Why watching movies can teach us history.

President Richard Nixon smiling, facing front
Richard Nixon inspired a lot of screenwriters

Did you know that both Chinatown and Shawshank Redemption were inspired by President Nixon?  That’s what the “making of” documentation said.  I didn’t get that the first time I watched either of those films, and I wonder if the cinema audience did.  Perhaps I should ask some of my older relatives about it.

What I did get, after watching “Avatar” was one older-than-me man saying “that’s about Iraq.”  Yes, I “knew” that too.  But, the youngest school kids in the audience didn’t have that impression.  To them, it was only about blue people.

I don’t know why some people totally loved or others totally hated Avengers Assemble (After watching it, I heard one spectator say “Gosh! That was such a stupid movie.”) I think they see things in the film that I don’t.

I loved Hulk saying “puny God.”  That was the best Hulk since Lou Ferrigno.  But something more about that movie seemed to speak to younger people.

Perhaps Iron Man, the one man business who literally builds his empire with his own hands, is the kind of person the fans of Avengers Assemble want to be.  It’s the illusion of Wikipedia’s claim that they spend their money on technology and not people (as if technology builds itself).  With technology, some people think they no longer need secretaries, that they could be a one-person business, activist group, film studio or empire.  Iron Man literally does it all himself (at least, the kids I saw it with didn’t seem to think his girlfriend deserved any credit).  Then again, I’m probably reading too much into it.

The only way to know what the audience thinks of a film is to watch the audience.  Journalists who saw films with the common people tell us more about their true meaning than the critics.

The first time I noticed politics in a film was when I watched that 1990’s forgotten blockbuster, Independence Day. Remember the bit where the aliens blew up the white house? Guess what, in Tucson Arizona, that got the biggest cheers. While the audience didn’t associate the President in Independence Day with Clinton, they saw the movie’s White House as a symbol of the unpopular real life President.

Bill Clinton in front of the American flag, standard portrait
Bill Clinton: a president so unpopular, that when the fictional white house blew up, the audience cheered.

Bill Clinton was in the real White House, and he got there through a three way vote.  Despite what the media tells us, he was not a popular president, at least he wasn’t among the Americans I met in Arizona, Arkansas, Baltimore, Brussels, or elsewhere.  Sure, some people liked “Slick” Clinton, but a lot of people didn’t.

Well, I don’t think I have to say much about the films that were made about / against George Bush Jr.  I’m not interested in the artists here, just audience reaction.   And, with exceptions like Avatar, a lot of those Bush movies didn’t get much of an audience.

But it’s the films that don’t seem to have a overt political message that are usually more interesting to watch. Take “Monsters Verses Aliens,” which I saw in Wales.  Remember the scene when the President starts playing music on the keyboard to declare peace with the alien menace? One of the kids from the audience reacted with the words “Obama’s rubbish.”

This took me more by surprise than other film reactions, as I didn’t realize that Obama was so unpopular in Europe.

Yes, I knew that many British people were convinced that Barrack Obama was a Muslim and the rest of it. Perhaps the unintelligent President, always in danger of pressing the wrong button, was meant to portray a stereotype that existed since Ford forgot how to walk and chew gun at the same time.  So much of that movie is parodies of others, like Dr. Strangelove.  But President Obama was already gaining a reputation for moral weakness, which later featured in Britain’s left wing press.

I’m not the first person to watch audiences though.  This goes long before the age of cinema, back to days of theater.

Washington Irving, head and shoulders portrait
Washington Irving wrote tales of a headless horseman, but he found the idea of British spectators watching a battle in the Mediterranean to be too unrealistic.

Washington Irving was an American who had spent some time in Europe. He wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a story about a man named Ichabod Crane who is chased by a headless horseman (Or the ghost of a Hessian soldier who has a pumpkin for a head). So, Irving was hardly a realist.

However, as a critic, one play got to Irving’s nerves. It was a patriotic play produced during the Tripolitan War (about a decade before the War of 1812.)

The United States had already had its revolution long ago, and the States had fought a naval war against France.  Still, Britain wasn’t satisfied.  Britain wanted to bring the rest of the world into war against Napoleon, and didn’t like America’s “neutrality.”

