Wood For the Trees: History as Drama

History as Drama

The recent film Le Mans ’66 represents an addition to the long tradition of transforming historical events into entertaining dramatic film narratives. Given that its centrepiece is one of the many famous races held at the Le Mans motor racing circuit it already has a built in dramatic edge but the film focuses mainly on the relationships between the people who had the imagination, power, courage and knowledge to change motor racing history.

For decades the Ferrari motor company was dominant in this form of motor racing where performance has to be matched by engineering consistency and endurance. These were thoroughbred cars where no expense was spared – both on the track and in its road cars. They were the cars for the rich elite to show off their wealth, and status and success at the race track was seen as essential in maintaining this image. In contrast to this the American car industry specialised in the ‘mass production’ that would bring down prices and so make cars accessible to most everyone. Primary among these was the Ford motor company and Henry Ford himself is usually identified as having instigated the alienated assembly line manufacturing process.

The film opens with Henry Ford’s son expressing a frustrated desire to give his cars a much more performance-oriented sexy image. To acquire such engineering credibility he was advised that winning the world’s most prestigious motor race (Le Mans 24hr race) would be the most assured way of entering the performance market. To do this Ford initially attempts to buy the cash-strapped Ferrari Company but its owner Enzo Ferrari finds a better deal with Fiat and in refusing Ford’s offer he insults the American company and its CEO. Furious at this Ford instructs his employees to construct their own car to win the Le Mans race. The film follows the technological and social implications of such hubris in terms of the antagonism between the personalities that were essential to its realisation. The conflicting traditions of capitalist production in America and Italy and their respective corporate hierarchies together with maverick designers and drivers, their egos and comradeship combined with the aesthetic of speed all converge to make this movie entertaining and informative.

The result was the famous Ford GT40 racing car which was a winning combination of British design (Lola) and Ford’s 427 racing engine tuned by Carroll Shelby and driven by hot-tempered Brit Ken Miles. The traditional trope of the soulless big corporation trying to keep control of the free spirits of the drivers and engineers is used to entertaining effect by emphasising that the only way to achieve their goal was somehow to synthesise the incompatible realities of capitalism and freedom. We can only speculate as to the number of examples of other such attempts in numerous walks of life that have failed to hold together under similar inherent contradictions – but then nobody would want to make a film about failure.

This is, of course, one of the flaws in any attempt to make drama out of history. Not that history is without drama but to condense events into a story with structure and meaning must always involve being selective, depending on who’s telling the story as much as with its subject. Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and countless other authors have not been inhibited in using historical events as the background to the stories that they wish to tell. It has become the job of many historians and archaeologists to try to unravel the myths and legends that have become so inextricably linked with our understanding of the past. Indeed many within those professions were themselves initially attracted to history by those same legends and myths.

Most of us enjoy a story where the ‘underdog’ or ‘maverick’ individual overcomes the conditioning and control of the powerful. Many are unaware of the political implications of this desire to escape the dead alienating prison of capitalism and can only express it by vicariously enjoying the escapism provided by drama. The heroes of the past express our anger in a positive way rather than the everyday negativity of conforming to tribalism, prejudice and competitiveness because of fear and political ignorance. Humankind has always loved to discover and/or impose patterns on existence. Dramatic stories provide meaning and structure to the chaos of life but this need we all possess must not be allowed to eclipse or disguise other more uncomfortable perspectives. We are all aware of such travesties of history in films like: Birth of a Nation, Quo Vadis, Braveheart and Kingdom of Heaven. Such movies emphasise the danger of conflating history and drama especially because they are aesthetically pleasing with a good story, good acting and great scripts. Stories are used to obfuscate historical truths as often as they can illuminate them — the next time you read the legend ‘what follows is based on real events’ at the beginning of a film always bear this in mind.