Natural Born Historian
Lingua Franca, April 2000
“I’ve never claimed to be a historian,” declares Oliver Stone, speaking from his car phone. “Remember that, it’s very important.” Well, okay, if he insists. But historians might be forgiven for wondering about the director’s habit of treading on their academic turf. Not long before Stone filmed JFK (1991), he told the Dallas Morning News the film would be “a history lesson.” The script for Nixon (1995) came with hundreds of footnotes. Indeed, these docudramas have provoked more historical debate than most academic historians manage in a lifetime — albeit by suggesting that the military-industrial complex killed Kennedy and that Nixon was a drunk.
Historians have frequently complained about Stone’s trespasses. Next month, the non-historian strikes back. In Oliver Stone’s USA: Film, History, and Controversy (Kansas), Stone goes head-to-head with scholarly critics such as Stephen Ambrose, Walter LaFeber, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The book began when its editor, Robert Toplin of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, invited Stone to a 1997 American Historical Association panel on Nixon. “I won’t say he was eager,” says Toplin. “He expressed some concern about going into a packed room of historians, some of whom would be ready for an ambush.” The academics, it turned out, were skeptical but sympathetic. Historian and former presidential candidate George McGovern found Stone’s insights into Nixon’s character “well conceived and grounded in reality.” Arthur Schlesinger, a film critic as well as a historian, “noticed only one major error” in Nixon, which he thought pulled its punches. But he did take Stone to task for his conspiracy theorizing in JFK: “The impact of JFK on the unwary young, born long after the events and remote from the atmosphere of the time, should not be overrated. Too many seem to think that Stone is telling it as it was.”
When Toplin suggested expanding the debate into a book covering the director’s entire oeuvre, Stone agreed to write a preface. But once he read the essays Toplin had assembled — some of them sharply critical — he decided he had to respond in more detail. He went to work. “The book was killing me,” says Stone. “It ended up taking up half my summer and most of my holiday.”
So why do it? With typical bravado, Stone says he was “surprised by how wrong some of the facts were” in his critics’ essays. “I just couldn’t live with that without answering back, because these people are well respected.” In the book, Stone assails his critics with an entertaining mix of bombast, insult, and historical detail. When Ambrose ridicules his “peacocklike display of … scholarship,” Stone witheringly observes that the venerable historian “often celebrates martial figures, [but] has never served one day in combat.” When Southeastern Louisiana University’s Michael Kurtz complains about the southern accent used by Kevin Costner when playing New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison — an Iowa native — Stone sweetly notes that he, his co-writer, and Costner spent a fair amount of time with Garrison during the making of JFK, and none of them “ever detected anything other than an elegant southern drawl.” And any historian objecting to Stone’s argument that President Kennedy wanted out of Vietnam had better be prepared to argue with the director over the difference between National Security Memorandum 263 (written just before Kennedy’s assassination) and National Security Memorandum 273 (written just after).
So what do historians think of Oliver Stone’s movies? The films might not measure up to academic standards, Caltech’s Robert Rosenstone argues in an early chapter, but they “engage the discourse of history and add something to that discourse.” Rosenstone, who created the American Historical Review’s film section a decade ago and advised Warren Beatty during the making of Reds (1981), insists a film can convey historical truth even if it fictionalizes details. But is the result history? Rosenstone balks at the word, but he won’t write historical film off as mere fiction either. He prefers to call it “an invention that somehow challenges or involves itself with historical discourse, and I don’t have a word for that.”
Ambrose is less accommodating about Stone’s mix of fiction and history: “It’s not allowed,” he says. The author of multivolume biographies of Eisenhower and Nixon, Ambrose is no stranger to film. Steven Spielberg consulted him while making Saving Private Ryan (1998). But Ambrose gives Nixon two thumbs down, faulting the director for portraying the late president as a foulmouthed, pill-popping drunk guilty of trying to have Fidel Castro assassinated. None of these details are confirmed by the historical record, he argues, despite Stone’s copious footnotes to the work of established scholars — including Ambrose. “I don’t think that Hollywood finds truth that has been missed by the historian,” Ambrose scoffs. “And I don’t think that collapsing four characters into one is adding to our knowledge of what happened — it just doesn’t work like that.”
For better or worse, history and film cross paths more and more frequently. Professors regularly screen movies for their students, and collaboration between filmmakers and historians is becoming common. After all, as Bruno Ramirez observed last December in the Journal of American History, “filmic language has the power to bring the viewer as close as possible to experiencing the lost universe of the past.” In her forthcoming book, Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision (Harvard), Natalie Zemon Davis explores how films have depicted the resistance to slavery. Davis, who worked as a consultant for The Return of Martin Guerre (1983), suggests that directors “can still be speculative and very imaginative” when they make historical films, but they should be “using their imagination in the direction of the evidence.” And they must, she says, make the line between fact and speculation clear to their audiences.
Stone is dismissive of such advice. “What do they want –footnotes?” he laughs. “Do they want a closed caption that says ‘This is dubious’ or ‘Please see endnotes for that’? What more can I do?” Film history, at least, seems to back him up: As legendary film producer Darryl Zanuck once declared, “There is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic.”