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Many years ago, I was watching a taxicab scene in It’s Always Fair Weather, a great 1955 film, when I noticed something strange, almost Twilight Zone-ish going on: the traffic seen out of the back window of the cab, which rolls on for minutes, is something I’ve seen before. Where? I realized that it was an extended driving scene of a not exactly obscure 1972 film, The Godfather. How did they do that?
That scene in Godfather takes place in 1945-’46 when mafia lieutenant Peter Clemenza and his “boys” take a ride into Manhattan to buy deloused mattresses for an extended stay in a hideout during a gang war. They get into a shiny dark Lincoln on a suburban street in south Queens and drive into the busy streets of the city, all beautifully filmed in nostalgic color, before having to abandon that great car because a traitor’s blood (“Paulie sold out the Old Man!”) gets all over the windshield. The car is so authentic to the period that we briefly notice it still has a war rationing sticker.
The scene of the car driving around the city could have been “real”, that is, made by the Godfather crew, but after about a half-mile of New York rolls by, you know that even Paramount Pictures didn’t have enough money to “dress” ten city blocks with cars, pedestrians, and street signs. Realistically it has to be a stock shot, actually filmed in the Forties. But why does it look so good, and match the look of the “modern” filming perfectly?
Because Francis Coppola and his crew worked backwards. First, they found the very best Technicolor film of New York City driving they could find—steady, scratch-free film with vivid, unfaded colors. Then they identified the year and model of the Lincoln in the chosen shots and bought the best survivor they could find in 1971, repainting it to match the one in the clip, even duplicating its ration sticker. The transitions between the ’46 and the ’71 shots were all but invisible. Nowadays, for any kind of good quality film set in an earlier time period, this kind of detail is routine. But at the time it was almost revolutionary, setting higher standards that would last.
There are films that use these editing and special visual effects techniques to connect fictional characters filmed today with the real-life past. Having skilled actors play historical figures the way you’d like to imagine them has to be one of the greatest political privileges available to artists. And even better when you can enlist the borrowed authority of actual film of the era.
In the Line of Fire (1993) combined historical footage with flashbacks of the Secret Service agent (Clint Eastwood) in Dallas in 1963. The filmmakers sought out a special kind of “stock footage”; any high-quality unused color shots of Eastwood from movies made in or just after the Sixties. They found some, and were careful not to overdo it.
The Right Stuff (1983) used real footage of John F. Kennedy presenting astronaut Alan Shepard with a medal, and replaced Shepard’s image with the actor who portrayed him in the film, Scott Glenn. It’s cleverly done; since it was news footage, with its occasional spectator partly blocking a shot with the blurred backs of their heads, Phil Kaufman’s team inserted one partly in front of Kennedy so the main object of the shot is JFK and the actor.
Forrest Gump (1994) did the same thing with a doctored ceremonial shot of Richard Nixon, his voice dubbed so he seems to be making an ill-fated suggestion to Gump that the newly decorated veteran ought to stay at the Watergate Hotel. As big a Nixon fan as I am, I don’t have any trouble with that, because there’s no special satirical barb there; it’s a satirical comedy that no serious person would take as real history. For that matter, I doubt JFK’s fans were upset by tampering with historical footage to insert a modern-day actor; again, there’s nothing truly manipulative there, and it reinforces Kennedy’s longtime image, whether it’s totally fair or not, of being the patron saint of the space program.
It’s usually all too easy to tell when a movie or TV show is using “stock”, a generic shot of, say, the New York skyline or an Iowa farmhouse, used to introduce a scene with live actors filmed in a studio. It’s such a timesaving cliché of storytelling that we don’t even pay attention to it unless it’s too obvious—like if the stock clip is scratched and jittery, too contrasty or bright, or the colors and costumes look too different when you make the jump.
But when it’s done right, this kind of movie magic has the potential to be misused. In 1985, Ted Koppel began a Nightline segment while standing on a doorstep in Gdansk, birthplace of the Solidarity movement, then a major force rocking Communist Europe. When he spoke the words “But I’ve never been to Gdansk”, the background disappeared and he was standing in front of a green screen. That was his point: today, we know the difference. In decades to come, he asked 36 years ago, as technical methods improve and memory of real events fades, will we know the difference then? Well, future, we’re here.
The films I’ve cited here were all made on photographic film, before the era of digital visual effects. Those new techniques are remarkable, beyond anything that Hollywood had before. But no matter what anyone tells you, no, you still can’t fake absolutely anything, even today. The smartest, most likely to be believed way of manipulating history is not to create visual lies from the ground up, but to repurpose high-quality existing footage in a misleading way. Over time, that’ll be easier and easier.
Of course, this whole topic ignores the distant, pre-cinema past that is beyond our powers to employ as part of today’s images. My concern is the recent past, recent enough to leave us dramatically convincing, high-quality film or videotape of the times.
It’s a somewhat grim prospect, having to expect to spend some effort in perpetuity, guarding the actual truth, but that’s the eternal struggle of history, long before we had fleeting visual cues of past reality, stored in moving picture archives.
I’ll close on a lighter, if still sardonic note about the misuse of existing film footage to rewrite history. When Bruce Lee, star of Enter the Dragon, died unexpectedly at age 32 in 1973, a Hong Kong film producer put together a cheapie called Exit the Dragon, Enter the Tiger, starring a hitherto unknown young actor named Bruce “Li”. Under his real name, Ho Chung-Tao, he’d played extras and tiny, two-line bit parts in HK films, including Bruce Lee’s. The Exit producers took the handful of shots, mostly brief crowd scenes, that had the dead star, Lee, and the nobody they groomed as his successor, “Li”, and used discarded footage and extensive line redubbing to create a master-and-student relationship between them that never existed. “If I am killed, I need you to avenge me”, says the fake voice of Bruce Lee.
Fake history! But in truth, probably not the most consequential we’ll ever live to see.Published in