Peter Hankoff on the Great Divide Between Hollywood and History

by Jane Boursaw on July 8, 2010

peter-hankoff-historical-documentaries I recently had the opportunity to talk with award-winning documentarian Peter Hankoff, who weighed in on the gap between history and Hollywood – something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

Peter has traveled from Auschwitz and Hitler’s bunker to Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor to get a better understanding of what really happened at these historical places.

As a writer, producer and director, he’s helmed dozens of historically-themed documentaries, including ‘Secret Voice of Hitler’ (National Geographic), ‘Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell: The Auschwitz Albums’ (National Geographic) and programs for ‘Unsolved History’ (Discovery Channel). He’s currently working on his tenth show about Nazis.

Read on for his thoughts on fictional heroes, Hitler’s demise, and ‘The Rat Patrol.’

Jane: So, how big IS the gap? Does Hollywood get it right most of the time, or is there usually a big divide between real-life history and our movie and TV screens?

Peter: There’s a good mix of real and fake history. Things are condensed a lot of the time because dramatic structure is key. And c’mon, there are so many bogus love stories shoehorned into the plot to keep some structures alive while the audience is waiting for the a) big attack, b) assassination, or c) the whatever it is we hope will somehow give us satisfaction. The smaller stories feel more real to me a lot of the times, maybe because it gives me time to think, “Hey, I could be that guy” or “I wonder where they go to the bathroom.”

humphrey-bogart-signature-collection-dvd Has it gotten better over the past 60 or 70 years? It seems like films and TV shows are more true to life now than they were back when John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart were making war movies.

In the old days, the studios had amazing story and research departments, and made painstaking attempts to get a lot of stuff right, but then there was the movie code and the expectations about stars and the studio system to fight with all that. And there are so many seamy aspects of human nature that have pervaded history … but not dodged the Hays code [a set of industry censorship guidelines which governed the vast majority of U.S. motion pictures from 1930 to 1968].

Bogart made a great hero, and so did John Wayne. But if you’ve ever seen ‘Conqueror,’ you’d know that John Wayne is a better cowboy than a Hun (or whatever he was supposed to be) on horseback. Bogart had that great dog face to make him a believable soldier, but I don’t think I could’ve bought him as a pirate.

Today with the help of computer graphics, the realism really shines. There was once a time when ‘a cast of thousands’ movie really had thousands on the screen. Today they look just as convincing. ‘Gladiator’ is a great example of something that really felt real.

the-pacific-james-badge-dale Which TV shows or movies have done a great job telling the truth? We recently watched ‘The Pacific,’ and it seems like they didn’t sugarcoat things at all. Is that a good example of a series that got it right?

I thought a lot of ‘The Pacific’ was excellent in terms of mood and hardware and uniforms and locale. But watching that would not be enough to ace a test on the War in The Pacific. Most people don’t realize that the Battle of Iwo Jima went on for another month AFTER the flag was raised atop Mt. Suribachi. ‘Deadwood’ is another favorite of mine. Whether or not cowboys swore like sailors is moot. I bought it … and I think it made the old west more accessible to a new generation.

What about ‘Valkyrie’ and ‘Inglourious Basterds’? Truth or fiction?

Truth or fiction? There is a third choice: fun. ‘Valkyrie’ got a lot of details right, but Tom Cruise is still Tom Cruise. As far as ‘Basterds’ goes, that was a great fantasy with a terrific villain. My one worry is that a lot of people might think that Hitler was actually killed in a Parisian movie theatre … by the way, he wasn’t.

Which shows or movies have done the WORST job of telling the truth?

My guilty pleasure has always been the 1960s series ‘The Rat Patrol’ — a World War II action show set in the desert of North Africa. I used to watch it as a kid with my best friend. His dad was in Patton’s army and was on a tank in North Africa. Every time the show came on, he’d get really mad and yell, "A jeep can’t kill a tank!" 

Any intel on whether George Lucas gets it right for ‘Red Tails,’ his film about African-American pilots during WWII?

I don’t have any specific information, but if you look at Lucas’ body of work, I’d bet he’ll get a lot of those details right.

Do you feel like people get their news from Hollywood? Or will people delve a little deeper to get the truth?

On good days, I believe people take time to find the full answers, especially since the Internet is at our finger tips. But it, too, can be misleading. History is the most important subject in school, and the one that gets short shrift. It teaches critical thinking, practical writing and research. We live in an era in which people want multiple choice answers to essay questions. If that trend continues, our culture will only have one answer: "none of the above."

Anything else you want to add?

I feel people love history because it tells the story of us, and we want context and understanding — to see that we aren’t the only fools to walk the planet and to learn from the mistakes of the fools who came before us. There are a lot of traditionalists who bend history for their own purposes — it happens every day. The more information we have, the more chance we have to create a better future. The true heroes are the ones who ask "how?" and "why?"

Then again, the more we really learn about history — and what better way than to do it through the visual media — the more chances we have to see that without change, the status quo would have us still stuck in caves or living as slaves.

Images: HBO, Warner Bros., Peter Hankoff

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kerry Dexter July 9, 2010 at 2:14 pm

nice interview, Jane. like his points on why people like history.

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