A little way into the film version of Louis de Bernières's bestselling novel, set on the Greek island of Cephalonia during World War II, a group of villagers crowd around a list of casualties posted in the public square. Until this point we have seen only minstrel-show peasants, conversing in broken English and executing perfectly choreographed folk dances. But now an elderly man collapses with grief and cries out in his own language: "Oh god, oh god, my boy. My boy has been killed."

The moment feels real; while it lasts, contact is made with history. Then we are back in the fantasy world of director John Madden's Anglo-Hollywood confection, where all the women are brave and the children above average, the Italians love pasta and opera, and the Greeks are good-hearted and proud. The romance between moon-calf Nicolas Cage as a captain of the Italian occupying forces and smoldering Penelope Cruz as the local doctor's daughter is pure Hollywood creampuff: It could almost have been shot in the 1950s as a vehicle for Sophia Loren. Only John Hurt as Cruz's gnarled old dad manages to keep his accent straight and suggest some sort of interior life. The grueling final battles between German and Italian troops come as a relief: Here, again, the film borrows its power from the events it commemorates. Captain Corelli's Mandolin is promoted as a love story, but the only interesting thing about it is the history it mostly tries to treat as a backdrop.

When Mussolini fell in the autumn of 1943, Italian forces occupying Rhodes and the Ionian Islands refused to surrender their arms to the Germans. Instead they turned their guns on their former allies, sometimes assisted by Greeks who fought at their side. The gesture was heroic but hopeless. In Cephalonia thousands of Italians were captured and massacred by German firing squads; many more drowned when ships ferrying them to the mainland were scuttled by the Nazis. The film of Captain Corelli differs from de Bernières's novel in its account of these events, and especially of the part played in them by the Greek partisans. Both have been shaped by the protracted political struggle in Greece and abroad over the country's wartime past.

The civil war that followed Greece's occupation by the Axis powers has a special place in Anglo-American history. It was the hot war at the birth of the cold war, the moment that produced the Truman Doctrine to justify American intervention. The bitter fighting between the Communist-led mass resistance movement, which effectively controlled the country, and the forces of the British- and then American-backed government in exile tore villages and families apart and left political scars that have still not completely healed. Before the imposition of a repressive peace, American-made napalm was used by the Greek Air Force against its own people, and Britain decisively handed over the leadership of the postwar West to the United States. Afterward many thousands of suspected leftists were interned, tortured and executed. (Most of those who went into exile, in the Soviet bloc, were finally allowed to return in the early 1980s.) Greece suffered decades of right-wing rule shored up by the harassment and imprisonment of dissidents, culminating in the CIA-supported dictatorship of 1967-74.

Not surprisingly, popular accounts in English of the Greek war have been heavily ideological. In the 1980s, at the peak of Ronald Reagan's obsession with the Evil Empire, an impassioned account by the Greek-American journalist Nicholas Gage of his mother's murder by Communist guerrillas was hailed as a revelation and was duly made into a major motion picture. As the waning imperial power, Britain produced nothing to compare with this, unless you count the rather subtler memoirs of the brilliant Oxbridge boys parachuted into the Greek mountains to make contact with the resistance. Louis de Bernières's novel, first published in 1994, was in some ways a late excrescence of cold war culture. Though it claims to despise both Fascism and Communism, it offers a sympathetic portrait of Greece's prewar dictator Metaxas while caricaturing the partisans as a cowardly bunch of murderers, thieves and rapists too busy fighting their own people to bother with the Germans. (This last canard originates with Sir Reginald Leeper, His Majesty's wartime ambassador to the Greek government, who was anxious to discredit the resistance in London. In fact, the leftist partisans bore the brunt of the fighting against the Nazis.)

The book was a glittering success. As an antiwar novel written by a former soldier, it has a sure grip on its driving passion. Its stylish intelligence and historical sweep gave it highbrow credentials; its gripping narrative and rousing themes of love, death and loyalty insured mass-market appeal. Captain Corelli's Mandolin is the book Hugh Grant is reading at the end of the British yuppie comedy Notting Hill–an icon of intellectual aspiration. Like the work of John Fowles, who also used a Greek setting for his novel The Magus, it pleasurably engages the brain without the discomfort of aesthetic or moral challenges. Its detailed picture of a different yet familiar world is enticing and absorbing–and marred by surprisingly few howlers (Greek is not written in Cyrillic characters, nor are lambs roasted on Easter Saturday). De Bernières did his homework, and it shows.

Amid the general adulation no one seemed to notice or care about the novel's historical distortions, until the Morning Star accused de Bernières of "the most crude and brazen anti-communism." (De Bernières pulled no punches in his reponse: "How long are you people going to sit in the dark in an air pocket wanking each other off? Your ship has sunk, brothers. It was historically inevitable….") In Greece, too, the early reviews were positive–including the notice in the Communist newspaper Rizospastis, much to its later embarrassment. This may be partly because the Athenian publisher thought it prudent to excise passages like this one:

 

In Cephalonia the Communists began to deport awkward characters to concentration camps; from a safe distance they had watched the Nazis for years, and were well-versed in all the arts of atrocity and oppression. Hitler would have been proud of such assiduous pupils.

