Dartmouth Film Society Offers a Most Excellent Look at Historical Films

Can 24 years really have passed since that great Hollywood epic Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was first released? Dude! No! Way! Yes, way! Time may not have been kind to the fairly cheesy special effects, and heaven knows, it has not been kind to the damsels and dudes sporting 1980s Chia-pet perms and foxy mullets, but ye immortal dialogue shall last forever.

A movie that popularized the catch phrases, “Most excellent,” “bogus” and “heinous” and “strange things are afoot at the Circle K” deserves its cult reputation. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are most excellent at playing dumb, and George Carlin makes an appearance doing his best and most inscrutable George Carlin imitation.

So it’s fitting that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which spoofs history, kicks off the Dartmouth Film Society’s winter series on “Historical Fiction” tonight at 9 p.m. at the new Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center. After all, many Hollywood historical epics have had as much relation to real history as Bill and Ted’s befuddled understanding of historical fact.

But there’s no doubt that filmmakers realized early on just what a powerful medium they had to sway public opinion, stir passions and reflect, and in some cases, manufacture history. None of the films in the “Historical Fiction” have been charged with actually making up events, but certainly dramatic license is taken.

The list of movies being shown includes such recent, much-praised films as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, about the operation to capture and kill Osama bin Laden, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, as well as the controversial Quentin Tarantino film about slavery, Django Unchained, a movie about which it seems impossible to be indifferent: the people who admire it really admire it while the critics who hate it, loathe it.

The latest adaptation of Anna Karenina, with a script by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Wright, screens in March. And there are a number of terrific films showing: Robert Altman’s MASH, the old Western Destry Rides Again, with Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart, and the shrewd adaptation by Emma Thompson of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

If I had to pick just a few films, though, I’d see Stanley Kubrick’s great 1957 movie Paths of Glory, based partially on the mutiny by some troops in the French Army against the hopelessness of the trench warfare of World War I.

I do not love Kubrick’s later movies — I find them cold and bloodless — but his earlier films seem human to me, and there’s no better example than this one. As an anti-war movie, Paths of Glory has a stunning effect, and a brilliant performance by Kirk Douglas as a colonel commanded to pick three men who will be executed as an example to the rest of the troops. It’s being shown on Sunday, Jan. 20, at 4 p.m. at the Loew Auditorium.

I would also make a special effort to see Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, taken from the brilliant novel by Giuseppe de Lampedusa, and which stars Burt Lancaster as an aging Sicilian patriarch contemplating his mortality and the sea change in the aristocratic society he inhabits. It’s ironic, sensual, visually splendid and has a great score . It will be screened on Sunday, Feb. 17, at 4 p.m. at the Loew Auditorium.

Last but not at all least, if you haven’t seen Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, his daring 1942 satire of occupied Poland during the war, it’s worth it to see a marvelous Jack Benny as a ham actor, and the always sublime Carole Lombard as his wife. Benny and Lombard head up a troupe of Polish actors doing Hamlet for the hated Nazi occupiers.

When it came out it caused something of a wild rumpus because of its farcical treatment of a subject that was anything but funny. But Lubitsch wasn’t any old hack — his films were alluded to as having that Lubitsch touch — and if Chaplin could make fun of Hitler, as he did in 1940 with The Great Dictator, so could Lubitsch. Also, watching Jack Benny as The Great Actor emote his way through To Be or Not to Be is a comic tour-de-force. It screens on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 4 p.m. at the Loew Auditorium.

For a complete listing of films in the “Historical Fiction” series, and dates and time of screenings, go to http://hop.dartmouth.edu/films/dartmouth-film-society.


Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.