Brits take brunt as Hollywood rewrites history

It's been a busy month for Liverpool community historian Steve Binns.

One day after the star-spangled blockbuster "The Patriot" opened in the US, the city in northeast England demanded an apology from Hollywood for the film's over-the-top portrayal of one of its favorite sons.

"I've never been in so many conversations about the War of Independence," Mr. Binns says of the inquiries he's received about Banastre Tarleton, the real-life basis for the movie's vicious Col. William Tavington.

Hollywood has always taken liberties with historical facts. But for some Britons, "The Patriot," which opens here today, is the latest in a line of recent transgressions American filmmakers have made against them in particular. They are tired of seeing themselves cast as "baddies," as they call them. Not to mention having their World War II achievements omitted (as in "Saving Private Ryan") or borrowed (as in "U-571") by the Yanks.

"The Patriot" depiction of British soldiers as a nasty bunch willing to commit Nazi-like atrocities at the drop of a bayonet vs. Mel Gibson's soul-searching colonial farmer certainly fuels the fire.

Almost daily since the film's release, its inaccuracies - from a church-burning massacre to exploding cannonballs - have been debated on both sides of the Atlantic.

In media interviews, Mr. Gibson has talked about how "boring" the movie would have been as a literal interpretation, and said filmmakers got it right in the broader themes, while at other levels it's a fantasy.

Of course, most Britons understand that Hollywood will be Hollywood. But some request that if their reputation is to be besmirched, the movie should at least be worth seeing. "Failure to entertain is the supreme crime of [this] movie," chides Adam Mars-Jones, chief film critic for The Times, a London daily. "If you're going to traduce my ancestors - blacken their names - then at least give me a better time when you do it."

"I've gone off Mel Gibson a bit. He's always against the [English] for some reason," says London cabbie Larry Jeffries. "It's all getting a bit ridiculous." In Gibson's 1995 blockbuster, "Braveheart," he portrays a 13th century Scottish rebel fighting English rule.

Online at Britain's popular movie Web site, popcorn.co.uk, there are reviews by moviegoers who saw "The Patriot" in the United States. "If you want an extremely inaccurate portrayal of the Revolutionary War from an entirely American standpoint, you've got your film," reads one, adding, "I personally recommend going just to see things blow up."

Since few in Britain have seen "The Patriot," foremost in their minds is "U-571." In the recent film, star Matthew McConaughey and a band of fellow Americans aboard a submarine capture a German Enigma codemaking machine (resembling a typewriter) during World War II. In fact, it was a team of British cryptanalysts that broke the complex code, allowing the Allies to decipher enemy messages.

Mr. Mars-Jones calls that film "a very effective thriller" that fessed up in the end, but others disagree. Liverpool historian Binns says, "You can mess about with history a bit, I mean look at Shakespeare." But he feels "U-571" went too far.

An online reviewer at the popcorn site says the film "grossly distorted the facts," adding, "This isn't about not [liking] the Americans, I love them! It's about protecting our history. And some parts of history, like the moon landing, belong to one nation."

Experts who've seen the "The Patriot" say it has gone beyond the "it's only a movie" defense, particularly where the British are concerned. "There was nobody on the British side as bad as those British were portrayed," says Richard Snow, editor of American Heritage magazine in New York. Though Mr. Snow says there are strengths in the way the movie portrays some aspects of the war, he says it downplays the fact that the conflict was a war of ideas, and that the movie "takes away the texture or complexity of thought people had to go through to stand and fight Britain."

One major inaccuracy is when Colonel Tavington's forces round up an entire village in a church and burn it to the ground. Mr. Snow observes the act is based on a 20th, not 18th century, atrocity, one the Nazi's carried out in 1944 at a village in France. Snow calls the image "pretty good shorthand of an atrocity." Still, he says, "It goes beyond the boundaries of poetic license."

Binns and Snow say the Colonel from Liverpool was known for his brutality, but say he would not have shot wounded soldiers or burned the church, as depicted in the movie. "He was a courageous man who tended to be ruthless," says Binns.

In an opinion piece in USA Today, the Smithsonian, a consultant on the movie, defended the film version of events. Steven Lubar, chairman of the History of Technology Division at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, writes: "A modern audience ... would not find convincing emotional motivation in the actual horrors of 18th century war. To modern eyes, sad to say, they are not horrible enough.... Good for the story, bad for history."

Britons may get over the sting of this latest bashing. But what about all the other bad guys with British accents - from Jeremy Irons's Scar in "The Lion King" to Tom Cruise's nemesis in the current summer blockbuster, "Mission Impossible" sequel "M:I-2."

'We're used to Brits being cast as baddies," even if the part is not written that way," says Mars-Jones. "We understand that's how Brits get employment.

"British actors are often good at charisma that isn't likeability," he adds, saying that actors like Alan Rickman and Ralph Fiennes seem more comfortable in the kinds of cold roles they play. "We're not great grinners, we Brits," Mars-Jones says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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