The Fog of History: Saving Mr. Banks

I used the Fog of History rubric back in November when I went on and on and on about the Kennedy assassination. I quite like it so I plan to use it whenever I expound about history and all that jazz. I may have forgotten to use it a few times since the 50th anniversary passed, but that’s on me. Woe is me, bop.

Dr. A and I saw Saving Mr. Banks the other day. It was her pick, but I liked it more than I expected to. I shouldn’t have been surprised since I love movies about movies such as Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Barefoot Contessa, The Day of the Locust, and The Player to name but a few. There are a whole lotta thes in that sentence aren’t there? Why I bother with observations like this, I don’t know, but my style, such as it is, is replete with parenthetical asides. I guess I may be repleting myself…

Back to Saving Mr. Banks.The acting was superb and the performances by Emma Thompson as the waspish PL Travers and Tom Hanks as the folksy but steely Walt Disney were both first rate. It’s no surprise that a Disney produced film would make its founder the hero but given what a beloved (even by me) movie Mary Poppins is, the thumb of history weighed the scales in Uncle Walt’s favor any way.

The film is emphatically entertaining but there’s been a debate about how accurate it is. It may not be but how important is that? The story of Travers, Disney and the magic nanny is not of major historical significance unless one loathes dancing penguins. (Hmm, I wonder what Opus thinks about them.) It’s not like the raging debate over Oliver Stone’s paranoid, homophobic, bizarro world opus JFK, which has shaped the way many people think about the President’s murder. I’m not a fan since it re-blackens the name of Clay Shaw and transforms a corrupt, drunken DA into the heroic Kevin Costner. But I digress. Again.

I like the approach taken by the British historian and writer Alex von Tunzlemann. She writes a column for the Guardian called Reel Historywherein she assesses “fact based” films by rating both their entertainment value and historical accuracy. For example, she recently wrote about Lawrence of Arabia, which is one of the greatest films ever made but is of dubious historical accuracy. Alex gave it an A for entertainment value and a C- for the historical component. I’d agree with the latter but I’d give it an A+for thrills, chills, and acting. Jeez, I feel like attacking Aqaba right now…

As to Saving Mr. Banks, Ms. von Tunzelmann gave it a B for both entertainment and history. I’d bump the entertainment up to a B+ but I remain resolutely unshocked when Hollywood alters history for cinematic purposes. I’m terribly fond of some of the cheesier historical epics of the 1930’s. Imagine tall, waspy Gary Cooper as the Venetian Marco Poloor Yiddish theatre vet Paul Muni as the Mexican-Indian Benito Juarez? Hollywood did and the results were very entertaining, and in the case of Juarez pretty darn good in a non-MST3K way. In fact, one of my favorite classic Hollywood films is Raoul Walsh’s They Died With Their Boots Onwith Errol Flynn as George Armstrong Custer. I’d give that one an A for entertainment and a D for historical accuracy but any time it’s on TCM, I watch it.

For every They Died With Their Boots On, there are train wrecks like The Conquerorwith John Wayne as Genghis Khan. I am not making this up, and it wasn’t cast by Michael J Nelson or Joel Hodgson either. It was a fatal disaster at the box office and fatal for its cast as it was shot in Utah not far from a nuclear test site. An astonishing number of people involved in the production died of cancer including the Duke. I guess bad movies can be fatal and this one earns F’s all the way around although the bit when Wayne tells Susan Hayward that she’s “beautiful in her wrath” is an unintentional comedy classic.

In the end, I judge films like Saving Mr. Banks primarily on their entertainment value, not on historical accuracy. What else can someone who enjoyed The Toast of New York, which depicted the robber baron/master criminal Jim Fisk as a lovable scamp say? Not a damn thing.

Here’s the obvious last word:

5 thoughts on “The Fog of History: Saving Mr. Banks

  1. MichaelF says:

    Part of me wants to see The Conqueror, just because it topped some list of worst movies I came across (don’t know why Plan 9 From Outer Space wasn’t number 1…maybe it was movies with some basis in history)…anyway, a friend up in Madison would occasionally quote lines from it…and this was way pre-internet/You Tube, so he must have watched it at some point.

  2. adrastos says:

    It may be the worst movie ever because it was a big budget film with big stars.

  3. darrelplant says:

    Saw Peter O’Toole in a relatively recent hour-long interview on TCM reminiscing about the arduous shoot for the Aqaba scene, saying he and Omar Sharif had to get blitzed to steel themselves for the downhill run on camels.

  4. gratuitous says:

    A couple of movies you might like to see, based on this post: Swimming with Sharks, which will go on a double bill with The Player after I hit the lottery and open my own movie theater (every evening will be a double feature, shows will start on time without commercials, snacks and drinks will be reasonably priced, Saturday matinees for the kiddies, and other stuff).
    The other movie folks might enjoy is The Front with Woody Allen and Zero Mostel. Features one of the all-time best suicide scenes, but the real wallop is the closing credits.

  5. adrastos says:

    @Michael: The Conqueror *is* one of the worst films ever, particularly as it was a big budget venture with big stars.
    @Gratuitious: Love both of those flicks. I’d gladly go to your theatre if ever existed. You many have to fly me in but if you win the lottery you can afford it.

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