Grappling With the Instinctive – and Unnecessary – Fictionalization of History

I recently watched Michael Mann’s Public Enemies for the first time since its 2009 theatrical release. Based on Bryan Burrough’s excellent 2004 book of the same name, it narrows the focus of the sprawling book to the cat-and-mouse game played by bank robber John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis, special agent in charge of the Chicago office of what was then called the Bureau of Investigation; it added “Federal” in July 1935. The film, despite middling reviews, is beautiful – Director of Photography Dante Spinotti had photographed my favorite movie, L.A. Confidential, 12 years earlier – well-acted and generally entertaining.

If, that is, you are unconcerned with historical accuracy.

This is both the blessing and curse of being a close student of history: it becomes increasingly hard to swallow the changes, large and small, filmmakers make (or are required to make) when presenting anything “based on a true story.” The YouTube channel HistoryBuffs, researched and narrated by the remarkable Nick Hodges, brilliantly compares “actual” history to “cinematic version” history. We both recognize some license has to be taken at times to translate history into the language of cinema; there is a line between pure documentary and “based on true story.” But – we also agree there is an even clearer line between fact and fantasy.

I had hesitated to watch Public Enemies again because of the head-scratching decisions Mann – an otherwise masterful director – makes. The most egregious one comes at the very beginning of the film. After a reasonably accurate reenactment of the September 26, 1933 Indiana State Penitentiary prison break, orchestrated by recently-paroled Dillinger (played with insouciant charm by Johnny Depp), we cut to a scene in which a man is being chased through woods by armed gunmen.

The clear implication, reinforced by later dialogue: this action takes place roughly contemporaneously with the Indiana prison break.

Leading the armed men is Christian Bale, as Purvis. The man being chased is called “Floyd” and told to halt. Instead, “Floyd” wildly shoots back at his pursuers with a tommy gun – excuse me, a Thompson submachine gun. Bale then fires twice at “Floyd” from a high-powered rifle. Approaching “Floyd,” now prone on the ground and bleeding profusely from a fatal chest wound, Bale looks down at him and says, “Pretty Boy Floyd, you are under arrest.”

“Charles. Charles Floyd. And who are you?”

“Melvin Purvis, Bureau of Investigation…”

Bale does a creditable job recreating Purvis’ South Carolina accent, and Channing Tatum looks a lot like the real-life Floyd. And the scene plays out reasonably accurately.

Well, except for two huge problems.

One, Floyd was fatally shot in a cornfield near Wellsville, OH on October 22, 1934 – three months after Dillinger died in Chicago. In fact, Floyd was named “Public Enemy No. 1” after Dillinger’s death. So, the later scene in which a just-arrested Dillinger says to Purvis, “You’re the man who shot Pretty Boy Floyd” fundamentally makes no sense and, frankly, insults its audience.

And, two, while Purvis was the leader of the group of men who cornered Floyd in the cornfield, no contemporary newspaper accounts say it was PURVIS who gunned down the bank robber with almost superhuman eyesight and accuracy. Instead, as the official Associate Press account puts it, “four Department of Justice men and four East Liverpool policemen” fired at least 50 shots at Floyd, without naming a specific shooter. Purvis did exchange words with the dying man, but all the newspaper records is the latter telling the former “I am Floyd.”[1]

My best guess is that this inexcusable rewriting of history serves two purposes: to quickly establish Purvis as “heroic Bureau agent” and to remind audiences that Dillinger and “Baby Face” Nelson (aka Lester Gillis) were not the only outlaw bank robbers in the early 1930s. A passing reference to the 1933 kidnapping of William A. Hamm, Jr. and a few unnecessary scenes featuring Alvin “Creepy” Karpis of the Barker-Karpis gang presumably serve the same purpose – though Giovanni Ribisi captures Karpis’ oddness well. But that begs the question: why does Bale’s Purvis ask Tatum’s Floyd about “your associate Harry Campbell,” when Campbell was affiliated with the Barker-Karpis gang?

No, sorry. There are better ways to introduce Purvis – like the scene in which the young J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) names Purvis head of the Chicago field office. Floyd simply serves no purpose in this film. And, if you casually throw in him and Karpis, why leave out Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, or “Machine Gun” Kelly?

Even more frustrating is that other events in the film, like the battle of Little Bohemia and the killing of Dillinger, are accurately portrayed AND are masterclasses in suspense and visual storytelling. Well, except, while Purvis and Nelson did exchange gunfire at Little Bohemia, Nelson did not die there, as the film portrays; he died seven months later (November 27, 1934) in Willmette, IL – albeit in a gun battle with Federal agents.

