The film, ‘Watchmen’ presents a story within an alternate version of history. How do the filmmakers set out this alternate history, and what messages are the filmmakers trying to portray with the way this alternate history plays itself out as compared to the way our real history has played out?
Alternate history has always been an important literary device in the fiction genre. Authors and filmmakers from all over the world use it to enhance their medium. Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds are examples of what has come before and now; the Watchmen can be placed in the same class. The definition of an alternative history is: ‘A genre of fiction in which the author speculates on how the course of history might have been altered if a particular historical event had had a different outcome’ (Collins English Dictionary-2011). Moore did this in V for Vendetta by creating Britain as a fascist “Big Brother” state in the 1980s that is led to revolution by a masked vigilante. Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds created an alternate history by leading some Jewish soldiers on a Nazi killing spree, including the violent execution of Adolf Hitler.
This paper will explore how the filmmakers of the Watchmen set out to plan and create an alternate modern history using real world events. It will also look at the message the filmmakers are trying to portray through this false history rather that of historical reality. To truly answer these questions, first the history and plot of Watchmen must be explained further; then it is necessary to explore critical examples of the alternative history and how they support the plot of the film; and finally, reviewing the production elements and screenplay which brought this alternative history to life on screen.
Watchmen takes place in an alternate history of 1985 America in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society, and features the “Doomsday Clock” – charting the USA’s tension with the Soviet Union and predicts how far the human race is away from nuclear holocaust, which is permanently set at five minutes to midnight. The story starts when a character named The Comedian is assassinated by being thrown out of his apartment window. One of the characters, Rorschach, sets out to discover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime-fighting support group, The Watchmen – a not so super group of retired superheroes, only one of whom has true powers, Doctor Manhattan – Rorschach finds a wide-ranging and truly disturbing conspiracy theory with links to all of their past and terrible consequences for the future. Their mission is to watch over humanity and protect it from its self-destructing behavior.
The film is a adaptation of the twelve part comic book series (1986-1987) written by Alan Moore. The comic has left a huge legacy that Moore could never imagine. Watchmen was the only graphic novel to appear on Time’s 2005 “All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels” list. Watchmen is a 2009 Hollywood comic book film directed by Zack Snyder and the screenplay is by David Hayter and Alex Tse. On March the 6, 2009 the film was released. In its opening weekend in America alone the film grossed $55,214,334 million dollars, and a further £3,243,001 here in the United Kingdom (IMDB, 2011). It unfortunately came out to mixed reviews and a short cinema run. Many film magazines could not quite make up their minds whether they liked it or not. The Wall-Street Journal described the Watchmen film as, ‘…the spiritual equivalent of being whacked on the skull for 163 minutes. The reverence is inert, the violence noxious, the mythology murky, the tone grandiose, the texture glutinous.’ (Joe Morgenstern, 2009)
The filmmakers showed this alternate version of history through many different means. One scene in the film where this is most evident is the opening title sequence. The sequence uses a time-line of popular historical events from the 1930s to 1985 where the story begins. This scene is where the audience is first exposed to the alternate historical world of the Watchmen. In the Watchmen Film Companion, director, Zack Snyder said, ‘Storyboards where essential to helping the crew create the world of the Watchmen’ (Snyder, 2009). This was made up of vignettes not touched upon often in the graphic novel or created for the film. The sequence of historical events was designed to make the audience re-imagine the past and to get them to see the world through what Snyder calls ‘a Watchmen lens’.
‘Zack’s title treatment very cleverly brings a lot of the book’s texture of the film, while also providing the audience with an opportunity to get up to speed with the world of Watchmen.'(Loyd Levin, 2009)
Another article in The Watchmen Film Companion described the title sequence as a ‘research project’. A section of the scene consists of recreating the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The alternate version of history here is that the character The Comedian rather than Lee Harvey Oswald shoots Kennedy. Snyder and Hayter sifted through many conspiracy theory web sites and hundreds of historical and political documents from the JFK Records act of 1992 to study the fine detail of the day; Such as the positions of the motorcade (Snyder, 2009). This allowed Snyder and his team to effectively plan a believable alternative to the known history of the Kennedy assassination. They did this in order to present us with a statement about growing corruption within the USA government especially the military branch. This has connections to the story because The Comedian was hired after the assassination to intervene with Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam and carry out Black-Ops missions by order of Richard Nixon.
