Not just Vietnam, but many periods of American history have been portrayed in movies as based on the actual story only to have the director, producer or studio twist or distort something for a bigger bang, an unrelated love story or a political agenda. And while I like good fiction as much as anyone, too many times it’s promoted as fact.
There was even a movie made about this called “Sweet Liberty” in which Alan Alda plays a history professor who sold the movie rights to his book on the Revolutionary War to a studio only to have all his efforts rewritten for a nonexistent love story and battle scenes that never took place.
The problem with this Hollywood manipulation is that the impressions of history most people have today come from movies and television.
Gary Gallagher, a noted history professor at the University of Virginia, points out that more people have probably seen the movie “Abraham Lincoln — Vampire Hunter” than have read anything written by a historian.
But there are times when the movies come close to getting it right. With this in mind, I thought I would suggest four movies covering American history you might want to check out if you have some time off during the holidays.
Note that these are movies and not miniseries, so shows like “John Adams” and “Band of Brothers” will have to wait for another day.
Coming from the Revolutionary War, the first movie is “The Crossing.”
Starting with the Continental Army fleeing the British after the fall of New York, to George Washington’s efforts to pull his army together and finishing with the surprise victory over the Hessians at Trenton, “The Crossing” gives a reasonably accurate portrayal of the events of December 1776.
Jeff Daniels, who played Col. Chamberlain in the movie “Gettysburg,” does an excellent portrayal of George Washington in this A&E production which shows the relationships of the generals as well as the desperate state of the Continental Army in the winter of 1776.
Along with Washington, my favorite character from the movie is Col. John Glover, the fisherman from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who commanded the men who rowed the army to safety in New York and would again take the army across a river, first to safety and then to victory.
The movie is not 100 percent accurate, but it is a very honest portrayal of the American Revolution well worth watching.
Coming from the Civil War, the second move is “Glory.”
I can already hear many of you asking about “Gettysburg,” “Gods and Generals” or “Field of Lost Shoes,” which are all good movies. But many historians agree that “Glory” is one of the most accurate Civil War movies ever made.
With its all-star cast including Morgan Freeman, Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington, “Glory” tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first African-American regiments of the Civil War.
In addition to the hardships of war, this movie portrays the Northern attitude toward black soldiers including racial slurs from other regiments, being denied proper uniforms and equipment, to the ultimate slap in the face when the Lincoln administration proclaimed that because they were black they would be paid less than the white soldiers.
By the end of the movie, the 54th earns the respect of other officers and regiments, as many African-American regiments did during the Civil War.
While this movie is good, it’s not perfect. One of the errors that many like to point out is that in the final battle scene, the 54th is attacking from the wrong direction, from the north with the Atlantic Ocean on their left side. In reality, the 54th attacked from the south with the Atlantic Ocean on their right.
All in all this is a very good movie about the Civil War and well worth watching.
“Ike: Countdown to D-Day”
The next movie comes from WWII and, surprise, doesn’t have a single battle scene. The movie is “Ike: Countdown to D-Day.”
While “Saving Private Ryan” has its battle scenes and “Patton” has its historical accuracy, and both are great movies, I thought I would suggest something a little different.
“Ike: Countdown to D-Day” is a behind-the-scenes look at Dwight Eisenhower and the planning for Operation Overlord.
The role of Eisenhower is played by Tom Selleck, who turns in a great performance as the general and is paired with an equally good performance by Ian Mune, who does one of the best Prime Minister Winston Churchills I have seen.
The movie starts with Eisenhower and Churchill discussing who should be in overall command of the invasion of Europe and ends with Eisenhower receiving the first reports from Normandy.
I highly recommend this movie to any history or WWII buff.
“We Were Soldiers”
The last movie comes from the book co-written by Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, the man I quoted at the start of this column.
After over-the-top movies such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” the movie “We Were Soldiers” was made as an effort to “get it right.”
Based on the book written by Moore and Joseph Galloway, and starring Mel Gibson, Greg Kinnear and Sam Elliott, the movie follows Moore, then a lieutenant colonel, and the creation of air cavalry, using helicopters to jump in and out of battle, from its beginning in the U.S. through the battle in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam in November 1965.
Many scenes in this movie match “Saving Private Ryan” for reality, making it hard for some people to watch.
During an interview, Galloway, who was a reporter on the ground covering the battle in ‘65, talked about the friendly fire incident that is shown in the movie. He spoke for a few moments but had to stop to fight back tears, but then continued saying how what he saw on the battlefield that day still haunts him.
So how accurate is the movie?
Both Moore and Galloway were happy, and Moore said it was about “80 percent accurate.”
They should know; they were there.
So there are four movies I think portray history accurately.
What movies do you think give an accurate picture of our history?
Ned Jilton II is page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.