A little over 27 years ago, Krakatoa, East of Java, a prototype of the modern summer Hollywood blockbuster, was in post-production. Krakatoa was a noisy, big-budget adventure based on the cataclysmic 1883 volcanic eruption in the East Indies, which blackened the skies, briefly altered the climate of the Earth, and killed tens of thousands. (It was such a surefire formula, at least two other summer blockbusters since Krakatoa have featured erupting volcanoes.)
The studio publicity machine was in high gear when someone looked at a map and realized that Krakatoa — the volcano and putative star of this melodrama — was actually west of Java. Oh, well....
The movie went on to huge box office success, mediocre reviews, and relative anonymity.
I bring up this bit of cultural trivia not because I have a sudden nostalgia for bad movies, but because I have a confession to make.
Last winter I published a children's book — actually, I called it Wildlife in Charleston: A Children's Book for Grownups — featuring the art of Steven Jordan and a little narrative by yours truly. Wildlife in Charleston is a whimsical collection of Jordan's naturalistic prints depicting such "local wildlife" as a koala bear climbing a palmetto tree on the Battery, a zebra pulling a tourist carriage on Chalmers Street, a gorilla hanging from the steeple of St. Philip's Church, and a leopard substituting for a Dalmatian at the Meeting Street Fire Station.
The last print in the book features Middleton Place, the historic plantation and garden in West Ashley. On the lawn of the ancient brick mansion, a monkey, an elephant, a zebra and her colt, a giant panda and other creatures graze and frolic. And in the text I inform the reader that Middleton Place is in East Cooper!
I still blush when I write these words, but not as deeply as when I first realized my mistake. As a recent immigrant to the Lowcountry, I simply got my plantations mixed up. But in a town so proud of its history, so eager to preserve its past, this was an inexcusable faux pas, and it has cost me sales. But the ink was on the page and until I go to a second printing, the error will stand. At least my geographical error wasn't in the title, unlike the poor bastards who produced Krakatoa.
The errors in my book and in Krakatoa were honest ones. A far more cynical gaffe occurred in The Green Berets, the 1968 film featuring and directed by John Wayne.
Released at the height of the Vietnam War, this gung-ho tribute to U.S. Special Forces portrayed Wayne & Co. fighting evildoers and winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. The film was so muddled that one of the characters clearly didn't understand the difference between North Vietnam Army and Viet Cong communist forces. But the most egregious error came in the final scene, as the Duke and the Vietnamese boy, Hamchunk, walk together along the beach at Da Nang and Wayne says, "The future of 'Nam is you, kid." The camera pans out to sea, the credits roll, and the sun sets.
That's right, folks. In John Wayne's version of the Vietnam War, the sun sets in the east. The Duke's geography was as screwed up as his politics.
A much finer Vietnam movie was The Deer Hunter. Here we find Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and John Cazale, all residents of a steel mill town in western Pennsylvania, driving into the mountains for some recreational hunting. But then the camera pans around the hunters and we find them ... in the snow-capped Rocky Mountains? The Rockies are certainly more majestic than the Appalachians, but it's a cheap trick and an unnecessary distraction.
Then there is The Untouchables, a really good movie with a David Mamet screenplay, about Eliot Ness and his federal agents busting Al Capone's bootlegging empire during Prohibition. But one scene left me with a sour taste: the bootleggers were bringing a shipment of booze across the Canadian border in some cold, remote region that looked like the high plains of eastern Montana. But the border was portrayed as a river! Is there anyone above the age of 12 who doesn't know that the U.S.-Canadian border, from Minnesota to the Puget Sound, is the 49th parallel?
I know it was done for dramatic effect. The ambush on the bridge looked better than an ambush on the open road at the 49th parallel. But don't you risk insulting your viewers' intelligence when you mess with geography that way?
As for Wildlife in Charleston, let me assure you, there was no attempt to be cute or dramatic or loose with the facts. It is just a dumb mistake. And for that, I apologize.