It is arguable that Hollywood is powerful. It has a near stranglehold on world film distribution. Three quarters of feature films made in Britain never get distributed at all. Big budget films are mainly American, and Hollywood blockbusters are seen by countless millions all over the world. Not only is this financial power, but it is also power of a potentially more sinister kind: the power to influence people's minds. With power comes responsibility.
I find it a remarkable and comforting fact that Americans do not open fire immediately on encountering a Brit. It is comforting because they have many guns, and I am British. It is remarkable because if they learned all they know from the movies, then they would surely not hesitate to shoot first and ask questions later. All baddies in American films are British, or pretend to be. Usually a British actor is used to portray a villain, even if that villain is meant to be German or American. When an American actor is used, he usually affects an English accent in the hope of appearing more villainous.
So it seems that Americans are able to tell fantasy from fact. British accents are not hated at all by actual Americans. Indeed, some of them are positively admired, it seems. It is still difficult to imagine that Hollywood's portrayal of the British, particularly the English, has no effect whatsoever on American minds. The English get two types of role to play in American films: evil geniuses trying to take over the world, and ridiculous buffoons whom the audience is required to hope never get to marry the girl. There are only two exceptions: Hugh Grant (who often plays villains and buffoons anyway), and James Bond (who has been played by a Scot, an Australian, and now an Irishman). In my encounters with Americans, I have noticed that they are sometimes looking out for signs of evil genius and buffoonery in me.
The British, though, can take it. The Americans insult us constantly by telling the world that we are buffoons and evil, but we are confident enough in ourselves that we know this to be false, and most of the time, most people realise that these pictures are false, so we needn't make a fuss. There is something else, though, that Hollywood does, and I don't think that Americans realise just how annoyed a lot of British are about it.
If one insults a man, then one can imagine that he can show strong enough character and good enough humour to deal with it himself. If one insults his mother, though, one can expect greater anger. That the Americans insult the modern British with almost every film they make is one thing, but that they try to steal our history is another.
The British have a history to be proud of. The achievements of the British are legion and glorious. They are open to question, of course. One might argue that some of the consequences of the actions of British people in the past were unfortunate, but this is not a licence for gross distortion of the facts. It is unfortunately true that many people learn their history from the movies, so there is surely some onus on the film-maker to be fair to the people of the past.
David Putnam wanted to make a film about Lancaster bomber crews in World War Two. He couldn't raise the money for it, so he changed the film to one about American B17 bomber crews, and the film Memphis Belle was made. The film is not a bad one. It would have been better had it been a Lancaster crew because there are fewer crewmen on a Lancaster, and the film would have been tighter with a smaller cast of main characters. The film gave the viewer a lot of false impressions, though. It suggested that Britain was hardly involved in fighting the war, and that Americans had come over to rescue a passive backward nation from its enemy. In truth, the British had been fighting against the odds for years before the American bombers arrived, and the British had first-rate equipment. Lancaster bombers flew far further, with a heavier bomb load than the B17, and could hit targets at night. The British achievement never got a mention. The film went to great lengths to draw attention to how incredible it was that a bomber could fly twenty-five missions and survive. It is a true story. After their twenty-five mission tour of duty, the Memphis Belle and her crew went back to America and toured the land in a hail of publicity.
I have read the war memoirs of Guy Gibson. This was the valiant and fairly modest man who famously led the Dambusters raid. He describes that amongst RAF bomber crews, sixty missions was common. Twenty sorties a month was the average for much of the war, and three months of that would kill most crews. By late 1940, Gibson was the sole active survivor of his squadron. He spent a while as fighter pilot, and flew 100 missions. Even as a squadron commander he flew one in five nights. Only British Lancasters could reach Italy from Britain, and in one month, Gibson's men flew 1,336 sorties there with the loss of just two aircraft. At one stage, Gibson's flight log showed that he had flown 173 bomber missions on the trot without taking any leave. When he became a squadron commander and formed his new squadron, 617, his men had all flown more missions than the Memphis Belle. 617 squadron later went on to blow up the V2 launch sites, and then sank the Tirpitz.
When you consider the last paragraph, perhaps you will understand why an American film telling the world how wonderful their bomber crews were is a little galling for the British, when you remember that the film's British producer wanted to tell his nation's story, but could not.
