Hollywood: get your act together

While Tinseltown sleepwalks through history, the tinderbox of reality is exploding around us. David

In recent years, it has become almost commonplace to claim that Hollywood has stolen our history. Newspapers in the UK regularly carry stories reporting on the latest Hollywood blockbuster and how it has traduced this or that episode of British military daring, invariably by substituting American heroes for the British originals. But Hollywood has not so much "stolen" our history as "simplified" it; and this simplification has had a worryingly corrosive effect on the whole culture of contemporary film-making.

Hollywood's refusal to engage with complexity is symptomatic of the way in which much of contemporary cinema has ceased to exploit the real potential of the medium, most especially in respect of history. In my book The Undeclared War (1997), I argued that it was because film is such an extraordinary medium for conveying ideas, and shaping our sense of who we are, that its power was recognised so very early on by all manner of politicians. It was Lenin who said, "Of all the arts, for us cinema is the most important." Other political leaders, including Winston Churchill, recognised how powerfully film could change the way we see the world. The former US president Woodrow Wilson called film "the very highest medium for the dissemination of public intelligence". He added that, "since it speaks a universal language, it lends itself importantly to the presentation of America's plans and America's purposes".

Cinema should have remained a medium of enormous significance to today's global society - especially during uncertain times such as those we are currently living through. But too often over the past 20-odd years, film-makers have failed to tap the emotional power of their medium, especially its ability to portray the world around us - either as it is, or as it has been. For the most part it fails to offer us any useful lessons. After 11 September, a number of writers noted that the dreadful images witnessed that day seemed to have more in common with a contemporary movie than any imagined reality. But somehow even this description felt inadequate, and not just because of the scale of the tragedy itself.

That "catastrophe" should have woken Hollywood up, because for too long cinema had been playing games with reality, as well as with history. It had been playing with them by allowing actions to become entirely divorced from their consequences: ever bigger explosions that miraculously don't kill the most important of the characters; simulated plane crashes that the right people "somehow" survive; shootings that manage to create victims without widows or orphans.

Having watched the details of a brutal homicide, in how many movies do we then see a policeman walk up a garden path to tell a woman that her husband is dead? And then witness that mother having to decide whether to tell her 12-year-old child, who is about to appear in the school play, that her father has been killed?

This is the stuff of real human history; these are the inevitable consequences of tragic actions. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, here is a whole world of human experience that has effectively been abandoned, or left to the comparative simplicities of the small-screen "soap opera". It is in this sense that we can legitimately claim that contemporary film-making has extracted very little of value from history. It merely reduces events, now or in the past, to a simple struggle between good and evil; a struggle in which complexity and nuance have been entirely wrung out of the narrative. It's not that history has been "stolen"; it's been subject to a grossly simplistic reduction. It's as if the movies have returned to their very earliest days - before they grew up - when all the audience demanded was the thrill of standing in front of that Lumiere Brothers train as it seemed about to run them over! It's almost as if the movies had never left the fairground.

The reality should have been far more interesting. More than a hundred years after that first train appeared on the screen, cinema should have established itself as possibly the most powerful and effective means of communication with which we have ever been able to express ourselves. We refer to Hollywood as "Tinseltown" as if it didn't really matter. Some people try to persuade us that films and television are a business just like any other. They are not. Films and television (like newspapers) shape attitudes and behaviour, and in doing so reinforce or undermine many of the wider values of society. We have come to accept that cinema's influence on people's behaviour, and their sense of history, is a global phenomenon. We should recognise, for instance, that thousands or even millions of young people are growing up in incredibly distressed circumstances. Wherever they are concentrated in the world - every one of these locations is a "tinderbox" that could explode at any moment. It's important that we reflect on the fact that simplistic and insensitive plots, images and stereotypes can only make those explosions much more inevitable.

Somehow we have to develop the ability to understand what powerlessness and the loss of freedom feels like as an "everyday reality" - and what it inevitably leads to. Sadly, I don't sense that the overwhelming majority of films are in any way helping us achieve that understanding. A couple of years ago I came across a study by scientists from Israel's Weizmann Institute regarding a mechanism that is buried deep in the human visual system. This mechanism is of particular significance to film-makers. It appears that our brain is flooded with a multitude of interpretations of everyday reality. In the end, the brain must decide in favour of just one of them - and act accordingly. And from the moment the brain decides in favour of a single interpretation of the images it is receiving, then any image that supports any other interpretation of the world simply "disappears". The brain "edits" them out.

In the impossible relationships that exist in the Middle East, south-east Asia, Northern Ireland and many other parts of the world, each competing ideology has for years appeared to suffer from almost complete blindness to reality's complexity. Each is certain that the other is not telling the truth; that the other side has no interest in peace. Film-makers know only too well how easy it is to paint reality this way. In the words of the remarkable Israeli writer David Grossman, "Each nation turns its darkest, most hateful, most bestial side to the other. Neither nation senses how deeply hatred and violence have seeped into its heart - until they quite literally wear each other out, until they have no more strength to fight. Perhaps then, a moment before their death, they will stop and do what it's already clear that they must do - compromise, try to live beside each other, and not instead of each other."

This is why cinema, and its relationship with history and the "real world", matters. The most important role of the film-maker is to help explain the ambiguities and complexities of life. And in doing so to promote understanding and, where necessary, compromise. That is what I tried to do in the films I've produced that dealt with historical events, most obviously in The Killing Fields, The Mission and Cal, but also, in its own way, Chariots of Fire. The extraordinarily complex relationship between the cultural and the commercial power of cinema, which has been argued over throughout its history, looks set to continue or even grow in importance in the decades ahead. But if film-makers simply make movies that rely on technology and special effects to portray their world, then I fear that the difference between the demands of mainstream cinema and our everyday reality could well become just too great, with consequences that will ultimately affect all of us.

This is an edited extract from "Has Hollywood Stolen our History?" by Lord Puttnam, to be published in History and the Media, edited by David Cannadine, in July (Palgrave Macmillan)