Thursday, 28 April 2011

U-571, female detectives, it’s all the same

When the film U-571, depicting the American capture during World War 2 of a submarine carrying an Enigma cypher machine, hit the cinema screens, I was one of those who greeted it with derision.
Those who know a bit about the War will be aware that the first Enigma machines were actually captured by the Poles before hostilities broke out between Germany and Britain. Then, in 1941, another machine was captured from a U-boat, but by the British destroyer HMS Bulldog.
One argument for this rewriting of history went that the film would not otherwise have been economically viable in the US. According to an article on Wikipedia, the screenwriter David Ayer pretty much confessed to this later:
It was a distortion ... a mercenary decision ... to create this parallel history in order to drive the movie for an American audience.
Well, stupid him, I thought, and stupid Americans for not being able to stomach anything other than a world re-coloured to suit their own view of what ought to have been ‘reality’.
But then it turns out American producers and scriptwriters aren’t the only ones whose fictional world has to shelter their audiences from reality, for apparently BBC One controller Danny Cohen has said he plans to limit the number of male detectives in the channel’s dramas.
“Detectives and crime is the real staple of quite a lot of BBC,” he said, but added, “I felt that we risked having too many male detectives.” Hence, in particular, the series ‘Zen’, starring Rufus Sewell, apparently had to go.
Now the question that has to be asked is, “Too many for what?”
Amongst male detectives, reference was made to Sherlock, Luther, Wallander and Inspector George Gently. Personally I’m only familiar with the first and the third, but I must admit the one thing that never crossed my mind whilst watching either was, “Shame he’s a bloke.”
Nor, oddly enough, did I find myself thinking, “Given all the female crime-fighters one sees in daily life, isn’t this a bit unrealistic?”
So whence the drive to change what appears on our TV screens? Whatever it turns out to be, I’ll guarantee that tucked away in it somewhere you’ll find an ‘ought’ — “There ‘ought’ to be more fictional detectives on television who are women because ...”
Fill in the gap and you’ll learn a lot about modern society and culture.
Fiction is, of course, just that. It is not real-life, and it has always involved the projection of the hopes and aspirations of the author. Yet we must never underestimate the power of fiction to move us as if it were reality. Indeed, there have been works of fiction which have had a seminal influence on society — think Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Grapes of Wrath.
This is why, personally, I think the Puritan suspicion of the theatre had something going for it. Our easy acceptance of the deluge of popular fiction on our televisions, particularly the ‘soaps’, may be a reflection, as much as anything else, of our blindness to its effects, rather than our robustness regarding its impact.
Indeed, there is no doubt whatsoever (and there is probably a book out there to prove) that the popular media have been used quite deliberately to reshape popular culture. What the ‘fictionalizers’ deem acceptable is thus at least as important as what their audiences find palatable.
I was inclined to pity an American audience that could only cope with ‘historic’ events which featured themselves. But it is not just Americans who demand a parallel universe for their contemplation. Our own producers and writers also insist creating worlds in their own image.
Back in the ‘70s (I’m tempted to say, when Greenbelt was evangelical) there was talk of raising up a generation of Christian artists and writers to influence society. At the time there was also a big debate about whether art should be ‘for art’s sake’ or to convey a ‘message’. I was then, and still am, a fan of the former. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are powerful figures in our modern media who have no compunction at all about operating on the basis of the latter.
Perhaps it is time we woke up to the fact.
John Richardson
Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.


  1. I am a big fan of shows on BBC America and other sources. However, the relentless Political Correctness on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc is getting a bit tedious. The most recent bit of silliness in Merlin is that Guenevere was Black, or a Moor. Likewise, I gave up on Torchwood when I realize that only one of the characters had anything resembling normal sexuality.

  2. At least the U-571 producers did not call it "U-505." The capture of the U-505 was the historical event upon which the fictional story U-571 was based.

    The allied victory in WWII was a joint effort, but each nation's film industry aims for their audience by building up the importance of their nation's contribution to the point where sometimes it seems that we, you, or the Soviets, were the ones who won the war by ourselves.

    Of course we all know that the world is a safer place not through the actions of humans but because of "Dr. Who."

