Remembering 1942 - 2002 History Conference

Converting history into film
Michael Caulfield

In 1918, in a world full of mourning and weary disillusionment, H.G. Wells sat down to write his opus, The outline of history. It was in Wells' words, nothing more or less than "A Plain History of Life and Mankind", beginning with the Big Bang and ceasing (for the time being) with the end of the Great War. He continued to revise the book through several editions until 1939.

Wells understood that he was entering an arena where his credentials were meagre. "I am not in any professional sense an historian", he wrote. "But I have been making out my own private Outline of History from the beginnings of my career. I have always been preoccupied with history as one whole and with the general forces that make history. It is the twist of my mind."

I have come to understand that it is the twist of my mind as well. But I am neither as brave nor as Renaissance a man as H. G. Wells. Where he allowed his opinions and conclusions to be pinned fast to the pages of a book where analysis and criticism could be employed at leisure, mine are fastened to the ephemeral wings of films, sent out into the ether that is the world of television.

Nonetheless, H. G. Wells and I have faced the same problem - the converting of history into another form. Though I had made a number of historical films, it was not until I began the production that was to become the television series, Australians at War, that I came across Wells's words in the introduction to his book. I'd like to read a section of it to you now, as it goes some way to explaining the process that the historical filmmaker can often undergo:

For a time I hesitated before the epic immensity of this broadening task. I asked myself whether this was not rather a work for an historian than for one whose chief writings hitherto had been either speculative essays or works of fiction. But there did not seem to be any historian available who was sufficiently superficial, shall we say - sufficiently wide and sufficiently shallow to cover the vast field of the project.

Historians are for the most part very scholarly people nowadays: they go in fear rather of small errors than of disconnectedness; they dread the certain ridicule of a wrong date more than the disputable attribution of a wrong value. It is right and proper that this should be so, and that in a hasty and headlong age a whole class of devoted men and women should maintain an exacting standard of fine precisions. But these high standards of detailed accuracy make it hopeless for us to go to the historians for what is required here. For them this would not be an attractive but a distressing task. To them one must look for accumulated material, rather than for assembled and massed effects. They are, indeed, giving us now, in numerous volumes by many hands, from many points of view and in a pleasing diversity of spirit and intention, great and noble compilations, of extreme value to students. But these magnificent performances are, for the everyday purposes of the ordinary citizen traveling about in life, as impressive and as useful for handy guidance as a many-volumed encyclopaedia.

One might argue that what Wells is suggesting is what we now inelegantly call "dumbing down." - pushing complex ideas and understandings through a small-holed sieve till only the simplest and most easily understood survive. But, in my view, Wells has hit upon the central problem that faces any filmmaker who desires to make history the subject of a film - in the telling of the story, what do you include, and, by implication, what do you leave out? For there is no question that given the nature of the medium, the ruthlessness of the programmers, the tolerance of the audience and the inevitable budget and time constraints, the material you regretfully discard will be of far greater size than that which is used.

Film is a medium of compression that communicates through image and sound, these days to the most visually literate and intellectually restless audience in the history of the world. What that means to a filmmaker is that you are attempting to communicate the most complex level of information you can, to the greatest possible depth of both emotion and intellect, in the shortest possible time. And all that with the curious quality loosely described as "being entertaining" laid on top, because if you don't, that ever-watchful tyrant of the lounge room, the remote control, will unfeelingly consign you to oblivion. And I do mean oblivion. If yesterday's newspaper can be described as today's fish and chips wrapping, what on earth could you call last night's television?

Now, this is merely the first set of problems for the historically inclined filmmaker. The second is one with which many of you may be familiar, for I suspect it lies at the heart of any attempt to record or define the past. I have no doubt that history converted into film is at best an approximate genre. It is subject to selective memories, hidden agendas and the ultimate hazard of survivors having the last word.

Let me detail an example. In 1988, I was producing a four-part television series called The Great Wall of Iron. It was the first historical documentary I had ever undertaken and revolved around the Peoples' Liberation Army of China - its history, its current state and its future. I had negotiated unparalleled access to most areas of the PLA's operations, including Tibet, with the Central Military Commission in Beijing. We had access to all their film and stills archives, their historians and their veterans. Outside China, we had gathered leading Sinologists and other military and historical specialists from various countries both as a research resource and for on-screen interviews. Our own research had been long and comprehensive and we naively believed that we were intellectually and practically equipped to begin what would be a year's filming and editing.

