Remembering the show on KCRW, "Desert Island Discs," in which I selected the 10 records I would most like to have with me if I were shipwrecked on a desert island, Gordon H. Bicknell updates the technology of this fantasy and wonders what 10 videotapes I would want to see if videotapes were available of great events all through history.
He suggests, for example, the loading of Noah's ark and the parting of the Red Sea.
Given such a library to chose from, I have an idea I wouldn't want to see the great, sweeping, epic, panoramic events as much as the more intimate meetings between historic characters; the fusing of empires through illicit love affairs; the betrayal of a nation, whispered in the ear of a paramour.
Of course, I suppose that then, as now, the intimate events would have been conducted outside the camera's reach, and the movers and shakers of the ancient world would have had publicity men, as they do now, to set up the pictures they wanted made.
I suppose it would be thrilling to watch the battle of Actium, as Octavian's fleet routed and fired the armada of Antony and Cleopatra; but I'd rather see that moment when Antony first presents himself to the queen of Egypt in her royal barge amid her dancing girls and exotic trappings; or that moment when Cleopatra, presenting herself to Julius Caesar in Rome, is unrolled from a rug, naked, at his feet. Women's tricks that changed the course of history.
I'd like to see that moment when Genghis Khan tells the fiery captive princess, "Yore beautiful in yore wrath."
Hey, wait. I did see that. It was John Wayne and Susan Hayward in "The Conqueror." Surely one of the worst lines ever written and spoken for the motion pictures.
Come to think of it, there aren't many great moments from history that we haven't seen on the screen, not exactly the way they happened, perhaps, but at least a Hollywood re-creation.
We have seen Moses part the Red Sea, and I doubt that the original Moses could have done a more theatrical job of it than our own Charlton Heston. We have seen Cleo rolled out before Caesar from her rug. (I think they cheated, though, and she was wearing a leotard.)
That's the trouble with history as re-created on the screen. It is the only history most of us are ever going to get, and we will forever have the wrong ideas about what happened. This is especially true of the television form known as docudrama, in which, despite their notices that the work is only based on fact, it will be the only version of the story most of us ever see, and will forever shape our understanding of it.
It is unconscionable, it seems to me, for television to mix fiction with fact, so that it comes off with the force of history, forever warping the opinions of millions of viewers who will never crack a history book.
But I'm not sure we really want to see most things the way they were. We got a glimpse of real war close up in Vietnam, on the 5 o'clock news, and we will never feel the same about it. Never again will war seem noble, glorious and brave.
It is "The Sands of Iwo Jima" we want to see, with John Wayne, not the real Iwo Jima, with 6,000 dead Marines laid out on the beach in the grotesque attitudes of rigor mortis, unburied, turning yellow.
Oh, I wouldn't mind seeing the battle of Waterloo from a good safe camera angle. Just to see if it's true that the vaunted French infantry broke and ran, a fact so shocking that even the English disavowed it. But I'm afraid if we saw the real thing we'd be horrified by the slaughter, the men cut in two by cannon fire, the mangled corpses stomped by horses, the panic, the confusion and the blood. There is something quite different between real battle and the athletic events staged with costumed stunt men in the movies.
We all know from the movies what World War I was like. The black humor of the dugouts and the occasional offensives "over the top" and into the German lines; the occasional romance with French farm girls. Nothing we have seen, though, conveys the horror of the first battle of the Marne, when 60,000 young Englishmen, the cream of a nation's younger generation, staggered over no man's land into the German machine guns to their deaths; and once this ritual had started, the officers didn't know how to stop it.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful," asks Bicknell, "if Thomas Edison had preceded Abraham Lincoln, and we now had a recording of his Gettysburg Address?"
Maybe not. It might be disillusioning. What if Lincoln turned out to be a halting speaker, with a hillbilly accent? All the sonorous readings of that speech we've heard would be obliterated and Lincoln would stand revealed. A rustic bungler.
I would like to see Queen Nefertiti on a state occasion, dressed like a mannequin at Neiman-Marcus; receiving her ministers, retiring with her lover. One of history's great beauties.
I would like to see the chorus line at the Moulin Rouge, during la Belle Epoque, dancing the cancan to Offenbach.
I would like to see a tape of Ethel Barrymore in "Captain Jenks of the Horse Marines," and George M. Cohan singing "Give My Regards to Broadway."
It's the little things that make history worthwhile.