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When Great Movies Fail The History Test

Ben Kingsley as Gandhi in the film directed by Richard Attenborough

Ben Kingsley as Gandhi in the film directed by Richard Attenborough

Gandhi (1982) Director: Richard Attenborough • Entertainment grade: B • History grade: C+

Politics: The first half of the film follows Gandhi’s career from his political awakening in South Africa through to the Amritsar Massacre. On 13 April 1919, British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer cornered several thousand men, women and children in a walled garden in Amritsar, where they were listening peacefully to political speeches. Without warning, he opened fire. Even the low official figures admitted at least 379 were killed, 1,200 injured. Richard Attenborough’s recreation of this event is gut-wrenchingly horrible and precisely accurate. As the film correctly implies, Amritsar immediately radicalised Jawaharlal Nehru, among others. It does not acknowledge that the effect on Gandhi was slower. His first reaction was to criticise the victims for having ‘taken to their heels’ rather than face death with composure. It was over a year later when he finally handed back his British Empire medal and declared himself in favour of independence.

People: The film’s most glaring bias is its depiction of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League and ultimately founder of Pakistan. It shows Jinnah sitting around with Congress leadership in Gandhi’s ashram after the 1931 Round Table Conference, being mean to the Mahatma: ‘After all your travels, after all your efforts, they sent you back empty-handed.’ Jinnah attended the Round Table Conference, from which everyone came away empty-handed, including him – so this would have been an odd thing to say. It’s even odder to picture Jinnah casually hanging out with Congress leadership in the 1930s: he had left the party in 1920, deploring Gandhi’s ‘pseudo-religious approach to politics’. The film writes him off as a motiveless baddie, seemingly making a career out of hanging around looking sinister while wearing natty suits and smoking cigarettes. (The suits and cigarettes are accurate. The New York Times called Jinnah ‘one of the best dressed men in the British Empire’, and he got through fifty Craven A cigarettes every day.)

War: During World War II, Gandhi is shown saying sadly that ‘Jinnah has cooperated with the British.’ He did, but let’s not forget that – whatever their crimes as imperialists – the British were on the right side in World War II. At the time, Jinnah’s cooperation was viewed by many as more morally defensible than Gandhi’s non-cooperation. The film steers well clear of exploring Gandhi’s thoughts on Axis powers, some of which might have made a western audience choke on its popcorn. For instance, his suggestion that Jews should sacrifice themselves to Hitler to demonstrate their moral superiority: ‘I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of dictators,’ he wrote in 1939, adding in 1946 that ‘the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs.’

Power: After Partition, Calcutta was ripped apart by Hindu-Muslim violence. Gandhi announced he would fast until it stopped. It did, in little more than a day. Surprisingly, the film downplays this, showing Gandhi weakened and struggling in Calcutta. In real life, this fast was one of the most stunning demonstrations of the moral power for which he was justly famous. As Lord Mountbatten, then Governor-General of India, wrote to him: ‘In the Punjab we have 55,000 soldiers and large scale rioting on our hands. In Bengal our forces consist of one man, and there is no rioting.’ That, surely, is a great soul in action.

Verdict: Gandhi is beautifully filmed and moving, but its uncomplicated Mahatma is less interesting than the real thing


Argo (2012) – Director: Ben Affleck • Entertainment grade: A– • History grade: C

On 4 November 1979, Iranian revolutionaries occupied the American Embassy in Tehran and took more than fifty Americans hostage. Six diplomats escaped. Canadian officials and the CIA launched a secret joint operation to get them out.

Politics: In 1953, the CIA and MI6 engineered a coup to overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratic president of Iran, and replace him with a military-backed absolute monarchy. By 1979, democratic opposition to the shah hardened into revolutionary fervour and found itself, fatefully, on the same side as Islamic fundamentalism. Argo presents this context imaginatively, though fleetingly and perhaps too vaguely. The sequence in which revolutionaries storm the US Embassy is brilliantly realized, though. If you wait for the end credits, a series of real photos are shown alongside the movie’s recreations so you may admire its accurate visual recreations.

Operation: The six escaped Americans are taken in by Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). If you’re thinking they’d be awfully conspicuous in a big group like that, you’d be right. In real life, they were split into two groups of three, one staying with Taylor and one with immigration officer John Sheardown. Back in Virginia, CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a way to get them out. With the help of his friend John Chambers (John Goodman) – a makeup artist who won an honorary Oscar in 1969 for his work on Planet of the Apes – he sets up a film company. The plan is to set up a fake production, arrange a location recce in Iran, and pass the six diplomats off as Canadian filmmakers. Afterwards, they will simply walk out through Mehrabad Airport. Madcap as this sounds, it’s true.

Plot: ‘We decided we needed a script with “sci-fi”, Middle Eastern, and mythological elements,’ Mendez wrote in his account of the real operation. ‘Something about the glory of Islam would be nice, too.’ They secure the rights to one called Argo. In real life, Argo was based on the novel Lord of Light, a dystopian orientalist space epic by Roger Zelazny. Director Ben Affleck couldn’t use any elements of Lord of Light in his Argo, because in real life he didn’t have the rights. So the Argo in Argo is a fake version of a fake movie. The real fake Argo, as it were, was based on HinduBuddhist mythology – not quite Middle Eastern or a glorification of Islam, but the CIA seemed to think it was close enough. The fake fake Argo in this movie is a Star Wars rip-off. They’ve got a big blue Wookiee and everything.

Action: Mendez persuades the six to play along, but the exfiltration is a nail-biter. First, Iranian officials show them round a bazaar, where they must convincingly play their roles and are exposed to spying eyes. Then, at the airport, they have to pass off their dodgy paperwork and negotiate their way round the revolutionary guards. Will they get out before the spying eyes from the bazaar match up with other intelligence to identify them? It is terrifically exciting. It is also almost entirely fictional. Not least because the idea that regime officials were moments away from capturing the six at the airport credits Iranian bureaucracy with lightning efficiency.

More action: The real operation went ‘as smooth as silk’, according to Mendez, aside from a brief holdup over a mechanical problem with the plane. The choppy version in Argo certainly makes for a much more exciting film. For a historian, though, the last third of the run-time feels almost like the end of Adaptation, when the high-velocity, high-concept style of the movie within the movie seems to take over the movie you’re watching, and the barriers between fact and fiction and fantasy break down, and you might just need to sit down with a nice cup of tea until reality stops spinning.

Verdict: A smart, gripping and witty historical action thriller – though there are so many interwoven layers of reality and fiction here that it wouldn’t be surprising if the blue Wookiee whipped off his furry head to reveal he was really the Ayatollah.

Excerpted from Reel History by Alex von Tunzelmann, which scrutinises films for their historical accuracy.

  • Karthik Kc

    Since when did historical movies have to be documentaries? Reminds me of T G Vaidyanathan’s review of Attenborough’s Gandhi. You two are perhaps the only two people in the world who watched this movie with a History textbook.

    • VIVEK

      I think if the movie is named “Gandhi” or something, they better be a historical account. Anything else would be a travesty.

      In fact, such movie can be shown in schools for History lessons. Nothing could be more interesting and a gala time for school childrens.