Spaniards off the hook? Plus Hollywood-bashing!

Also via Mirabilis, there appears to be evidence that, contrary to what you’ve been told all your life, the Spanish did not in fact destroy the Aztec civilization by bringing in smallpox, to which the native Americans had no immunity. It appears from this article that the Aztecs knew all about smallpox long before the white man came, and the disease that devastated their empire was nothing like it. The Spanish probably won’t escape all blame, since the deaths are still blamed on lowered resistance due to the enslavement of the natives, but the easy explanation (as is so often the case) may well be wrong.

This may change the way some books are written on the subject. Won’t change movies, though. Not for a long time. You can be sure of that.

I was thinking about Hollywood and nuance today. Hollywood people like to think that they are much more sophisticated and nuanced in their thinking than Jethro in Flyover Land.

But by and large, it seems to me, movies tend to be essentially black and white.

One of my favorite movies is The Outlaw Josey Wales. Perhaps the last great “classic western” (as I’d define it) ever made. I’ve read the book Gone To Texas, by Forrest Carter, on which it was based. One difference between the book and the movie that hit me right off was that in the book Josey’s young friend is wounded as he and Josey are robbing a bank. In the movie, the boy is shot with all his comrades as he tries to surrender to the Union Army, at the end of the Civil War. It’s all the fruit of a plot by an evil (clearly Republican) senator.

Hollywood can’t resist making this kind of change. Nuance is for books. In movies, we have to judge people by their actions. If you (the filmmaker) want us to like a character, you’ve got to show him doing wonderful, wonderful things. If you want us to hate a character, you show him eating babies, lynching blacks, or cutting taxes. These broad, semaphoric signals are part of the vocabulary Hollywood inherited from the silent era, and they’ve never really strayed far from it.

More examples, from a couple more westerns: In The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, with Paul Newman, the salty but lovable judge hangs a Texas cowboy for killing a Chinese man, although the cowboy protests that it’s not “against the law to kill a Chinaman!”

The original legendary story (which may or may not be true), had Judge Bean bringing the cowboy to trial, only to find himself surrounded by a large crowd of the cowboy’s heavily armed friends, ready to rescue him by force and shoot up the town. Bean is supposed to have flipped through his law book and to have said, “I don’t see anyplace in here where it says it’s against the law to kill a Chinaman!” So he let the fellow go.

Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman, is a good movie, but not nearly as thoughtful as the book it was based on, written by Thomas Berger. The movie begins with the hero and his sister being rescued by Cheyenne braves from a massacre committed by another tribe (I forget which one offhand). In the book, it was the Cheyenne themselves who performed the massacre, under the influence of alcohol, sparing the children on a whim. The children grow to love the Cheyenne anyway. The book was a multifaceted picture of the real conflicts and moral dilemmas involved in the opening of the American West. The movie was an Indian tract.

Remember these things the next time a Hollywood celebrity lectures you on nuance.

5 thoughts on “Spaniards off the hook? Plus Hollywood-bashing!”

  1. to be honest, I think the medium itself is incapable of holding more than a certain amount of nuance. That plot change in Outlaw Josey Wales, though, is particularly egregious: it sounds like the original point was that Wales himself was partly to blame for what happened to the boy, and a legitimate way of pointing up the horrors and unfairness of violence (which theme Eastwood is usually onboard w/ in his movies, so it’s particularly puzzling).

  2. I see it as a difference in world views. Carter wrote a (relatively) realistic novel about the post-Civil War life of a former Quantrillian. The moviemakers wanted to make a statement about the individual vs. the System. It has the advantage of raising the stakes, which is always good in a dramatic sense. But it gives a false sense of history, as well as beating a dead political horse.

  3. First of all, congratulations on moving away from Blogspot. The new design is simpler (and much better), and it loads noticeably faster.

    As for the smallpox/Aztec issue, this comes as a complete surprise for me, at least because in my country (Paraguay) we were never told that. What happened was that the Spanish overtook the Aztec empire by force and wise strategy (or cunning, whatever your cup of tea might be). The Aztecs and other indigenous peoples became subjects to the King of Spain and they were more or less assimilated to a Christendom-like Western civilization, that’s all. Even more: just go now and hunt for some immigrants working in the Southern California fields, and you will see lots of people speaking in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and for whom Spanish is still a second language.

    Great blog. Keep the good posts coming!

  4. Interesting. Perhaps people are correcting an error that nobody made in the first place? Probably wouldn’t be the first time.

    I do know that in the United States, the smallpox narrative is very common. But I have an idea it may be true in North America. I wonder if smallpox was known to the Aztecs but not to Indians farther north…

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