The next example in the title sequence of the Watchmen alternate history they set out in the film is a change to the famous ‘Times Square Kiss’ photo. Instead of the historically correct photograph of the sailor kissing the female nurse in Times Square, we see a superhero from the novel called Silhouette, who walks up and kisses the nurse. This of course would not happen in the nineteen-forties. This is because homosexuality was reviled and not accepted in public places. Also at this time homosexuality was illegal in America. After watching the title sequence the audience is well acquainted with the Watchmen world, therefore making it one of the most important scenes in the whole film. The scene effectively and concisely brings us up to date with all the important events in the Watchmen universe.
One of the differences between reality and the film’s is comic books compared to our comic books. In our reality our comic books have always been mainly themed with superheroes, where as in the Watchmen reality their comic books are themed with pirates as the heroes. We have always been used to superheroes in our comic books because they let us escape into a fictional version of our daily lives. In the film superheroes are already a well-integrated part in society within the Watchmen universe. So in the graphic novel and the directors cut of Watchmen there is a comic within the comic called Tales of The Black Freighter. The comic in the film and book is being read by a young teenager boy named Bernard at the New Frontiersman newspaper stall. The story revolves around pirates being the “superheroes” of the the Watchmen reality. This gives readers and viewers the chance to see another small part of the Watchmen world. ‘Black Freighter’ as mentioned above is a comic book about pirates but it also serves as a metaphor for war. This is due to the subject matter of being left alone to your own thoughts after being subjected to horrific acts and desperation caused by killing and isolation. There is one principle difference in this area between the film and the graphic novel. In the novel, the dialogue from the newspaper stall’s owner, also named Bernard, is a spoken narrative that parallels directly with the written narrative of the ‘Black Freighter’, where as the animated ‘Black Freighter’ film in the directors cut only uses the dialogue from the ‘Black Freighter’ comic book story line. The filmmakers included this sub plot only into the directors cut because they needed to cut down on the running time for the theatrical release. ‘Black Freighter’ was released as a separate DVD a month after the film was released in the United Kingdom. The art department used this comic as a prop to help aid in the scene transitions within the film.
Now to look at another reason the alternate history in the Watchmen works so well is because of the production elements in the film. Part of the charm of Watchmen is the detail the novel goes into to create the alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon leads the United States to victory in Vietnam and continues his fascist hold over the White House. The book includes intermittent documents and testimony relating the history of the masked hero movement leading up to the action taking place within the comic frames. There are fictional biographies, scientific records,and photographs. The production designer had this to say, ‘The parallel universe has been set up so beautifully. It really puts the audience square into a new kind of history. By the time you get to the end of it, even reading it on the storyboards, you start questioning, ‘Which part of that was real again?” (Alex McDowell, 2009)
Luckily, the important attention to detail has not been lost on the art department for Watchmen, like the newsreel video mock-up and, now, images from The New Frontiersman – the fictional newspaper of the alternate universe. The filmmakers not only did this for the fans of the comic, but to take that alternate history one step closer to reality. This allows for audiences to be captivated. The filmmakers are trying to prove a point that the world has descended into chaos. They want us to feel connected but yet detached from this odd world.
One example the art department used as a focal feature in the film demonstrates this effectively. It is a campaign propaganda poster for Richard Nixon’s fifth term. The photo of Nixon has devil horns and Mickey Mouse ears drawn on it. Also a small swastika is drawn in on the bottom left hand corner. This type of image when seen by the public can hold strong feelings, as many people still remember Nixon. So it can be unsettling for some people as they are taken into this alternate history. In the book ‘ Easily Led: History of Propaganda’ by Oliver Thomson, he explains that when people add to a propaganda message it then becomes art and the will of the people (Thomson, 1999). This is what the filmmakers set out to do. They wanted us to have a political figure that was disliked and forced from office and easily remembered. It allowed for the filmmakers and art department once again to show the civil unrest and deep changes to history in the story. This is a reflection on our own reality as at the time we had assassination attempts on Ronald Reagan, Soviets shot down a Korean airliner and Reagan also announced a series of defense plans called “Star Wars” in 1983. All of these real life current events are used to support the movies cold war theme.
