"Lawrence of Arabia" twisted the facts behind Europe's carving up the Middle East after WWII. Cate Blanchett was way too young to play 52-year-old Queen Elizabeth at the height of her power. "300" went over the top in making Persian king Xerxes 8-foot-tall.
The list of films that take liberty with historical fact is so long, in fact, most historians no longer bother pointing out their inaccuracies to a public more interested in entertainment.
Long-time history professor, political activist and playwright Howard Zinn knows all about that, but brushes it aside. Here's a historian, after all, who will take even Ken Burn's account of the U.S. Civil War to task for concentrating too much on the heroism of military generals instead of the common people who lived through the war.
"The greatest danger in films based on history isn't necessarily that you will be told something false, but that the emphasis will be on trivia," Zinn said from a hotel room in Santa Monica in advance of a trip to Utah. "To me, the most common distortion of history is done through emphasizing the least important facts of historical events."
Anyone who has read Zinn's best-selling history book, 1980's A People's History of the United States , could such a comment coming from miles away. At 86 years old, Zinn's legacy of chronicling accounts of the United States' working poor, dispossessed, oppressed and struggling stands, not just as an exercise in left-wing politics, but a noble and necessary act of unearthing untold narratives.
He'll add to that legacy with a visit to the Sundance Music Cafe on Jan. 22 to direct a live presentation titled "The People Speak: Voices of A People's History of the United States ." The reading celebrates the one millionth copy sold of Zinn's famous book, a milestone hit more than five years ago, and will showcase writings of non-famous Americans, read by big-name actors such as Benjamin Bratt, Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei.
"One of the running themes of the festival has been how artists engage with social change," said John Nien, a festival programmer who put Zinn and the troupe of reading actors on the Sundance schedule. "These performances do just that."
To an extent, Zinn's emphasis on the lesser-known and powerless has carried over into independent film. Just as classrooms have acknowledged that history is often written by the victors, film has moved gradually from epic accounts of world conflicts and historical figures to search for narratives that put common people at the center.
Zinn said he's encouraged by the trend in that direction, but it's still not enough. While he counts David Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai," John Sayles' "Matewan" and last year's "The Visitor" as favorites, he said he rarely goes out to the movies for fear of disappointment.
"'Matewan' was a rarity," he said of the account of the West Virginia miners' strike that resulted in a battle with shots fired. "Even today Hollywood will not touch a film about someone like [anarchist and political activist] Emma Goldman. But they'll make a movie about Queen Elizabeth, won't they?"
Far from an armchair academic, Zinn has also lived history at pivotal moments. He served as a bombardier with the U.S. Army Air Force in 1945, was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights movement in the South, visited Hanoi on a mission that brought three U.S. prisoners of war home, and was even entrusted with a copy of "The Pentagon Papers." He lost a tenured position at Atlanta's Spelman College in 1963 for opposing, along with students, the school's mission to produce mannered "young ladies," but landed on his feet at Boston University, where he taught for 24 years before retiring in 1988.
The first time he realized the historic importance of common and struggling people was during a 1963 service at an African-American church, the day before a march for civil rights.
"Everyone was crowded in, trying to build up their courage because they knew that the next day they would face down state troopers while trying to register to vote," Zinn said.
"I listened and watched, thinking to myself that no one will see this scene. It won't be reported in this newspaper, and it won't be on television. It made me think about how many similar scenes were ignored because a president, or some other person deemed important, wasn't there."
Howard Zinn will direct a live presentation, "The People Speak: Voices of A People's History of the United States," Jan. 22 at 1 p.m. at the Sundance Film Festival's Music Cafe, located on Park City's Main Street between 7th and 9th Streets. Open to Festival pass holders and the public (21 and over), as space allows.