Saturday, October 29, 2011

Real Life Inspiration at the Movies

Do you ever go to the movies and see the words "based on a true story" or "inspired by the life of" up on the screen? Do you ever run home to google it and see how much real life got into that film?

My parents are insatiable history buffs. And they go to the movies once a week. So it follows that they often look up the facts and, as parents dedicated to education, they read it aloud to the teens. (Never ask, "So how was the movie?")

One such film inspired by real life events is American Outlaws with Colin Farrell playing Jesse James. It's a fun cowboy Robin Hood movie...who doesn't love hot charismatic guys on horses? When looking up historical accuracy though...they basically kept the names and the general story of outlaws being chased by Allan Pinkerton. There's really no evidence that the James-Younger gang were good guy outlaws, though there was a lot of sympathy for them and they were celebrities in their own time. The real life story is a good starting point, giving characters and backdrop for the writers to have fun.

Yet great care has to be taken when handling real people's stories! Tom Cruise's film, Valkyrie is an example. This film's true story roots made it a challenge. The German government forbid filming in the square where Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was executed, fearing it would violate the scene's dignity. They then decided to allow it, but refused to have filmmakers at the Berlin police station. Yet despite fears that Tom Cruise's German accent would be dreadful, that his Scientology beliefs were beneath the role and worries about having the role live up to their hero, Tom Cruise was awarded a Bambi, Germany's most prestigious media award.

Here's a fascinating article with Berthold von Stauffenberg, the son of the real Claus von Stauffenberg. The back story about who he was is and what happened to his wife, five children and extended family is phenomenal. Respecting them with the film was difficult.

To quote this article: "As flamekeeper, Berthold has spoken out against the coming portrayal of his father by Tom Cruise in the film Valkyrie. Speaking to the German newspaper Der Spiegel last year, he said: 'It is unpleasant for me that an avowed Scientologist will be playing my father. I'm not saying that Cruise is a bad actor - I can't judge that. But I fear that only terrible kitsch will come out of the project. He should keep his hands off my father. He should climb a mountain or go surfing in the Caribbean. I don't care what he does, so long as he keeps out of it.' Today, Berthold chooses his words more carefully, and will only say gnomically, 'We'll see what the film is like. I hope they don't play too fast and loose with the facts.'"

It seems that the film is really quite accurate. It was described by German critics as a serious well-made film, neither scandalous nor fabulous. Everyone agreed that bringing the story more attention and teaching this part of history to a new generation was a good thing.

It's interesting to see the very different ways these two real stories were handled. Is it partly because von Stauffenberg's family are still living, standing guardian over his memory? Or is it the degree the seriousness of imparting the history? Do you have a story you want to tell? How are you handling the facts? Staying true blue or using it as a jumping off point?


  1. I always take a historical movie as grossly inaccurate. I think it's just a foregone conclusion that something will be changed to make the story look/flow/be better/more exciting.

  2. ...there are indeed many dramatizations in flicks that are inspired from true events, but many are interesting in that it's the director's vision of how the events took place, (with added special effects, of course ;)


  3. VALKYRIE really was neither bad nor great, just an average film, but I do agree with the son, I wouldn't like my father to be played by someone from some religious sect either.