Screening History

Vidal confesses that “the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies,” and some seminal films had a lifelong impact. 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.” Especially influential on Vidal were THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER and FIRE OVER ENGLAND (both 1937). The first made an appeal to altruism in teaching the prince that there are others in the world besides himself to whom he must be responsible. Vidal’s awareness of the need to resist despotism was heightened by films about the French Revolution. FIRE OVER ENGLAND and THAT HAMILTON WOMAN 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. Films celebrating the British Empire or Britain’s resistance to tyranny were effective propaganda against isolationists who opposed supporting Britain against the Nazis.

In SCREENING HISTORY, Vidal reveals a good deal about his family and his private life. William Randolph Hearst, an ally of his grandfather and antagonist of his father, was not really understandable until CITIZEN KANE. After seeing Huey Long and “Uncle Harry” Luce declaim at the family table, Vidal could appreciate the degree to which their public performances were calculated.

The difference between real politics and reel politics was...

(The entire section is 446 words.)