Foreground and Background in Historical Films
Richard Maxwell

Most historical films share a simple formula. The formula is exemplified by a passage from Gone With The Wind, described in Pierre Sorlin's The Film in History:

Scarlett, looking for the doctor, arrives at the station; we have her photographed in medium shot and, while running, back turned to us, she passes corpses, wounded men, stretchers; as we are looking at the scene from her point of view, we do not focus on the dead bodies. . . . Suddenly we are looking from another perspective; Scarlett is outside, and a bird's-eye view shows the square filled with the wounded. The camera, moving slowly off, reveals a huge expanse covered with thousands of bodies, laid everywhere, even on the rails; now we hear moans and calls, whereas earlier the soundtrack had been muffled and indistinct.1

Historical films like Gone With The Wind tell stories of extraordinary individuals whose lives are played out against a background of actual political and military events. Occasionally the individual's fate is connected with that of the world he inhabits. Personal and collective destinies merge. Supposedly. How much meaning can a trick of perspective carry? Though most historical films insist on a connection between foreground and background, the connection is typically awkward or ill thought-out; vacuity is disguised by spectacle.

Sorlin, history professor at the University of Paris, acknowledges the weaknesses of the historical film as a genre. All the same, he insists, these movies have a certain value for the jaundiced viewer. Sorlin sees the film itself as a kind of foreground event, whose background is not the time when the movie is set but the time when it was made. We can see the dangers of this idea by following Sorlin's discussion of La Grande Illusion; we can see its uses by touching on the recent American film Under Fire.

La Grande Illusion (1937) is Renoir's film about a World War I prison camp. Pierre Fresnay, Jean Gabin, and Marcel Dalio play French soldiers (Boeldieu, Marechal, and Rosenthal) captured by the Germans. Eventually they end up on a fortress overseen by one Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim, in a role designed for him). There is a cur­ious affinity between Rauffenstein and Boeldieu: both are professional warrior-dandies who recognize that their time—their era—is past. Rauffenstein confides his secret thoughts to Boeldieu as he can to no one else. Eventually he is forced to shoot and kill Boeldieu, who has created a diversion in the camp so that Marechal and Rosenthal can escape. Despite his veneer of coldness—or because of it?—Boeldieu has sacrificed himself for his two "common" friends: the working-class soldier and the bourgeois Jewish soldier. The story of these four men suggests a shift in French society. To put the point in the terms used above, the historical background of La Grande Illusion is the foreground writ large.

Such, at any rate, was Renoir's intention. Sorlin is not impressed. He writes, "I find the story third-rate and unconvincing, but the film nevertheless interests me enormously because, through the shots and the editing, it reveals attitudes and feelings that contradict the point of view expressed in the dialogue." In an ingenious analysis, Sorlin then tries to show that La Grande Illusion expresses a sort of pre-World War II Gallic chauvinism. The French prisoners are shown as cleverer than the Russian and the English. Negative traits associated with the French are displaced onto these other groups, as when it is the English who are shown prancing about in women's clothes during a camp revue. (We thought the French were effeminate; it is really the English who are effeminate.) The script treats the Germans with as much understanding as the other groups, but the actual film shows them as automatons —confirming another nationalistic cliché under the guise of international pacifism.

Ultimately, Sorlin claims, "the ideal of La Grande Illusion is an enclosed universe, protected from the outside, where a narrow and well-defined task is performed." The fantasy of a secure existence amid the hardships of war was to have its fulfillment in the French resistance, which Sorlin presents as almost willed abdication of responsibility on the part of a nation. Conquered by the Nazis, the French could play at heroism without suffering on the epic scale of other countries. This is the dream embodied in the exploits of Boeldieu, Marechal, and Rosenthal—indeed in the film generally.

It is easy to disagree with Sorlin's criticisms. Anyone who doubts the wonderful craftsmanship of La Grande Illusion might look at Alexander Sesonske's Jean Renoir, the definitive book on its subject.2 Time and again, Sorlin distorts the brilliant details highlighted in Sesonske.

For example, Sorlin argues: "The last appearance of the British is when they change camps. You may have noticed something strange about this scene: the officer who tries to explain to the English that there is a tunnel all ready to escape through is the one who does not speak English, and the one who speaks English, and who is right next to him, says nothing." For Sorlin, this is one more instance where the French are shown as superior to the English. The English are denied the escape tunnel contrived by the French, as if they weren't good enough to deserve it, and this denial is emphasized by a moment that makes no psychological sense, that betrays its actual meaning in its apparent incoherence.

As Sesonske shows, however, the film's mixture of languages-French, English, German, even Russian—recurs throughout. Moreover, the officer who doesn't know English but tries to explain the existence of the tunnel is Gabin/Marechal: the impulsive, generous, working-class character who directly defies the Germans on other occasions in this movie. And the officer who knows English but doesn't speak is Fresnay/Boeldieu, the cold dandy who habitually holds himself in reserve—giving away nothing until his spectacular gulling of Rauffenstein. Pace Sorlin, the two characters behave as they do for reasons evident to any sympathetic spectator.

