Page 8 (Panel 1)
Updated: Feb 12
The opening panel of this scene takes us into the narrative by declaring "all of this is true." This pronouncement generated a lot of discussion at the script stage between me and my editor, who thought the line set an awfully high (and likely unattainable) bar regarding historical accuracy. After much thoughtful and productive back and forth, it was decided that the line was okay, because what it doesn't say is "all of this is FACT." As I've written and discussed elsewhere, facts are facts, but truth often depends on where you're standing.
Juggling the objective and the subjective is a big part of writing any kind of non-fiction. Two Generals was my first attempt at such (my 2007 graphic novel Northwest Passage, which many readers assumed was based on real historical events, was actually fiction, though I took the misassumption as a compliment). I began with the highest hopes that the book would be as accurate as possible, that it would, ideally, read as my grandfather's story and not mine. I discovered very quickly that such authenticity is simply impossible.
For starters, any research you do relies on the accuracy of others. With Two Generals, I was lucky to have a wealth of primary sources at my fingertips: my grandfather's 1943 diary, Jack Chrysler's letters to his wife, the regimental diary of The Highland Light
Infantry of Canada, and my own interviews with Colonel Doug Barrie
(all of which will be discussed in more detail throughout this blog). But even primary sources, as immediate as they are, are not 100% reliable. The version of Jack that emerges in Law's diary is not exactly the one that appears in Jack's own correspondence. Nor is the straightforward, all-business Law Chantler of the diary the one who sometimes appears in Jack's letters. Details presented as fact in the regiment's records were, I would eventually learn, demonstrated to be incorrect as the decades wore on. And the memories of Col. Barrie, while full of powerful personal insight, were those of an 86-year-old man doing his best to recall events from over sixty years before.
Any police officer will tell you how unreliable eyewitness accounts can be. Any number of people, recalling the same event, will remember it in different ways (Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, one of the greatest films ever made, is about this very idea). The passage of time only compounds the effect. Throw in people's personal and political agendas, not to mention the wild card that is human personality, and you can see how muddy the water becomes.
Obviously, some things can be nailed down as fact. For instance, D-Day was June 6th, 1944. Claiming it happened in mid-August would be demonstrably incorrect. But the individual experiences of soldiers on that day are always going to vary, not just because of the variation of the experience from ship to ship, beach to beach, or regiment to regiment, but because of the variation from one man to another, and the lens each of them looked at the world through. Or looks back through.
So what's the writer of non-fiction to do? You do all the research you can, get to know your subject from the inside, and then do your best. Inevitably, though, when dealing with historical material, you will have to choose between one person's account and another. Hopefully it's an informed choice, but it's a choice nonetheless. And simply in making those judgement calls, you impose your own viewpoint on events. A viewpoint that will be seen as "inaccurate" by those whose own viewpoint or research may differ.
In crafting a story, you also have to choose which events to depict at all, and which to leave out. Again, it's a choice that, one way or the other, imposes an interpretation. Ideally, you end up with something that has a sort of integrity and authenticity, even without being 100% complete. As I write this, season 4 of The Crown, the high-end (and high-quality) Netflix series by Peter Morgan is getting dragged hard in the media for supposed historical inaccuracy, with some even denouncing it as "pure fiction," which is silly. It's not as if it's about Charles and Diana solving crimes or fighting zombies; it's about them getting married, and not very happily. Royal observers can bicker over the details, but that certainly sounds like a true story to me. The show has historians and advisors on staff (who I'm sure have their own heated debates about what's correct) and all things considered, I'm more inclined to trust them than I am the tabloids, the apologists, or the Royals themselves. Would you believe a show endorsed by any of those camps?
I'm reminded of an interview I read with Aaron Sorkin a decade ago, when The Social Network was released and similarly attacked. In its defence, Sorkin asserted that everything in the film was something somebody swore to in a deposition. It stuck in my memory, because it really boils the problem down to its essence: in a story that depicts a contentious lawsuit, you're by nature dealing with people whose versions of events disagree. So who do you believe? As a storyteller, you have to choose, alienating those who would disagree. Or you try to average out the differing perspectives, potentially alienating everyone.
And please don't think this only applies to creative non-fiction. "Real" historians do the same thing. In recent years, our culture has finally begun to catch up to the various ways that some voices have been deprioritized in our history, if not erased completely. Two Generals, while popular in schools, is too personal and narrative-driven to have been intended to be used as a history textbook, but even history textbooks are themselves narratives, written by people with their own own personal, cultural, or historical biases. The experience of creating Two Generals has made me forever wary of claims of objectivity.
It's often said that history books (or movies, or TV shows, etc.) tell us more about the time in which they were written than the time that they're written about. Indeed, they do. Years after finishing Two Generals, I encountered this quote from American folklorist and anthropologist Henry Glassie, which sums it up nicely, and has informed all of my interactions with historical material since:
"History is not the past, but a map of the past drawn from the present to be useful to the modern traveller."
Moments in time are gone forever. Reconstructing them, even when records exist, is complicated and messy work. Two Generals represents my best attempt to recreate some moments my grandfather and others lived through. I've learned what I can, and I certainly know more than anybody currently living about this one man's experiences during WWII. But in the end, they aren't my experiences. I did my best to draw a map of them that was accurate, useful, and true as I understand them. But the map is not the territory, and never will be. I'll do my best in this blog to distinguish between what's hard fact, and what's true in a broader, more subjective sense.
Now give The Crown a break, because it's a damn good show.