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The Lies Told to Us While We Least Expect It

By James Anthony Clewley, with comment by Karen Timmerman

[1] Within the last few decades, we have generated a great number of "historical" films reaching the American public. With these "historical" films come the question of whether or not the film portrayed history in an accurate manner; if not, why were the facts manipulated the way that they were. Unfortunately, this question is usually answered in the negative, and the audience is left with a fictional account of a factual happening, thereby giving the viewing public mixed messages concerning the issues raised within the film. Film used in this manner can be a dangerous tool in the hands of powerful people with agendas and ulterior motives.

[2] Manipulated history used in an inappropriate manner is one of the ways in which the Nazis were able to convince so many people to follow their evil and tyrannical beliefs. This is not something that we as Americans can have happen. History in the cinema should be a carefully monitored area, so as to prevent fictional accounts to be passed as the truth. If we allow our screenwriters and directors to have free reign in the movies, they could theoretically conjure up any scenario that they pleased and pass it off as an actual event. This can not be so. If history is to be conveyed through film, it should be of the highest accuracy. Many people rely on what they see as fact so that if all movies decided to create a "history" that never happened, a large percentage of the American population would fall victim to their chicanery.

[3] Through a discussion of how history has been maneuvered within films, specifically Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, I pose the question of how closely should our films be monitored for historical inaccuracies. This serves to benefit those in the viewing audiences who often do not go beyond the film in search of the truth. If history is to come alive in a script, it should be used strictly as that -- history -- not twisted and bent in order to fulfill the motives of an influential director.

[4] History means many things to many people. For some it is the tie that binds us as a community. For others it is the noose around an already oppressed society, trying desperately to break the shackles of times gone by. For me, it is more the former than the latter. I believe that American history can bind us all as citizens and give us a common understanding of how we got to where we are. History should be used as an outline of things to come. We have already gone down certain paths, and by noting which ways the road can lead, by using this outline, we have a greater understanding of just where we are when we're through.

[5] This, however, isn't always the way in which history is brought to us. Often enough in our society we are fed mounds of misinformation, posing as fact, in order to pacify our love for our country. This is exactly what history is not about. As children we learned about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock, Christopher Columbus and discovering the New Land, and countless other tales of heroic acts which have been bestowed upon our land. Unfortunately for our generation, and those preceding us, we weren't given the entire story. True, the Pilgrims and Christopher Columbus did land upon now-American soil, but they weren't as cordial as the texts would make them out to be. We have been victims of the selective memory of history in America. These people that we have held up as heroes were not. They pillaged, plundered, enslaved, and killed (Loewen 34). Don't bother trying to find these facts in any history textbooks, however, because they aren't there. They have been omitted in order to keep our revered images of these "heroes" alive and well.

[6] This is what the children of America have been taught and this is what they believe. Of course, this only takes place up until the young man or woman leaves high school, right? Unfortunately, this is not the case. Within the past 20 years, there has been an influx of "history" related films that make it to the theaters and videocassettes. The "history" that many of these feature films sell to the public is a distorted view of actual events. What allows for this type of history manipulation to be a far greater disservice to this country lies within the director/screenwriter's motivation to create the movie. In school, we were told certain things to bring honor to our country, to make us proud to be an American. In the movies, this isn't always the case. These distorted views of historical events lead to numerous "histories" of the same event, leaving people with nowhere to turn, without a true identity to grab on to.

[7] This is what is wrong with history in film: more often than not, the film deceives the audience, or leads them to false conclusions concerning a historical event. I believe that this problem can be eliminated, however, by either keeping history and the film industry separated so as not to leak inaccurate ideas to the viewing public, or to have strict guidelines for any director/screenwriter who undertakes a project concerning American history. I believe that this can be accomplished most efficiently through the use of a historical "rating" system, much like the one used today to rate content, rather than attempting to completely separate the two items. With this rating system we could easily inform the viewers whether or not the movie they are watching is historically accurate, or if it is something the screenwriter decided to make up. Making the historical accuracy known to the viewers before they even see the movie allows them the opportunity to find the truth out about it. Through the discussion of several mediums of film, I will exhibit how the creators of film have manipulated history. Manipulated not just for nationalism but to serve their own agendas, thereby blurring the line of "true history" even further, all the while stunting Americans' search for what is true and right.

[8] Though all mediums of film can (and have the ability to) manipulate history, the greatest contributor to this type of chicanery is the documentary film. Within this medium we are given a first-person, behind-the-camera view of the action as it is taking place. We are there for the sights and the sounds; everything is at our fingertips. Or is it? In fact, what a documentary does not show the audience could have the greatest effect on the way the event is viewed in American history. There are several examples of this type of "historical manipulation" within Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music. At first glance we have a documentary of the largest musical gathering of all time, complete with hippie peacefulness and love. Upon closer examination, however, we see how clever camera work and sound-tracking have hidden some scenes that would otherwise oppose the peace and love that Woodstock was, and is, known for today.

