Damon described the left-wing revisionism as “an honest look at – at where we’ve come from and the idea that all of these changes have been struggled for by everyday people.” Smith also spoke with the book’s author Howard Zinn and wondered: “Does it seem like this is an extra good time to be making a version of this book into a movie?” Zinn replied: “we want this history to speak to our present situation. What is our present situation? War. So in many ways the film, I think, speaks to things that are going on now.”
On Wednesday, Zinn proclaimed his anti-war views on NBC’s Today: “I believe the best way to support the troops is to bring them home. You’re not supporting them when you’re keeping them there and for not a good reason.”
During the Early Show interview, Smith noted how “Damon has known Howard Zinn since childhood” and asked the actor when he first read the book. Damon replied: “I started reading passages from it in 1980 actually. I remember when we got the book and for Columbus Day I took in – the first chapter is about Columbus and I took it in and was allowed to read parts of that to the class, actually, at the age of ten.”
One such passage on page four of that chapter:
Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, and put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town., who reproted that, although the slaves were “naked as the day they were born,” they showed “no more embarrassment than animals.” Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill his ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brough it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.
The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust gathered from streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed. Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners, they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, and suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.
While the Zinn includes a bibliography for each chapter in the book, there are no footnotes featured for any specific citations or claims.
Here is a full transcript of the Early Show segment:
HARRY SMITH: Also, more of my conversation with Matt Damon this morning. We talked about Invictus yesterday. We’re going to talk about a special project he has done with some really interesting folk for the History Channel. We’ll have that conversation in just a couple of minutes.
HARRY SMITH: Yesterday we showed you my interview with Matt Damon about his new film Invictus. We also talked about another new project that stems from one of his passions, American history. He and fellow actor Josh Brolin appear in a documentary ‘The People Speak,’ based on one of Damon’s favorite books, ‘A People’s History of The United States.’ Howard Zinn has taught history for most of his life. Rarely has he produced a lesson quite like this.
[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: The People Speak; Matt Damon’s Historic Documentary]
HOWARD ZINN: I wrote ‘A People’s History of The United States’-
SMITH: Matt Damon has known Howard Zinn since childhood. When did you read it?
MATT DAMON: I started reading passages from it in 1980 actually. I remember when we got the book and for Columbus Day I took in – the first chapter is about Columbus and I took it in and was allowed to read parts of that to the class, actually, at the age of ten.
SMITH: At the age of ten?
[CLIP FROM ‘GOOD WILL HUNTING’]
ROBIN WILLIAMS: What about the one’s on the top shelf? You read those?
SMITH: The actor references Zinn’s best seller in the Academy Award winning film ‘Good Will Hunting.’
DAMON: If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of The United States.’
SMITH: First published in 1980, ‘A People’s History of The United States’ examine’s America’s founding and expansion from the perspective of the revolutionaries, rebels, and rarely heard voices of dissent.
DAMON: It’s just an honest look at – at where we’ve come from and the idea that all of these changes have been struggled for by everyday people. And that that’s a good thing. That being an America means participating.
SMITH: After Zinn’s book sold a million copies, his publisher wanted to commemorate the achievement.
HOWARD ZINN: I asked him ‘how do you propose to do it?’ Well, we’ll do it at 92nd Street. Why in New York? Because it’s the usual venue for events. And we’ll have some historians on the stage. And I said, ‘please, not that.’
SMITH: Zinn had a better idea.
ZINN: It happened I knew some actors and I thought, yeah, let’s have some actors read historical documents.
MORGAN FREEMAN: Your shout for liberty and equality, hollow mockery.
DAMON: If you’re reading about Frederick Douglas, I mean, wouldn’t you want Morgan Freeman reading the actual – what Frederick Douglas wrote?
BROLIN: When you see these live readings and you see the people react to the live readings.
KERRY WASHINGTON [ACTRESS, ‘THE PEOPLE SPEAK’]: Where did your Christ come from? He came from God and a woman. Men didn’t have nothing to do with it.
SMITH: As the format evolved, an idea for a film began to take shape.
DAMON: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
SMITH: Was there fighting about who was going to get to read what – what part?
DAMON: No, on the contrary, there’s so many things to be read that there – you know, that the big problem is cutting it into – into one film.
JOSH BROLIN: I want to be there when they talk about honor and justice and making the world safe for democracy.
SMITH: In all, 96 hours of historical prose performed by today’s biggest stars was condensed to produce ‘The People Speak,’ which will air on the History Channel.
SMITH: Does it seem like this is an extra good time to be making a version of this book into a movie?
ZINN: Yeah. You know, we say at the beginning, you know, we want this history to speak to our present situation. What is our present situation? War. So in many ways the film, I think, speaks to things that are going on now.
SMITH: ‘The People Speak’ airs this Sunday on the History Channel.