From day one of production all our assumptions were reduced to tatters. The PLA had an agenda that was neither hidden nor subtle and it centered around not just a revisionist view of their history but a deliberate and transparent attempt to ensure that only the official, Central government sanctioned version of modern, Chinese, military history was available to us. Our research viewing of film archives was rigorously overseen and meticulously noted. Footage that we knew existed (because we had watched it), would mysteriously disappear from the shelves when we ordered it, to be replaced by the Chinese with PLA propaganda films, each of which featured yet more brave sons of the soil dying in defence of the Motherland accompanied by a stirring rendition of that oldie but still a goodie: The Blood Red Flag. The resounding defeat of the PLA by Vietnam in the early 70s became in interviews with Chinese veterans: "the great and glorious victory by our forces over the hegemonist lackeys of Vietnam." And so on and so on. It came to a head on the day when the director requested a visit to the PLA submarine base (hidden inside a network of sea caves). Hurried and nervous conversations broke out among our accompanying military personnel; phone calls were made and ultimately our passports were taken and we cooled our heels inside a PLA hotel for a few days while the diplomatic niceties were sorted out. We retreated to Australia to regroup and rethink.

What eventuated over the next four months was an ongoing arm wrestle. We would determine a consensus of historical fact with historians and others outside China, return, and do battle with the political arm of the PLA. Piece by painful piece, the series was constructed, the sequences were shot and the archival footage was obtained by fair means and foul. To give you an idea of the block of marble that faced us, we began editing in Sydney for a four-hour series with approximately eighty hours of footage, both new and obtained. Then, in a final twist, when we had been editing for four weeks, the events in Tiananmen Square began, and we sat helplessly, watching the television in the cutting room as the entire raison d'être for the series changed. History had, itself, overtaken us.

Despite this troubled beginning, like H. G. Wells, I clearly had a "twist in my mind", and over the next ten years, I continued to produce films that were concerned with history, both large and small. But I'd like to fast forward past those and arrive at the most recent, one with which some of you will be familiar: Australians at War. In discussing the process of converting history into film, I feel it could be useful to detail some of the background and decisions that were a part of that project.

This was an eight-hour series, commissioned by the Federal Government and overseen by the Department of Veterans' Affairs in association with the Australian War Memorial and the ABC. It was, potentially, a filmmaker's nightmare. Over a hundred years of wartime history in just eight hours, and by the way, an hour of television on the ABC is actually 56 minutes. Take away two and a half minutes for credits and you're left with fifty-three and a half minutes of actual program time.

The series was to be guided by a committee called the Documentary Reference Group, the DRG, which contained members representing those with a stake in the outcome - the DVA, the Defence Department, the RSL, the Australian War Memorial and the Australian Army, Navy and Air Force. It had further creative controls placed upon it by the ABC and had to be delivered, ready for broadcast within a period of 18 months. Oh, and it also had to attract the widest possible audience, though with a strong leaning to the young, and of course, it had to be historically accurate in every sense. I do not think I will surprise anyone when I say that a number of agendas were placed firmly on the table with the clear understanding that they were to be both listened to and acted upon.

One agenda though, was established early on as the primary goal, and it became the core of the series. Everyone associated with the project believed that it should be populist in its approach. That is, that the "human" story should never be overwhelmed by discussions of military strategy or campaign history or the larger geopolitical matters. It was, in a sense, to be a history of "us" at war.

It was quite clear from the outset that the series would need a different visual style to those I had produced before. Firstly, the ratio of archive film and stills to newly filmed material would, of necessity, need to be considerably higher than I had previously experienced. Secondly, the use of standard "talking head" interviews would limit the amount of visual material available to the audience and run the risk of making the series static and uninteresting. Given my views about the visual literacy of the audience, I determined to film the interviews against what we call "green screen." Put simply, this method enables us to separate the interviewee from their real, physical background and replace that background with moving footage, stills or any number of visual layers to reflect the subject matter that is being spoken of, or suggest other tangents or to increase the quantity of the information on offer to the viewer. Thus, when Ted Smout, a First World War veteran, was talking on screen about life in Australia before 1914, the viewer saw not just Ted's face, but archival footage from the period, providing further information and understanding of the subject. In the short period of time that each episode allowed, this became a successful method of conveying as much information as possible, in the shortest possible time.

I should explain here that we broke down the eight hours into hour-long episodes. Episode One would introduce the series and tell the story of colonial conflicts, including the Boer War; Episodes Two and Three for the First World War; Episodes Four and Five for the Second World War; Episode Six for the Korean War; Seven for the Vietnam War; and the final one, Episode Eight, would deal with Peacekeeping, East Timor and a final summation, hopefully both prophetic and poetic.

Our greatest need was historical accuracy and what I would loosely describe as "informed perception." Of all the stories, events, battles, campaigns - of all the information available, for example, about Australians and their wars - what should we focus on in the available time?

In the past, I had involved historians in each of my films, but always in a limited role. Typically, they would be used during pre-production, when research is at its highest level and the shape of the film is being determined. But they would then be at a long-arm's length from the film, and if they were brought back in at all, it would be more often than not as a "fact-checker" during the writing of the narration.

