In a testy exchange with The King's Speech screenwriter David Seidler earlier this year on Slate, Christopher Hitchens wrote, “All other considerations to one side, would the true story not have been fractionally more interesting?” Hitchens was referring to the false impression given by the wildly popular, Oscar-winning film that Churchill's sympathies in the mid-1930s were more with King George than with his führer-fancying brother, Edward VIII. When Seidler conceded that a more accurate Churchill scene had been written but that it “sagged,” Hitchens' reply was unsympathetic: “Why not craft a scene … that does not sag?”
This was not the first time the prolific writer took on a film for its historical inaccuracies. When Hitchens died on Dec. 15, he left behind not only a persona to dissect but also a massive and diverse body of work, including a substantial, if comparatively minor, volume of film writing.
Within the pages of Vanity Fair and other outlets, the master prose stylist frequently had occasion to apply his polymathic mind and inflexibly journalistic sensibility to the latest Hollywood sausages. Complementing his combative turnout on politics, religion and literature, Hitchens consistently attacked critical and box-office winners for deviating from the historical record.
This stance set him apart from the view long ago espoused by esteemed film critics such as Vincent Canby and Roger Ebert and today regarded as commonsense: that fiction features are not reliable vehicles for fact (and need not be historically precise thanks to the robust health of the documentary format). It would be fair to call Hitchens the film-critic contrarian — hardly a surprising posture. For him, a film that failed to meet a punishing standard of accuracy was insulting its audience, even if it also entertained.
Striking a similar pose in a 2003 piece on the naval epic Master and Commander, Hitchens scoffed not only at the simplified friendship between Captain Aubrey and his surgical Watson, Dr. Maturin, but also, as with The King's Speech, at the assumption that accuracy is a secondary concern for films set in the distant past. He bemoaned an anachronistic lack of gore in an already gore-sloshed film and derided the shipboard mateyness, which he saw as a poor substitute for the frequent carnal eruptions well attested to in naval lore. “Not so much as a sight gag about the vulnerable presence of preteen midshipmen among the scrotum-like swinging hammocks,” he lamented, refreshingly unconcerned with the filmmaker's clearly desired PG-13 rating.
And that was just for a dumb Russell Crowe movie. The more recent and raw the history, the more uncompromising was his demand for unvarnished truth. During a 1993 panel discussion on Spike Lee's Malcolm X, Hitchens expressed frustration with the film's airbrushing of the “hard, sharp question” of Louis Farrakhan and voiced agitation with Lee's decision to dramatize Malcolm's famously blunt refusal of organizational assistance from a young white woman but not his later expressions of regret for the act. Lee's refusal to close that “quotation” was for Hitchens one of several instances in which directorial license clouded the truth.
At the same panel, Hitchens made a cinematic prediction that he ultimately lived just long enough to witness: “I think we'll see J. Edgar Hoover in a nice little black number, strutting up and down,” he told the crowd. “It will happen. And the reason I'm saying this is I do think [things like that] are not only possible, but probably necessary.” That belief in the necessity of reality over hagiography meant studio portrayals of American leaders rarely, if ever, met his standards. (He accused Oliver Stone of “romancing Camelot” in JFK and called Nixon unwatchable.)
Hitchens' film criticism was sometimes inseparable from his superseding political arguments, as with his unpeeling of the antiwar documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 and dismissal of its director, Michael Moore, as a less talented Leni Riefenstahl.
But the filmmaker for whom Hitchens reserved his most special ire was Mel Gibson, and not simply because “Braveheart and The Patriot are two of the most laughable historical films ever made.” In Gibson's case, offenses against history were compounded by charges of rank indecency. His documented venom toward Jews was, according to Hitchens, never more undisguised than in The Passion of the Christ, and his serial intolerance was evidence of the extent to which those who stew in their own religious zeal are bound to be — to use one of the author's favorite phrases — contents under pressure.
So what did pass the Hitchens test? In a 2009 Vanity Fair piece, he praised The Baader Meinhof Complex, a terrorism drama and feast for history buffs that packs its leisurely runtime with a bewildering array of names, places and happenings drawn from real life. He also wrote gushingly about The Battle of Algiers, applauding the vérité style that allowed Pontecorvo's masterpiece to unspool “like revolutionary reality projected straight onto the screen.” So, basically, Hitchens applauded films that portrayed history without the gloss of a distracting auteurist or commercial agenda. Meaning, he didn't like much. —Ryan Stewart