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.)