Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how film and television use history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis
And I’m Brian Crim.
We’re historians who watch way too much film and TV. And ever since graduate school whenever we see stuff that is set in the past we can’t help but notice that whatever is going on when the film was made shows up on the screen too. Every one of us tries to make sense of our world by telling versions of history that seem to put the puzzle pieces together, or offer the most comfort. Our own lies agreed upon.
We know there are a lot of people who love TV and movies, and history, just like us, and we’ve created this podcast with those people in mind. Sometimes the connections between history and the here and now can be fairly obvious. But a lot of it goes unnoticed or misunderstood and this is where we come in. We hope to entertain and inform, while we also amuse ourselves.
The Lies Agreed Upon in this episode are tied to both the style of the films we’ve chosen AND their relationship to long-standing stories – whether beloved national myths, as is the case with The Alamo, from 2004; or the abolitionist narrative few moviegoers had heard of, from which 12 Years a Slave was adapted in 2013; or, less familiar to American audience but very familiar to British and Irish audiences, the immediately repudiated bundle of lies that was the official findings of the Widgery Report, on the tragic massacre of civilians by British forces that ignited the worst years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Bloody Sunday, released in 2002, effectively reveals the true horrors of that day in January 1972.
Our Lies Agreed Upon are:
First, that a familiar, timeless story that reinforces who we think we are must be true.
Second, that history is there to reassure and uplift, not to challenge, or make us uncomfortable.
And third, that there is only one history – a stable truth that sits outside of time, prejudice, and self-interest.
The first film we’re going to be talking about in this episode is Bloody Sunday. Released in 2002, it was filmed in a cold Dublin winter, just months after 9/11. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, starring James Nesbitt, and with Tim Piggot-Smith and Nicholas Farrell, it’s probably a movie most of our listeners have never heard of. It didn’t even gross $1 million when it was released in the US. But it won the Audience Prize at Sundance and first prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
Greengrass came from a documentary film background and Bloody Sunday, only his second feature film, is shot in that style. It drops us into Derry, a Northern Irish city on the boundary between Northern Ireland and Ireland, in January 1972. The notorious events of that day, immortalized in a U2 song, arguably ignited what have come to be known as the Troubles. Community leaders, like the local Protestant member of Parliament, Ivan Cooper (played by Nesbitt) and Catholic activist Bernadette Devlin (played by Mary Moulds) organized a civil rights march. They had been demanding reform and equal treatment for Catholics in Protestant majority, British occupied Northern Ireland. An overtly discriminatory political system, a lack of economic opportunity, harassment by police and military, and false imprisonment, were leading the poor Catholics of Derry (called Londonderry by the British) and the rest of Northern Ireland, to respond increasingly with violence. This march, attended by thousands of average men, women and children, was a demand for justice.
The first half of the movie is spent mainly with Cooper, as he encourages everyone to come to the march, insistent that it will be peaceful. And trying to insure that outcome by speaking directly to the local IRA leadership, who are dubious that any civil rights appeal will work, or that the British soldiers will respect the march. But they agree it would look bad for the IRA if they instigated anything given the make-up of the crowd.
James Nesbitt is brilliant as Cooper. He’s strung as tight as a violin string. You see in his face his hope and fear. His patience with people as he cajoles and scolds, jokes and lectures, is excruciating to watch. He is desperately trying to will the day to turn out the way he wants.
The second half of the film is a moment by moment immersion into what actually happened – a bloodbath. British soldiers, primed by their leaders to think of every Catholic as a hooligan at best, and a terrorist at worst, started shooting indiscriminately into the crowd. 26 people were shot, some while fleeing, some while trying to help the wounded. 14 died.
At the end of the film, Cooper speaks at a press conference about the ramifications of what happened that day. Let’s listen to that now.
It’s important to tell our listeners that Greengrass does, indeed, show young men lining up in the hallway of an anonymous tenement building, waiting to join the IRA.
Our second movie was released in 2004 and, like Bloody Sunday, was explicitly tied to the events of 9/11 and the West’s response to it. While Bloody Sunday was released in the early days of the assault against the Taliban in Afghanistan, The Alamo was released a year into the war in Iraq. It was directed by John Lee Hancock and produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Mark Johnson. Hancock has some pretty good credits to his name as a director and writer, including The Rookie, The Blind Side, and A Perfect World. He also wrote the script for The Alamo with Leslie Bohem. The cast is also not too shabby considering what appears on screen. Dennis Quaid is Sam Houston, Billy Bob Thorton plays Davy Crockett, and Jason Patric is Jim Bowie. Patrick Wilson plays the commanding officer in charge of defending the Alamo, William Barrett Travis, and the great Mexican actor Emilio Echevarria plays General Santa Anna with all the subtlety of Snidely Whiplash. So, there is talent behind The Alamo, but it’s a beautiful disaster.