[9] What role does the Woodstock Music and Art Fair play in today's society and history? For most of us, the first things we conjure up are visions of pot-smoking hippies communing within an enormous farm to listen to music and protest the Vietnam War. We would think of the flower children doing everything in their power to uphold peace in our land and others. This, however, wasn't completely the case. For the most part, the gathering wasn't intended to be one of pure peacefulness to begin with (Encarta, Woodstock). The main reason for the festival was to promote a new record company being placed in the Catskills, an area that had recently been a rock mecca when "Bob Dylan and The Band" decided to commune there several months prior to the event. It was originally created for the capital that a concert of this magnitude would bring in, not for the anti-war effort it has since been known for. Even the name was kept as Woodstock for commercial reasons, since the concert had to be relocated to Bethel because of the protests of local Woodstock townsfolk. This image of Woodstock undercuts what we have been taught of the festival our whole lives, or if you had lived during the event, what you were given by the media. The documentary wasn't created to tell the true story of Woodstock, it was created for use as a catalyst in the fight for peace, prosperity, and tolerance for the hippie counterculture.

[10] This is where documentaries are tricky. At the outset of the documentary, we see the rolling farmland of Max Yasgur's property, and immediately we are compelled to revel in the beauty. This is history verbatim, directly from the horse's mouth, because it is being taped as the event is happening. We feel that everything from this moment on will bring us into the actual festival; it will give us the feeling of playing in the mud and listening to all the music, and being with our fellow man. This isn't the case, however. As I will show, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, like many documentaries, leaves out some vital information as well as grazes over other bits, so as to convey the message that the director wants to be taken from his film. Unlike other mediums of film, documentaries are the most successful at pulling the wool over the audience's eyes, since they veil their deceit in a web of half-truths and sections left on the cutting room floor.

[11] A major historical discrepancy within Woodstock is the overall radical vibe of the crowd. For the past thirty years we have been told how politically active the concertgoers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair were. By most accounts, however, the concert had little to do with the war protest, and more to do with the listening of music (Kauffman 20). The audience at Woodstock that weekend was mostly comprised of drug-using hippies too inebriated to worry about political unrest in the world. They were more concerned with expressing themselves and being with each other than they were about helping America stop the Vietnam War. (see comment by Karen Timmerman)

[12] It was an apathetic crowd that weekend. You can see this in the documentary, though it isn't explicitly stated. You can look into the crowd as the camera pans from left to right and see the faces of the young people; they are just there; nothing more, nothing less (Tape 2, 18:40). The only time you see a rise from the crowd, or a politically motivated speaker at all, is after the torrential rains, when a young man comes to the camera claiming that he had seen the "fascists seeding the clouds," causing it to rain (Tape 1,1:32:07). That is the only time throughout the entire three and a half hour opus that we see any member of the crowd come forth to state anything politically charged, and yet, if we believe what the media has given us, that is what the festival has been known for. The reason for this is simple: Michael Wadleigh wanted to convey a sense of radicalism within his film, so he dubbed in politically charged music, and he worked with the media's equation of Woodstock and anti-Vietnam (Holden 61). It was all a ploy to put people in the theaters. Working off of the media hype and the hippie fundamental philosophy of peace equated Woodstock with anti-Vietnam and anti-authority.

[13] Another way in which a documentary, in this case Woodstock, can deceive the audience is in the way that certain issues are glanced over within the film. A perfect example of this is during the scene when the fences are coming down and the concert is about to go free. As we watch the piece, we see crowds of people jumping up and down on a section of fence until it finally collapses underneath the weight (Tape 1, 35:12). As these images are flashing over the screen, we have serene music playing over the drama, thereby allowing it to seem part of the communal nature of the festival. This was anything but the communal nature of the audience coming out. It was, in fact, more like a mob scene than anything.

[14] From the offset, the concert was a way for the organizers and the backers to make money in order to create their upstart recording studio in the Catskills. They never had a free concert for over 500,000 people in mind when they were sketching out the details(Encarta, Woodstock). The reason it became free was the onslaught of non-paying customers breaking through the fences surrounding the compound. Later in this scene, we see several of the organizers engaged in conversation, but we only hear a few seconds of it, but what we can decipher is an angry individual, enraged by the lack of respect from the supposedly peaceful audience (Tape 1, 36:07). This aspect of the festival was left untouched, because of the negative impact that it would have had on the image of our culture as a whole.

[15] By not addressing these situations within the movie, the director is allowing the false impression of all the organizers, as well as the audience members, to shine through, instead of showing what most of them actually were, people out to get what they want at any cost. Here we have the director manipulating history through the things that he doesn't show. By not allowing the true nature of the participants to be seen, the creator is forever altering the perception of those who viewed the film thinking it to be the truth.

