Hollywood falls foul of the voice of 1960s Alabama

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The Independent Online
Oliver Stone's JFK or Mel Gibson's Braveheart may have taken a few liberties with the truth, but their subjects were safely dead. The former Alabama Governor George Wallace is 77, confined to a wheelchair, almost totally deaf, and very much alive. "Falsehoods and lies" is how he describes a $10m television movie of his life, and the Wallace family is threatening a law suit.

Mr Wallace's life story comes packed with extraordinary scenes and ringing dialogue delivered by an enigmatic and powerful speaker. Hollywood, however, can never resist improving a script.

At stake, apparently, is the image of a politician who will forever be associated with the old segregationist South, but who has conducted a very public campaign of confession and contrition. Most famously, in 1963, Mr Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to block its first black students from entering. That performance - where he made a speech about the state's rights, and then peacefully withdrew - was actually choreographed in advance by the Kennedy brothers.

Mr Wallace's beloved first wife, Lurleen, succeeded him as Governor, but died of cancer in office. He ran for President four times. Crippled by an assassin's bullet in 1972, he recanted his racist views. Ten years later he won a fourth term as Governor with crucial support from black voters.

In an afterword in 1996, he apologised to one of the students, Vivian Jones, whom he had confronted 33 years earlier. At issue, however, are two scenes which add that little extra helping of melodrama, but which the film's makers admit are not part of the historical record. In one, a black servant waiting on the Governor stands behind him with an ice pick, and considers whether to stab him in the back. In another, a despairing Mr Wallace tries to kill himself by rolling his wheelchair off a high porch.

Curiously the director, film veteran John Frankenheimer, may be best known for his own legacy from the 1960s, The Manchurian Candidate, a daring political thriller. The film, he told the New York Times, is about change and forgiveness, a drama and not a documentary. While the film is still in production, the Wallace family complain that it presents the Governor and his wife as ignorant Southerners with "hee-haw" manners, and claim all they want is the unvarnished truth - not romantic embellishment.