But this method I felt, could not work on Australians at War. We had to find a way to bring our two disciplines together so that every decision we made concerning content and the relative importance of any matter was informed by the historians as well as the various stakeholders.

Ultimately, I wanted a "kitchen cabinet" of historians that could help us shape the entire series, supplemented by others who were specialists in the many conflicts we would cover.

Four historians formed that ongoing group and one specialist historian was added for each episode. They were joined by four directors (each responsible for two episodes), a researcher for each director, and then researchers who specialized in film and stills archives. In addition, we were given unstinting and perceptive assistance by the staff of the Australian War Memorial for the entire duration of the production.

Speaking as one of the four directors as well as the producer of the series, I can assure you that never were historians more eagerly awaited or more intensely used. Everyone on that production felt a keen responsibility to "get it right", whatever that might mean to each of us.

So, what was the process?

Each episode of the series was subjected to a workshop involving the directors, all the researchers, the cabinet of historians, the specialist historian, me, in my role as producer, and the executive producer from the ABC. These workshops, though chaired and adhering to broad agendas, were as free-flowing an intellectual exercise as I have been involved in and the conclusions that emanated from them formed the backbone of the series.

From there, the directors wrote the first drafts of each episode. These scripts were great, unwieldy beasts that struggled to contain and include every single matter that the historians had indicated was somehow important.

And now, the real meaning of 56 minutes (less credits) began to hit everyone. As the draft scripts of each episode went back and forth between the directors and me, on to the historians, to the ABC and the Documentary Reference Group, the most commonly heard cry was: "How could you possibly leave out...? Here insert the battle, individual or event of your choice. Inside the meetings of the DRG, the members fought for their various patches - the Navy could never get enough of events at sea and the Air Force was determined that now, at last, they would receive their proper due.

History became a personal passion for everyone associated with that series. The arguments were intense and passionate, but always about content, not ego. It was the most collegiate and supportive environment it has been my pleasure to enjoy on a film.

The process gathered speed. Every draft of every episode, then every rough cut, every fine cut, every word and picture that would go to air was viewed and commented on by all the players I have mentioned. Slowly, the block of marble was reduced, then reduced again, and again as historians, directors and committee members came to terms with the limitations of time. I developed an unfortunate reputation, and the most unfair nickname of "child killer", as I went from edit room to edit room, demanding the removal of yet another two minutes from this episode or that, taking away the director's favourite moment or scene - their baby.

Finally, it was completed, launched with the appropriate fanfare and released for the final judgement of its audience. For both the filmmakers and the historians, it ended with the conviction that we had done our best, and that we had enjoyed the deepest and most productive relationship that to date, any of us had experienced between academia and the world of films. Yet there were enduring frustrations. Time clearly, was the biggest. All of us believed that another eight hours of screen time would have served the story better. Some differences of opinion on the relative importance of this event or that endured long past the series' broadcast and often, what the historians saw as "old" information in the sense that in their world, it had been known for ages, was to the directors (and ultimately, the audience), a startling new fact or understanding.

Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes. In a heartbeat. For all the inadequacies of the medium, for all the inherent difficulties and disappointments of compression of information and understandings, the series worked and produced from its audience an outpouring of passion in letters, phone calls and e mails, the like of which I have never seen in a career of over 60 films.

And that, ultimately, is why this curious alchemy of converting history into film will continue. Film is the people's medium, the story telling mechanism of choice, and here, in Australia, the historians are often the gatekeepers of the stories that we filmmakers want to tell and the audience wants to see.

Those stories are many in number. We are, for example, yet to see the great Australian film about the Western Front, or the great Australian film about Kokoda. Potential films lurk in the material you will be discussing over the next two days - whether they might be documentaries or feature films or television dramas. It's easy for me to envisage films about the Australian guerillas in Timor or the fall of Singapore or General Gordon Bennett or Darwin or a social drama set against the background of Australia under threat of invasion or Bomber Command. And I think we would perhaps agree that the great film on POWs under the Japanese is yet to be made.

So, ladies and gentlemen, our relationship, however uneasy or troubled, is certain to continue. History after all, has all the best stories and filmmakers are addicted to telling stories and audiences to watching them. The only real words of advice I can offer are contained in Carl Sandburg's poem "Who Am I?"

My head knocks against the stars.
My feet are on the hilltops.
My finger-tips are in the valleys and shores of universal life.
Down in the sounding foam of primal things I reach my hands and play with pebbles of destiny.
I have been to hell and back many times.
I know all about heaven, for I have talked with God.
I dabble in the blood and guts of the terrible.
I know the passionate seizure of beauty
And the marvelous rebellion of man at all signs reading "Keep Off.
My name is Truth and I am the most elusive captive in the universe.


Mr Michael Caulfield is a filmmaker and writer based in Sydney. This was the keynote address at the conference.