**********

This blurring of the line between fact and fiction for the sake of “art” has been rattling around in my brain roughly since the now-famous July 2017 conversation in which Nell suggested, as we discussed our financial situation, “Why don’t you write a book?” Being an ardent reader of mystery fiction (and everything Stephen King as ever written) that was the type of book she had in mind: one that would sell many copies quickly. But, as we all know, this post had already popped into my head…and the rest is literal history awaiting a reputable and understanding publisher.

I completed the manuscript of Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own in late January 2021; a full printout, on which I am making occasional edits while I await word from literary agents (not looking good there) and publishers (early days still) sits in a battered red folder just to my left as I type this. As I researched it, meanwhile, I learned more about a wide range of fascinating and colorful “characters” who lived in Philadelphia in the 1940s and 1950s: my maternal grandfather Samuel Kohn – police officer and tavern owner; Herman Modell – politician and lawyer who arranged my adoption; my paternal grandfather Morris Berger and his baby brother Jules – successful merchants who died far too young in the 1950s; and Eddie “Psycho” Klayman – heroin addict and convicted arsonist. Also living in Philadelphia then was crime novelist David Goodis, who frequented the type of “seedy” taverns Samuel Kohn ran for about a decade after he retired from the Philadelphia Police Department on October 9, 1953.

This is why, even while I was still writing Interrogating Memory, I occasionally scrawled notes for a related book. These particular notes are on the back of a paper placemat, folded then folded again, from the Limerick Diner, most likely jotted down when I visited Philadelphia in August 2019. Kudos to anyone who can translate my handwriting into English – or any other known language.

Some combination of Nell’s strong preference for fiction, wanting to have at least one “follow up” book in the works, and genuine curiosity about whether Goodis patronized any of my grandfather’s taverns, inter alia, convinced me a historical crime novel (or just plain novel?) featuring these people – or characters inspired by them – was my next project.

At first the idea excited me. Philadelphia has been remarkably underutilized as a setting for fiction of any kind, let alone crime fiction, at least in comparison to other large American cities. Moreover, these people – other than Goodis – were substantive parts of my history. And while Interrogating Memory captures the broad sweep of my family history extremely well, with as much historic context as I could fit, it was simply not possible to expand any particular event, or events, beyond a few pages at most. Enough literary agents have metaphorically frowned at the high word count as it is.

As intrigued as I was, however, I simply could not find the story connecting these persons/characters.

I still cannot.

Sure, I could see an opening scene in which an aging Modell – no longer Assistant City Solicitor – drives south along the recently-opened Atlantic City Expressway in the late 1960s to meet with my former-cop grandfather to discuss…something or other. Maybe it related to Goodis, or The Boy in the Box, or my recent adoption, or suspected arson, or…who the heck knows? I certainly do not.

The more I probed, the more stuck I became…until it finally dawned on me:

For all intents and purposes, I was already writing this book. Perhaps not with fictional interactions between characters loosely based on real people involved in an impenetrable mystery – but I was telling these people’s stories as completely and accurately as I could. Philippe Garnier had already told Goodis’ life story as well as anybody likely ever will. Moreover, as I have already noted with films like Public Enemies, I know the historical details far too well to be comfortable – satisfied? – fictionalizing them.

Call this a limitation of my imagination, if you like.

I prefer to think of it as a victory for pure, unadulterated history over the fictionalized version.

**********

Hold on, hold on, I can hear some of you saying. Aren’t you being hypocritical again?

How so? I respond.

Just take a look at your DVD collection.

My DVD collection?

That’s right.

What about my DVD collection? suddenly recalling the Doctor Who episode “Blink.”

Well, you have Hammett, The Public Eye, The Cotton Club and all four seasons of The Untouchables, among others.

Yeah, and…?

And those three movies and the television series do what exactly you just said – wrote – whatever – you disdain: turn real-life people into “characters” in a work of fiction. Not to mention all three movies currently have a middling 6.5 rating on the Internet Movie Database (“IMDb”); unlike Brian DePalma’s 1987 film version of The Untouchables (7.9), which you despise for its grotesque historical inaccuracy, these are not even particularly good films.

OK [I nod with understanding], I begin to see your point.

To address your valid critique, let me begin with Nick Hodges’ concise demonstration of just how much a work of pure fiction DePalma’s film is. I will not deny that purely as a work of art, The Untouchables is magnificent – stunningly photographed, well-written and ably acted. The problem, though, is that DePalma allows his audience to believe that what they are watching is the actual history of the arrest and conviction of Al Capone on charges of federal tax evasion in 1931 – when it is not even remotely that. I do not know if this is laziness, greed, cynicism or a mixture of all three – but it is despicable, in my view. It is disinformation, no more, no less.

Whoa there, little buckaroo! You hate the film, but you love the television series? Really? Aren’t they based on the same book written by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley?

