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Biography

It came up naturally over dinner, or at least naturally to me.  It started with a wonderful buffet with Liz at the U Garden that included General Tso’s Chicken, a spicy dish that has always intrigued me.  I remembered a story that it was named for the General who defeated the Moslems in the 13th Century at the Western fringes of China – which was apparently completely wrong.  A quick look at wikipedia shows that he was the general who defeated the Taiping Rebellion in China in the 1850s – with a little help from the British.  The chicken dish?  It was probably invented later by a refugee who spiced it with a sarcastic moniker to accent the chile pepper.

Aside from my being completely wrong about a tidbit of history, the story highlighted something that always fascinates me.  Nearly everything in our world has a story hidden behind it somewhere – a tale of intrigue, suffering, triumph, and perhaps tragedy.  It turns out that General Tso is even more interesting than I knew and perhaps might be the centerpiece of an excellent movie – one that explains a lot about China today.  But as Liz and I kept talking and eating we came up with even more examples of great biographies that are never told.  I’ll bet you have some, too.

The first one Liz came up with was the story of Nikola Tesla, the greatest scientist almost no one has heard of.  Tesla’s great mistake was that he was right, which is to say that he clearly understood electricity far better than Thomas Edison could ever hope to.  The world came to quietly accept Tesla’s work, including the use of alternating current rather than direct current in electric transmission, but the myth of Edison was far too embedded in our culture to give the real inventor any credit.  A great movie could be made by getting into the head of a man whose brilliant mind came up against the need for hero worship – and rehabilitating Tesla to his rightful place in history.

If King George VI can be the center of an Oscar-winning movie it only shows you just what the right team can do with just about anything.  But there’s better starting material than that all through history.  A favorite of mine has always been Queen Ysabella, uniter of Spain, founder of the Inquisition, and patron of Columbus – and the reason why most of this hemisphere speaks Spanish.  Or, on the flip side, the world might be ready to get into the head of “The Liberator” Simón Bolívar, a man so brilliant and ahead of his time that on his deathbed he reportedly joked, “The three greatest fools in history are Jesus, Don Quixote, and me!”

Just about every culture has someone whose life, passion, and intelligence echo down to this day.  Here in the USofA we may be ready for a good treatment of Eleanor Roosevelt, for example.  Now that history has shaken off the “great man” theory in favor of a more human treatment of stories, the world may be safe for stories of some truly great men and women who made our world what it is.

But I’ve only given a few examples here of biographies Liz and I thought would be gripping.  Is there anyone from history that has always intrigued you?  Someone you think may have been shafted badly?  Can you name a situation where perseverance and passion on the part of one person may have made all the difference in our world today?

I’d like to know what you think.  Let’s help Hollywood get out of the disaster/action rut and give them a few good ideas.

9 thoughts on “Biography

  1. If you mean ‘historical drama’ I think there are a lot of examples of stories that would be great. I remember “Frieda”, the story of Frieda Kahlo, which was just incredible. One I think I would like to see that I think you mentioned before is Mary Shelly who wrote Frankenstein. She had to turn her whole writing career off for her famous husband Percy Shelly and he wasn’t anywhere near as good as she was!

  2. Anna: Yes, historical drama – about a situation as much as a person. Mary Shelley is a great example of someone that has been neglected, yes!

    Dan: Wow, I’m glad to hear that! If you have any more details please let me know – but I’ll start looking into it now. The only problem with him is that so much of his life is legend now that it’s hard to know where to begin!

  3. For some reason when I thought of it the first person that came to mind was Henry Ford. There has to be a lot to his story that has never been told. I’d bet the family would make it hard to be real honest about it though. I heard he was involved with Hitler at least at first among other things. he dabbled in a lot of things and if I remember right always wanted to go back to the family farm.

  4. Dale, that is an excellent choice! I think that just 20 years ago everyone assumed they knew everything about Ford, but at this point we could start very fresh and re-introduce him to a new generation. He was impressed by Nazis early on, yes, but that’s not surprising since Ford was a believer in industrial organization to do all kinds of great works – early on the Nazis appeared to be more about that than conquest (at least to people who were eager to look the other way at the persecution of Jews and others).

    But Ford was an amazing person. A big sponsor of Chemurgy and George Washington Carver’s work (you’ll have to look it up, I’m afraid!)

    I have never read a bio of him, either, so that might be a place to start. i’ll bet there are a few. This might be a project I can take on. Thanks!

  5. Talking this over with my daughter (it’s Spring Break!) we came up with two other really good ideas.

    My choice is Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the unsung hero of German Reunification: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans-Dietrich_Genscher (though he is far from unsung in Germany!).

    Kate picked an interesting figure that she would like to know more about: Joseph Stalin.

    Both of these choices are good for a movie in that they tie into historical events of great importance that are known in the main but not in a ton of detail. It’s sort of like the burning of Atlanta anchoring “Gone with the Wind” – most historical fiction has an hook like that.

  6. Pingback: Four Years On | Barataria – The work of Erik Hare

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