Licensed To Re-Write History …
For Gorilla Film Magazine
Feats of human achievement have been retold since, well, since there were
humans. We have always found a way of retelling our stories, from cave paintings to ancient hieroglyphs. Our need to be remembered and feel significant in this vast expanse demands that we leave our mark while we’re passing through.
But ever since we have retold stories the human need to further better ourselves and be remembered as the best we possibly can be, has lead to the desire to exaggerate and fabricate actual events. Let’s take Jesus of Nazareth, not sure if you’ve heard of this guy but apparently he did quite a lot of good, so much good that 12 of his groupies rewrote and exaggerated his stories to the point where he became a God and published them in a book called the Bible, which I’m yet to read but have heard is excellent.
Dramatic license is more often than not about the story teller rather than the story itself, the pressure to entertain and be entertaining while re-telling the story leads to what is defined as “the distortion of fact ….. the improvement of a piece of art.”
But it begs the question, is it really necessary? Does it need improving?
Granted the story of “I went to the shops this morning and bought some tea bags” may require a bit of dramatic license to engage your friends, but this is not a story of great human achievement and is essentially very dull. In this instance I can understand the need for a bit of hyperbole, but why feel the need when we’re already talking about something incredible, something worth re-telling?
Take Lawrence of Arabia. A truly brilliant film about a truly remarkable man. Laurence of Arabia is based on the life of T.E Lawrence during his service to the English army in the first world war. Lawrence was fluent in 8 languages, had worked as an archeologist excavating ancient Mesopotamian sites for the British Museum and thanks to his travels during university already knew the ins and outs of the Ottoman Empire and it’s German built and funded railway systems by the time he volunteered his services to the British army at the age
of 26. Not bad huh? But it gets better …. Lawrence was enlisted to pioneer an internal insurgence and Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the hope of weakening the German ally. Lawrence single handidly advised the Arab irregular troops on the plans of their attack, gaining their trust and respect. From the bottom to the top, and became the adviser of Emir Faisal (son of the Sharif of
Mecca.) He masterminded the capture of Acababa and subsequently the capture of Damascus and ensured that Damascus was under Faisel’s government. So,
why was a lone white Englishman who headed out in to the desert to infiltrate and persuade guerilla fractions of the Arab army to help destroy an empire and
take over vital towns not quite good enough?
The film has various elements of fiction running through it but one of the most notable is the crossing of the Nefud Desert. The Nefud Desert as told in the film
is considered impassible, even by Bedouins and in the film this is how Lawrence really gains the respect of the Arabs. He does what none of them have been able
(or stupid enough) to do. This is an incredibly important part of the film as he becomes an almost Jesus-esque character, which yes, it’s great, who doesn’t love
Jesus, but would we not be entertained by his story without this super-humanfeat?
Well, for arguments sake I would agree that this cherry on the fictional character cake of Lawrence is of great assistance to the film. He is super human, this God- like man struggling with incredibly human issues. Lawrence struggles with the violent acts the war forces him to commit, he in the same breath relishes and loathes the acts of killing other men, the nihilism involved in the act of killing is then contrasted by guilt afterwards. He struggles with his own identity as a man. Employed by the British government but feeling more affinity with the Arabs, he struggles with the knowledge that England will eventually, to put it lightly, fuck them over.
The film received criticism from Lawrence’s family for not being a faithful account of this period of Lawrence’s life but one of Lawrence’s biographers
argued “the object was not to produce a faithful docu-drama, but a hit picture”, in which respect they definitely succeeded. Though I do think it rather odd
to essentially take a mans identity and say “this is great, but I’m just going to improve on it.” Like it could never have been a “hit” without these fabrications or “improvements.”
The Pursuit Of Happyness, uses dramatic licensee for the same effect, but insteadof additions it is by omittence. Based on the life of Chris Gardner it is the age-old tale of triumph over misery, which is always a winner. Chris Gardner had an unsuccessful stint selling medical equipment, leaving his wife working double
shifts at a laundry company, unable to pay rent and his son in a shitty day care center. The story tells how Gardner loses his house, his wife and all his money but after a year of homelessness with his son lands a job as a stockbroker, sets up his own company and makes his first million by the time he is 34.
Gardner is by no means perfect in the film but he was a little more naughty than they made out. Though Gardner was an executive producer on the film, Will Smith’s portrayal of Gardner was something of a selective memory, to make it more appealing to the larger audience. Gardner in his more truthful
autobiography admits that he wasn’t quite the father he was made out to be in the film, neglecting his son for 9 months and having no idea of his whereabouts, selling drugs and taking coke, PCP and Marijuana. These things I would have thought are quite important, they may not be admirable, but they are important parts of his story; they don’t change it’s outcome. Surely the further you’ve fallen, the further you have to climb to succeed makes it all the more incredible.
The thing with dramatic license is, I can’t help but feel that we, as an audience are being underestimated. It feels like we are allowing other peoples need to entertain distort already incredible achievements. To get someone’s life as a script and in red, cross out and annotate their history. We are all human, we have all done wrong, we know what life is like, we have all had moments of triumph be they small or large, but none of us are super human. Do we need to be patronized by omittance and addition to enjoy the tales of truly remarkable
human beings? Are the stories of these people not exceptional enough without fabrication? I thought the whole point was that these amazing things had
happened; these people had done something worthy of remembrance. They are worthy of remembrance because they are a rarity, they are already exceptional.
So, as Robert Lowell aptly put it “why not say what happened?”
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