Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Historian's Movie Wish List

Historical Books that Could (and Should) be Movies

The state of the historical drama is at a crossroads moment it seems. The 1990s brought us a rich plethora of successful historical epics including Dances with Wolves, Gettysburg, Schindler's List, The Amistad, and climaxing with Saving Private Ryan in 1998. The fate of the history movie appeared alive and well. But things have changed. More recent historical flicks including The Great Raid, Terrence Malick's The New World about Jamestown and Eastwood's Oscar nominated Letters from Iwo Jima garnered largely critical success but mediocre to downright lousy reception at the box office. Even Tom Hooper's The King's Speech failed to receive wide circulation until it was nominated for twelve Oscars.

There is no other way I can explain this phenomenon other than it coinciding with the general level of cultural and historical illiteracy our society has stooped to. With the possible exception of the Coen Brothers' recent hit True Grit (which is more Western than Historical genre anyway), Americans tend to prefer the often senseless drivel that has become unoriginal superhero, romance, and action flicks. But there is still hope I like to think. (Thanks HBO for keeping the history genre alive via miniseries such as Band of Brothers, John Adams, and The Pacific!) Thus, all is not lost. The past can be revived through film in unthinkable ways. As a history student and extreme movie buff, I crave new and creative historical films on scales both epic and intimate. For instance, I was delighted to discover that the new American Film Company (releasing Redford's The Conspirator in April), is dedicated entirely to making historical films. They are purportedly making a film about abolitionist John Brown as well.

Reading a multitude of history books in grad school, coupled with my love of classic and contemporary films, I am constantly pondering 1) What history books would make for good cinema and 2) Who would be great at playing the characters in them. Below is a list of books I find ideal. That said, this is my History Movie Wish List:

The Last Battle
By Cornelius Ryan

This detailed study of the fall of Berlin in 1945 and the end of World War II remains the only book of Ryan's WWII trilogy that has not yet been made into a film. His The Longest Day about the Allied invasion of Normandy was released as a movie in 1962 starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda, while his subsequent A Bridge Too Far about the failed Operation Market Garden was directed by Sir Richard Attenborough in 1977. While The Longest Day rocked at the box office and saved 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy, Bridge flopped likely due to the despondence and malaise in the wake of the Vietnam War which just concluded. Regardless, The Last Battle would be an epic of the truest form. Ryan's tendencies to mix personal stories within large and complex narratives would make this as great a film as its two predecessors.

Casting Ideas: Like its two sister films, this would require an all-star cast to serve as everybody from the common infantrymen to commanding generals. Of course, it would be difficult to name all the characters here, but I vote Tom Selleck as Dwight Eisenhower after having seen his depiction of the esteemed general in the TV movie Ike: Countdown to D-Day.

The Widow of the South
By Robert Hicks


For Cause & For Country

By Eric Jacobson
and Richard A. Rupp

The Battle of Franklin, Tennessee of November 1864 was one of the bloodiest in the history of the American Civil War - yet few people have common knowledge of it. Two excellent books delve into this conflict on very different yet equally engaging levels. Robert Hicks 2005 novel tells the story of Carrie McGavock, a wealthy plantation wife who's life it turned upside down upon the battle erupting in her front yard. Her mansion, named Carnton, was subsequently converted into a mass field hospital. While the novel gives us a sense of civilian strife, Jacobson's study intricately interprets the bloody and chaotic military actions that enveloped this small Tennessee town. Including an assault which was double the size of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, Franklin was a scrap of immeasurable carnage. A film on these topics would make for a gripping war epic on an often overlooked campaign but also serve as a moving tale of brutality, survival, and compassion.

Casting Ideas: Natalie Portman as Carrie McGavock. She amply captured the sorrow and fortitude of a war torn North Carolina widow in Cold Mountain. Matt Damon, who has obviously found his new southern voice in True Grit, has the right age and character to pull off the mauled General John Bell Hood.

The Drillmaster of Valley Forge
By Paul Douglas Lockhart

Yes, most people have heard of Friedrich von Steuben, the Prussian drillmaster who helped reshape the young Continental Army during their harrowing winter at Valley Forge in 1777-78. However, fewer know that Steuben likely stretched the truth regarding his European nobility and rank under the forces of Frederick the Great. Furthermore, he was supposedly homosexual. (Imagine that! Controversy about homosexuals serving in the U. S. Military!) Whether true or not, this factor did not inhibit Steuben from performing his duty and recasting Washington's Army in the process. Lockhart uses a multitude of sources, both praising and critical, to illustrate this celebrated yet elusive figure of the early years of the United States. With the exception of The Crossing and John Adams, Hollywood has yet to really capture an accurate sense of the Revolution - especially its ideas and motives.

