The greatest stories never told
Is ignoring history worse than faking it?
This week on UnHerd, Allan Mallinson kicked off our exploration of fake drama by considering the accuracy of historical drama and comparing it with the influence of ‘fake news’. Is one more malign than the other, he asked? Geoff Heath-Taylor responded by finding some extraordinary examples of fake drama that would seem to answer that question.
But what about the sins of omission? Here, Victoria Schofield tells us about the stories we are not being told, and considers what we lose by not hearing them.
Why is poor President Woodrow Wilson so neglected? The nostalgic biopic of him made in 1944 is now confined to the dustbin of films no one would watch even if they could locate them. But if a new one were made, we might have a far better understanding of the demand for “self-determination” which resonates among so many peoples today.
If we saw, on our screens, the 28th US President proclaiming his “fourteen points” during the dark days of the First World War, at a time when the old bonds of empire in Europe and the Middle East were being rejected, we might better understand the objective behind the creation of nation states. And we’d be far better informed if we understood that the foundation of our democratic political thinking stems from the ideals he propounded. His suggestion for a League of Nations, for example, was the precursor of the United Nations established after the Second World War and still in existence today.
Yet the life of Woodrow Wilson, whose stroke in the 1919 was kept a secret while he was still President, had none of the drama of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, nor the glamour of the assassinated John F Kennedy, nor the eminence of the US’s next wartime President during the Second World War, Franklin D. Roosevelt. So popular knowledge of his contribution to democracy – and hence a deeper understanding of it – has been lost.
Our traditional opinion of the People’s Republic of China was of a closed society, with inhabitants suspicious of the foreigners who wanted to trade from its shores, and whose Emperors built a Great Wall to keep others out. But as China emerges as an international world power, hungry for trading opportunities, that perception has changed.
Its representatives travel to Africa and Central Asia, and its students study happily in Europe and America. They’ve stolen a march on American and European school children who are suddenly attempting to learn Mandarin to bridge the cultural divide.
But what if we’d known that long before Columbus crossed the Atlantic or Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, Chinese ships were already plying their wares across the Indian ocean, among the first easterners to travel west?
Why no epic feature film about Zheng He, explorer, diplomat, fleet admiral and eunuch in the service of the Ming Emperor, who led these expeditions? If it had, we might have been better prepared when China awoke from its commmunist isolationism, knowing that the precedent for international travel was set over five hundred years ago.
Mers el Kebir
Before the Bayeux Tapestry – depicting the bloody Norman conquest of Britain – embarks on its maiden voyage across the Channel, and in the wake of President Macron signing the Sandhurst Treaty in preparation for a new post-Brexit relationship, why not grasp the nettle and make a credible film about a still controversial episode in our shared history: the destruction by the Royal Navy of the French fleet at Mers el Kebir in July 1940 after the French armistice with Nazi Germany?
Nearly 80 years on, Mers el Kebir remains taboo, the French still indignant at the British action, the British believing they were justified lest French warships fell into German hands. Such a film, less dreamily romantic than Casablanca (1942), but with a well-crafted dramatisation of the naval operation, could replace the continuing sense of betrayal inculcated in generations of French with a more measured view.
They could learn, for example, that an alternative was offered (sailing the French fleet to the West Indies), but that, after prolonged negotiations, French Admiral René Emile-Godfroy rejected it. And we in Britain might begin to understand why the French still mourn more than 1,000 sailors who were killed, and why they consider us so guardedly.
A well-known feature of the map of South East Asia is the small sovereign city-state of Singapore, strategically located at the tip of Malaysia with one main island and sixty-two islets.
Perfectly poised between East and West, the global financial centre guards its independence jealously and packs a powerful economic punch.
But it wasn’t ever thus. Much of its success is down to the foresight of its colourful founder Stamford Raffles who, fascinated by the Malayan histories he had read, wanted to secure a British presence in the area.
So why not tell his tale: the British statesman who was born on a ship off Jamaica in 1781, was involved in the conquest of Java, and who contributed so significantly to the expansion of the British Empire. He died owing thousands in 1826 and, given his anti-slavery stance, wasn’t allowed to be buried within the churchyard.
We know his name from the hotel, and his statue adorns the quayside – but is that enough? What about the story of how one man’s vision and determination secured and “civilised” the territory for Britain. And, how, thanks to the foundations he laid, it grew to become a microcosm of the world’s economic, demographic, technological and cultural trends.
The Treaty of Shimonoseki
We know about the Cairo Declaration, thanks to Geoff Heath-Taylor and his fake film piece. But what about The Treaty of Shimonoseki? When the first peace treaty between the two nations was signed, in 1895, by His Majesty the Emperor of Japan and His Majesty the Emperor of China, it also signed the death warrant for Sino-Japanese relations. Perhaps, if we knew more about it, we would understand how it led to old rivalries and territorial claims re-surfacing in the 20th century, leaving the two countries on opposing sides during the Second World War.
We might also understand more about the history of Korea, whose independence, by the terms of the treaty, China was forced to recognise, but which Japan then occupied until 1945. More comprehensible too would be why, during the Korean war in the 1950s, China was prepared to play such a pivotal role to safeguard its influence and why, even today, the Chinese government cannot fully relinquish its influence over North Korea. And with Trump in the White House, a keen understanding of this relationship is more important than ever.
Zahir-ud Din Muhammad
Everyone knows that South Asia – the Indian subcontinent – was partitioned into predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947. We also know that the two countries have never managed to develop an amicable relationship. The traditional explanation for their enmity being the claim they both have over the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. But the underlying reason escapes us.
But what if Hollywood, instead of focusing on Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan, had considered Zahir-ud Din Muhammad, alias Babur, an adventurer from Uzbekistan? Given that he was also the founder of the Mogul dynasty in India and his rule marked the beginnings of an elite Islamic presence lasting for over 300 years, we’d certainly have a greater understanding of the fractious relations between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia.
Fast-forward to 1947, and Britain’s departure from India, the Muslims were faced with having to share power with the numerically superior (but to them culturally inferior) Hindus. Their reluctance to become subsumed into a one-man one-vote united India became the basis for the demand for Pakistan. If Babur had been popularised, we might have developed a greater understanding of why consensus was so hard to reach. and consequently have a greater understanding of the region’s instability today.