Sorlin seems curiously perverse when discussing La Grande Illusion. He circumvents the film's intention, craftsmanship, and artistic achievement. By this means he aspires to turn the film into an object of study: a symptom of a mass delusion, if you will. Renoir claims to be telling a story about World War I—and by implication about the twentieth century. Sorlin refuses to be distracted by this proposed mediation. Rather than a means of understanding the century, La Grande Illusion becomes a part of it, less a self-contained art­work than a piece of historical evidence.

I am skeptical—that's obvious, I hope—but I also have to admit that Sorlin's position has its strengths. Who has not suspected something a little too easy, too crowd-pleasing, about sections of Renoir's great film? (Renoir moved on: cf. the less comforting La Regie du Jeu a few years later. Wonder what Sorlin would make of that one?) How pleasant if we could learn this way of historical thinking without wanting to become iconoclasts—to destroy any aesthetic construct whose beauty might be distracting. What we need in thinking about historical movies is a Sorlin who doesn't throw out the film with the bath water.

Let me step into Sorlin's role. I don't want to rewrite his essay on La Grande Illusion; one would have to know a good deal about France in the 1930s to make a success of such a project. Under Fire emerges from a culture nearer at hand. The movie, which circulated in fall of 1983, describes the fall of the Somoza government in Nicaragua as seen through the eyes of three American journalists (Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, and Joanna Cassidy).

The central character is Nolte. A daring news photographer, he gains an international reputation. The Sandinistas kidnap him in order to perpetrate a lie. Their charismatic leader is dead: Nolte must take a photograph of him so that he will seem to be alive. Because of his sympathy with the guerillas Nolte agrees to the plan. Hackman suspects what Nolte has done, but is killed in a bizarre, spur-of-the-minute shooting by Somoza's troops. Between Nolte's fake photograph and Hackman's real death (also photographed by Nolte) the fall of the Somoza government is hastened.

Under Fire does two things pretty well. In the foreground, it tells a story about a journalistic dilemma (do you suppress news which would strengthen a particularly nasty government?); in the background it presents the spectacle of a disintegrating state. The movie is especially good al this second task. I don't recall having seen a film where the stages by which a regime loses control are so nicely adumbrated.

However, Under Fire is most striking for an unstated assumption. Seldom has a film—at least a film not directed by Bob Fosse—turned on the subject of stardom so completely. The political star—the irreplaceable guerilla leader—and the showbiz star—Hackman, possessor of an important job on network news—both die. Both deaths are transfigured, as it were, by Nolte's photographs. The presence in the film of three strong Hollywood personalities does much to emphasize this interest in celebrityhood and its relation to power.

I have made the movie appear clever, but in some ways the cleverness is superficial. For one thing, the Sandinista movement does not seem to have succeeded by means of a Castro-style leader; the story of the dead revolutionary who must be thought alive is a bit fatuous. We think to ourselves: the movie has made a mistake. It has translated one kind of politics into another. It has betrayed its own insularity. The concentration on North American suffering in a Latin American country with problems of its own calls for the same sort of criticism. These handsome Americans are glorified for facing dangers that the Nicaraguans live or die with as a matter of course.

Under Fire’s, best scene acknowledges these difficulties. Cassidy, who has been Hackman's lover and is now Nolte's, hears of the former's death. Nolte, meanwhile, has disappeared: since he photographed his friend's shooting, the government troops are pursuing him. Cassidy arrives at a medical enclave where wounded or dying people are being treated. Like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, she makes her way through the bodies. A TV screen in the background reports Hackman's demise. A nurse asks Cassidy if she knew the deceased reporter, whose end has caused such a furor up north. The nurse comments, almost as a throwaway remark, "maybe we should have killed an American reporter years ago."3

Like other historical films, Under Fire posits a foreground whose relation to its background is problematic. We are tempted to react only like Sorlin: to analyze the film as a piece of self-indulgence, flattering for a certain kind of liberal, "enlightened" audience. Then something changes. The disjunction between foreground—the three American reporters—and background—the revolution which they report— becomes a discussable subject, an issue integrated into the movie.

I like this twist. While any view of history has limits—while any his­torical narrative has roots in cultural bias —there are times when the bias can be turned against itself. Sorlin's good book would be better were he able to acknowledge this possibility. No less than historians, historical films can be intelligent about their own failings.



1The Film in  History:  Restating the Past (Basil Blackwell: Oxford. 1980). pp. 110-111.

2Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924-1939 (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.. 1980).

3Quote not guaranteed exact. I saw the film several months ago.

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