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Revisionist history? What about movie history

Letter by Jim Ludwig

History – September 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine –

Revisionist History? What about `Movie History’?


Thank you! For publishing my thoughts, for your comments about them, and the extra copies.

There is some food for thought in Ray James. If we could impress on kids how easy it is to slip into a life-ruining habit by being independent, greedy, and anti-authority, and the consequences of such an attitude, maybe more of them would move on to adulthood without unbearable baggage.

Hal Walter on fencing is something that had never crossed my mind.

Your article on revisionist history is great. It brings to mind Will Durant who started to write The Story of Civilization, thinking it might take several volumes, then spending the rest of his life getting only to the age of Napoleon in eleven monstrous tomes — because he could not exclude anything. To revise the history of the West by including fact is most certainly correct and advisable. The strict definition of history, that of written record, makes it difficult to include much of the data that is accepted by the more liberal definition, which tries to tell what happened whether written or inferred by archaeological interpretation.

I have no problem with that. In fact, I have spent a lot of my life questioning some interpretations of history which just do not seem to pass the “reasonable man” test. The written word is a problem, often developing when religious fervor colors the writing. A prime example is the painting of scientific thought as heretic by the early church, which set back true knowledge throughout the Christian world for centuries.

Unfortunately, much current historical writing is influenced not by fact, but current politically correct opinion, which is just as bad. Ambrose has this problem to a certain extent when writing about Lewis and Clark.

Your “triumphalist” history is a natural result from the elite academics who publish to survive, researching others who are doing the same thing, caring less about the natives, who did not write, or the Mexicans who spoke that funny language they did not understand. The nearly blind Prescott, who took the time to research the Spanish conquests, produced a detailed volume with so many footnotes and references, it is difficult to read. He too, has had much of his reference material screened through the biased eye of the Church. The problem has existed for all written time.

All this aside, modern sound-bite historical interpretation should be of concern to us, as should the confusion of historical novels or movies with historical fact. You mentioned Centennial, James Michener’s novel of northern Colorado. Most people forget that it is a novel, and believe it is history. It may be, to a point; his research is always exemplary, but when he advanced to his liberal interpretations of recent effects of past history, I could not complete the book, and never have. He did the same with Chesapeake and others. The problem is you never know when he is writing of researched history and when he is writing pure fiction.

Movies do the same thing. Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner’s epic, is as much History as Field of Dreams. Can you believe the thousands who come to see the historical(?) farmyard ball field.

How about the sinking of the Titanic? I was amazed by the technical production and by the physical impossibilities of what was pictured. But history? No Way! Yet to most it is the only history of the event they have ever encountered and they believe it as such.

TV? How about the popularity of the famous Ponderosa ranch or that great historical figure, Ben Cartwright? In all of the above, fiction is so confused with history that they come to see it as if it were the battlefield at Gettysburg.

The point is that neither you nor I can define what is fact or what is fiction. At least we try, whereas many, I dare say most, do not even make an effort. Is it any wonder skilled spin doctors can influence the public opinion with near truths, fact omissions, improbable references, and negative political ads? Or more importantly, that incorrect historical data simply goes unquestioned because no one cares?

I am deeply concerned about the knowledge of history that is being passed on to our children. It must be very confusing. I simply do not have a suggestion on how to improve the situation. To add to the whole, with the inclusions you refer to, can be a small start. History is not a sum zero, either or, right or wrong situation.

I feel like an ancient Medicine Man, sitting alone by his campfire, watching the smoke from his pipe curl peacefully upward, while contemplating why that one particular star is not in the same place that it was in last night.

So he’ll ask his God, “What should I tell my children? Surely it cannot be that the heavens are moving?”

Then a loud, authoritative voice will respond from above, “Put down that pipe, Ancient One, tobacco will kill you. Let me worry about the heavens and what to tell the children.”

Cheers, Jim Ludwig Buena Vista