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Scholars Flip Their Wigs Over Film's Portrayal of Jefferson in Paris

TRYING hard to be as gentlemanly as Thomas Jefferson, Dan Jordan can barely contain himself. ''Howling errors of fact,'' he says. ''Conjecture and fabrication. Laughable. Profoundly sad.''

The target of Mr. Jordan's barrage is ''Jefferson in Paris,'' an opulent, controversial movie about Thomas Jefferson that opened last weekend in theaters across the country. The film is the work of Merchant Ivory Productions, one of filmdom's most respected companies. Nick Nolte stars as Jefferson.

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But some historians such as Jordan -- executive director of Monticello, Jefferson's home in Charlottesville, Va. -- are appalled at the film's loose interpretations of events in Jefferson's life during his time as United States ambassador to France.

''It's virtually impossible to recognize the historical Jefferson in this film,'' Jordan says. ''My concern is that film is such a powerful medium that bogus history drives out real history.''

''We are making entertainment films for theaters,'' explains James Ivory, director of the film. ''We have a right to arrange our material in a way that is dramatic and artistic, and suits us, but it may not suit historians.'' Mr. Ivory is also the director of such acclaimed films as ''The Remains of the Day,'' and ''Howards End.''

In the visually stunning ''Jefferson in Paris,'' Jeffersonian history and chronology are often rearranged, facts omitted and changed, and many political ideas are reduced to sound bites. Particularly troublesome in the last half of the film, say historians, is the alleged intimacy of Jefferson in Paris with a mulatto slave girl, Sally Hemings, the sister of his personal servant and nursemaid to his youngest child.

Although an affair is depicted in the film as fact, most Jefferson scholars doubt it occurred. Scant evidence exists to prove the assertion, first made by political opponents when Jefferson was running for the presidency. The rumors have persisted for two centuries.

Reinterpretation a Hollywood staple

Although Jefferson never directly denied the rumors, historians say such a liaison would have been out of character: In his public statements, he opposed miscegenation.

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''Nobody I know who is a competent historian in this period,'' says George Green Shackelford, author of ''Thomas Jefferson's Travels in Europe, 1784-1789,'' ''gives any credence to the assertion. It's old bad news. It wasn't true in the 1800s, and it's not true now.''

Theatrical interpretation of history is a Hollywood staple as old as celluloid. Other recent films that have stretched historical facts and credulity include Milos Foreman's ''Amadeus,'' on Mozart, and Oliver Stone's ''JFK,'' on President Kennedy. Both were box-office successes. Both won Academy Awards.

''We don't want to tell anybody how to think; that's not our business,'' Ivory says. ''We hope people will be intrigued [by the film], and if they want to know more, they can read books. Then, if they decide Sally Hemings might not have been his mistress after all, that's their right.''

With true Jeffersonian balance, Jordan, despite his irritation, defends Hollywood's right to interpret history and people, even the author of what may be history's most revolutionary phrase, ''All men are created equal.''

But some suggest a higher standard of accuracy is called for when depicting an American icon from the pantheon of democracy.

''I think when you take on the theatrical depiction of a character like Jefferson,'' says Martin Doblmeier, producer of ''Thomas Jefferson: A View From the Mountain,'' currently showing on 210 PBS stations, ''you assume some responsibility for painting an accurate historical picture.''

'No room for speculation'

Ivory's version stems from a 1975 book: historian Fawn Brodie's ''Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History.'' Ms. Brodie concludes that Jefferson was intimate with Hemings. The weight of her argument rests on an uncorroborated, 1873 memoir by Madison Jefferson, a freed slave who claimed in a newspaper interview that he was an offspring of Jefferson and Hemings.

Brodie also suggests a chain of events and assertions, all highly dependent on knowing Jefferson's state of mind. Leading Jefferson scholars dismiss her conclusions.

''The problem with the Jefferson film is that for millions it presents a conclusion that he did have a relationship with Sally Hemings,'' says Mr. Doblmeier. ''The film leaves no room for speculation.''

'We may have to fudge that one'

''Jefferson in Paris'' also depicts Jefferson as almost illiterate in French. ''That's not the case,'' Doblmeier says. ''Jefferson was a great linguist, capable of writing in seven languages. He prided himself on his ability to speak and write French.''

Ivory has a different interpretation of Jefferson's linguistic abilities, and actor Nolte's portrayal. ''Jefferson wrote French well, but there is no one who can say that he spoke it fluently,'' Ivory says. ''But here is the thing: Nick Nolte was supposed to speak French in many scenes, but he just couldn't get his tongue around those syllables, even though he spoke it twice in the film.''

Where Jordan sees Jefferson portrayed falsely as ''a dull hypocrite,'' Ivory says the film characterizes Jefferson as ''a great man, but a man.''

The film opens with Jefferson using one of his ingenious inventions, a writing apparatus that allowed him to duplicate a letter as he wrote it. ''Jefferson did not invent that machine until years after he had been in Paris,'' Jordan says. ''I told Ivory that the machine didn't exist in Paris, and he said, 'We might have to fudge that one.' What happens is that we have a mountain of fudge in this movie.''

For Ivory, chronology is less important than portrayal of the ''character of a personality'' and the essence of an era. ''A lot of things that happen in the film did happen in one way or another,'' he says, ''but they may not have happened exactly in the sequence that we showed them. That was our choice.''

Ivory also presents Jefferson's famous love letter written to painter Maria Cosway -- in which he told of the pull between head and heart -- as a delightful spoken game among aristocrats in an outdoor setting.

''We felt we had absolute liberty to do that,'' Ivory says, ''that it was not out of Jefferson's or Maria's characters to use the letter in that way.''

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