 

It is also because Greece is a small country accustomed to being worshiped for its past and patronized for its present; a successful British writer who had bothered to immerse himself in its culture and recent history was bound to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Still, it was not long before political antennae were set quivering, and the novel sparked a new skirmish in the long-running and highly coded argument about the civil war. The Greek left emerged from its long silence after 1974 with an understandable tendency to romanticize the partisans. The right has kept up a steady barrage of accusation about leftist atrocities. Over the past decade Greek historians have begun to escape the cold war vise and produce more nuanced and detailed studies of the conditions that led to polarization and violence on both sides. But in the overheated atmosphere of the Greek media, there is little room for such subtleties.

When news of the plan to film Captain Corelli on Cephalonia reached the island, hackles immediately went up. Like most of the Greek islands, Cephalonia leans left: Sixty percent of the vote goes to left-of-center parties, 12 percent to the Communists. Many former partisans are still alive. Vangelis Neochorotis, now 92, whose efforts, both in the resistance with his wife, Amalia, and in the Greek-Italian war of 1940-41, were rewarded with twenty-one years in prison, told the British journalist Seumas Milne, "De Bernières's book is an insult to the whole Greek people. But I believe it is also part of a global drive to rewrite history…to convince people that political and social change is a dead end and that if you struggle for a better world, it only leads to bloodshed, suffering and failure."

Neochorotis is not the only veteran of wartime Cephalonia who has spoken scathingly of de Bernières's novel. Ninety-year-old Amos Pampaloni, former general manager of the Italian Automobile Club, knows more than most about the events it draws on. His own story, told this spring in a BBC documentary, bears a striking resemblance to Captain Corelli's, and formed the basis for Marcello Venturi's The White Flag, an Italian novel published in the 1960s and mentioned in de Bernières's acknowledgments. During the war Pampaloni was a captain in charge of the 33rd artillery regiment, Acqui division, in Cephalonia. Like Corelli, he fell in love ("innocently," he emphasizes) with a Cephalonian girl; he played a key role in the Italians' decision to attack the Germans; and he was shot and left for dead among the corpses of his men by a German firing squad. Unlike Corelli, though, Pampaloni was rescued by the leftist partisans and spent a year with them fighting the Germans on the Greek mainland before returning to help liberate Cephalonia. Pampaloni movingly describes that year as one of the best in his life, an unforgettable time of idealism and solidarity. His memories may be tinged with the glow of nostalgia, but they should still give pause to anyone taken in by de Bernières's hatchet job.

In the end, faced with the prospect of caravansaries of film crews importing much-needed cash along with inevitable chaos, the Cephalonian authorities decided to cut a deal with Captain Corelli's British producers, and a committee of officials and historians was set up to vet the project. Assured that the film would be a pure love story–à la Doctor Zhivago–and would not touch on the civil war, they agreed that filming could go ahead. (They may also have been mollified by the choice of Shawn Slovo, daughter of South African activists Ruth First and Joe Slovo, to write the screenplay.) Judging by the credits, half the island found employment on the set, restoring houses, splicing cables and dressing the actors' hair. Donkeys (increasingly rare in Greece) were rented at a premium; fishermen ferried paparazzi to spot the stars who came to sun themselves on Cephalonia's newly famous beaches. Cafes and restaurants were renamed after the novel, and travel companies began to hawk Cephalonia as "Corelli's island."

The film is indeed considerably kinder to the partisans than de Bernières's book. Their main representative onscreen is Mandras, the jilted fiancé of Penelope Cruz's character, Pelagia, and though the way he is played by Christian Bale suggests that the guerrillas were a bunch of pouting postadolescents, he is not an unsympathetic figure. A scene from the novel in which Mandras returns from the mountains and rapes his former love was cut in postproduction. (For the sake of "balance" we are shown instead a young woman hanged by the partisans for kissing a German on the cheek; there were instances in Greece of women being killed for fraternizing with Nazis, though the more usual treatment, as in France, was a humiliating head-shaving.) Most important, resistance members are shown helping the Italians against the Germans, in spite of de Bernières's assertion that they "took no part, seeing no reason to shake themselves out of their parasitic lethargy"–a key restoration, one would imagine, for Cephalonia's veterans.

Still, it would be interesting to know what those veterans make of the film when it reaches Cephalonia. In hindsight, the wrangling over the resistance seems to have distracted everyone from a more fundamental point. Distortion is only one way of stealing history. As global culture homogenizes the world, places that have kept their identity unvarnished become valuable commodities; once discovered, their shelf life is brief. With Captain Corelli's Mandolin and its attendant tourist boomlet, Cephalonia has taken one more step toward becoming a simulacrum of itself. For a while, the ching of the cash registers will sugar the pill. But eventually the punters will move on to the next hot spot, leaving a hollow feeling in their wake.