As ably blogged by Longrider and Max Farquar I see that the remake of The Dambusters, which I’ve been looking forward to, has caved under politically correct pressure over the real life name of Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s dog, which, in case either of my readers (hello Mum) weren’t already aware, was a black labrador called Nigger. Actually I think my mum would have seen the original before they began changing the name for PC reasons. As far as I can remember I have only ever seen the sanitised version in which no dog’s name is also a derogatory term for a person of any particular ethnicity, but in which I’m sure Germans were still referred to as ‘Jerries’, ‘Krauts’ and possibly even ‘filthy Huns’ (with an option on ‘Boche’) and well over a thousand of them were eventually killed by the good guys in an operation that would now be prohibited by the Geneva Convention. Clearly bad-mouthing a whole nation before killing off large numbers of its civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure is a mild character flaw compared to the swivel-eyed racist psychosis that must be necessary to call your dog ‘Nigger’, but I digress.
The remake is being produced by David Frost and Peter Jackson and scripted by Stephen Fry, so it’s safe to conclude that the people behind the film are bright and well aware of the historical facts, but of course they are also aware that the word offends a lot of people and they’ve known for some time that this was going to be a bone of contention.
[Peter Jackson] said, when announcing his plans in 2006: “It is not our intention to offend people. But really you are in a no-win, damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t scenario.
“If you change it, everyone’s going to whinge and whine about political correctness. And if you don’t change it, obviously you are offending a lot of people inadvertently.”
To be pedantic, Pete, people are taking offence where you are offering none, but we all get what you were saying. To be honest I’m not strongly in either camp and if you’re adapting an historical account for the purposes of entertainment it’s not too big a deal if changes are made, right? It’s not like you’re rewriting history books or making a documentary and deliberately including a ‘fact’ that you know to be incorrect, eh?
Except that for a lot of people these days mainstream entertainment is nearly all the exposure to history they get, and while artistic licence is to be expected from the world of fiction, movies and TV – especially the latter two – when you then slap ‘based on a true story’ all over the posters you will inevitably get people leaving the theatres and turning off the TV assuming that what they saw on the screen was what actually happened. Hells bells, there are a small number of people out there who can’t distinguish between a fictional character and the actor or actress who plays the role on TV, it’s hardly surprising that, thanks to the magic of Hollywood, there are people who think that an Enigma machine was first captured by the US Navy in 1942 rather than the Royal Navy the previous year (and months before the US had even entered the war) or, to stick with just one nationality, that Apollo 13 was saved largely by the guy out of CSI: New York while the astronauts on board nearly came to blows (all of which was politely corrected by astronaut Jim Lovell on the DVD commentary). I can understand why it’s done – the makers of U571 wanted
bums ‘asses’ on seats in American cinemas and sticking to history in those bits of Apollo 13 would have meant having to increase an already large cast and losing some good dramatic tension – and clearly we can’t expect a little red warning sign to flash up saying ‘this bit didn’t actually happen this way’. However, the problem is that people do go away having been told that the film is based on reality but crucially without knowing which bits were not. Peter Jackson worries about inadvertently offending people but arguably Hollywood has a track record of inadvertently offending people who value history by, again inadvertently, dropping certain historical facts down various memory holes.
As I said I’ve been looking forward to the Dambusters remake since I first heard about it, mainly because I like special effects to be convincing enough for me not to notice that there was a special effect and what was available in the 50s stood out like a dog’s balls.* And while I’m not a history pedant I was also hoping that Peter Jackson, having already stood up to the legions of the professionally thin-skinned and offended by refusing to rename The Two Towers on the grounds that not many would confuse fantasy Middle Earth thousands of years ago with New York on September 11th 2001, would show the same stuff again and not change the dog’s name. And that wasn’t the only reason (my bold):
Stephen Fry, the actor who is writing the new script, was asked to come up with alternative names for Nigger.
But Sir David Frost, the executive producer, is reported to have rejected all the options Fry offered.
Sir David has been quoted as saying: “Guy sometimes used to call his dog Nigsy, so I think that’s what we will call it.
“Stephen has been coming up with other names but this is the one I want.”
But that was then and this is now and it seems that in the remake the dog, and incidentally ‘dog‘ is Australian slang for a despicable person who’s a bit of a scumbag, is now to be called ‘Digger’, which by the way is a nickname for Australian and New Zealand soldiers that dates back to World War One. Presumably this is no worse than a thousand or more German civilians being casually referred to as Krauts, Jerries and filthy Huns before being drowned in the dark following the destruction of the local dam.
Of course the film makers can spend their money how they please and make whatever changes they feel they need to in order to sell as many cinema tickets as possible and maximise their return. If they want to call the dog ‘White Trash’ knowing that a lot of people will call them on it then they’re free to do so, and of course that would get just as much discussion as, well, as simply calling it anything other than ‘Nigger’. And of course that’s had the unintended consequence of making nearly everyone who’ll see it well aware of what the dog was really called because the word is being used in articles about the new movie nearly as frequently as it was used in The Wire by black characters to refer to each other, which, presumably because it was being grittily realistic, was also not offensive though I’m not sure why the same would not apply to an equally realistic portrayal of something that happened two generations ago. It can’t be just that a white guy is saying it because allowing people of one ethnicity to do something that people of another ethnicity may not would obviously be racist.
Musical interlude, apropos of nothing
Personally I feel they’ve missed a trick here. Stephen Fry, whose knowledge may be vast but whose intelligence I’ve doubted in the past (much swearing) due to his inability to grasp why politicians fiddling their expenses is wrong, could have written a script which sent a subtle message that this was how people thought in the 1940s and that doing so today would be frowned upon in the same way that, say for the sake of argument, bombing to destruction a dam causing mass civilian casualties would be. Sort of ‘we did that then but we do not do it these days’, or at least not on purpose if we can possibly avoid it.** But instead of that or even just an honest admission of historical fact we are again treading the path of political correctness.
Well, fair enough. No reason to avoid offending people if you don’t have to, especially when you want them to be your paying audience. With that in mind when I go to see the movie I expect it to be completely inoffensive by being completely Kraut, Jerry and Hun free and by implying that Barns Wallace’s genius was to design a bomb that would safely disable the dams’ generators and drain the reservoirs without harming a soul, and perhaps even a brief apology to the Australian Defence Force at the end for using the word ‘Digger’ to name a dog. Perhaps many Diggers wouldn’t care much and many Germans will be over it all by now, but if you’re so desperate to be even handed about anything and everything that might cause someone somewhere a degree of offence then there isn’t much option but to sanitise it completely. To do otherwise would be putting the interests of one group ahead of others and, er, just a wee bit prejudicial.
* Probably a dog called “Whitey” or something. Just to be on the safe side.
** Yes, I know it could be argued that sometimes we could have avoided it by not getting involved in a pointless and unnecessary war but I’m sure you get my point.