Dr. Oliver Critiques Historic Crimes and Hollywood

Dr. Willard Oliver
Dr. Willard Oliver

Dr. Willard Oliver is going Hollywood to promote a better understanding of criminal justice history.

Dr. Oliver, a professor in the College of Criminal Justice, has turned one of his college courses into a book to help students understand how criminal justice history is presented in major motion pictures. He and co-author Nancy E. Marion use 10 films, based on actual historic events, to show the myths and realities of true crimes.

“I taught the class to try and explain to students that Hollywood makes movies to sell,” said Dr. Oliver. “Even when they are doing movies on history, Hollywood often alters or changes events. I wanted them to know when they see a history movie, they shouldn’t take it as gospel, but rather look at what they did right and what they did wrong.”

In Cold Blood movie poster.The idea for the book began in 2005 in Dr. Oliver’s course on the History of Criminal Justice. Students regularly challenged him over key events in the field because of the movies they had seen. Dr. Oliver spent most of his class discussing the inaccuracies based on the actual historic event.

“The students played a predominant role in the book,” said Dr. Oliver. “If not for the students, I would not have had the idea. They asked a lot of questions and they had a lot to say about what they saw in movies-- and they were tenacious when they told me I was wrong.”

The book, Crime, History and Hollywood: Learning Criminal Justice History Through Major Motion Pictures, explores 10 motion pictures that represent American history from the mid-1800s to the 1970s. It examines the actual historical event and how it was presented by Hollywood. The films include Amistad, September Dawn, Tombstone, Eight Men Out, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Public Enemies, In Cold Blood, Escape from Alcatraz, Mississippi Burning and All the President’s Men.

Amistad movie posterDr. Oliver said he has found several defined patterns in the way motion pictures depict American criminal justice history. He said movies often over simply the story and combine real historic characters into composites, eliminating historical people that were instrumental to the event. Hollywood often creates entirely fictitious characters to present some modern point and to carry the story from beginning to end. They also condense and consolidate the time period during which events happen. Finally, the events are sometimes “white washed,” where the heroes are white middle class, even when non-white characters were instrument in the actual case.

A good example of the historical distortion is in Amistad, where Actor Morgan Freeman plays the role of a freed slave and an abolitionist who helps the lawyer win the freedom of the captured slaves from the ship Amistad. Freeman’s character, Joadson, never existed. He is used by Steven Spielberg to present a black abolitionist’s perspective in the movie.

Dr. Oliver credits his students with helping him to define and refine his book. For example, when discussing the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, one of the most famous gunfights of the American West between lawmen and outlaws in 1881, one student said the reason for the fight was that the “Cowboys” wore red, as depicted in the movie Tombstone. Dr. Oliver explained that the movie came out in 1990s, when publicity on gang colors were prominent, and red was used as a symbol to present gang activities to the audience. But the real Cowboys were not an organized gang, nor did they wear red.

Other real events studied in the book include:

    Tombstone movie poster.
  • The 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, a series of attacks on emigrant wagon trains in southern Utah by a territorial militia and some local Native American. (September Dawn)
  • Major League’s Black Sox scandal, where eight members of the Chicago White Socks conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. (Eight Men Out)
  • The Valentine’s Day Massacre, where seven mob associates were killed in gangland slayings during the prohibition era in a battle between gangs led by Al Capone and Bugs Moran. (Valentine’s Day Massacre)
  • The case of John Dillinger, a notorious bank robber during the Great Depression, and his pursuit by the FBI. (Public Enemies)
  • The quadruple murder of a successful farmer Herbert Clutter and his family in Kansas in 1959. (In Cold Blood)
  • The escape of three inmates from the Alcatraz Island prison in California in 1962. (Escape from Alcatraz)
  • The murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. (Mississippi Burning)
  • The Washington Post investigation of the Watergate scandal involving President Richard Nixon. (All The President’s Men)

All the President's Men movie posterDr. Oliver’s initial research first appeared in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education in 2011 and discussed how Hollywood’s presentation of history in its motion pictures is nearly always flawed and how it is flawed in consistent ways. That article used Amistad as an example of the historical inaccuracies.

As a result of the class, Dr. Oliver said that students became quite adept at picking out the inaccuracies in the film after studying the actual events. He said they also have found inaccuracies that he did not even see, such as the weaponry used.

“My students weren’t just talking about what they saw,” said Dr. Oliver. “Movies are very passive. They are thinking and learning what the movie did to misrepresent history.”

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