For Hollywood, it seems, history is the new rock’n’roll. Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post recently on the spate of films centered on historical events or historical characters puts it down to the phenomenon of reality TV. She quotes Peter Morgan, who wrote the script for The Queen – a movie focused on the aftermath of the death of Princess Dianna: “If people need to explain what a film is about, the film stands very little chance of surviving. Reality is a brand which people can sell” he says.” Some of the biggest films on release over the past year have been such – the story of the Harvard student who invented Facebook, the story of a stuttering king – The King’s Speech, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, and a story for which Applebaum was herself a historical consultant, The Way Back.

But Hollywood and history are strange and uneasy bedfellows and not everyone is happy with the progeny they produce. Hollywood has played fast and loose with historical truth on so many occasions that we approach new movies based on history with not a little suspicion. But they keep coming and the latest soon to appear on a screen near you will be Roland Joffé’s new film, There Be Dragons – which some anticipate will be a return to form for the director of two of the most memorable films of the 1980s, The Mission and The Killing Fields, both again based on real events in history.

Joffé’s film, starring Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott and Olga Kurylenko, is set against the background of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the life of a canonised saint, Josemaría Escrivá (Cox), the founder of Opus Dei. The genre into which this movie fits, however, has much more in common with the historical novel than with films purporting to be a narrative account of historical events. In this there is a very open mixture of fact and fiction and without doubt the film-maker is setting out to show us what moves, inspires and shapes lives rather than give us a dry factual account of events. In every sense this is very much an auteur work since Joffé not only directs but also conceived and wrote the screenplay.

Applebaum’s musing on history and cinema are in the context of The Way Back, the recently released Peter Weir film based on a “true story” of prisoners escaping from Stalin’s gulag back in the 1940s. The original story came in the form of a book called The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, a Gulag survivor. It was a controversial book because while it appeared to be a first-hand account of Rawicz’s own story it later transpired that it was a story told to him by another escapee.

But, Applebaum argues that the story, certainly as portrayed in the film, is “true” in every way that matters. “Many of the camp scenes are taken directly from Soviet archives and memoirs. The starving men scrambling for garbage; the tattooed criminals, playing cards for the clothes of other prisoners; the narrow barracks; the logging camp; the vicious Siberian storms. Among the very plausible characters are an American who went to work on the Moscow subway and fell victim to the Great Terror of 1937, a Polish officer arrested after the Soviet Union’s 1939 invasion of Poland and a Latvian priest whose church was destroyed by the Bolsheviks.”

Joffé argues for the same kind of truth in his There Be Dragons, a truth built into the fictional story of London-based investigative journalist Robert Torres (Scott) who tries to unravel a deadly mystery nearly 70 years old that links his father to the founder of a Catholic organization called Opus Dei, only to discover that the shocking truth is far more than he bargained for.

Roland Joffé describes his experience of bringing the story to the screen in the following terms: “There Be Dragons was a wonderful experience that paralleled the one I had making The Mission. It is an intimate story of love and forgiveness set during one of the most bitter wars of the 20th century. Yet the themes of the film are as relevant today as ever, and I am hopeful that audiences will embrace them in that spirit.”

The film, made for $35 million, is being distributed in the US by Samuel Golden Films and is being released there on May 6. According to Meyer Gottlieb, president of the company: “We feel privileged to be working with such an acclaimed filmmaker in Roland Joffé and look forward to bringing There Be Dragons to audiences everywhere. This beautifully mounted and executed film based on true events is moving and inspirational, and it will make moviegoers cheer and applaud.”

The film has been made in English but rather unusually is having its dubbed Spanish language version released first. Its Spanish distributors have pushed and succeeded in getting it released there on screens across the country from 25 March. The release in Spain is timely because 2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. During this brutal conflict thousands of priests and nuns were persecuted and murdered. How a still-divided Spanish society will react to this retelling of those events is something which will be watched with great interest.

The film’s themes are already resonating with people of all faiths who must make daily choices to “conquer the dragons” – the allusion of the title – they encounter by avoiding conflict in favor of embracing opportunities for forgiveness. Previewers of the movie have described it as “a deeply moving depiction of the triumph of love and forgiveness”.

Motive Entertainment, the company that championed films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion and Disney’s Chronicles of Narnia, have been contracted to promote the film across the US and further afield in the Anglophone world.

See trailers: http://www.youtube.com/user/therebedragonsfilm


  1. John

    The Spanish civil war was unspeakably dreadful, with shocking brutalities committed by both sides.

    Speaking of what may or may not be true, none of what was depicted in Mel Gibson’s The Passion is described in the Bible.
    In my opinion that film was essentially an unspeakably vile sado-masochistic snuff/splatter film

    Even so the line from Porgy & Bess applies to ALL “historical” films, namely: “what you read in the Bible (or your history books) aint necessarily so”.
    Even more so the further back in time one goes.
    Where is the POLAROID evidence for ANY and EVERY thing depicted in so called historical films.
    All those clean shaven men when razor blades of any kind did not exist.
    All such films are propaganda with NO exceptions.
    Indeed most of what is called history is propaganda too – written by the winners.

    “Orthodox” history always follows the golden rule – them that has the gold writes the “official” history.

    And what about all the other “historical” Christian films such as those produced by Cecil B Demille. His films were pure kitsch! An insult to informed human intelligence.
    And Ben Hur too.

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