Screening History is a collection of three autobiographical essays by Gore Vidal that revolve around his experience of film. Reading the book is a one of a kind experience in itself. Vidal weaves the display of history on the screen with his own history during the Great Depression, then World War Two and finally, his own attempts at creating drama for the screen in television and film. It’s a fascinating mélange of topics that all relate to each other in a very conversational way and provide real insight on the true nature of society by a man who is utterly unafraid to tell it like it is, and at the same time seems to have no self-pity about it, which is not only refreshing but surprising. The through line however, remains history. “From earliest days, the movies have been screening history, and if one saw enough movies, one learned quite a lot of simple-minded history . . . In retrospect, it is curious how much history was screened in those days.” At the time his essays were written, films and television had seemingly abandoned history for contemporary themes and stories. But Vidal even managed to see that in a positive light as well. “Fortunately, with time even the most contemporary movie undergoes metamorphosis, becomes history as we get to see real life as it was when the film was made . . .”
The first essay is The Prince and the Pauper and it begins with Vidal as a child, growing up devouring literature but at the same time fascinated with the movies. But it is also a critical look at the anti-intellectualism of the time. Not only had literature gone out of fashion (as it has continued to do) but films had replaced literature as the connective tissue of the society: “Movies are the lingua franca of the twentieth century . . . Today, where literature was movies are . . . Art is now sight and sound; and the books are shut.” What really stands out about his reminiscences, however, is the way in which films were watched when he was a boy. “It must be recalled that in those days if you saw a movie once, that was that. Odds were slim that you would ever see it again . . . since we knew that we would have only the one encounter, we learned how to concentrate totally.” Vidal equates the film itself, a frothy Errol Flynn essay of the Mark Twain classic by Warner Brothers, with his own experience of the Depression. He himself was a prince who grew up in a privileged household and yet all at once became aware that there were others less fortunate than himself and his family, a country full of paupers. He ends the essay by looking at death, especially as the young prince is nearly executed, not for answers but for a reiteration of the idea of a satisfying acknowledgement of cessation of existence that is almost impossible for young children to understand.
Vidal’s second essay concerns the British film Fire Over England, but only in the way that England once again manipulated the United States into war. His larger aim is not only to recount his own memories of adolescence during the war but to look at the role of the media in shaping (Vidal would probably say creating) our view of everything outside our personal experience. “I may have given the impression that I was going to confine myself to those ninety-minute entertainments that were screened in the theaters of my youth. Actually, my subject is how, through ear and eye, we are both defined and manipulated by fictions of such potency that they are able to replace our own experience, often becoming our sole experience of reality.” During the Depression Vidal notes how all of Hollywood seemed to be under the thrall of Britain. There were films in the very early thirties about American icons, like W.D. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln from 1930, or Warner Brothers’ Alexander Hamilton from the following year, but overall, “On our screens, in the thirties, it seemed as if the only country on earth was England and there were no great personages who were not English, or impersonated by English Actors.” As far as the film itself goes, Fire Over England is concerned with the ever-present Hollywood contention between the England of Elizabeth I and King Philip of Spain, a convenient substitute for the England of George VI and Hitler’s Germany. “Historical pieces could always conceal messages, since studios were certain that nothing that happened then could every have anything at all to do with now.”
In his essay on Lincoln, Vidal bemoans the lack of American icons in film and recounts his simultaneous obsession with the sixteenth president. And yet again, none of that really culminates in discussing his own novel, Lincoln, or the subsequent TV movie made of the book. Interestingly, his first real point is about Jefferson and his atheistic emphasis on the living rather than the dominant religious view in our country, “a sectarian society such as ours where we are expected to endure meekly our brief transit through a vale of tears en route to an eternity of bliss.” After that he reminisces about his army experience during the war and the death of FDR. This is followed by some of the television dramas and Hollywood screenplays he wrote but all overlaid with the inability of the motion picture industry to really delve into American mythology in any meaningful way. “The black population always got the point to the slave-owning Virginia founding fathers, which means that our history, properly screened, is a potential hornet’s nest.” Though HBO would go on to produce a remarkable series on the country’s founding, John Adams, the industry has yet to deal with Washington and Jefferson in any definitive way. Screening History is a remarkable reminiscence, and while Hollywood only figures into the narrative tangentially, it is a remarkable work and easily recommended.