  3. The media has probably had an enormous influence through its fiction broadcasts in more areas than the one here raised over the last generation or two, in particular over sexual ethics, in which it has sought to "normalise" improper conduct.

    I've been shocked to see 1930s or 1940s films where marriage was taken lightly and divorce seemed to be rife ... but at that time this was not the case in normal real life. Up to date examples are the enthusiasm with which more and more films or soaps are depicting homosexuals as mainstream characters.

    The media often do not seek to follow society, but to lead society. It can be very subtle, which is one reason it is necessary to be careful what we watch (or listen to).

    Imogen Taylor. Derby

  4. The actual fate of U-571 from

    "Sunk 28 Jan, 1944 west of Ireland, in position 52.41N, 14.27W, by depth charges from an Australian Sunderland aircraft (RAAF-Sqdn 461/D). 52 dead (all hands lost)."

    This story is a fictionalized account of the fictitious fate of an actual U-Boat. It was not meant to be historically accurate. It was simply an action war movie designed to appeal to an historically illiterate population. The average American would not be offended by the idea of the British snatching an Enigma machine before the US. He's simply not likely to go see a movie about such an event. Movie makers are interested in ROI. If that means the heroes have to be Americans, then they re-cast the story around American characters. It's not so much theft as it is adapting source material into a fiction story.

    Personally I did not like U-571 because of its historical inadequacies. But the movie was not primarily a vehicle for representing historical accuracy anymore than Law and Order is primarily a vehicle for representing accurate court trials. It's a vehicle for telling a story. Many things get compromised in the interest of telling a story in a limited time frame. The question becomes "What will hold the interest of the audience?" Historical accuracy is not found high on that list. This precludes the idea that Americans will reject a movie because it offends American presuppositions about who should have done what during the war - especially since they overwhelmingly don't know who did what during the war. Rather it simply indicates that American audiences are more likely to watch a story about Americans. There was no conscious effort to steal the credit for a British achievement. Instead movie makers saw a good story and said "Let's write a fiction story about capturing a U-Boat that will get Americans to pay to see it." It's a subtle but important point.

    And how could you overlook the best detective in the best crime drama ever made? Obviously I am speaking of Inspector Morse.

    carl jacobs

  5. "There was no conscious effort to steal the credit for a British achievement. Instead movie makers saw a good story and said "Let's write a fiction story about capturing a U-Boat that will get Americans to pay to see it.""

    Yeah, that's right - 'cos there were DOZENS of Enigma machines out there that were captured, as well as ANOTHER Burma that US forces captured (under Errol Flynn). Well, if I have learnt anything from films and TV, it's that every US judge is black woman (a bit like the BBC news?); also, that George VI was a poor repressed toff that needed a lower class Aussie who wasn't a Christian Scientist to call him 'Bertie' and teach him how to swear.
    Mark B, W. Kent

  6. Here's the notorious film I referred to:,_Burma!

    Mark B, W. Kent

  7. The Burma campaign is probably not the best choice because:

    1. There were Americans in Burma.

    2. British sensitivity about Burma has deeper roots than the Americanization of the War.

    From a strategic point of view, the Burma campaign did not have to be fought. It did not hasten the defeat of Japan. The Japanese Army in Burma couldn't take the offensive and so it wasn't going anywhere. It did not have to be defeated to insure Japanese surrender. It added nothing to the defense of the main islands where the war would be won or lost. The Japanese had by 1945 already lost the ability to redeploy these soldiers to more critical regions. And yet the Burma campaign was the most significant British operation in the pacific Theater. Why then was it fought? Because the British needed to be seen re-conquering the territory taken by the Japanese if the British Empire was to be re-established. The Burma campaign was fought for the sake of Imperial credibility. The Empire couldn't be rebuilt on the shoulders of American victories.

    None of this made any difference to the Americans who had no interest in Burma other than opening a supply road through north Burma into China. For good or ill, the US ran the Pacific war as a purely American operation and took little heed of its allies' interests. It determined strategy on its own and set post-war objectives according to its own light. The US was singularly uninterested in re-creating the old empires from the ashes of Japanese defeat. So I can understand why someone like Winston Churchill would be sensitive about presentations of the Burma campaign. The Pacific War is a story of defeat followed by unceremonious marginalization followed by dissolution of Empire. Except for Burma. The historical fact of a unit like Merrill's Marauders doesn't count for much against that backdrop.