The plot revolves around the legendary – underline legendary – siege of the Alamo in March of 1836, although there are some flashbacks to the events that lead this band of misfits to their fated end and a postscript depicting Santa Anna’s catastrophic defeat and capture at the hands of a vengeful Sam Houston at the battle of San Jacinto. The film begins with Sam Houston wooing potential settlers to migrate to Texas and rallying the Provisional Texas government to oppose General Santa Anna’s dictatorial rule. Travis is dispatched to the Alamo to fortify it ahead of Santa Anna’s advance, which was faster than anticipated. Travis unsuccessfully pleads for reinforcements, but only a few respond.
In this clip Colonel Travis gives the perfunctory “tomorrow we die speech” in a movie like this, but I think you can detect the post-9/11 rallying cry subtext. Let’s listen:
Outnumbered and surrounded, the garrison holds for several days before succumbing to a costly frontal assault by Santa Anna’s own beleaguered army. Davy Crockett, one of the few survivors captured, embodies the heroic spirit of the defenders and curses Santa Anna before facing the firing squad. A devastated Sam Houston retreats with his army but detects Santa Anna’s miscalculation in dividing his forces and surprises the general at San Jacinto, massacring hundreds and capturing the general. In exchange for his life, Santa Anna grants Texas independence.
The backstory behind the film is pretty interesting, especially since the idea to make it is directly related to 9/11. Screenwriter Leslie Bohem pitched the idea to Ron Howard in 1998, but it stayed on the backburner until Disney’s Michael Eisner fast tracked it in hopes of releasing a super patriotic feature to help Americans feel better in the wake of the trauma. Ron Howard wanted a Saving Private Ryan type of film, one also grounded in historical truth. Failing to see a reliable way to do that, Howard dropped out and the Texan John Lee Hancock filled in. The problem facing all previous Alamo films is separating fact from fiction because most sources are themselves embellishments created after the fact. You know the saying, “when choosing between the history and legend, go with the legend.” The Alamo does that in spades.
For our third film, we jump almost a decade from the period of 9/11 and our military responses to it. As we discussed in the last episode, by 2013, the endless wars, the collateral civilian damage, and the ongoing existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison were in the minds of many filmgoers. In addition, the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, and the birther movement questioning President Obama’s citizenship, tied together the international and domestic reality that America continued to treat black and brown lives as lesser.
12 Years a Slave, released in 2013, is an adaptation of an 1853 slave narrative by Solomon Northrup, a free black from New York who was kidnapped during a trip to Washington DC and sold into slavery in 1841. Northrup spent his twelve years in Louisiana before smuggling a letter out describing his plight to friends back home. The autobiography was dictated by Northrup to a white state legislator named David Wilson, and it contains all the common literary tropes of the day, including the idea that the abject horrors of a slave society were perpetrated by men and women who were consistently recognizable as ‘evil’ in every aspect of their lives, that poorer white men were brutish out of ignorance while wealthier white men were evil due to mental instability, and the goodness that was inherent in sincerely pious Christians. The film adheres closely to the account in most cases, but the points of departure are significant and controversial, as we’ll discuss.
Directed by Steve McQueen and adapted for the screen by John Ridley, 12 years was a critical and commercial success, winning several Oscars, including best film, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, you name it. The acting was uniformly superb, particularly Chiwitel Ejiofor as Northrup and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey. Rounding out the cast are Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodward, Paul Giammati, Sarah Poulson, and an appearance by Brad Pitt, a classic white savior, the Canadian Mennonite, Samuel Bass. Pitt was also a producer on the film.
The film begins by depicting Northup’s pleasant life as a middle class free man in Saratoga, NY, blessed with a lovely family and the respect of his neighbors. An accomplished violinist, Northup is tempted by an offer to perform in Washington DC, but the offer is a ploy to drug him and sell him to slavers specializing in entrapping free blacks and smuggling them to slave states. Northup is a stranger in a strange land, thrown into the Kafkaesque nightmare as we watch the casual dehumanization of the degradation of the human spirit through his extremely soulful and expressive eyes. Northup is surrounded by horrors large and small, although the cinematography is gorgeous. This contrast is one of the remarkable accomplishments of the film.
