.

Roland Joffé describes his experience of bringing the story to the screen in the following terms: “There Be Dragons was a wonderful experience that paralleled the one I had making The Mission. It is an intimate story of love and forgiveness set during one of the most bitter wars of the 20th century. Yet the themes of the film are as relevant today as ever, and I am hopeful that audiences will embrace them in that spirit.”

The film, made for US$35 million, is being distributed in the US by Samuel Goldwyn Films and is being released there on May 6.
According to Meyer Gottlieb, president of the company: “We feel privileged to be working with such an acclaimed film-maker in Roland Joffé and look forward to bringing There Be Dragons to audiences everywhere. This beautifully mounted and executed film based on true events is moving and inspirational, and it will make moviegoers cheer and applaud.”

The film has been made in English but rather unusually is having its dubbed Spanish language version released first. Its Spanish distributors have pushed and succeeded in getting it released there on screens across the country from 25 March. The release in Spain is timely because 2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. During this brutal conflict half a million people may have died and thousands of priests and nuns were murdered. How a still-divided Spanish society will react to this retelling of those events is something which will be watched with great interest.

The film’s themes are already resonating with people of all faiths who must make daily choices to “conquer the dragons” – the allusion of the title – they encounter by avoiding conflict in favor of embracing opportunities for forgiveness. Previewer of the movie have described it as “a deeply moving depiction of the triumph of love and forgiveness”.

Motive Entertainment, the company that championed films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion and Disney’s Chronicles of Narnia, have been contracted to promote the film across the US and further afield in the Anglophone world.
Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin. He blogs at Garvan Hill.

Watch the trailer on Youtube