Public Release: 

New book analyzes Hollywood and real life crime

Sam Houston State University

HUNTSVILLE (1/15/13) - A new book by Dr. Willard Oliver of Sam Houston State University's College of Criminal Justice compares real life crimes to Hollywood versions of the event.

An outgrowth of his college course on History of Criminal Justice, Dr. Oliver developed the study based on students who regularly challenged him over key events in criminal justice history 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.

Dr. Oliver said he has found several defined patterns in the way motion pictures depict American criminal justice history. He said movies often over simplify 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.

Real events studied in the book include the 1839 mutiny by African slaves aboard the Spanish Schooner La Amistad; the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre on emigrant wagon trains in Utah; the 1919 Major League's Black Sox scandal; the 1929 Valentine's Day Massacre of mobsters in Chicago; Legendary Bank Robber John Dillinger; the 1959 quadruple murder of successful farmer Herbert Clutter and his family; the 1962 escape by three inmates from Alcatraz Island; the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi; and the Washington Post investigation of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

Dr. Oliver's initial research first appeared in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education in 2011. That article used Amistad as an example of the historical inaccuracies.


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