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Book Review: The Hollywood History of the World by George MacDonald Fraser

The Hollywood History of the World is a survey of the way history has been portrayed by English-speaking film industries since the beginning of the sound era. 

The book was written by Scottish author George MacDonald Fraser, who obviously had a serious interest in history as he wrote the "Flashman" novels. These became known at least in part for their historical research and their interweaving of Fraser's fictional characters with real historical events and personalities. 

Fraser also worked in the film industry, writing the screenplays for Richard Lester's 1970s version of The Three Musketeers and its two sequels, the 1977 film of The Prince and the Pauper, an adaptation of his Flashman novel Royal Flash in 1975 and the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy.

The Hollywood History of the World is a very readable and affectionate look at history on the big screen. Fraser divides his book not into movie eras, but into historical ones. The parameters of these are very broadly drawn, but they include "The Ancient World"; "Tudors and Sea Dogs" (which includes not only Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but Nelson and Billy Budd as well); "New World, Old West" (American history); and "The Violent Century", i.e. the 20th. 

The final chapter includes an extraneous section on 1930s American gangster films, which has obviously been added because Fraser wants to write about them, although they are not exactly "historical" in the way that the other films featured are. This also leads him, somewhat curiously, into a discussion of Dirty Harry and Death Wish, which are not historical films even now, let alone when this book was first published in the 1980s.

The Hollywood History of the World was originally published in 1988, with an updated edition appearing in 1996. This meant that some newer films were added for the later version, giving the author the opportunity to lay into Mel Gibson's William Wallace farrago Braveheart in particular. 

Often, although not always, the author compares the individual historical films to what we know about the personalities depicted and the time periods portrayed from the historical record. He also includes some portraits, and later on photos, of some of the real historical figures. Mostly this just demonstrates how little most film stars look like the real people they are supposed to be playing, although there are a few exceptions. 

It also shows just how improbably cleaned up outlaws and other western personalities were in studio era Hollywood, not only figuratively but literally, sometimes looking as if they had stepped out of a Wild West show or a new staging of Calamity Jane. The real westerners are all pretty hirsute as well, sporting at least an impressive beard or a moustache - even some of the women. This is quite unlike their cowboy counterparts on screen, who are almost all completely clean shaven until the 1970s. 

Fraser had served in the British Army in the Burma campaign during World War II, an experience recounted in his memoir Quartered Safe Out Here. So he is also able to bring his own experiences to bear when it comes to discussing the World War II and other combat films (he is particularly critical of the 1960 film The Long and the Short and the Tall, about British soldiers fighting the Japanese). 

Fraser's general argument in the book is that, although film portrayals of the past have often come in for a lot of criticism on accuracy grounds, they have managed to give audiences quite a good idea of what the past was like in many places and eras. Most especially what it looked like - thanks to the efforts of set designers and builders, costume designers, special effects men and so on. This is a fair argument and it does have some merit to it.

The author probably overstates the case, though. His own text makes it clear the extreme liberties that cinema has often taken with historical facts and personalities, with Hollywood providing us with sympathetic portraits of everyone from General Custer to Jesse James - and even Genghis Khan. In fact, the films he cites could just as easily be used to prove the opposite case, that films have generally treated history rather badly.

For a man with Fraser's experience of the film industry, the book is also surprisingly fannish and remains very much an outsider's perspective. You can almost picture the younger Fraser gazing with wonder at the giant images on a movie screen in his local cinema, so affectionate is the book's view of studio era Hollywood. 

Sometimes the author's historical research can be a bit weak, and he is reduced to defending a particular film's authenticity by saying something along the lines of "Well, I haven't heard anyone complaining about it". For some films, just appearing to be authentic, or at least plausible, is enough for Fraser to praise them, as with John Wayne's film of The Alamo, despite the liberties that film takes with history. 

Fraser does mention his own Musketeers films in the chapter on "Romance and Royalty", although he was unusually happy with them and with their starry casts. And as the films' writer, he is obviously more than a little biased. 

He also tells us in passing that he once tried to convince a sceptical Steve McQueen that it would be perfectly reasonable and authentic for him as a cowboy in the old West to call someone a "rascal". McQueen, though, seems to have remained unconvinced, and Fraser doesn't tell us what the film was. Could it have been McQueen's last, Tom Horn?

The book is also disappointingly and ironically ahistorical, mixing up different time periods and places in the history of cinema and treating them all as one, or at least as much the same thing. Fraser does mention that more recent westerns (at the time of writing in the late 1980s) often have more authentic costuming than in the past, but otherwise he mixes up different eras in film making and treats "Hollywood" as one distinct entity, stating a little lazily that "Hollywood decided this" or "Hollywood determined that". 

This problem is exacerbated by his decision to very rarely provide the years of the films he discusses, meaning that the reader is often left to guess when a particular film was made. Is it from the 1930s, the '50s, the '60s? It's often hard to say, because little context is given about each film, beyond the names of some of the actors. But there is a big difference between historical films made in those different time periods and, more generally, between films made in different eras. 

That's only half the problem though, because a footnote early on informs us that, although this book is called The Hollywood History of the World, it actually covers all English language film industries. Not just American, but in some cases continental European and, most obviously and importantly, British films too. But mostly the text barely acknowledges this and the author rarely considers the pertinent question of whether there are differences in the treatment of historical subjects in different countries and in different eras. 

The answer to that question would of course be "Yes", because there are very big differences in approach between different film industries in different time periods. A good example is provided by the two films of The Charge of the Light Brigade. The 1936 film directed by Michael Curtiz is genuine Hollywood, that is to say, Hollywood studio era American. It's also unhistorical nonsense, although Fraser, perhaps inevitably, finds grounds to defend it on the basis of its visual spectacle. The 1968 film directed by Tony Richardson was not only made in a different era, but is a British production and, for the most part, is very historically accurate. The two films represent very different approaches to the same historical subject, but different time periods and different film industries have produced distinctively different results.

Fraser does state in passing that British films about the British Empire tended to be more accurate than American ones, but this observation is not explored any further. He also takes the trouble to separate British and American war films made during World War II, stating that there were important differences, but he never bothers to do so again. Even in the World War II chapter, he quickly gets himself into a muddle by separating British and American films and then starting to talk about "Hollywood" again, at which point he mixes the two up once more in a way that's likely to confuse readers. 

Lots of major historical films are missing too, and you might think that the author would welcome the opportunity to compare, say, The Great Escape, The Longest Day, The Colditz Story or A Bridge Too Far to the actual historical events and personalities they portray. Instead, he mostly deals with fictionalised World War II films like The Way Ahead or the 1958 Dunkirk. There is also a particular tendency to focus on the films of the 1930s and '40s, which is partly why World War II films made after the war are much less discussed. 

There are a few obvious errors as well. It was Mary Clare and Martita Hunt who starred in the short film Miss Grant Goes to the Door, not Flora Robson - although that's an understandable memory lapse. Less understandable is the picture of a Heinkel 111 bomber and a Spitfire from Battle of Britain, which is captioned as a "Messerschmitt and Spitfire", a rookie error that Fraser himself surely can't have been responsible for.

The Hollywood History of the World is definitely flawed, but it's quite an easy, affectionate and entertaining read, even if Fraser could have made some better choices of films and applied a historian's eye as much to the films themselves as to the events they portray.

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