Casting Ideas: Arnold Schwarzenegger as Steuben (HA! Just kidding). Actually, Paul Giamatti is the right age and build to play the drillmaster. His acting ability to pull off a Prussian-ish accent in The Illusionist makes him ideal in my mind. For Washington, I like reprising roles for either David Morse or Jeff Daniels. (If this sounds like John Adams deja vu, I ask, "Well, what is wrong with that?")

By Henry David Thoreau

Speaking of ideas, it has been ages since I've seen a film which captures the social power of the scientific and intellectual movements that forever shaped the 18th and 19th centuries. (The subplot of Master and Commander achieved this to a degree though.) The recent film Creation starring Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin did not successfully convey the importance or impact of Darwin's adventures nor his writing of The Origin of Species. (In fact, I don't think the film even mentioned the Galapagos Islands!) In what would obviously be a smaller and more intimate production, an interpretation of Walden could undoubtedly reveal the social revelations brought forth by Henry David Thoreau resulting from his wilderness seclusion in Massachusetts. If Sean Penn's Into the Wild could succeed so well in demonstrating man's bonds with nature, then why couldn't this literary classic do the same in cinematic form? This one is long overdue.

Casting Ideas: Hmm. Casting Thoreau is a tough one. Veteran actor Stanley Tucci seems promising to me for some reason. I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

Stealing the General
By Russell S. Bonds

The story of Union troops stealing the train "The General" has been told through movies at least twice before: Buster Keaton's 1926 silent classic The General and Disney's 1956 adventure The Great Locomotive Chase starring Davy Crockett. . .err, Fess Parker that is. But like the tale of the Alamo, some stories are worth exploring via film more than once. Bringing new insights into the famous Civil War raid through rural Georgia to disrupt Confederate communications, Bonds's history makes for simply a great adventure story with large ramifications. Think of it as an 1862 version of the movie Duel: you have to move fast and outwit your enemy so furiously chasing you. The result was the first Medal of Honors in America's history. Supposedly, this film is currently in the screenplay stages of actually becoming a motion picture - so it may be the first of all of these to be scratched off my Wish List. Let us remain hopeful.

Casing Ideas: As the raider's leader John J. Andrews (who was purportedly tall with dark hair, mid-30s), I would choose Hugh Jackman. He's been in plenty of adventure films like this and his performance in The Prestige shows he can act in them as well.

Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot
By Starr Smith

Films such as The Aviator demonstrated that audiences can indeed have a taste for the golden era of Hollywood. Starr Smith's World War II biography of the lovable everyman movie star was an excellent account of Stewart's love of flying, his dedication to service, and the exploits of the 8th Air Force during the conflict. Despite being an Oscar-winning superstar, Stewart didn't expect special treatment and refused to shy away from a heavy and dangerous workload - flying over thirty mission as a B-24 pilot over Europe. As an intelligence officer in the 8th Air Force (and later a reporter), Starr frequently came into contact with the likes of Stewart, Clark Gable, Edward R. Murrow, and Walter Cronkite, making for an intimate view of such famous personalities. I have been a life long fan of Stewart. (I sent him a birthday card when I was eight and have an autographed lobby poster of Mister Smith Goes to Washington.) I also had the opportunity to meet Starr Smith at the Jimmy Stewart Centennial at the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA. Although pushing ninety, he still obviously had fond memories of the actor whom so many admired. This film adaptation would be an excellent portrayal of old Hollywood, WWII aerial combat, and one heck of a good actor (who, ironically, has never been portrayed in film).

Casting Ideas: I'm going to play the wild card on this one. I was previously unsure about who could play Stewart until I saw this.

A Terrible Glory
By James Donovan

The Battle of the Little Bighorn is arguably the most-depicted historical event in cinematic history. The century-old romantic notion of the "last stand" is one that often repeats itself from the earliest days of silent films to 1991's Son of the Morning Star. (In other words, Hollywood has never got the battle right on the big screen.) But Donovan's in-depth book goes against this idyllic representation and casts the battle likely as it was truly fought: a disorganized, misunderstood, run for your lives cavalry disaster of epic proportions. The author also depicts Custer as a scapegoat, claiming that others certainly shared the blame for the 7th Cavalry's defeat. This thesis makes for interesting and highly entertaining reading of the infamous battle. Furthermore, although the Sioux Indian Nation claimed a major triumph on the banks of the Little Bighorn, it also marked the beginning of their descent and paved the road to the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. All of this and much more is explored in Donovan's study.

Casting Ideas: Jude Law as Custer. No doubt about it. Right age, right height, and right hair color. Plus, I was very much impressed with August Schellenberg's depiction of Sitting Bull in Bury My Heart and Wounded Knee. He would be exceptional for a reprisal.