Well…yes. But – outside of the two-part pilot, the television series at best winked and nodded at historical accuracy, cheekily inventing nonsensical, if highly entertaining, storylines very loosely based on real people. Walter Winchell’s stentorian voiceovers (“Chicago, 1932. Eliot Ness and his Untouchables something something Frank Nitti something something bootlegging”), notwithstanding. DePalma peddles history, Desilu Productions peddled entertainment. I enjoy the series as a work of pure fiction starring a made-up character named “Eliot Ness.” Moreover, it would take years for historians finally to correct the record, rightfully elevating Frank Wilson and his associates in the Treasury Department as the real “heroes” of the Capone conviction story. You can somewhat excuse Desilu, but there is no excuse for DePalma.

Hmm, maybe. But what about the three other movies?

OK, let’s take each in reverse order.

Like the television series of The Untouchables, The Cotton Club does not pretend to be anything than a fairy tale VERY loosely based on real life persons and the eponymous Harlem night club. In fact, the movie – which I think is magnificent, whatever the critics say – was inspired by James Haskins’ 1977 “pictorial and social history” of the famous club, not by specific events. At some point, I plan to write a HistoryBuffs-like post separating cinematic fiction from historic fact in this film, so for now I leave it at that.

The Public Eye, meanwhile, tells the story of a rumpled, cigar-chomping tabloid news photographer in 1940s New York City with a knack for getting to the scene of major events before anyone else. The character’s named is Leon “Bernzie” Bernstein, but we know from the gorgeous opening montage of developing black-and-white photographs he is a fictionalized version of Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee. The usual explanation for the name change is that director Howard Franklin could not get the rights to the name “Weegee” from the executors of his estate – or something like that. But, again, that means this film is upfront about being a work of fiction, not a history lesson.

The same goes for Hammett, based on the 1976 Joe Gores novel of the same name. The obvious difference, of course, is that the actual Dashiell Hammett, eking out a living writing crime fiction short stories in San Francisco in 1926 – the film implies his story “Dead Yellow Women” had just been published, which happened in September 1925 – is the film’s protagonist. Again, however, the film carefully states this is pure fiction –imagining what Hammett returning to detective work might look like. That said, the novel (which I have yet to read) and film probably come closest to how I envisioned my 1950s Philadelphia novel.

So, my imaginary critics respond, you give a pass to pure fiction based on “real” history in some cases, but not in others. Why are you so hard on Mann and DePalma, but not on the other directors and producers?

Because, as I have said, Mann and DePalma allow their audience to think what they are seeing is near-documentary history, counting on them not to investigate – excuse me, interrogate – for themselves. The others do no such thing, effectively conceding what they show are works of pure imagination.

Again [please do not interrupt me], perhaps I lack that particular form of imagination. Maybe it really is a curse of literalism: once I learn “true” history – or do my best to parse out the truth among various versions of that history – I find it more difficult to enjoy a fictionalized version. Unless, as in the case of the three DVDs you found snooping around our entertainment center, the works are so blatantly fictional, that – as with “Eliot Ness” – I can reassure myself I am watching an invented character named “Dashiell Hammett” or “’Dutch’ Schultz.”

Plus – and this is the best part – even when I knew some of the history going into the film or television series, each one of them inspired me to learn even more about them, to question – sorry, interrogate – the actual history behind the stories. In some ways, yes, this now makes it harder to watch these movies – but only somewhat.

[Now I grimace, knowing what is coming next]

Oh, ho, Mister – pardon me, Doctor – high-and-mighty judge of history-based cinema! You admit even a film like The Untouchables serves an important purpose if it gets viewers to learn the history for themselves? Your lack of consistency is remarkable.

It would appear that way, yes. But only IF – and this “if” is in neon letters three-stories high – IF anyone in the audience bothers to check a film’s “facts” for themselves. Sure, for works of pure fiction like Cotton Club, Hammett and Public Eye, they may well do so. But if they walk out of the theater or get off the sofa thinking they have already learned the real history, what is their incentive to, say it with me now, interrogate that notion? Anyone who does, good, great, I am wrong, and DePalma and Mann have done a service.

Hmm, mayyyybe.

**********

And so on.

You get the idea.

Here, then, is the larger question with which I continue to grapple.

Why do we feel compelled, when we learn of some interesting event or person or whatever, to immediately turn that thing into a work of fiction? Why is the actual thing not sufficient on its own merits?

“Oh, what a great novel that would make?” we think or say.

Is it that we associate “history” with boring classroom recitations of names and dates, with dull documentaries and film strips, with droning lectures and dusty old books?

Perhaps – but the explosion of history-based, fact-checked (kinda sorta ish) videos on YouTube suggests otherwise.

