Rewriting History

So, just after the last post on profanity, someone sent me an article about the new Dam Busters film, which talked about the producers decision to change the name of the dog (and the code word) to Digger, so it wouldn’t cause offence.

I’m not really sure how I feel about this, to be honest. I mean, on one hand I get what they are trying to do, but at the same time, it IS a historical fact, and so the debate over whether the name should be changed has more to it than offence, it is about accuracy.

A view that many war and film historians seem to feel very strongly about.  For instance, historian Jim Shortland, told the Daily Mail:

‘I’m unhappy with the change because it’s sacrificing historical accuracy for political correctness, in particular for the American market.’

Mervyn Hallam, curator of RAF Scampton museum added:

‘’They should keep the dog’s name the same – it’s ridiculous that they are trying to rewrite history. His grave is still here with his name on it.

‘What they are trying to do is dishonouring N*gger and dishonouring the brave men who flew that mission.’

Now, the issue I want to raise isn’t about the word or the reasons for changing it, that I’m afraid is a completely separate issue for another time perhaps, but instead how history gets rewritten in fiction.

‘Based on a true story’ is a line that is guaranteed to pique interest in a book or movie. But the key word in that sentence is ‘based’ as folks tend to find out when they dig a little deeper into the real people and events.

There are examples when history is changed to make it seem more dramatic, or to wrap up loose ends, or to just suit the author or film makers needs. But how much change is too much? How much can you change while maintaining the integrity of the piece?

I’m gonna assume that you’ve all seen the movie ‘Cool Runnings’ which was based on a true story about the Jamaican bobsled team. Remember the end, where they carried the bobsled across the line? Yeah, well it didn’t quite happen like that, in reality the Jamaican team crashed before the finals and were disqualified. They did walk across the line beside the sled, but did not carry it. However, the movie footage of the crash was footage of the real life crash. (you can watch it here: In this instance the change was petty minor and added to the drama.

But what about movies or books that tout authenticity? Like ‘Pearl Harbour,’ for instance – which actually prompted the Nation Geographic to produce a documentary called ‘Beyond the Movie: Pearl Harbor’ to deal with some of the inaccuracies made as a result of either lack of knowledge or use of dramatic license. Riddled with inaccuracies like the wrong planes, the wrong fate for some of the battleships, that crazy ass wave top fight – even I know that’s wrong – and time for those on the ships to react to the bomb – which went off pretty much instantly it hit the ship.

What really seems to hurt people about this movie, and yes, I mean hurt, is the misrepresentation of the real people involved. Several of those who were there have spoken out about the movie, including Kenneth Marlar Taylor, who was one of the pilots who took to the skies to defend against the Japanese bombers, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart for his efforts. He spoke out about the movie, calling it ‘…a piece of trash…over-sensationalized and distorted’ in an article in 2006.

This was not the first time Pearl Harbour had been depicted on screen, back in 1970 there was the magnificent ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’which suffered from lack of known information at the time, and several of the same inaccuracies regarding planes etc. that marred ‘Pearl Harbour.’ Interesting too that Kenneth Marlar Taylor was a special advisor on ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’

Age related changes are common, presumably to make a story more interesting or socially acceptable, usually so the writers can introduce a romantic element. In 1995 Pocahontas suddenly became an adult and in love with John Smith. In reality Pocahontas would have been 10, and there was no indication that she had any romantic interest in John Smith. In ‘The Cruible’ Abigail morphed from 13 to 17 and a relationship with John Proctor became one of the plays main plots, but in reality there was no record of such a relationship.

In ‘Braveheart’ Isabella, Kind Edwards daughter in law, has an affair with William Wallace. Thing is, the real Isabella was a baby at the time the movie was set, and didn’t even marry Edward II until several years after Wallace’s death.

But how damaging is injecting a false history into a real story? Well, I guess that depends. These are real people we have been talking about,  some of them still alive, and some with descendants, and writers are essentially telling lies about them.

Take Sacagawea for example. In ‘The Far Horizons’ she fell in love with William Clark (half of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition team) and Toussaint Charbonneau was the antagonist. Now, in real life, Charbonneau had been hired as a guide and interpreter, and, concerned about leaving her alone, he was permitted to bring his pregnant wife along. Wanna guess who she was? Yep, Sacagawea. Surely to suggest an affair is to taint a reputation?

And speaking of reputations, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ is an awkward one.  The main character is the fictional Col. Nicholson, who develops and obsession with building the best bridge he can, a bridge that will help Japanese military tactics. However, the real officer who commanded the operation was a man named Lt. Col. Philip Toosey, who oversaw the building the Thai-Burma Railway, which was the inspiration for the movie.

Philip Toosey is an interesting character, and historical accounts show that he cared about his men, keeping them safe and alive and as healthy as he could, while at the same time doing everything he could to delay and sabotage the construction without endangering his men. Refusal to work would have meant instant execution, and helped organise an escape attempt.

A former prison of war, John Sharp, spoke out against the movie ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ stating ‘I have never ceased to object to the way in which the cinematic legend has overtaken and obscured the facts of what really happened on the Burma–Siam railway.’ His comments appear in the book ‘The Colonel of Tamarkan: Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai’ by Julie Summers. The movie is seen as being a slur on the integrity of the real commander.

But what about history that’s a bit questionable? Like mythology? This was a problem I came across when working on ‘Breath of the Earth.’ I tried to stick with each characters own story, but there were points where necessity required me to make changes, and there were other points when I needed to make changed to suit what I as a writer wanted for the story. I know that there are historians out there who disagree with me, some have commented on it, but I’m aware and honest about them. But I’ll admit that not being able to get some aspects ‘correct’ really bothered me and I felt that I was abusing someone else’s story.

Then I thought about it some more. Myths and fairytales are always being chopped up and messed around. Pretty much all of the gore has been taken out of fairytales over the years, and the Disney movies we get are much different from the Grimm tales. Hell, in the original Hercules myth, he’s an angry bully who beats Megara to death – something Disney failed to mention. To be fair, they failed to mention that the Little Mermaid drowned herself after being rejected, and they glossed over the whole trying to kill Wendy thing in ‘Peter Pan.’

Myths and fairytales are in a constant state of recycle. How many versions of Cinderella have we seen over the years? There’s a new version of ‘Red Riding Hood’ out this summer, and writers like Robin McKinley are constantly drawing on myths and legends to rework for their stories.

Is it okay then, to change a story if it’s not ‘real’? I think it is. After all, no one’s reputation is being ruined, you’re not rewriting history.


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