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We Learned It at the Movies : THE HOLLYWOOD HISTORY OF THE WORLD by George MacDonald Fraser (Beech Tree Books/ William Morrow: $18.95; 272 pp.; illustrated; 0-688-07520-7)

September 25, 1988|C. Warren Hollister | Hollister, professor of history at UC Santa Barbara, is the author or editor of many books, including "Landmarks of the Western Heritage: Vol. 1, The Ancient Near East to 1789; Vol. 2, 1715 to the Present" (Random House)

This book is a delight. It is a wise, engaging, charmingly opinionated, vividly illustrated, and, for the most part, sympathetic survey of English-language historical movies from pre-history to Vietnam. Its author is a man of wide and varied experience: A rifleman in the British army in Burma during World War II, a newspaper reporter and film critic, a swordsman, a successful novelist and screenwriter (the Flashman novels; that splendid film spoof, "The Three Musketeers," and its worthy sequel, "The Four Musketeers"), and a historian whose account of the Anglo-Scottish borderlands during the 16th and early 17th centuries ("The Steel Bonnets") is well regarded by scholars.

Fraser devotes all these talents and others to the writing of this fascinating book. His purpose is "to compare film versions with historic truth, so far as the latter can be discovered." To this end, he often juxtaposes portraits of historical characters with photographs of actors playing their parts. To his great credit, he resists the temptation to ridicule historical movies by pouncing on every anachronism. It is far more difficult, he points out, to capture a historical era on film than in a novel (or, for that matter, a scholarly monograph): Writers of books can re-create the past in broad strokes, including or excluding what they wish; but a film maker must provide a vast quantity of detail and must get everything right from landscapes to shoe buckles. There have been atrocious historical movies, Fraser is quick to observe, and he does not treat them gently. But he also points to "the astonishing amount of history Hollywood has got right, and the immense unacknowledged debt which we owe to the commercial cinema as an illuminator of the story of mankind."

With this sympathetic and intelligent approach to the "Hollywood History of the World," Fraser skillfully leads his readers forward through history. He begins, properly enough, in Old Testament and prehistoric times. Disagreeing with virtually every critic, he praises "One Million Years BC" and Raquel Welch's performance in it, commending the screenwriter, Michael Carreras, for rising to the challenge of creating dialogue consisting entirely "of grunts and cries in Cave-Talk." (It is reported that Welch's voice "lacked the true prehistoric timbre, and her shrieks and exclamations had to be dubbed.") We then enter the world of Classical Antiquity and linger for a time in late Republican and early Imperial Rome--an era that used to obsess Hollywood and inspired it to spectacular excesses in set design and costuming. Fraser recalls Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra," whose entrance into Rome, "enthroned on an enormous Spinxmobile hauled by sweating musclemen, was, to coin a phrase, colossal." But he suggests--correctly--that the rather less eye-popping entrance of Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) was truer to history.

We next proceed through the Middle Ages ("Knights and Barbarians"), the age of the Tudors and their sea dogs, the \o7 ancien regime\f7 --scene of Fraser's own musketeer epics (about which he modestly keeps his silence)--an intriguing and keenly analytical chapter on movie sets in the British Empire during its heyday, the old West, and, finally, our own century--"The Violent Century." "Other centuries," Fraser concedes, "may have enjoyed violence as much, but I question whether any century has shown quite such incompetence in dealing with it."

Fraser has strong and often iconoclastic views on Hollywood history. He regards Westerns, "those often-derided 'horse operas' and second features" as "the best historical films ever made"--primarily because of their success in recapturing the setting of the times, "those deathless images of the vast cruel country with its endless sky, its stark ugliness and breathtaking beauty. . . ."

Good historian that he is, he points out that Richard Burton's Anglo-Saxon Becket is a falsification (Thomas Becket was a Norman; the blunder was Jean Anouilh's, not Hollywood's), but he likes the film nevertheless and overlooks the problem that King Henry II's dowdy, unnamed wife was in fact one of the greatest women of the Middle Ages, Eleanor of Aquitaine. He hates "Platoon," judging the Vietnam War, unfairly but interestingly, from the perspective of a 1940s British rifleman, and viewing the lack of military discipline portrayed in the movie as a portent of the decline in Western civilization.

Here, as elsewhere, Fraser exhibits a good measure of nostalgia and, with it, a sense of pessimism about the present and future. With occasional exceptions, he prefers older movies to recent ones; he exhibits throughout this book his love of the stars and movie makers of the 1930s and '40s. It is his great strength that he communicates his affection for the Hollywood history with such vibrancy, learning and wit.

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