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Television docudrama through the eyes of historians

BARRY BOSTWICK, the actor who played George Washington in CBS's dramatic miniseries, said, ``People know so little about Washington that what we are saying in this show is going to be the truth for generations of kids.'' Bostwick's remark may send chills down the spine of professional historians, but his observation is essentially correct. Docudramas are shaping the historical memory of adults as well as children. In the 1980s many Americans are drawing their impressions of the past from television rather than from books.

Unfortunately, television dramas frequently fail to relate the complexity of history. Producers choose to deliver simplistic portrayals of people and events, worrying that viewers might escape to another channel if a docudrama confronted them with questions or complex answers. The problem is especially acute in biographical programs.

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Television films often treat their subjects as heroes who demonstrate courage, resolve, and vision in every moment of crisis. CBS's ``Columbus'' showed a good-hearted explorer seeking to protect the Indians but finding his goals sabotaged by gold-hungry conquistadors. The real Columbus did exhibit many admirable qualities, but he also displayed a keen interest in precious metals and was more agreeable to Indian enslavement than the television program suggested.

NBC's ``Lincoln'' showed the Railsplitter assuming his new duties as President with a firm hand and a clear notion of how to deal with the secession crisis. The film missed an exciting opportunity to deal with one of the most interesting periods of Lincoln's life.

When the President-elect arrived in Washington in 1861, he appeared awkward and indecisive, but within just two months he showed strong leadership by taking a strong stand on Fort Sumter. The story of Lincoln's transformation on the job makes rich material for television drama, but ``Gore Vidal's Lincoln'' passed it up in the effort to depict the president as a man of resolve.

Far too often TV docudramas portray personalities in stark contrasts of good and evil. Little attention is given to the gray shades of human motivation that make historical figures fascinating subjects for study. Witness the way two TV specials portrayed Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Both films presented compelling drama, but they demonstrated the producers' preference for neatly packaged history. The programs greatly amplified themes originally developed in print. ``LBJ: The Early Years'' drew heavily from Robert Caro's impressive critical biography, ``The Path to Power.'' The film accented ugly elements in Johnson's character, depicting the Texan as a clever, power-seeking politico who enjoyed humiliating his associates.

A second film, ``Lyndon Johnson,'' presented a lovable President who deeply cared about issues and people. When dealing with Johnson's painful problems in Vietnam, the film portrayed the President as well-intentioned, but misled by advisers who urged escalation. Which of these two distinctive characters was the real Lyndon Johnson? Audiences could gain valuable insight into the challenges of interpretation by watching both programs, but exposure to only one could draw them toward simple conclusions.

Similarly, television has presented John Brown's behavior in unidimensional fashion, shaping the controversial figure as an unqualified genius and saint. In two Civil War docudramas, ``The Blue and the Gray'' (CBS) and ``North and South'' (ABC), Brown seemed an admirable, committed abolitionist who sacrificed himself for the good of a cause.

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The important questions that dominate historical scholarship on Brown received no attention in these TV depictions. Viewers were not invited to ponder Brown's previous record of political murder in Kansas, his family's record of insanity, or the ineffectiveness of his plans for the Harper's Ferry raid, which almost guaranteed capture and defeat. Perhaps Brown recognized that his sacrifice at Harper's Ferry would force the nation to confront and settle the slavery issue.

These questions about Brown's behavior and goals do not necessarily destroy the case for his contribution to history. But TV failed to expose audiences to the fascinating queries about Brown that make him a good dramatic subject.

Television offers tremendous potential for exciting the public's interest in the past and challenging viewers to consider historical controversies. It could present informed biography as good drama. Let us hope that the recent examples of simple hero worship are only the first steps toward a more sophisticated stage of video history.

The author is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and has served as project director for several PBS docudramas.

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