Initially bought by William Ford (Cumberbatch), Northup finds his talents appreciated and even gets to play the violin again. Ford might appear to be the kindly slave owner of historical myth, but he’s all business and outsources the brutality to vicious overseers.
In this clip Solomon lashes out at another slave on the Ford plantation for crying incessantly. She calls him out for thinking somehow his previous life matters, that any of them matter. It’s powerful.
Northup’s inability to fully grasp that in this slave society he is no longer a human being eventually results in him assaulting a white overseer. Unable to resist the inevitable vengeance of the world they are in despite his whiteness, Ford sells Northup to Edwin Epps (Fassbender) to spare his life, but the situation worsens. Northup is now subjected to the full horrors of the plantation and the demented cruelty of both Mr. and Mrs Epps. Patsey, Epps’ prize, is raped, whipped, tortured physically and emotionally at every turn. She even begs Northup to drown her in the swamp.
Salvation comes from a Canadian contractor named Samuel Bass. Of course Brad Pitt casts himself as the only decent white character of note. An abolitionist by nature, Bass agrees to send Northup’s letter. Months later a northern representative arrives and demands the local sheriff intercede, allowing Northrup to return to freedom and reunite with his family. The postscript reveals Northup became active in the abolitionist movement while his kidnappers and everyone associated with his abuse escaped serious consequences.
Setting the Scene
Now that we’ve recapped the films, let’s recap the our lies agreed upon.
First of all, one of the reasons why “history is a set of lies agreed upon” is a quip that has stuck, is because history has been treated, by educational systems, governments, commemorative organizations – all institutions of power, really – as a way to reinforce the established narratives. History is supposedly there to reassure us and uplift us, NOT challenge us, or make us uncomfortable. In other words, the lie is that our historical legends and myths are not myths and legends at all.
And one of the things that has to be believed in order for this to be true is the lie that there is only one history – a stable truth that sits outside of time, prejudice, and self-interest.
And so we’ve chosen three movies this week that all revisit moments in the course of America and Britain’s stories where the lie is laid bare that we do not do evil, that we do not instill terror, that that is what other societies do.
In the case of Bloody Sunday, historical events were – for decades – codified through the authority of a government inquiry. In the case of The Alamo, historical events and actors were shaped into legends that became the fodder for traveling vaudeville shows and 1950s family television. And the story of Solomon Northup was coopted by white abolitionists at the time and then by filmmakers.
In the struggle to understand 9/11, to decide what to do about it, and then to justify what we did, history was used to reassure us, and to challenge that basic story that all societies tell themselves – that they are righteous.
As we already pointed out in our summaries of the movies, each movie’s release date is particularly important this week. Bloody Sunday was shot in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent British-American invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, it was released the same month that other NATO member forces arrived in the country and when Kandahar, the Taliban’s capital, was taken. But the supposed “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan never really materialized. Inadequate funds, inadequate leadership, and a permanent state of threat and conflict, marred any efforts to, as Christopher Hitchins tried to argue at the time, “bomb Afghanistan out of the Stone Age.”
Hitchens is one of many who expressed these kinds of ideas – not a clash of civilizations but, rather, a battle between the civilized and the uncivilized.. But it’s worth listening to the laconic attitude and the tone with which he so comfortably puts himself on the side of the civilization/barbarism struggle:
The equanimity with which the West – particularly the British and Americans – accepted the death toll of civilians in Afghanistan, and the ‘necessity’ for showing no mercy, until the wayward, backward tribal people could be shown the error of their ways, is very reminiscent of the tone that Tim Piggot-Smith and Nicholas Farrell take in the war room in Bloody Sunday. As a historian of the British Empire, I can attest to the authenticity of the easy racial and classed superiority expressed in their prep school and military academy accents.
Paul Greengrass’ wandering camera matter-of-factly capturing the violence, chaos, tears, fear and smoke of Bloody Sunday evokes the now iconic footage of stunned New Yorkers staggering through the streets covered in dust. These city streets are a war zone and civilians involved are truly shocked it’s happening to them. Is Greengrass comparing the two events, suggesting the British government essentially sponsored a terrorist act, or does the 9/11 aesthetic for lack of a better term run so deep that cinematic portrayals of trauma have no choice but to cite it for audiences?
Whatever the answer, the sudden immersion into the events, the confusion it evokes from the audience, definitely speaks to the fragmented reconfiguration of our reality felt by Americans…and Britons, in the aftermath of 9/11. And, filmed at the beginning of what we now know has been an endless period of warfare, Bloody Sunday was also a film about the beginning of another endless conflict, the Troubles, made just as that conflict (thanks to the Good Friday Agreement) seemed to be finally coming to a close.