The Johnstown Flood
By David McCullough

From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose books have been adapted into numerous films and miniseries, The Johnstown Flood was one of McCullough's first publications. In what I consider to be the classic story of the Gilded Age, the extremely wealthy members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in the mountains above the industrial hotbed of Johnstown, PA allowed the earthen dam of their club lake to become unbelievably unstable and weak. A May 1889 downpour finally forced the dam to give way and its water ultimately hit Johnstown with tsunami-like force, killing over 2,000 people in the process (1,000 more than Hurricane Katrina in 2005). McCullough's narrative follows the everyday industrial workers, clerks, engineers, and robber barons in this tragic and compelling story of neglect, incompetence, and survival. If disaster films such as The Day After Tomorrow (with a ludicrous storyline) could meet huge commercial success, why could a factual film like this not do the same? A film adaptation of this book may be the most daunting of all on this list, however. The level of special affects required would be overwhelming and incredibly expensive. But it would be so worth it.

Gone for Soldiers
By Jeff Shaara

To my knowledge, the Mexican-American War of the 1840s has been brought to the big screen only once: One Man's Hero starring Tom Berenger. And truthfully, I didn't even know that movie existed until I found it in a DVD bargain bin for $4.99. That said, I think it is time that Hollywood returns to this overlooked and often forgotten conflict. Talk about being swept under the rug of history. The war set the stage for the defining American Civil War and almost doubled the size of the United States, then only seventy years old. Yet almost no common citizen has ever even heard of the event. Novelist Jeff Shaara (Gods and Generals) recreates the lives of several young U. S. officers who would later attain fame in the Civil War including Robert E. Lee, Joseph Johnston, Winfield Scott, and Ulysses S. Grant. Mexican Emperor Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna also plays a prominent role. This film would be an interesting manner in which to explore the often rocky relationship between the U. S. and Mexico which continues to this day.

Casting Ideas: Okay, here's another long shot. George Clooney looks like a younger Robert E. Lee. It's true! Compare a of photo of Clooney from The Men Who Stare at Goats to a young portrait of Colonel Lee. It's rather uncanny. You be the judge. John Goodman, who has recently trimmed down, would serve as a rather good authority figure in the character of Winfield Scott.

The Coldest Winter
By David Halberstam

Speaking of forgotten wars, can anybody name a movie about the Korean War that's been made since M*A*S*H (if you even want to count that)? I can't. Overshadowed between WWII and Vietnam, the Korean War is worthy exploring cinematically since it essentially set the stage for the incredibly tense relationship the United States still has with North Korea. (Remember the quote, "Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it?" Well, not many do.) 36,000 Americans died in the conflict. Don't you think its about time we honor them with a film about the experience? Halberstam (who was unfortunately killed in a car accident before this bestseller was published), masterfully chronicled the political and military complexities which took place before, during, and immediately following the war. This might work well as a miniseries rather than feature film.

Casting Ideas: Douglas MacArthur is a hard one to cast for me. It's difficult to compete since Gregory Peck played him in the bio made in the 1970s. As for Truman, I say give Gary Sinise another swing at bat!

The Worst Hard Time
By Timothy Egan

The Dust Bowl was arguably the worst ecological disaster in recent memory. Poor farming practices and mismanagement of the western landscape created "Black Blizzards" of loose soil, choking anything and everything with dry dust. As Egan states, "Dust clouds boiled up, ten thousand feet or more in the sky, and rolled like moving mountains." This phenomenon, of course, was one of the many occurrences which plagued the nation during the Great Depression. In the wake of this disaster, the government imposed firmer farming regulations, created "shelter belts" by planting trees across the plains, and gave thousands of jobs to Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the process. Egan explores all levels of the disaster, from the farmers and commoners trapped by ecological and economic conditions to the politicians and experts who desperately attempted to reverse the deplorable conditions. This is a great tale of endurance and will. Furthermore, it would be fascinating to see these "blizzards" depicted on the big screen.

To Make Men Free
By Richard Croker

The Battle of Antietam resulted in the bloodiest day in American History: 23,000 men killed, wounded, or captured. That is simply mind boggling. Croker's novel is a very accurate account of the battle and intertwines the true stories of common infantryman, artillerists, Sharpsburg civilians, and top commanders. I very much enjoyed this novel because it offers readers a creative and perhaps more human perspective than what many more academic histories have conveyed. The scope of the book and the battle is large and epic enough to be a saga but also takes place in a short enough time span that it could be feasibly produced into a two and a half hour motion picture. As another plus, the area surrounding the Antietam battlefield is quite pristine and looks much the way it did 150 years ago. Sounds like a great location shoot to me!