[16] This is why history and cinema need to be separated or given a rating system to better inform their viewers. Even though by allowing the audience to believe that the crowd at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was a righteous group of free-thinking, free-loving individuals, the director has made our country's youth look better, he has, in the same stroke, done a great disservice to his generation and all generations after his. What he has shown us is not what actually happened. There were apathetic drug addicts and weekend frat guys looking for a good time in the crowd, but this side of the festival was never shown, was never publicized. Wadleigh was looking to make the youth of the 1960's out to be the second coming of Ghandi, and with his film he accomplished his goal. In return, however, he allowed the citizens of our country to be misled by some of the images he has, and does not have, within his creation.

[17] Unfortunately for Americans, the documentary isn't the only style of film that deceives the audience into believing its own batch of "history." Within the last twenty years we have seen the birth of a new type of cinematic style: the docu-drama. This bastard son of the documentary and dramatic movie attempts to splice the two, but with each attempt it only butchers what little historical relevance it had. A movie that truly exemplifies this abandonment of historical fact is Mississippi Burning. This film deals with the race wars within Mississippi in the mid- to late Sixties. In the film, it is the two white FBI agents who eventually solve the problem and arrest the main Ku Klux Klan members and their political backers. Throughout the entire film, the white agents are the main protagonists. The few times that black people are put into the role of protagonist, they are either assaulted or left mute.

[18] This interpretation does a great disservice to the blacks who were fighting for their equality in the Southern states. By portraying the only aggressors against the racist southerners as white people, it makes the blacks out to be weak-willed and happy with the inequality that they were subjected to for the entirety of their lives. This is a disgrace. Making the citizens of this small community out to be apathetic to the evils in their lives only perpetuates the hatred that can be found throughout this nation.

[19] This distortion of history is of the worse kind, because it allows those who believe the blacks are inferior to come to the conclusion that the only reason that they are now considered equal was because the white man deemed it so. This is not the case. They fought, rallied, and peacefully protested for their rights of equality, and to take that away from them does nothing for what America is about. With the audience "learning" from this movie, we then have an entire percentage of the population that doesn't know about the struggle and the hardships that the blacks in America endured. This is the type of history that needs to be taught. This is the type that is both commendable and reprehensible. We cannot allow generations of the young to be inundated by mistruth concerning the citizens that they live amongst. This is why history and film should either be separated or placed within strict guidelines so as not to allow for fallacies to be brought into the home disguised as fact by some director or screenwriter.

[20] Film and American history have been together for a very long time. It has been within the last twenty years, however, that the two really started to mesh in several mainstream movies a year. As I have described, many of these movies use little historical context when creating their "historical" world. For the most part, directors will use an event in history as a backdrop for an issue that they are trying to convey, and in the process, manipulate the truth to fit this agenda, whether it be for financial gain, entertainment, or a personal philosophical position.

[21] This cannot go on in this country. If we allow our children to learn half-truths about their supposed "heroes" or believe in fallacies about countercultures gone by or learn not to appreciate the struggle that an entire race put up for their equality, then we are hurting our children more than any battle or war ever could. We cannot just use history for nationalism. We cannot allow ourselves to be controlled by the selective memory of the histories written by people trying to make us feel better about our country. We must either separate history and the film industry or lay down stringent rules and regulations for its inclusion. By doing this, we will allow our youth to learn what our country is truly like, so that they will be able to have pride in their real country, not some country that our modern-day historians have fabricated through cinema.

[22] It is true that young people will eventually learn about the true evils of slavery, Columbus, and the other tyrants that we have since held up as divine, but in time they will learn the whole truth. Learning this truth is the purest form of nationalism. Learning every aspect of our history is the only way that we as a people can truly take pride in our country. If we allow our filmmakers to continually bombard us with fallacies and half-truths, where will we be as a society when we no longer have a history, an identity, to hold onto?


Karen Timmerman 8/11/10

Clewley states that "by most accounts, however, the concert had little to do with the war protest, and more to do with the listening of music." I believe you could take it one step further and argue that the audience and concert promoters were distanced from the music itself in their own ways. The audience, although seemingly there to enjoy the music, was portrayed as being more interested in feeling a vibe among the other concert attendees, as well as consuming a fair amount of drugs and marijuana. Strong messages of peace and love were expressed but not as much through the music as through the strong sense of community shown over the weekend. For the organizers of Woodstock, although they were the ones who set up the entire festival and secured the performances, their attempts were mostly for profit-generation rather than to merely give music to the hippies. It only became a free concert because the crowd literally forced the backers into it after taking down the fence. The music was pushed into the sidelines by more than one other reasons deemed preferable over the simple enjoyment of the artists' impressive musical performances.

Holden, Joan. "Woodstock: The Four Dollar Revolution." Ramparts Oct 1970: 60-62+.

Kauffman, Stanley. "Stanley Kauffman on Films: Woodstock." New Republic 2 May 1970: 20+.

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone, 1996.