  8. Carl:
    1. Burma is not in the Pacific.
    2. Australia fought in New Guinea.
    3. Kohima was important.
    4. "The US was singularly uninterested in re-creating the old empires from the ashes of Japanese defeat" - or in leaving Germany and Poland free from Soviet control, either.
    5. The film is not true.
    Mark B.. W. Kent

  9. OK, now I know something about Merrill's Marauders which I didn't know before. But as regards the British Empire:
    - India was on its way to independence before the war. Had it not been for Gandhi and Ali Jinnah, a better resolution might have been achieved that avoided the terrible bloodshed. The Indian National Army was a real danger to freedom as well.
    - Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong were back in British hands after the war, and went on to great prosperity by Asian standards. I doubt the Americans understood how difficult it was to achieve peace and stability in these ethno-religious powderkegs. Barring a few islands in the Pacific, that's all there was to the Empire in the Pacific.
    Mark B, W. Kent

  10. "Burma is not in the Pacific."
    It is in the Pacific if you define the Pacific theater as the whole of the war against Japan. If you wish to separate Burma into the SE Asian Theater, I have no objection.

    "Australia fought in New Guinea."
    Yes, they did. BCW ships also participated in the Okinawa campaign. What relevance does this have to my main points?

    "Kohima was important."
    Yes, it was. It stopped the Japanese invasion of India, and thwarted a Japanese effort to incite revolution. It also marked the end of any offensive capability for the Japanese Army in Burma. But Kohima does not establish the strategic necessity of (and certainly does not justify) the subsequent invasion and re-conquest Burma.

    "or in leaving Germany and Poland free from Soviet control, either."
    Nothing short of war could have prevented it. Who was willing to go to war with Stalin in 1945 over the liberation of Poland?

    "The film is not true."
    You are correct. It was completely false. Almost all WWII movies are completely false. They are fictional representations. Even stories based upon true events are distorted to meet the needs of the movie makers. Why does this surprise you?

    And none of this has anything to do with my major point - that the sensitivity cuts both ways. It's not just about Americans "not being able to stomach anything other than a world re-coloured to suit their own view of what ought to have been ‘reality’." There are others who possess views of "what reality ought to have been."

    carl jacobs

  11. Carl, we are not so different in outlook. I have no doubt that without America, the war could not have been won, and that America made tremendous sacrifices for freedom. It is also the case that Hitler's blunders (Barbarossa, declaring war on the US) fatally undermined his designs.
    My wider points were that America - by which I may mean Roosevelt but others as well - misunderstood the character of the British Empire, and basically sold out the Poles at Yalta, while allowing the Russians too much purchase on Germany. They should have raced to Berlin, as Churchill wanted them to. Churchill understood what Roosevelt didn't. I think America with the Bomb had some leverage there. Instead, we had 40+ years of captivity in eastern Europe. Sometimes a war can end too soon. Imagine if Bush I had taken Baghdad in 1991. But that's a subject for another blog.
    I've taught a little history in my time, and it bothers me that a post-literate generation gets its ideas and "knowledge" from films. A history teacher defended this to me as "white lies" to get kids interested. When do "white lies" becoem propaganda?
    Mark B, W. Kent

  12. John,

    I may duck the well covered debate about mercenary historical fiction, but I was really stimulated by the comment you slipped in about Greenbelt.

    I believe that there is an enormous opportunity to fashion an alternative to Greenbelt (doctrine free liberal culture)and New Wine (intellect free pop music)for thoughtful Christians who wish to enlarge their faith and their minds at the same time. Who is up for this great "renewing of minds" challenge?

    John Waldsax

  13. Mark B

    You are correct. We aren't that far apart. My disagreements with your last post aren't worth mentioning. I especially agree with this:

    "[I]t bothers me that a post-literate generation gets its ideas and "knowledge" from films."

    Exactly so.

    carl jacobs