It’s Only a Movie

Posted: 21 February 2014

Historical accuracy or entertaining inaccuracy: which is best?
Historical accuracy or entertaining inaccuracy: which is best?

“Film-makers have a great responsibility. How they present the past is how it gets remembered” – Kate Williams.

Movies cannot be treated as historical records; no matter how much attention to period detail goes into a feature film, as a seasoned historian myself, it should be my duty to point out those glaring discrepancies that litter some epic movies, not just lie back, enjoy a fantastical dramatisation and let blissful miscomprehension, or downright ignorance, of actual past events prevail.

This year, with a slew of big historical movies nominated for Oscars, it becomes imperative that a higher standard of care and attention should be put into such productions.

Yet some directors believe they still have every right to change – even distort – historical facts to provide a faster, leaner – dare one say it – more awesome spectacle. Should they be permitted to do so? 

Winner of Best Ways to Irritate Historians
Winner of Best Ways to Irritate Historians

“Creative artists need to be granted some poetic license, but that should not be a permit for the wholesale disregard of facts in historical fiction” – Allen Ward.   

Here are a couple of examples most relevant to this post. They are fine, classic bodies of work, but when analysed from a historical perspective, they flounder miserably.

One notorious example is Gladiator (2000), which won 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but none, it seems, for historical accuracy. Bradscribe hates to say this (as it’s one of his faves), but the collection of inaccuracies on show here are… legion.  

Despite the vow of the renowned director: Ridley Scott to uphold high standards of historical research throughout, one advisor resigned and another requested to go unmentioned in the credits because those standards were simply not met.

Such extensive use of ballistae and catapults in the opening battle would not have been used in a forest-setting; both Roman and Germanian costumes are extremely questionable; stirrups were never used by the Roman cavalry despite being on show here… and so on. 

There is no way one can link this celluloid Commodus to the real-life emperor (hey Joaquin, where’s your beard?); he certainly did not commit patricide, and he lasted 12 years before being assassinated, not 3 hours. And the factual errors which beset the character of Marcus Aurelius are compounded by the inexplicable casting.

Nice helmet, shame about the historical inaccuracies
Nice helmet, shame about the historical inaccuracies

“I didn’t think they had guns then… in the days of Kirk Douglas” – Bunny Warren.

To show that this is not just a problem of modern cinema, enter: The Vikings (1958). Kirk Douglas! Tony Curtis! Ernest Borgnine! How could it possibly go wrong? Well, on several different counts in actual fact.

Kirk Douglas looks fab, yet anything but a Viking. No matter how big a star, if there’s no beard, there’s no credibility. He wears such a cool helmet but – let’s be honest – it was more a product of Hollywood imagination rather than Norse craftsmanship.   

One of the best scenes in the film is also one of its most annoying. The Viking siege of the castle is theoretically absurd; castles were not built until after the Norman Conquest, by which time Norsemens’ raids on the English coast had long since finished. After all the excitement, the drama, not to mention that stirring music score, no one can escape the fact that this whole charade centres around two immigrant boys from the Lower East Side gallivanting around in fancy dress…

Bradscribe will always love this film, but then again, it will always wrestle with his academic sensibilities.  

In conclusion then, movies should not be used as the source material for history essays. These movies can inspire a greater appreciation for history which a lot of books and uninspiring schoolteachers could never do, but the poor research in some productions suggests that not only a greater awareness of the value of history is needed, but the general attitude towards historical knowledge deserves a thorough revision.

This writer is left bemoaning the fact that instead of nitpicking the factual errors of others’ work, he could be working on such storylines, ready to prove that history in itself produced some stirring and dramatic events, packing more punches than any CGI can muster.

 

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “It’s Only a Movie

  1. This was an interesting read. I cannot believe when a director goes all out trying to claim that the movie he or she is directing remains completely accurate. Mostly when proof starts coming in that it is far from the truth. If you are going to change stuff, just be honest about it for God’s sake. And I agree with you sir, why in the world are these people not even growing beards?

    • Thank you for your Comments, thycriticman. You may be interested to learn that I will soon post a Blog about The Terminator, celebrating its 30th Anniversary. Many Thanks for Following!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s