Gore Vidal first presented Screening History as the William E. Massey, Sr., Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University. In it, he deals with several kinds of screening history: the historical adventure, epic, and biographical films he saw as a boy; his own experiences writing screenplays for such historical films as Ben Hur (1959), Caligula (1980), and three films about Billy the Kid; The March of Time, other newsreels, and television screening—and sometimes distorting and manipulating—history as it happens; and finally, in an era of declining literacy, his proposal to teach schoolchildren history via films about such figures as Abraham Lincoln and Confucius.
Despite the precedence of “Sex and Art,” Gore Vidal confesses that “the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.” He saw his first film in 1929, the year that sound films replaced silents, and observes that his life “has paralleled…the entire history of the talking picture.” Although as a compulsive reader Vidal often averaged a book a day, he has been known to see as many as five films in that same time. He notes that in his boyhood, before the advent of television, film retrospectives, or videocassettes, a filmgoer had to concentrate intently on a film, since chances were that he or she would never see it again; nevertheless, or perhaps because of the concentration, some seminal films had a lifelong impact. Films may not always present the facts, but they create many of the myths by which people live. Thus Vidal examines “the way in which one’s perceptions of history were—and are—dominated by illustrated fictions of great power, particularly those screened in childhood.”
For Vidal, many of these were the Hollywood and Alexander Korda historicals that flourished from about 1932 to the advent of World War II, which he supplemented by reading historical novels, particularly those of Rafael Sabatini. Especially influential were Warners’ The Prince and the Pauper and Korda’s Fire over England (both 1937). In the first, Vidal identified with the Mauch twins, his very age, in the title roles, and began to break away from the influence of his conservative though populist grand- father, Senator Thomas Gore, into the direction of so-called liberalism. (He notes sardonically that liberals are always “so-called” and are despised by conservatives for preferring “to improve the lives of others rather than exploit them.”) In addition to teaching the exercise of power, the need for well-intentioned and well-informed leaders, and the awareness of mortality as the prince is almost murdered in the forest, the film made an “un-American” appeal to altruism in teaching the prince that he has a pauper double who is his equal in ability and that there are others in the world besides himself to whom he must be responsible. Throughout the book, Vidal makes sharp, sardonic thrusts at the conservative gospel of greed (which “made America great”) and looking out for number one; he longs for democracy but believes that Americans are governed by a self-serving oligarchy. His awareness of the need to resist despotism was heightened by films about the French Revolution (The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1934; A Tale of Two Cities, 1935; and Marie Antoinette, 1938). Vidal himself saw a foretaste of revolution when he observed the Bonus Marchers in fact and then saw them dispersed as allegedly dangerous revolutionaries in newsreels. Looking at the current widening gap between the unbelievably rich and an impoverished underclass, a pessimistic Vidal predicts revolution during the 1990’s.
That Hamilton Woman (1941)—which Vidal has seen “perhaps twenty times,” and in which Laurence Olivier saved the sceptered isle from Philip II’s Spanish Armada and from Napoleon—and Fire over England were two in a series of films that caused American audiences to identify with England during the years in which war with Germany was looming. British players such as George Arliss, Ronald Colman, Charles Laughton, and Errol Flynn—actually a Tasmanian—in films celebrating the British Empire (Clive of India, 1935; The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1936) or Britain’s resistance to tyranny (The Sea Hawk, 1940) were effective propaganda in overcoming any lingering resentment against the redcoats in the American Revolution and the War of 1812 and in counteracting isolationists who opposed supporting Britain against the Nazis. A few films based on novels by Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo or upon the lives of François Villon, Cardinal Richelieu, Napoleon, Louis Pasteur, and Émile Zola also celebrated French history, whereas Germans were portrayed like the anti-Semitic Junker in The...