Writing Historical Characters

The film Cinderella Man came up on the Castalia House blog the other day. The film, just so we’re all clear, is the story of James Braddock, a slightly-over-the-hill boxer during the Great Depression whose career had seemed over, until he suddenly returned to the ring with a series of stunning victories, culminating in him challenging the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, Max Baer.

It’s not the time to give a full review, but the short version is that it’s a really good movie, with stellar acting (Paul Giamatti cannot possibly be in too many movies), great directing, a good script, a supremely positive image of fatherhood and masculinity, and it tells an inspiring true story.

But it has one very, very serious flaw: its depiction of Max Baer.

In the film, Baer is portrayed as a swaggering bully and near-psychopath, who is shown to have actually killed two men in the ring and is proud of the fact, using it to try to intimidate Braddock before and during the fight.

In reality, by all accounts, Baer was a friendly, warm-hearted man, described as something of an overgrown teenager, who enjoyed playing to the crowd and was popular with audiences (he even ended up having a post-ring career as a comedian). He taunted and swaggered with his opponents, but he wasn’t a bully. His son, actor Max Baer Jr. (of Beverly Hillbillies fame) called him “one of the kindest, gentlest men you would ever hope to meet.”

But playing him as a jerk doesn’t really bother me that much. It’s Braddock’s story, and it’s fair (if not necessarily the best call) to make his opponent someone you’d want to see go down.

Playing him as a psychopath who is proud of having killed two men, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely.

It is true that, in a boxing match in 1930, Baer did in fact lose his temper and pummel Frank Campbell so hard that Campbell never regained consciousness (it was discovered afterward that his brain had been literally knocked loose of his skull; Baer’s punching power was legendary). But in real life, far from reveling in the fact, the incident traumatized Baer, who accompanied his fallen opponent to the hospital, begged Campbell’s wife for forgiveness, and cried uncontrollably when Campbell was pronounced dead. He sent Campbell’s widow a portion of his subsequent purses and the event haunted Baer his whole life, resulting in recurring nightmares, depression, and contributing to the alcoholism that eventually killed him.

(Another fighter, Ernie Schaaf, also took a brutal beating from Baer and died some weeks later, but his death was found to be unrelated. Didn’t stop the newspapers, though).

That’s why, in my view, the film’s depiction of him crosses a moral line. To take one of the most traumatic events of a man’s life – a real man, remember – and twist it to make him look like a monster is really not acceptable behavior for a writer.

Writing historical figures is always tricky, of course, and has a moral component that simply doesn’t exist in fiction, since you are dealing with the reputation of a real human being. On the other hand, real people are always more complex and multi-faceted than any fictional character can be, or can be shown to be within the limited scope of a book or script, so some simplification is going to happen.

Personally, my principle would be, in most cases, to err on the side of fairness; to try to give the person the benefit of the doubt as far as is reasonable. Do your research and try to let the subject through as much as you can, not the fictional character who happens to share his name.

In any case, at least try to keep in mind that this is a real person you are dealing with: a person with a real reputation to consider, possibly a real family now alive, and that you are going to be coloring the opinions of everyone who reads you regarding him.

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