Photographers on film: (L-R) Dennis Hopper (Apocalypse Now), James Woods (Salvador) and John Malkovich (The Killing Fields)
Ah the humble photographer on celluloid. I've always found the portrayal of photographers on the big screen something to smile at. They usually fall into two categories of either being a truth seeking maverick or a seedy sleazebag glamour photographer. Sometimes though, a really good photographer character can appear. Here are my three favourites and not surprisingly they are all photojournalists, all of whom have been based (somewhat loosely in some cases) on real people.
The photojournalist has been one of the most popular characters to pick up a camera on the cinema screen. Three of the best representations of the photographer in the cinema portray photojournalists working in the desperately violent and tense situation of a war zone. The classic and most famous portrayal must go to Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now whose spaced out character, just called 'the photojournalist' in the film, was reputed to be based on the British Vietnam war photographer Tim Page. If that is true then the film's director, Francis Ford Coppola, may have been influenced by a 1979 BBC film made at the time of Apocalyspe Now's filming called ' Mentioned in Dispatches' which showed Page dealing with his Vietnam past in a basement flat in London. Alcohol and memories playing a large part of Page's life at that time.
The other two popular cinema portrayals of photojournalists have had similar characteristics to Hoppers. The Killing Fields released in 1984 had Al Rockoff, beautifully portrayed by John Malkovich . Both Malkovich's and Hopper's characters were deeply involved in the stories they were covering but Malkovich's Al Rockoff retained a deep rooted compassion for his subject - much like the real Al Rockoff who would later disassociate himself from the film due to the inaccurate portrayal of certain scenes. Hopper's character in Apocalyspe Now remained more detached from events. He was along for the ride....and to get some great photographs regardless of what happened.
Oliver Stone's Salvador was released in 1986 and featured a terrific performance by James Woods. Woods played a real person, Richard Boyle, who had co-written the screenplay using his own experiences from the civil war in early 1980's El Salvador. The result is an uncompromising look at a bitter civil war through the eyes of a photographer, mixed with a knowledgeable grasp of the political complexities of El Salvador. Of the three films mentioned here, Salvador remains, for me, the most disturbing and thought provoking.
Some more films with photographers in them can be found HERE