Rewriting history, one film at a time

While few viewers would’ve imagined that a film with the title “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” would interest anybody outside of hardcore horror fans, the trailer that debuted last week features an onslaught of kinetic horror-action courtesy of “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov.

It has also caught the attention of many, based on the reaction of online, print and broadcast media.

Casting the beloved 16th president of the United States as a “Van Helsing”-like vampire slayer is certainly a novel cinematic approach to his life, especially with a more straightforward Steven Spielberg-helmed Lincoln biopic on the way in the fall. Even though it’s set to fill in the gaps between monumental moments such as “The Gettysburg Address” and Lincoln’s assassination with some presidential vampire hunting, this film certainly isn’t the first to revise history.

In the wake of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” coverage, The Oracle looks at a few films that have played loosely with the history books without even bothering to use a time machine.

“Modern Times” (1936)

“Modern Times” isn’t as extreme in its historical rewriting as other films. It casts the memorable Charlie Chaplin character of the Little Tramp as a factory worker at the dawn of the industrialized world, setting up for Chaplin to tackle the inefficient tendencies of modern industrialization that eventually help lead to the Great Depression.

“Modern Times” follows the Little Tramp after he is fired from his job where he mostly serves as a compliment to faster-producing mechanical machines, and is subsequently thrust into the poor economic nature of the Depression era. The Little Tramp attempts to lead a fierce strike against industrialization, all while falling in love with a young homeless woman, eventually ending on a somewhat hopeful note for the pair.

“Modern Times” has been hailed as a classic since practically its release, deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress in 1989, and has also been selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry.

See Also: “The Gold Rush” (1925)

“The Rocketeer” (1991)

Perhaps the film that appears most in the vein of “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer,” “The Rocketeer” takes the blueprint of historical fiction laid out by Spielberg’s own “Indiana Jones” series, but delves even further into its pulpy conceits.

Based on the graphic novel created by Dave Stevens, “The Rocketeer” is the story of a young pilot named Cliff (Billy Campbell) who becomes a high-flying superhero when he stumbles upon a prototype jetpack being sought by the Mafia, a sleeper cell of Nazi agents, as well as inventor Howard Hughes himself. Set against the backdrop of glitzy 1930s Hollywood, “The Rocketeer” creates adventure in an America that was on the brink of World War II.

Initially considered a box office failure, despite a strong cast including Alan Arkin, Jennifer Connelly and Timothy Dalton, the film has become a cult classic of sorts since its release, even causing its distributor Disney to reunite the cast and crew for a 20th anniversary screening at their own El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles. Director Joe Johnston would also go on to helm another WWII-era film that prides itself in its historical inaccuracies – last summer’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

See Also: “Hellboy” (2004)

“Gladiator” (2000)

By the time “Gladiator” was released on May 5, 2000, world history had been rewritten many times over by other films, including sweeping epics like the Mel Gibson vehicles “Braveheart” and “The Patriot.” Steeped in historical inaccuracies, “Gladiator” didn’t just rewrite its history, the trio of screenwriters behind the film scribbled all over it.

Russell Crowe embodies the fictional Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius, who is betrayed by the Roman emperor’s son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who murders both his father and Maximus’ family in an effort to seize the throne. Hurled into slavery, Maximus heads to Rome to battle through the ranks of the gladiatorial arena as he seeks revenge for the murder of both his family and the emperor at the hands of Commodus.

While many of the film’s historical advisers either politely resigned or asked for no onscreen credit for the film, Director Ridley Scott took severe creative license with history to weave a visceral action film that told an engaging story of betrayal, family discord and, ultimately, revenge. The film would go on to earn five Oscars, including ones for Crowe’s performance and Best Picture, perhaps silencing many of the film’s detractors.

See Also: “Amadeus” (1984)

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)

While Brad Pitt would later help writer-director Quentin Tarantino and his group of “Inglorious Basterds” rewrite history, it was in the vastly underrated revisionist Western, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” that Pitt and writer-director Andrew Dominik would color in the last days of notorious outlaw Jesse James by painting a rich cinematic portrait of the man.

While this isn’t the first on-screen appearance of Jesse James, whose been played by actors like Roy Rogers and Colin Farrell, it’s one of the few films about the man that doesn’t exactly make the legendary James’ life appear entirely action-packed. Instead the film flows through the eyes of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who would eventually end the life of the outlaw – only Ford acts as an admirer of James in what Dominik accurately proclaims as a “a dark, contemplative examination of fame and infamy.”

Dominik plays with the lore of James, drawing subtle comparisons between the way people reacted to James and how we react to the celebrities or legends of our day. While the film didn’t set the box office or awards season ablaze, it’s a riveting take on James’ lore, as well as a worthy testament to films that take creative license with the facts.

See Also: “There Will Be Blood” (2007)