Alexander Knox as Woodrow Wilson in 1943 biopic
Hollywood biopics have commonly fictionalized their subjects’ exploits and had deliberate political messages. We might have avoided some disasters if the films had been more honest, TAC correspondent Mike Gray notes.

Biopics and Politics

By Mike Gray

Unlike today, when filmmakers and studios seem immune to market forces, judging by the number of apparently deliberately displeasing movies they make, Hollywood in the ’40s could always be relied on to produce an entertaining product. A prime example would be Rhapsody in Blue (1945), one of many biopics Tinsel Town manufactured during that era.

The film certainly veers away from the truth about George Gershwin’s life, in typical Hollywood fashion, adding dramatic conflicts where none ever existed. (One of the film’s stars, acerbic Oscar Levant and friend of Gershwin, remarked afterward, "Even the lies about Gershwin were being distorted.")  Whenever I watch Rhapsody in Blue, it’s always for the wonderful music, not the drama.

Occasionally the Dream Factory wants to send a message, and a biopic is the conveyance. Take Patton (1970), for instance. The United States was involved in a shooting war in Southeast Asia at the time, and as with the other major war film of the era, M*A*S*H, the audience was expected to extrapolate from World War II and the Korean War to the Vietnamese conflict, connect the dots, and conclude that not only is war hell but it’s always conducted by gung ho lunatics who don’t really know what they’re doing.

Patton, the film tries to tell us, was a fascinating personality, but like everybody in the military above the rank of buck private, he was one dangerous wingnut. That’s what we’re evidently intended to take away from Patton.

But returning to Hollywood in the ’40s, let’s consider another biopic, a prestige picture instigated, birthed, and nurtured by Darryl F. Zanuck, a fascinating personality himself. Wilson (1944) was a labor of love for Zanuck. For some reason, he believed a film about the life and travails of President Woodrow Wilson would not only make for good drama but also good politics. (It was artfully premiered in New York and L. A. in August 1944, just in time for the political conventions. Sound familiar?)

The viewing public had other ideas: the film flopped at the box office. Whether this was due to its content or length (two-and-a-half hours), or both, is problematic.

Unlike many biopics, Wilson doesn’t deal with its subject’s childhood. Instead, it starts in 1909, with Wilson a professor at Princeton, and ends around 1921. It’s what happens in between, as depicted in the film, that might draw more than a few revisionist historians up short.

Now, there’s no disputing the fact that Hollywood, since its inception, has been overwhelmingly liberal in its politics and unafraid and unapologetic about it. (Near the end of one musical number in a ’30s film the FDR New Deal symbol, an eagle, suddenly appears out of nowhere. A Nazi or Soviet film wouldn’t have been less subtle.)

Nationalistic patriotism is always a good box office draw, but how about propaganda promoting world governance?

How well does that play in Des Moines? If Wilson is any example, not too well.

It’s made perfectly clear that Wilson is a plea for acceptance of the then-nascent United Nations.  Even though the movie ends with Wilson’s heroic efforts at establishing a League of Nations going down in defeat, the audience is clearly expected to extrapolate from the League to the UN, connect the dots, and conclude that, hey, the guy was right all along.

Looking at the current world situation at the time, with the concerted efforts of freedom-loving nations united together to lick those sneaky so-and-so’s who bombed Pearl Harbor and overran Europe, audiences were surely expected to draw the conclusion that Wilson was right about the wisdom of pursuing international crusades. And that, I contend, is exactly what Zanuck had in mind. 

As for Wilson himself, who could cavil about the man? Wasn’t he one of our greatest presidents, reluctant at first to get involved in Europe’s squabbles but decisive about defeating the Hun once we were forced to commit our forces in battle?

According to Jonah Goldberg, in his book ‘Liberal Fascism,’ Wilson wasn’t all that great:

Historically, fascism is the product of democracy gone mad. In America we’ve chosen not to discuss the madness our Republic endured at Wilson’s hands—even though we live with the consequences to this day. Like a family that pretends the father never drank too much and the mother never had a nervous breakdown, we’ve moved on as if it were all a bad dream we don’t really remember, even as we carry around the baggage of that dysfunction to this day. The motivation for this selective amnesia is equal parts shame, laziness, and ideology. In a society where Joe McCarthy must be the greatest devil of American history, it would not be convenient to mention that the George Washington of modern liberalism was the far greater inquisitor and that the other founding fathers of American liberalism were far crueler jingoists and warmongers than modern conservatives have ever been. . . .

Wilson would later argue when president that he was the right hand of God and that to stand against him was to thwart divine will. Some thought this was simply proof of power corrupting Wilson, but this was his view from the outset. He always took the side of power, believing that power accrued to whoever was truly on God’s side. . . .

War socialism under Wilson was an entirely progressive project, and long after the war it remained the liberal ideal. To this day liberals instinctively and automatically see war as an excuse to expand government control of vast swaths of the economy. If we are to believe that "classic" fascism is first and foremost the elevation of martial values and the militarization of government and society under the banner of nationalism, it is very difficult to understand why the Progressive Era was not also the Fascist Era. . . .

(Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism, pp. 81-82, 85, and 119.)

Hollywood is still trying to send messages through biopics. The latest attempt is Oliver Stone’s politically motivated W. Can you imagine the furor that would have resulted if some Tinsel Town maverick in the ’40s had attempted to humiliate then-sitting President Franklin D. Roosevelt while he was engaged in trying to win a shooting war overseas?

Truth to tell, it couldn’t have happened then, because liberal Hollywood was in the tank for a liberal president. But because Tinsel Town collectively suffers from a recent psychological malady known as Bush Derangement Syndrome, it’s the overwhelmingly preferred approach in today’s Hollywood.

The supreme irony of all this is that George Bush apparently sees himself as another Woodrow Wilson, the next right hand of God destined to set the world aright.

Perhaps if Zanuck had gotten Wilson’s story right, we’d have been spared a good deal of horror in the years since.