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.