Posted: 21 February 2014
“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?
“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.
“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.