The role of Richard Nixon is supported by an extremely well crafted screenplay. Screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse cleverly blend the real Nixon history with a believable alternative history. In reality the United States of America has a fixed allocation of two terms for their presidents. This provides the country with the ability to never become a dictatorship and to have new governments with new ideas always changing hands. In the world of the Watchmen, however, this is different. In the story, when the United States goes to war with Vietnam, America wins. The government sends over the only superhero with powers, Doctor Manhattan, and to assist him The Comedian. The filmmakers give us strong images of the two characters burning down entire fields and villages. The audience is also told that quickly after Dr. Manhattan becomes involved, the high ranking Vietcong decide to surrender to him in person. We are faced with The Comedian violently killing Vietnamese natives and the mother of his child for what he describes as “the fun of it”(Moore, 1986). This allowed the filmmakers to truly change the course of modern history. They tried to tell us that if in fact America had won the war the world might have been worse off than better.
One reason for this is because in the alternative history story, Nixon repealed the 22nd Amendment of the Constitution, so there is no longer a fixed term on a President after the Vietnam War. This means America has turned into something modeling totalitarian dictatorship. In reality, of course, Nixon is the only American President who was forced to resign the presidency following the Watergate scandal. Nixon was blamed for being a staunch conservative who undermined his advisers on several occasions, such as in 1971 when he started the U.S. War on Drugs and ignoring the Shafer Commission Report in 1972. When Nixon took office he was also disliked by the growing left for escalating the Vietnam war in 1971. The filmmakers do not stop there when it comes to alternate history. They make it so Vietnam becomes the 51st state to join the United States. The filmmakers where trying to convey a message of a country that’s becoming power mad. It’s almost a metaphor for what if the left wing lost in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s as if the filmmakers are trying to put forward a point about our own modern liberal cultures and how we could be making the same mistakes in Iraq war and the war on Afghanistan.
Another example of how the screenplay was essential to the telling of the story was because the writers had to complete draft after draft to convince the studio that the original graphic novel of the Watchmen would make a better script.’When the studio had me come in to read the screenplay I was shocked. They wanted it done in a modern setting and to have a comment on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I said why? So we met up, tore the thing to shreds and went back to the drawing board.'(Zack Snyder, 2010)
This quote is discussing the idea that the studio wanted a modern updated version of the Watchmen, mainly because the audience of 2009 could identify better with the current state of affairs and to take away some of the Cold War apocalyptic tensions from the 1980s. Some studio executives thought this would be a better idea since most of the target audiences for Snyder’s films won’t have been born during the Cold War era. Luckily the film stuck closely with the comic and allowed for the message of the book to be conveyed easily through the movie. The filmmakers are trying to put across the message that no matter who wins or loses the world will always keep changing and war keeps us ripped apart and mentally impoverished.
In conclusion as you can see by exploring the history, plot and art department as to how and why the filmmakers set out on creating the alternate history of the Watchmen. It also talked about how the Richard Nixon and the Vietnam war alternate history sent the world into turbulence. Also it discussed the opening title sequence and how it set the historical tone for the whole film. The film itself on a entertainment level is wonderful. But when you sit down and study this amazing film you can not help but be astonished by the amazing level of detail and work that Snyder and his team put into creating the alternate history.
These examples have shown that the alternate history in Watchmen is the key to proving the filmmakers point, such as what Quentin Tarantino and Alan Moore achieved through alternate histories. Watchmen’s creators’ point was that nothing in the world can ever be safe and no matter what happens human beings are self destructing by nature. Snyder accomplished this message by concentrating on the little things such as alternate branding, propaganda, media and the alteration of major historical events. The alternate historical events help to shape the story and the audience’s feelings and the message they conceived the film to be about. The Watchmen film worked because of the level of detail mentioned above. If the film did not have the same care and attention that it did the alternate history would have muddled the plot and many political messages the story is famous for. This film stands alone because nothing has been done like it before thus it stands out from the crowd. The crew set out to make a film that challenged peoples ideas of comic book films and to tell a narrative of, what if? Despite differing opinions and little critical acclaim, the crew created a story from alternate history successfully and still managed to get their point across, something that has been lacking from most modern Hollywood comic book blockbusters