Casting Ideas: Like The Last Battle, I think an all-star cast for this project would be exciting and appropriate. Take your pick of actors for the plethora of rich historical characters involved here. I do, however, believe that Matthew Broderick is worthy of a comeback and could play a paranoid General George B. McClellan.

The Hemingses of Monticello
By Annette Gordon-Reed

Most Americans are familiar with the story of Sally Hemings, the black half-sister of Thomas Jefferson's late wife and eventual slave of Jefferson himself. We know he had an active relationship with her that produced a number of children. Gordon-Reed's book (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History), however, moves beyond the initial relationship (as was depicted in the TV movie Sally Hemings: An American Scandal) and explores the family and social dynamics of the Hemings and Jefferson families amidst the backdrop of two revolutions, the antebellum South, and the early decades of the American Republic. At the heart of the matter lies the master/slave relationship which Hollywood has hardly ever depicted correctly. Films (especially those ranging from the 1910s through the 1950s) embrace the Lost Cause mythology of the benevolent/paternal master, the loyal slave, and the stereotypical "mammy." Gordon-Reed's study naturally transcends these old school notions and depicts slaves as independent thinkers and workers who yearned freedom more than anything else. Movie producers have the potential here to explore and interpret historical narratives rarely depicted in film.

Casting Ideas: Ralph Fiennes as Jefferson. Whether you want the third president to have a southern or British accent, Fiennes can undeniably do both. Actress Thandie Newton (Crash) did a fantastic portrayal of Hemings in Jefferson in Paris opposite Nick Nolte. I vote here for yet another reprisal.

Hellhound on His Trail
By Hampton Sides

While Steven Spielberg's long awaited biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. has long be gestating (much like his upcoming Lincoln film), I think an equally interesting tale can be discovered in the events leading to and following the Civil Rights icon's assassination in Memphis in 1968. In this bestselling book, Sides follows the trails of James Earl Ray as he contemplates, prepares for, and travels to his malevolent mission in Memphis. Ray used aliases throughout his journeys as he studied and stalked King in the weeks and months leading up to the murder. What ensued in the aftermath is one of the largest manhunts in history. Ray successfully leaves Tennessee and the United States, making it as far as Britain with the hopes of escaping to Rhodesia - with the FBI and Scotland Yard hot on his tail. This adaptation would make not only for a powerful drama of the Civil Rights Movement and the demise of a beloved American leader but also a suspenseful thriller amidst the uneasiest year of the 20th century: 1968.

Casting Ideas: Jeffrey Wright as King and Gary Oldman as James Earl Ray.

The Colors of Courage
By Margaret Creighton

Obviously, Gettysburg is perhaps the most famous battle in American History. The 1993 film of the same name did more than serve the conflict justice. However, there is much more to be explored amidst the largest and bloodiest battle waged in the western hemisphere. The small Pennsylvania crossroads town was the home of 2,400 civilians who essentially became trapped in their own community as 160,000 shot at each other in and around their community. Creighton's book studies the lives of these civilians including women, immigrants, African Americans, and how they coped with the disaster around them. Some tried to escape, others fought, some did not survive. A movie version of this study would be a powerful reminder of war's far-reaching hand and how not only soldiers, but all spheres of society are affected by such devastation and universal loss.

Casting Ideas: Hillary Swank as Mary Virginia (Jenny) Wade, the only town citizen killed during the battle. Rosario Dawson as Mag Palm, a free African American Gettysburg resident who escaped the bonds of slavery more than once. Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as Tillie Pierce, a fifteen year old girl who witnessed much of the battle's carnage. Danny Glover as Abraham Bryan, a free black tenant farmer who's home was ravaged in the battle.

Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour
By Joseph E. Persico

The First World War, only in more recent years, has had more films made about it. These include The Lost Battalion (probably the finest WWI film made), Flyboys, and The Red Baron. Persico's book, however, focuses almost entirely on the last day of the war: November 11, 1918. In this study, the author reveals how different soldiers coped with the final morning of the conflict in different manners. Some surrendered, some sat tight, while other unfortunates were forced to scale the walls one last time and make useless assaults across no man's land when peace was only hours or minutes away. Talk about the futility of war. Ultimately, over 10,000 combatants would be killed or maimed that day. Persico delves into the psyche of different commanders and why they felt compelled to launch attacks in addition to soldiers' reactions of the conclusion of a costly World War. Filmmakers here would have a grand opportunity to replicate the same emotions as were evoked in the 1930 classic All Quiet on the Western Front. Powerful stuff indeed.

Well, that's my list. If there are any aspiring screenwriters or seasoned producers out there who are reading this, I hope you might consider taking a shot at one of these. Feel free to make comments on potential movies and actors for them below. Cheers!

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