Images and history, part one

Several years ago I was dragged to see the rather mediocre U-571, a submarine film (is that a genre?) set in World War 2, in which the fantastically white-toothed Matthew McConaughey leads a US Navy sub to hunt down the Nazi submarine U-571 and steal the Enigma machine.  As you’d expect, after wading through much tribulation Engima is captured and U-571 is sunk.  Medals all round… huzzah!  The rest is, as they say, history.

The fantastically white-teethed Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey: successful living through better dentistry

Except the history lesson was only just starting, as the filmmakers were about to learn (and much to their detriment).  Responding to the concerns of their constituents with a conscience somewhat attuned to historic fact, MPs raised questions in the House of Commons about the movie’s accuracy.  U-571 did exist but was never captured, it was actually sunk off the coast of Ireland by the Royal Australian Air Force with all hands lost.  Of the fifteen Enigma machines captured during the war, the British had captured thirteen, while the Canadians and Americans had one a piece, the Americans capturing theirs in 1944 when the Enigma code had long since been broken.  The movie was considered by many as an affront to the Royal Navy and all those involved in the Enigma project, especially as the film’s producers did little to point out that the movie was a complete fabrication.

Bill Clinton got involved, writing (to Tony Blair presumably) and stating that the movie was a work of fiction, which I’m sure was meant as a gesture of goodwill, but this was the reason for the complaint in the first place.  But what else could he do?  Slap the wrists of those irresponsible filmmakers and tell them to stick to proven historical fact next time?  Hollywood would be bankrupt in a fortnight.

U-571.  Not exactly THX-1138

U-571. Not exactly Das Boot or The Cruel Sea, but it did have Jon Bon Jovi in it.

Given the overall quality of U-571, it’s probably safe to assume that the studio responsible for U-571 had blockbuster entertainment and profit in mind, and this was justification enough, in their minds at least, for the Americanisation of the movie.  Nevertheless, as a result of U-571 there will be more than a handful who think that Enigma was an American triumph.  The power of the image!

But this tale of woe leads to an interesting dicussion about how images help to manufacture our reading of history.  Obviously, as the Tower of London is one of the most photographed places in Britain, it begs the question about how our perceptions of this place and its history have been altered by the images created about it, both past and present, and this is something I’ll pick up in part two of this post.


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