In the end, [ John] Frankenheimer’s film [about Geroge Wallace] not only distorts history, it even fails to take advantage of the strengths of the book on which the film was based, Marshall Frady’s 1968 biography, Wallace. Frady had little insightful to say about the major political events of the era, but the South Carolina-born writer helped his readers understand just how this proud and insecure southerner wrestled with contradictory emotions: shame and pride, kindness and cruelty, generosity and greed. Above all, he brilliantly evoked the demons that carried his subject from a small southern town to a critical role in reshaping American politics. Instead of Frady’s insights into Wallace’s character, however, we are too often treated to self-conscious musings about Wallace’s motivation and wooden agitprop political speeches by Jim Folsom, the political conscience of the film.
To those who care about the integrity of the historical past, the ultimate flaw lies in the form of the docudrama itself as it has evolved over the past 20 years. Robert Penn Warren, the author of All the King’s Men–arguably the greatest novel ever written about southern politics–was clearly inspired by the story of Huey Long. As a novelist, however, he believed that he could best illuminate the historical drama and tragedy of Long’s rise and fall by freeing himself from the factual constraints of one man’s story, using his imagination to take the bits and pieces of actual history and remolding them with the imagination of the artist into a more universal tale of ambition and retribution.
The novelist and the historian had equally important roles to play in understanding our past, said Warren, but they traveled on separate roads toward the truth. The mass audience of the commercial docudrama (not to mention its financial rewards) is a tantalizing lure, but it has become–with rare exceptions–a soap opera substitute for real engagement with the past. When asked to become a part of such productions, the greatest contribution historians can make is to take the advice of a former First Lady: “Just say no.”
I’ve taken the pledge.