Well, the US was fighting its own war, against privateers who acted like pirates. In North Africa at the time, a few governors supplemented their incomes by threatening to attack the citizens of any country that didn’t pay them tribute. The USA, as a new country with a lot of ships but not much in the way of a professional navy to defend them, was an easy target.

The British and others encouraged the Barbary pirates to keep cheap American goods out of the European theater. (Add to that certain things like impressment, and the economic ties because Britain and these states, and Americans projected their anger against both states equally. American captives blamed the British in the press. Oh, and one of the head pirates was born in Scotland, and still got along well with the British representatives in North Africa.)

While both Sweden and Portugal, two navies that were seen to be in decline, helped to protect American ships on occasion, Britain was seen as helping the enemy.

Well, there were some other reasons for the Americans to dislike British power, but I guess Americans were also jealous. Britain had the biggest navy in the world, and it was pretty scary.

So, what does this have to do with the play that so irked Irving? Well, it was loosely based on historical events.

The US was paying tribute to the Barbary states, or some might say, it was giving “military aid.”  So, there was peace at a shameful price. That was, until in 1801, when Yosef Caramanli of Tripoli (modern Libya) decided to cut down the American flag pole, harass the US consul, threaten American ships, and declare war.  Now, the US had the opportunity to renegotiate at least one humiliating treaty, and send out a force to make it more equal.

Meanwhile, Europe had its own war.

In 1798, the French took Malta and almost conquered Egypt. By 1800, the British had Malta, which was geographically close to Tripoli, the Barbary state that declared war and gave America the chance to fight for its lost honor.

Jefferson, ever mindful of the constitution, didn’t declare a full war.  He asked Congress for permission to use a defensive strategy.  The navy was not allowed to take prisoners. So, the first victory consisted of disabling a pirate ship, and sending its humiliated captain floating back with all the surviving crew members but minus their weapons.

Now, this event, this little sea battle, is what the play was based on. And, it’s placed in the context of the greater European war.  However, Irving didn’t like it.

It wasn’t that Washington Irving wasn’t patriotic, he just didn’t like the unbelievable way it was portrayed. Apparently, in the play, the Barbary pirate ship was blown in a storm all the way to England, so that the Americans could defeat the pirates in front of the British spectators. And instead of just winning a battle, it appeared that the little confrontation solved the whole war (which continued years after the play stopped showing.)

But, in the theater, the crowd went wild. They seemed to especially love the fact that the British had seen the battle on their shores. This would show British captains that it was not acceptable to bully the American shipping industry, they must have thought.

Irving didn’t see it that way. He lamented the fact that Americans had a bad sense of geography, or something of a sort. How can a two ships, made of wood, hold together in a storm that would push them so far and over the straights of Gibraltar? (Even if such a storm were possible.)

Washington Irving missed the point. The wind that brought the ships over was the Napoleonic Wars. Britain was observing from Malta. The audience seemed to know more about geography than that celebrated author.

Likewise, when we watch older films, and try to understand their popularity (or lack of it) merely through the journals of critics and artists, we are missing the point.

The movie viewer on the street, in many cases, is still with us. Watching old films again with other generations, and talking about them afterwards, is a great way to remember history, and keep the memories alive.


  • Decades of watching plays and movies with audiences
  • The Crescent Obscured: United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815 by Robert J Allison.
  • Story by Robert McKee
  • The Shawshank Redemption: Screenplay & Notes (NHB Shooting Scripts) by Frank Darabont
  • Newspapers like “The New Statesman” and “The Spectator”
  • Various sources on the Napoleonic wars and primary sources to be revealed in an upcoming book.


  1. Yes, indeed, there often are two scenes in a historic event: the first scene includes the real-time incident and the “reported” facts; the second scene includes the re-visited incident and the “secondary” facts—often termed, “the other side of the story.”

    Unfortunately, the “secondary” facts are usually smothered by the powers, lost in time, or faded in disinterest.

    from DUNGEON to RESPECTABILITY (discern the politics)

    Respectfully, Ray

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