Is it that we simply prefer entertainment to knowledge?

Possibly – Hollywood has been churning out questionable “based on a true story” films since at least The Birth of a Nation in 1915. And that is about two millennia after epic works of propagandist history like The Aeneid.

Is it a question of protecting the – reputations, privacy, legacies, families, something – of actual human beings?

This may be a bit closer to the mark, as we saw with The Public Eye – and as I learned from my own struggle to balance the privacy of living individuals with accurate history in Interrogating Memory…and continue to do on this website.

Is it something about the production of cinema itself, the need to condense complex historical narratives into something that can be filmed on a reasonable budget in a reasonable amount of time at a reasonable length?

Here I confess I am a bit more sympathetic to the filmmaker and the constraints imposed upon her/him. However, this is also where my darkest fears vis-à-vis Interrogating Memory emerge. Forget getting published by a reputable firm. Like many, if not all, writers, I would love to see my work turn into, say, an HBO or Netflix mini-series; a feature film probably would not be long enough. In the very next thought, though, I dread the cuts, changes, condensations and compromises that may ensue. Too many excellent works of history have been butchered on the screen – large and small – for me to be wholly comfortable with such changes. For better or for worse, however, this is not something I need to worry about anytime soon.

Or is it something to do with the lure of fiction itself? That somehow an imagined retelling of real events – or fiction based even loosely on those events – has more emotional or psychological or epistemic or philosophical reality than a straight recitation of those events?

Basically, I am asking whether we learn more about ourselves and our world from “stories” or from history? I am now the wrong person to ask, because I have found no pleasure in fiction – the printed form, anyway – for years now. There is so much “true” history yet to be learned that literature – produced by writers who can make any character do anything they want at any time – bores me now. Non-fiction writers like myself are necessarily and correctly constrained by verifiable – or, at the very least, carefully-sourced – facts. Plus, there is one way and one way only our narratives can proceed: as they actually did. The best we can do (and here I speak – write – whatever from years of direct experience) is arrange those facts – carefully selecting some and setting aside others, no matter how interesting – in the most entertaining, even cinematic, way possible. Fiction writers, by contrast, have no such constraints, but that also means – I argue – they can manipulate us into reaching any conclusion they choose, whether those conclusions are conscious or unconscious.

Let me stop here, before I sound even more like I am condemning all fiction. I am not. I have hundreds of cherished volumes on a few dozen bookshelves downstairs from my cozy home office to demonstrate the opposite.

Rather, what I am questioning is the deeply-ingrained need to fictionalize history. Or to rearrange that history to fit the “rules” of literature and cinema – simplify, condense, embellish and – when necessary – embroider for the sake of narrative flow and maintaing audience interest.

And – to be brutally honest – the best and most talented writers among us gravitate naturally and perhaps inevitably toward fiction. The flip side of its lack of “real-world” constraints is its tabula rasa nature: a blank canvas awaiting unfettered imagination filtered through raw talent. The ability to create an entirely new tale from scratch (yes, yes, with inspiration from the “real” world) is rightly lauded and celebrated as great art. There is also a great deal to be said for not knowing, as one could with a work of non-fiction, what happens next. Here, those seemingly arbitrary authorial choices make the difference.

So, I conclude by flipping the script.

Maybe, just maybe, the problem is not with history, or with non-fiction generally, but with history (and non-fiction generally) writers. Maybe the skill sets of the historian – the meticulous, plodding, tedious reconstruction of the past by any means necessary, resigned to the ultimate incompleteness of the enterprise – and the writer rarely overlap. Maybe Truman Capote – who purportedly invented the “non-fiction novel” in 1966 with In Cold Blood – truly is sui generis, and the rest of us are just trying to catch up.

Or maybe it is time genuinely talented writers turned their attention away from “the great [fill in nationality] novel” and toward the hard – and, trust me, it is hard – work of writing “novelistic” non-fiction. Compelling, page-turning, gripping non-fiction.

Is Interrogating Memory such a work?

I think so, but – as with a parent discussing a child – I am more than a little biased.

And now I am going to rewatch Mobsters. This should be interesting.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!


[1] Mylander, William H., “FEDERAL AGENTS KILLED ‘PRETTY BOY’ FLOYD; NO. 1 ENEMY FELL IN HAIL OF RIFLE, PISTOL AND MACHINE GUN BULLETS; OFFICERS CAME UPON FLOYD AT LONELY FARM; Over Fifty Shot Rang Out As Officers Halted the Criminal’s Flight; FELL MORTALLY WOUNDED; Dying Man Asked the Officers Who Tipped Them Off About His Whereabouts,” Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, PA); October 23, 1934; pg. 1

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