In 1998, Tony Blair gave a speech in Parliament where he promised to open a new inquiry into Bloody Sunday. By the time the movie was made, there was still no report. In fact, the findings of what is now known as the Saville Inquiry weren’t released until 2010. They concluded the following:
“The firing by soldiers of 1 PARA on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury. What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.”
That is, perhaps, finally a moment of closure. But the uncertainty of beginnings, durations, and endings, ties all of our movies together.
This is one of the themes we focus on in this episode – the importance and power of narrative. The Lies Agreed Upon are the narratives that gain currency in part because they are the stories told so well, that satisfy our hunger for the elements of drama – characters, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. In truth, historians will tell you that if a story fulfills those requirements too neatly – particularly resolution – then it may need to be reexamined.
Basically, the reason why The Alamo is such a disaster is that the myths it tries to infuse with realism are beyond rehabilitation. The narrative naiveté of our pre-attack selves can’t withstand the narrative cynicism of our post 9/11 selves. I have to think this is the reason why Ron Howard dropped out of the project. He wanted to make a gritty, realistic account of the siege. He hired historians, walked the grounds, and sought out multiple perspectives but all he found was myth on top of myth and, even more problematic, the values those myths were built on have not aged well. The final product is proof Howard was right to step away.
One crucial element of the Alamo story that must be addressed, particularly because it is central to virtually every novel written with the counterfactual existence of a Republic of Texas, is the fact that the efforts of Bowie, Houston, Crockett and others, were directly motivate by the desire for Texas to be a slaveholding territory. It was NOT a patriotic motivation to ‘restore’ the territory to the white European settlers (although even that is a narrative built on racial assumptions that still ignores the indigenous people whose land it rightfully was.)
The victory of Mexico over the United States was of little importance to the various groups who actually lived there. In most cases, westward expansion didn’t occur because patriots wanted to bring government authority and regulation to these territories. Quite the opposite. Men moved west out of the United States because they wanted to be free of the US government. But in 1829, the Guerrero decree outlawed slavery in the Mexican territory. And suddenly, it mattered very much what government controlled Texas. The Republic of Texas was, in essence, an attempt to thread the needle – to not be under the US government, but be allowed to own slaves. As recently as June of this year, the Alamo has been the site of racist and anti-racist actions as the “This is Texas Freedom Force” vowed to guard the “sacred” Alamo Cenotaph (only erected in 1933) after someone graffitied “down with white supremacy” on its base.
And the reason why 12 Years a Slave seems so strangely brutal and unrealistic at the same time is that it was still a story drawn from an antebellum, abolitionist race narrative structure, even though it was released to a post-Trayvon Martin, Obama presidency America that was ready to see harsher truths. Obama drew a direct connection between the legacy of slavery and the Martin murder in a way that today seems rather polite but that, at the time, was referred to as a ‘seismic’ speech.
So in 12 Years a Slave, demonic whites populate the narrative and on screen, and while there is no shortage of those in any time period the film leaves the impression that these bad apples sustained slavery for centuries, not the entire infrastructure of the South, not the inherent racial hiearchy in place since 1619 from which we have yet to escape, and not the craven indifference of the vast majority of Americans north or south, in an America that found Martin’s killer not guilty.
The Alamo told a myth about a righteous cause that patriots died for at a moment when American men and women were being sent to die for a questionable cause whose critics were labeled unpatriotic. 12 Years a Slave was made at a moment when the original flaw in America’s character once more threatened to break through the national myths that disguised it. But Bloody Sunday was made in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and it’s important to think about its message in that context. Greengrass is offering a cautionary tale to his audience. He’s showing a tragic event that led to an even greater decades long tragedy. And the cause of that, Greengrass is clearly saying, is that those with the power to control the narrative refused to tell a truthful one or to confront their lies later.
Throughout the movie, we see the British lying to themselves about being the good guys. And in this alternate reality, the enemy is everyone who challenges the myth that they are always on the side of righteousness. Some comfort can be taken, perhaps, in the fact that The Alamo is so irredeemable as a movie, that even in the hyper-patriotic moment when it was made, its message fell on deaf ears. And the fact that 12 Years a Slave – in all its horror – feels inadequate in its treatment of the systemic racism whose legacy provided no justice for Trayvon Martin, suggests that the layers of mythology continue to be peeled away, although never fast enough.