Nothing But the Truthiness: Facts and Fiction in Alternate World War II History Films

Gale, Harrison Renee

In 2005, the Comedy Central program The Colbert Report coined the word “truthiness”: what is true matters less than what feels true. This once tongue-in-cheek philosophy about facts has unexpectedly become an encapsulation of the current political atmosphere in America – one where political figures can lie with impunity, shaping reality to their ideological agenda. Film lends itself to the aim of alternate histories to create substitute “realities” in fiction: the very nature of fictional narrative cinema requires the filmmaker to edit images to simulate a “real” world within the frame. As a medium, cinema finds itself pulled between a desire for photorealism and creating a fictional world. Alternate histories play with the photographic attempts at “objectivity” by portraying a narrative counter to historical fact. This thesis examines the capability of alternate history narratives in film to provide a lens into the current political mindset and to offer the potential to heal historical violence by examining three films centered around World War II (a period that frequently serves as a “nexus point” for alternate historians): The Big Red One (1980, dir. Samuel Fuller), a “control” film in line with the facts of the war; It Happened Here (1964, dir. Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo), a hybrid mock-documentary and drama that imagines a Nazi invasion of Britain; and Inglourious Basterds (2009, dir. Quentin Tarantino), which presents an earlier Allied victory through the lens of a Jewish revenge fantasy. What are the cultural ramifications of seeing narratives that are counter to history in an era when the dismissal and obscuring of fact have become commonplace, even expected, of people in power? Can these films serve as an arena to challenge the deceptive distortion of history and fact, and how can they redefine “truth” in a post-truth world?


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Andrew Sarris Memorial Award for Film Criticism
Published Here
April 21, 2020