Let’s not get too worked up if Guy Gibson’s dog ends up with a PC name
This week’s vexed columnar question: should Guy Gibson’s dog still be called Nigger in The Dam Busters remake? Some of you no doubt think you know already what my line will be. And it’s true that as a second world war enthusiast of the retired-blustering-colonel persuasion, I am indeed the sort of fellow who spits in his gin when filmmakers take liberties with the period.
When Steven Spielberg made out in Saving Private Ryan that the Americans won D-Day on their own, that was annoying. When the film U-571 told us that it was a US navy crew that first captured a German naval Enigma machine — when in fact it was British personnel from HMS Bulldog — that was more irksome still. At least Spielberg had the reasonable excuse that the Omaha landings were a largely American affair. But the U-571 plotline was such a blatant distortion that its US screenwriter later felt compelled to apologise for his ‘mercenary decision… to create this parallel history in order to drive the movie for an American audience’.
So why, given my general sticklerishness, have I not yet gathered a few like-minded chums and started protests outside David Frost’s and Stephen Fry’s houses with placards saying ‘Hands off our Nigger!’, ‘Guy Gibson wasn’t racist!’, ‘It was acceptable in the Forties, so what’s your problem?’ or ‘If it’s good enough for Snoop Dogg, it’s good enough for a wartime flying hero!’?
Before I go on let me give you some background. David Frost has bought the screen rights to The Dam Busters, Stephen Fry is writing the screenplay, it’s being produced by Peter Jackson (director of the stupendous Lord of the Rings trilogy) and is due out sometime in 2011. Their biggest headache so far has been what to call Guy Gibson’s dog.
In the 1954 black-and-white original, the dog is mentioned by his proper name 12 times. He plays quite a key role, too. Though Nigger doesn’t actually invent the bouncing bomb himself — that was done by some lesser player called Barnes Wallis — he does get run over by a car at a very moving point in the action, perhaps in some way prefiguring the subsequent heroic death of his loving master.
Unfortunately, since then times have changed. If you believe my dear but tragically PC chum David Aaronovitch, Nigger’s name now gives ‘huge and unnecessary offence to millions of fellow citizens’. I think he may be exaggerating here. But it doesn’t half put the channels in a tizzy every time they put the film on. Sometimes they bleep out Nigger’s name, sometimes they overdub it, sometimes they leave it in. And the sad result of this is that The Dam Busters has virtually ceased to be a film celebrating British pluck, stirring martial theme music, bouncing bombs and Lancasters, and has instead become the one in which, tee hee, the main guy has a snort, titter, arf arf pet with a so unPC name.
This, I worry slightly, is the risk the remake runs too. There’s talk of calling the dog Nidge or Nigsy (Blood, Bro, Homes, Yomaniggah, Ho and Bitch all having been ruled out by Fry as inappropriate to the period) and while I can see that this is annoying and wrong in so many ways, I can also see why the compromise might be necessary. I mean, if you’re going to spend upwards of £21 million on a blockbuster movie, you don’t really want all your fantastic recreations of bursting Ruhr dams and tense Lancaster cockpits being overshadowed by some marginal scene where Gibson summons his dog by name to come and eat his dindins.
Anyway, the reason I mention all this is that I’ve been going through similar dilemmas. As some of you will be aware, I’m in the midst of writing a ten-volume second world war adventure series featuring my upper-class hero Dick Coward, and one of my constant concerns — because I love and admire them so much — is whether or not I’m doing justice to those of my friends who were there in the thick of it.
You’ll say that this is an admirable thing to agonise about — and so it is, up to a point. If you’re going to write about suffering and death in real battles when some of the participants are still alive, of course you have a special duty to get things as right as you possibly can — everything from weapons calibres and infantry tactics to unit designations and the correct amount of swearing.
But you can push these things too far. In my latest book, Dick takes part in Operation Market Garden with 1st Airborne Recce Squadron — the dashing unit whose job it was to lead the assault on Arnhem bridge in their Jeeps. Researching their history gave me all sorts of gloriously quirky detail — the marvellous Sergeant Venes with his disgusting ‘Brazil special’ cigarettes rolled in desperation out of coffee grounds and bog roll; the time they captured a young SS man mid-battle, pulled down his trousers and spanked his bare bottom with his SS belt, then sent him packing — but it also gave me writer’s block.
There came a point where I knew so much about the unit — the Arnhem battle generally, in fact — that I could no longer move Dick around the battlefield. I’d be saying to myself: ‘Well of course he can’t bump into General Kussin’s scalped corpse at this stage because 3rd Parachute Battalion wouldn’t yet have reached that point on Utrechtseweg…’ Which is fine if you think you’re writing purely for an audience of military trainspotters. But it’s not necessarily conducive to the artistic liberation that makes for rip-roaring entertainment. In the end, I reconciled myself to sacrificing the odd historical detail in the name of plotting, shape and general reader satisfaction.
This is why I’ve grown much less hardline than I used to be on the issue of taking slight liberties with history. One job of the novelist or screenwriter is to shape reality, not serve it up — as it is in life — as some unmediated splurge. You point things up, and sometimes you even make things up in the service of a greater truth. That last bit might sound poncy, but I’ll give you an example of what I mean.
In the film A Bridge Too Far, there’s a scene where the Germans approach the outnumbered paratroopers under a flag of truce and demand their surrender. A British officer refuses, explaining that they really haven’t enough men to be taking so many German prisoners. This deliberate misunderstanding never actually took place and one of the film’s expert advisers took exception to the inaccuracy. But the director Dickie Attenborough kept it in because, though completely made up, it nevertheless brilliantly captured in a short space the very real dash and pluck and sangfroid and defiant jollity which made the defence of Arnhem Bridge one of the most magnificent episodes in British military history.
So am I going to be walking out of the cinema in disgust when Guy Gibson climbs out of his Lancaster, wipes his sweat-coated brow with his silk scarf and calls cheerfully to his faithful hound ‘Fido!’ or ‘Fluffikins!’ or whatever else Stephen Fry decides to rechristen him? Probably not.
James Delingpole’s Coward at the Bridge is published by Simon & Schuster.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 13, 2009