True Stories

One phrase about which I am acutely suspicious is ‘true stories’, as in ‘This film is a true story’. It covers such a multitude of sins. I watched a great film on DVD the other night: Indigènes, or Days Of Glory, as it was very inadequately retitled for English-speaking viewers. It advertises itself as – and was reviewed everywhere as – a true story. Now, in one way, this could certainly be said to be fair. It describes the way in which North African colonies, French-controlled, sent a very large number of men to fight in Europe in the Second World War, but at the same time subjected them to racism of the crassest kind – no promotion, segregation of food, no leave, and – after the war – no pension either, once their countries had been made independent. In fact, the hue and cry caused by the film forced Chirac to ensure that any survivors did get pensions – a rare example of a piece of art actually forcing something to happen, directly, in a political sphere (the best example is Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (1906), which led to a wholesale change in the way slaughterhouses were run in the USA, but there are very few examples to choose from).

 

Since the film did raise awareness, and to a very high level, it could be said to be true to the extent that the subject was important, and that it was an important truth that the soldiers were abused by the very country for which they were fighting. But it left the impression that the story was true – that is, that four specific Algerians were the first to liberate Alsace. But the story had been falsified to make the larger point. This is all right, too. But the suggestion of truth – and ‘true’ must be used in publicity for films about as often as ‘scream’ – needs a great deal of qualification.

 

Two of the best films I’ve seen in the last four years were Pierrepoint and De-Lovely, both of them biopics, respectively of Britain’s last ‘official’ executioner, and of Cole Porter. In each case the acting was expert, the direction great, and the script clever. (There were some hiccups here and there, but this isn’t a film review.) Both films laid claim to be true, and Pierrepoint actually concluded with stats. In the case of De-Lovely, explicit contrasts were drawn with an earlier biopic, Night And Day, to the extent of showing an excerpt from it. To say that both films cut corners is an understatement. Pierrepoint’s life was re-arranged so that the order of events made a better story, and, in one particular case, the (true) story that he once hanged a man he had met in his own public house was developed into a major sub-plot. The facts and figures were so wrong that Wikpedia would have eliminated them (slightly unfair on Wikipedia, which is often said to be more accurate than Britannica). In the Porter biopic, Porter’s sexuality was explored more frankly than before – but there was still a great layer of whitewash.

 

Now, what am I saying? That I want all films to be accurate? Obviously not: that would be impossible. The whole process of editing is itself so crucial to all art that infidelity is the natural consequence. There is no such thing as a true piece of art, and no such thing as a true biography. But what I object to is the passing off of this half-truth, or mis-truth, as accuracy. It may be really that I am having a pop at the publicists. I don’t mind ‘faction’ – in fact, I love it. In Cold Blood (Capote) and The Executioner’s Song (Mailer) – it might take a psychiatrist to say why I’ve just picked two books about murder and execution – are among the greatest pieces of twentieth century writing. I also love the novel The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward, Robert Ford, by Ron Hansen, the source of the umpteenth Jesse James film (the recent one starring Brad Pitt), which rec-creates James’s life in a stunning way, taking great liberties with Jesse James’ origins, but taking a great snapshot of his last year, 1883. It includes the wonderful detail – almost certainly true, and look at how ‘almost’ defines my complex relationship with this subject – that Oscar Wilde was on a lecture tour not very far from St. Louis when James was shot, and that he must have read the news in the paper. The idea of Wilde and James colliding, as it were, like this, is delightful. But for the true truth, best to go to T.J.Stilman’s masterly biography.

 

The word ‘true’ is slung about with too much abandon. The best use of it I know in this context is the self-written epigraph to Edward Bond’s play ‘Early Morning’ (1968), which was the very last to be banned by the Lord Chamberlain, who stopped it having Sunday performances because of offence to the royal family, the offence being that a cartoonish Queen Victoria was shown as having a relationship with a cartoonish Florence Nightingale, who was herself lusted after by one of Victoria’s Siamese twin sons (sic). You’d think someone might have spotted that it was satirical (Gladstone is a trade union leader), but no, the po-faced had their last hurrah. The play is a satire on power and faith. Bond’s epigraph runs ‘The events of this play are true.’ And in the sense in which he meant it, they were.

 

I think I may have found this blog’s theme.

 

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