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Continued: Don't know much about history? Don't blame the movies.

  • Article by: NICHOLAS MEYER , Los Angeles Times (MCT)
  • Last update: February 6, 2014 - 2:17 PM

If you want to read about the real Charge of the Light Brigade, historian Cecil Woodham-Smith has written it; do we begrudge the Errol Flynn version?

If we are honest, the only reason such grotesque distortions bend us out of shape is the belief — which may be true — that most people get their history from the movies.

But this cannot be the fault of movies. It is the fault of a country that has systematically dismantled and forfeited its educational institutions to the point that no one learns history (or civics, anyone remember them?) anymore.

Anyway, the best novels and movies frequently inspire people to learn the facts. After experiencing the visceral pleasure a movie provides, curiosity may be piqued. It needn’t diminish our pleasure or invalidate our feelings to learn after the fact that the Americans’ narrow escape from Iran at the end of “Argo” was not the nip-and-tuck affair depicted in the film. But weren’t we on the edge of our seats watching it? Such exaggerations (or, as Huckleberry Finn memorably called them, “stretchers”) need not diminish our enjoyment of the fictions they inspired.

Art serves many purposes, but among these, surely, is escape from reality. There ought to be room for fantasy in our lives. Stories, even when they aspire to what we term “realism,” are attempts to improve on reality, to sharpen and organize it, if nothing else. Goodness knows, we cannot escape “reality,” but movies ought to be entitled to give us a break from it now and then without the fact-checkers piling on.


Nicholas Meyer is a screenwriter, novelist and film director whose four-hour miniseries, “Houdini,” will air on the History Channel over Memorial Day weekend. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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