Like all nations, we have our heroes. One of the greatest is Robin Hood. Despite the strong setting of the story, there has been no big budget film of this story told in a British way using a British actor as the hero. The incompetent American telling of the story in Robin Prince of Thieves starring the staggeringly-miscast Kevin Costner as Robin Hood is unlikely to do good to the psychology of the British nation. The only thing good about that film was the villain, played by Alan Rickman, who is, as if you needed telling, British.
World War Two was arguably Britain's finest hour. For a few critical years, Britain alone stood against the might of the Axis forces, and the tales of British bravery, sacrifice, and cunning could plot a thousand films. I'll just mention a few American films on this subject. The British don't get to make films like this. We get to make whimsical films about two dentists that invade German occupied France on their own.
UB517 - This film positively enraged a lot of British, when it tried to suggest that Americans won the war by capturing a German Enigma machine, enabling the Americans to decode German military messages. Actually, the British had long been decoding Enigma, thanks in part to the brave actions of British navy crewmen who captured an Enigma machine some years before the setting of the American film. The story of the decoding of Enigma is one of astonishing British ingenuity and success. The British constructed the world's first electronic computer, and had many thousands of workers decoding throughout the war, without ever letting out the secret that Enigma was broken.
Saving Private Ryan. I think that this is an excellent film. However, as a history lesson it is a flagrant insult to the British. It supposedly tries to tell the story of the Normandy landings in 1944. There were five sea-borne landings and two air-drops in Operation Overlord. The three British Commonwealth landings all were successful and suffered few casualties, and the British airdrop achieved all its objectives in one night. One American landing was in the wrong place and got very behind schedule, the other suffered horrendous casualties and was very nearly called off. The American airdrop achieved none of its objectives, and was so scattered that even three days later was not an effective fighting force. According to the film, however, the British were stuck on the beaches, and Montgomery is written off as "over-rated". That is all we learn about the British.
There was a spin-off from Saving Private Ryan: Band of Brothers. Again, in many ways this was a very good production, but the British paratroopers shown in it are there only to be rescued by the Americans, and the British tank commander we see is snooty, stupid, and very soon killed.
The recent production of the story of Colditz is about Americans escaping from that famous prison. Colditz is where the Germans sent the most troublesome escape-artists from other prison camps. History tells us that there were hardly any Americans there, and that none of them escaped. The story of how British (and other nationalities) escaped from Colditz is a fascinating, uplifting, and glorious one. Hollywood prefers a pack of lies.
Just staying with World War Two, I could give you a boringly-long list of examples. Operation Burma tells the world that Americans, not British defeated the Japanese in Burma, while the true and astonishing tale of how General Slim and the 14th Army battled through Burma waging a new style of warfare goes untold in cinema. Even in the Western Desert, in films like Tobruk, the main heroic characters have to be American, despite the facts of history. Even Pearl Harbour manages to imply that the Americans were largely instrumental in the winning of the Battle of Britain. Several other Hollywood movies have Americans in this battle. Do you know how many Americans were actually involved? Seven.
A recent Mel Gibson epic The Patriot uses a different period of history to insult the British. I refused to see this film on principle. It is based loosely on the story about a man who helped save pro-British Americans, but it changes it to one in which those saved are saved from the evil, sneering, snooty British. In one sequence it shows the British shutting a load of civilians in a church and burning it with them in it. This actually happened, but it happened in 1944 and was done by the Nazis against the French. It is difficult to see how anyone could imagine that the British would not be insulted by this, and difficult too to see how a Hollywood executive could argue that the facts have not been distorted.
If you want to make an entertaining action film, that's fine by me. If you want to make an historical epic, that's fine too. But if you are going to mix the two, make sure that you are getting at least your basics facts right. I cannot imagine that Hollywood would make films depicting evil Jews in World War Two, nor about how gypsies were sent to extermination camps without mentioning that Jews were too. The Americans are terrified of offering the slightest offence to Israel. This is not a licence to offer any amount of offence to Britain.
The reason I write this piece, is that I think that Americans are genuinely unaware of how much offence they offer the British in their big-budget films. I have little reason to believe that Americans have any desire to insult the British on so massive a scale. I suspect that they think that the British make good baddies, and that they are used to the British as baddies, and so use them out of habit. Whereas the British tend to concentrate on military disasters (Dunkirk, Charge of the Light Brigade, Khartoum etc.), it is in the American character to dwell on their successes, but they do so often at the expense of their allies.