Oliver Stone’s history of the world — Paul Gilfeather
MAY 16 — Hollywood director Oliver Stone is talking to Singapore’s brightest young minds about history and politics and I can feel my blood starting to boil.
To a packed auditorium at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), Stone, arguably the world’s greatest living film-maker, reveals he is making a 10-part documentary series called The Untold History of the United States.
In the series, which he calls “the most important thing I have ever done”, he will give us his unique take on pivotal events like World War II and the Cold War.
Known for being hysterically outspoken and politically on the left, he has made a career of portraying the United States establishment — from Presidents to the intelligence services — as murderous villains and, as a result, his broad shoulders have been subjected to a fair bit of flak.
Speaking to the students and staff, Stone is keen to keep the exact details of the “History of the World, according to Oliver Stone” under wraps but he does suggest that it will re-examine the likes of the Japanese in WWII and Russian tyrant Joseph Stalin more sympathetically than ever before.
He tells the audience: “The Japanese were recognised, often hailed as liberators in Asia of these European colonies. President Roosevelt himself said that the Japanese ascendancy would not even have been possible had it not been for European colonialism.
“And people forget that. They look back and they see the horrible Japanese but they never ask how this situation came about.”
Liberators? It is bizarre, if not downright offensive, that Stone chooses Singapore - where it is thought the Japanese murdered as many as 50,000 Chinese in just a few short years - to talk up the merits of the invading army.
On the fall of Singapore, he adds: “When that happened, it really shook the people. ‘Hey, the British can be beaten.’ And that was a huge step forward in the consciousness of that time. And although the British got back into Singapore, it would never be the same again. They would never be feared as they were once feared.”
It is no wonder the British were never feared in the same way again, if they ever were. The Japanese took torture and murder to industrious levels, shooting, beheading and burning alive thousands of locals and British prisoners of war.
VILLAINS BEYOND THE PALE
Stone also says his series will dig up little-known historical “facts” to redress the balance which traditionally paints the West as good and Russian leaders like Stalin as bad. It is not so much saying that Stalin was not a bad guy — he just wants to tell the world that the Americans were just as bad, if not worse.
Stalin was the biggest mass murderer in the history of the world. Why would anyone want to enter pleas of mitigation on his behalf? For me, issues like Stalin and the Japanese during WWII are beyond the pale, just like Hitler and the holocaust.
Surely there is more historical value in a film project like Steven Spielberg’s brilliant, fact-based drama The Pacific, in which we are reminded of the incredible sacrifice made by the Americans fighting tyranny and evil? And if it is the life and times of one of history’s great villains he wants to represent, then surely there are greater lessons to be learned detailing the crimes of someone like Stalin or Saddam Hussein than Harry Truman?
He says his new series will lay the blame for the Cold War at the door of the former US President rather than Stalin and the Russians. This in itself would be a spectacular fete, as popular expert opinion has it that Truman was pretty oblivious to the dangers of Communism while in office.
And anyway, why waste your time and energy going after Truman? Young people today do not care about such things and, if any project is going to leave you irrelevant, out of date and even further on the margins, it will be this.
Whatever evils Stone believes Truman responsible for, how can they compare with the 10 million or so people Stalin is believed to have wiped off the earth?
I do not object to Stone’s politics as such, it is his default setting which sees him attack his own country at every opportunity that I do not like. How can you take someone seriously when they automatically take the opposite view of the West, no matter what the circumstances?
At one point during the LKYSPP session, Stone again gives us a display of his anti-Americanism by talking about the “murder, I mean killing”, of Osama bin Laden”. It gets a laugh but just whose side is this guy on?
POSTER BOY FOR CONSPIRACY THEORISTS
After his talk I am afforded a short time to interview the director of such classics as Wall Street, JFK and Platoon about the inaugural ScreenSingapore, the international cinema event coming up next month billed as the Cannes of Asia. Stone is heading the jury for the Asian Short Film Awards. But first I want to ask him about Stalin.
When Uncle Joseph died, the brilliant newspaper columnist Cassandra of the London Daily Mirror wrote: “In his time he did titanic things and the whole world was his chess board. No tyrant ever planned on such a scale, and continents rather than countries were his prey. His skill in power politics was unsurpassed. But his purpose was evil and his methods unspeakable. Few men by their death can have given such deep satisfaction to so many.”
With these words in mind, I remind him that “Stalin was a monster”. Stone hits back defiantly: “But only to his own people.”
Tell that to the thousands of Poles massacred during WWII or to the Americans who migrated to Russia fleeing the Depression and who were subsequently executed on Stalin’s orders. If Stone can get such basic facts wrong, how are we supposed to trust him on anything else he tells us in his Untold History series?
He reveals, only half-jokingly, that he might one day make a film about the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. In that case, I suggest that while in Singapore he visits the fabulous Battle Box, the British HQ buried deep beneath Fort Canning Park which was brilliantly restored to how it was when General Arthur Percival surrendered.
But he says: “The British had their guns pointed the wrong way - out to sea when the Japanese came in.” And Stone appears to find some genuine amusement, or even glee, in the idea of incompetence among the British Army ranks.
I stare back at him, puzzled. I cannot work this guy out. Maybe I am not supposed to. For all his treachery and paranoia, this poster boy for conspiracy theorists is a remarkable talent. And for all his wild claims and sixth-form politics, it is hard to dislike him.
As we say goodbye, he seems a little concerned about the tone of our exchanges. “Be careful on the history quotes,” he says. “Get them right for me.”
The master film-maker has put his foot in it again. But because of the joy he has given us over the years, I think we can forgive him. — Today
* Paul Gilfeather is the principal correspondent at Today.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.